With the following video I was trying to demonstrate the basic sound difference between a vintage Schecter Dream Machine and a ‘traditional’ Strat.
The Dream Machine is from about 1980, it has a Koa body and a one-piece Pau Ferro neck. The three pickups in the brass pickguard are the tapped F500T’s. It has s a hardtail brass bridge.
The Strat is a 1983 Japanese vintage Squier Stratocaster, unmodified.
Of course the amp & effects settings are 100% identical for both guitars. Also they both have new strings of the same brand and gauge (Fender 09 – 40). Each of the three pickups on the Schecter can be switched to the ‘normal’ coil (tapped) or the overwound (full) coil but I will only use the tapped pickup positions of Schecter in this video, as these are more comaparable to the Fender pickup sound.
Beside the sound difference, note that there is less hum and noises with the Schecter as the metal pickguard and the copper tape around the pickup coil provide a better shielding.
In 1980, shortly before recording the Making Movies album, Mark Knopfler got several Schecter Dream Machines. It was a sunburst Schecter Strat (serial number S8136) that was used at least on the song Tunnel of Love and that was stolen from the boot of a car near the band’s rehearsal room in Greenwich soon after.
There are only a few pictures of this guitar available. They are all from the same photo session with photographer Adrian Boot, and only two of these are in colour. One of these two pictures was on a cover of the Greek ‘Pop Rok’ magazine from December 1980, and medium quality scans of the cover could be found on various sources in the web.
I recently got hold of a copy of this magazine. It features a 3.5 pages story/interview with a live picture from summer 1979 plus various press kit pictures of the Making Movies album.
As Adrian allowed me to use detail parts of his pictures for our ‘scientific purposes’ here in this blog, I can show the guitar itself at full resolution here:
From this view we can see the pickguard and the neck very well but unfortunately hardly anything of the two tone sunburst and the beautiful flame of the birch body. We cannot see the bridge completely, neither. In fact there is not one picture at all available that shows whether this guitar has a tremolo or a hardtail bridge (!). I’d guess it is the tremolo version like Mark’s other Schecter Strats all are but who knows.
The pickup screws and (probably) the six bridge screws are nickel while the pickguard screws seem to be gold, also gold Kluson tuners and brass strap buttons. The nut is brass, as on all Schecter Dream Machines (brass hardware was essential for their hardware philosophy). The neck is what was called ‘figured maple’ in the Schecter catalogue, in this case flamed birdseye maple. However, the flame and the birdseyes are less prominent than e.g. on Mark’s red Schecter Strat. Note the dots on the neck surface, all of Mark’s other Dream Machines are dotless.
The guitar strap in this pictures looks similar to the black Music Man strap that Mark had in the late 70ies, but it is not a Music Man strap.
The deluxe box set of Mark’s new Tracker album features a short film by the Danish director Henrik Hansen. It is already available on Youtube:
I think it is a nice film which shows Mark at work, developing songs for the new record, and at leisure, walking his dogs. I am sure you will enjoy the film very much.
With this blog post, I want to discuss a few guitar details seen in this film – well, this is a guitar site 🙂 . At the beginning of the film we see Mark in a side house of his home at the English south coast, sitting at a table with a beautiful look on the ocean (which in fact is just 20 meters away). He plays Basil on an acoustic guitar, his vintage Martin D18 (this should be the one pictured in this blog post). On the table we see stuff like a variety of bottlenecks – both brass and glass-, a guitar cable, two books about guitars (Gibson Electrics by A. R. Duchossoir, and the ‘bible’ about National resonator guitars by Bob Brozman), a Mac notebook, and more. I should be a good guess to say that it is here where Mark composes some of his songs.
At 0:37 we see the same place from outside the window. Here we can see the peghead of a Strat, it seems Mark does not only use acoustic guitars at home but also electrics. Apparently it is his white 1964 Strat, the one used on e.g. Sailing to Philadelphia (we can see it at 1:54 or around 2:49, played in the same room). I wondered if he has certain guitars which he always keeps at home, as it seems most of the electrics are located in the room over his British Grove studio in London, a nearly two hours drive away.
Well, we can see him playing the same guitar at British Grove studio, around 2:24. The song seems to be Lights of Taormina. (I say it seems as I have not heard the album yet, although the first download links have apparently appeared in the web – I ordered my copy of the box set so that I have something to look forward to in March 🙂 ). The condition of this vintage guitar is amazing! Note that Mark put strings with a wound g-string on it – it seems to be Mark’s favourite for slide now (he played Gator Blood with bottleneck on it on the last tour).
The next guitar that appears in the film is the 1958 Les Paul. Here is a picture that shows some setup details, like the height of the stop tailpiece, the pickups, or strings. Note that the stop tailpiece is very low.
Another interesting detail is the view on the software mixer, at 1:20. Mark’s electric guitar are the purple mixer rails. Here we see that they recorded the guitar to three parallel tracks, probably one for each microphone they used. The tracks are mixed together with -4.0 dB, -9.8 dB, and -23.5 dB for the three tracks, all panned into the center. The label below says ‘mk-elecgtr_57’ for two of the tracks, and ‘mk-elecgtr_67’ for the one in the middle. My guess is that two were recorded with a Shure SM57, and one with a Neumann U67.
Like always, use the comment function below to add your comments, or more details that might be worth discussing.
It seems to be out of question that the pickups are an important ingredient that defines the sound of an electric guitar. Besides obvious contruction differences – like overwound single coil pickups, or single-coil sized humbuckers etc. – there are many details , like different magnet alloys or different wire for the coil, that make a subtle or even clear sound difference. And there are many ‘external’ aspects, like shielding, pickguard materials etc. that might also influenece the sound of a pickup. And of course there are many myths and speculations about what else is said to be important as well – some can be true, others probably not.
With this blog post I want to list and describe some of such aspects, and let you know my opinion on what is important, and what is not. I have a long experience with pickups, so I have tried out much myself, and I think I can judge other questions from my technical background knowledge. Of course there are other things where I am not sure myself, as I have not a/b compared each single possible combination of pickup features within the same guitar, but I will let you know my guess here as well. Much of the stuff I will discuss will be with the typical Strat pickup in mind – the probably most important pickup for us Knopfler fans, but many results will of course also apply to other pickups. So let’s start with the…
Pole pieces material
First, there are pickups with Alnico (an AL-uminium/ NI-ckle/ CO-balt alloy) pole pieces and pickups with steel pole pieces which touch a ceramic bar magnet on the underside of the pickup (‘ceramic’ pickups). The Alnico pickups often have a stronger magnetic pull to the strings which makes them sound more snappy, also they are considered to sound warmer, while the ceramic pickups are said to sound more sterile, or even harsher. Ceramic Strat pickups can be found e.g. in some Squier Strats, and often in low-end guitars, but e.g. the last Van Nuys era Schecter pickups, the ‘Monstertone’ pickups developped by Tom Anderson, are ceramic as well (these are NOT the Schecter F500T pickups that Mark Knopfler had in his Schecters).
Both will definitely sound more or less different but I have heard many ceramic pickups that actually sounded great, so I would not agree that these are generally inferior. It is rather a matter of what you want or prefer, or maybe also which pickup sounds best in a particular guitar.
Among the Alnico pickups, there are many different alloys, with Alnico V or II being the most important ones. In these the proportions of the three main ingredients aluminium, nickle, and cobalt are different. Alnico V is surely the most important one for Strats, all the original Fender pickups used it. However, there are some who believe that e.g. the Alnico available in the 50ies or 60ies was possibly closer to what comes as Alnico II these days, or that over time the magnets changed – e.g. lost a part of their magnetic strength – and sound for this reason more like a different alloy than Alnico V. Generally V is stronger than II, and the sound is snappier with more punch and direct treble than the softer and warmer sounding Alnico II. Other alloys like Alnico III are also used, possibly in vintage Gibsons or Fenders as well. The problem is that nobody knows for sure what these companies ordered then, or if they sometimes simply changed to a different alloy as e.g. cobalt prices went up, or simply something was not in stock when they ordered.
Conclusion: Makes a sound difference, normally clearly audible
Winding wire insulation
The hair-thin wire for the coil is always made of copper. To wind a coil, you cannot use bare copper wire, it has to be insulated. As it is extremely thin wire, this insulation is not the coloured plastic like on ‘normal’ cables, but often a clear coat that is not visible with the bare eye. This insulation can be made of different materials, e.g. Formvar or enamel on old Fenders, but also polyurethane or polyamide is used.
As this is just an insulation, you might argue that a different material should not lead to any sound difference. However, it does! How is this possible? This is because all the wire of the pickup coil makes a capacitor – remember from your school days, two opposite metal plates that do not touch make a capacitor. Instead of metal plates we have the wire here, and all the surface of each single winding lies next to another winding, so they make a capacitor as well. Maybe you also remember that the insulating material between these metal plates – e.g. air, oil, paper,.. – also changes the value of the capacitor. So the same is true for the wire insulation, all the different materials have their own specific ‘dialectric constant’ that influences the overall value of the capacitance.
Not only the material matters, but also the thickness of the insulation. Remember the capacitor at school, the distance between the metal plates matters. While the insulation is always ‘thin’, it still has a thickness that is not to be neglected. And sometimes the insulation is even thicker for a more durable wire, so called double-coating. When talking about old Fender pickups,you will hear terms like heavy Formvar, or plain enamel. Heavy means double coated here, and plain means single coated.
Conclusion: Wire insulation makes an audible difference as well. It depends not only on the material (Formvar, enamel,..) but also on the thickness so it is difficult to say what exactly sounds like what. The difference might be subtle – but I could assure myself that I can hear it.
Pickups are normally potted with hot wax, sometimes also with laquer (e.g. old Tele nek pickups). This is done to avoid that the pickup is too microphonic. The loser the coil is wound, the more microphonic the pickup might be. You will not only hear a louder noise when e.g. tapping on the pickup (with a non-magnetic material, e.g. with your fingertips), but this will also increase the danger of squealing feedback at high volume.
The wax (or laquer) can change the ‘dialectric constant’ of the coil as a capacitor (see the passage above), so it can make a sound difference. Some of the early Gibson PAF pickups are said to be non-potted, or hardly potted. The sound might becoame a bit ‘airier’ without the wax.
Conclusion: Theoretically possible, but a rather subtle difference – not too important in most situations.
Some pickups have cloth-covered push-back cables, others have plastic insulation cables in different colours. I cannot imagine how this should make any sound difference, so it is just a question of ‘vintage-correctness’, or of ease to handle it (push-back cable is nice to solder, you just have to push it back a bit, and it will slide back after soldering).
However, if the cables are drilled – like e.g. the three cables on the Schecter F500T pickups – there might be a small capacity again, however so small that I personally would not bother about it too much. If the cables are shielded however, more capacitance is added which might become audible.
Conclusion: Normally no difference
A stronger magnet results in clearer and stronger treble, and a snappier tone, similar to the difference between e.g. Alnico V and II (see above). The strength can be measured, and it is a fact that with age magnets can lose a part of their strength. It is possible to remagnetize them to their original strength if they become too weak. The slightly weaker magnets might be one ingredient of vintage tone! Also you should avoid to use a soldering gun (instead of a normal soldering iron) when handling pickups, and for sure be careful when placing your guitar near to very strong magnets (e.g. resting it against a speaker cabinet with powerful speakers). This can not only make the magnet weaker but also cause some weird magnetic behaviour within the pole pieces.
Conclusion: Makes a sound difference.
Single coil pickups will hum when being exposed to certain magnetic fields. The idea of a humbucker pickup was to eliminate this hum by using two coils with opposite polarity. A similar hum cancellation can be achieved with two single coils as well (e.g. when playing the typical Knopfler bridge-middle pickup sound). The two pickups must be wound in opposite directions then (this is meant with RW for reverse winding). To avoid that the sound of the guitar strings is cancelled as well, the polarity of the pole pieces must be different, too (RP for reverse polarity). This idea came up in the 80ies I think. Mark’s Fenders and Schecters at the time of early Dire Straits did not have RWRP for this reason.
Apart from some theoretical reasons related to two coils with different magnetic fields that influence each other, I don’t see how this can affect the sound of the guitar – at least not as much to make an audible difference.
Conclusion: I don’t think it can make an audible difference.
If you look at several old Fender pickups, you will often notice that they all look a bit different. Some seem to be a bit taller so that the pole pieces seem a bit shorter on the top side. This will affect the dimensions of the coil, a flatter coil with the same number of turns will appear wider, while a taller coil will be narrower. The different distance from the wire to the magnets will change the properties of the coil, so this can make a sound difference. A wider one should be a bit warmer, while a taller one should have a bit more treble.
Conclusion: Might make a subtle difference.
In the old Fender days, the pickups were wound on machines but the wire was guided by hand. When winding more than 8,000 turns on a coil, the girl who operates the machine – mostly girls did this job at Fender – has to make sure that the wire goes evenly on the coil to avoid all wire being in the middle of the coil only, so she will move her hand to guide it from one side of the coil to the other, back again, and so on. If she does it quicker, or even at some random pattern, you will get what is called a scatterwound coil. The pattern in which one layer of wire lies to the next, or even one turn of wire, might again influence the capacity, and possibly other properties of the coil as well.
Conclusion: Might make a subtle difference.
Screws, rubber tube, springs
This should not make any sound difference. It is true that each piece of metal that comes into the field of a pickup affects the tone, due to an effect called eddy currents (see below), but different pickup screws, or a metal spring instead of a piece of rubber tube to hold the pickup, should not be enough metal to make it audible.
Conclusion: Not important for the sound.
Base plate / Metal cover
The original Telecaster bridge pickups had a piece of metal below their bottom bobbin. This changed the field of the coil, and also reduced treble due to eddy currents. Some maunfacturers add such a plate to some Strat pickup models as well, often for the bridge pickup, to boost bass a bit and make treble end softer.
The same is true for a metal case, as. e.g. on a Tele neck pickup, or on a PAF humbucker. Removing / adding these will make a clear sound difference (more treble without case).
Conclusion: Make a clear difference.
Distance between pickups and the strings
The closer the pickup is to the strings, the louder the pickup will be. The sound also becomes more direct, more snappy and punchier. However, you will get the infamous ‘Stratitis’ effect, a strange wobbling and somewhat ‘out of tune’ sound as the magnetic pull makes the string vibrate unevenly.
Conclusion: Besides the volume differnce and the Stratitis, this will also affect the tone to some extend.
To avoid hum from electric fields (it does not help much against magnetic fields), some manufacturers use a shielding foil, or an aluminium shielding plate below the pickguard. Believe it or not, this can make a sound difference, due to possibly added capacitace but more because of what is called eddy currents. These will dampen the resonance peak of the pickup, and also change the frequency response close to this frequency. The more metal you have within the magnetic field, the stronger the effect. This means a very thin foil will not make an audible difference, but the 0.3 mm shielding plates of those 60ies Strats – like Mark used to play – does.
Schecter F500T pickups have a loop of shielding copper tape around the coil. This also makes a difference – even a big one! This is mainly because of added capacitance, plus some eddy currents.
Conclusion: Not with a very thin foil, but can make a difference otherwise.
It should not matter if the pickguard is 2 or 3 millimeters, or of vinyl or celluloid BUT … if it is made of metal it will have a big effect on the tone! This is because of eddy currents again. The aluminium pickguard on Mark’s red Schecter Strat clearly changes the tone of the pickups a lot! The effect is much stronger than most other aspects discussed before. You might say there is only a subtle sound difference between e.g. an original Fender vintage pickup and a good replica like the Seymour Duncans which Mark put in his red Schecter, but there is a huge difference between the same pickups in a plastic or metal pickguard. This is a part of the Schecter Dream Machine sound but there were many old Fenders with anodized aluminium pickguards as well (e.g. David Gilmour’s #0001 Strat). Search on youtube, you will find many videos to demonstrate this.
The quality of the guitar cable also makes a sound difference. Each cable has a capacitance, a typical cable about 30 pF per feet. So the longer the cable, the more capacitance, but the distance between the inner lead in the cable and the outer shielding also affects the total capacitance. The resonance frequency of a Strat pickup will shift from about 8 kHz without a cable to something like 2 – 5 kHz with a cable! An 8kHz resonace peak will not sound ideal for many situations, definitely not for most distorted sounds, so the cable really shapes the sound here, adding (!) midrange to the sound while reducing treble.
Conclusion: Can make a big difference.
The material, or colour, (black/grey fiber board, plastic) of the pickup bobbins should not matter at all.
Bevelled/unbevelled pole pieces however can make a very subtle difference as the magnetic field can be a bit stronger, or more focussed, at the end of a bevelled magnet (bevelling was done to make it easier to push the pole pieces into the bobbin, not to shape the sound).
The material or thickness of the plastic caps does not matter. An original or rewound coil should not matter if everything is exactly the same (which in fact hardly ever will be) but generally a good rewinding job with the right materials does not automatically mean a loss of sound.
Staggered or flat pole pieces lead to different volume of the individual sound, and other effects due to a different magnetic field are possible but seem to be unlikely to me.
The tension of the wire while winding makes a subtle difference. With more tension the wire is puuled and becomes thinner a bit, so the DC resistance per turn will increase.
Of course different wire gauge (AWG 43, AWG,43,…) makes a big difference, so does different pole pieces diameter, but these are really differences that totally change the design of the pickup and should not be considered here in this list for this reason.
A Tele bridge pickup will sound different in a Tele bridge of massive brass – like the Walk of Life tele bridge – than in a Fender vintage bridge of much thinner steel. This is due to eddy currents again, and adds to the tone change of a brass bridge vs. a steel bridge (that can also be heard acoustically with the unplugged guitar).
I guess most of you know that the value of the volume pot affects the sound of your pickups. I already wrote a blog post on this some time ago – please refer to this to understand terms like ‘resonance peak’ and what it means for the sound. Today I will cover some more details of this phenomenon, especially with regard to Mark Knopfler’s guitar sound.
Does only the volume pot matter or the tone pot as well?
This was really a valid question for me which I was unsure about myself. Of course a smaller value tone pot – e.g. 100k instead of 250k – will act like the 250k pot set to something like ‘9’ instead of ’10’ even when turned fully up. But here I am talking about a possible effect on the height of the resonance peak of the pickup.
From a technical point of view (skip this part if this is nothing for you), I had reasons to believe that it does not, and also some reasons to believe it does. This is because the tone pot – unlike the volume pot – does not bridge the hot wire directly to ground but does so via the tone capacitor. If you measure the total load of both pots to the pickup, your meter will only show the volume pot value (this is because the capacitor does not pass DC). This was reason to believe it does not affect the resonance peak height. However, a guitar produces AC (alternate current, DC is direct current), and the tone pot passes AC more or less (depending of the AC frequency, and at the frequency where the resonace peak of a pickup sits – some kHz – it passes AC even very well). This is reason to believe it affects the resonance peak height.
I could not find the answer easily in the web, so I simply decided to measure it myself. I found that the tone pot DOES MATTER, equally to the volume pot. For this reason, we need to look at the total load that both pots put on the pickup (two resistors in parallel – this is what the pots are – combine due to a special formula, two identical values will result to half the value – 2 x 250k to 125k – but e.g. a 250k and a 500k will result to 167k). Theoretically, the AC resistance of the tone capacitor has to be considered in the equation as well, but this results to changes < 1%, so I left it out.
Load of the guitar pots for different guitar types
Here I list the load of both pots for the various guitars that are relevant for us MK fans.
small value – soft and sweet (or muddy, depending on the other settings) high value – bright (or harsh, depending on the other settings)
Fender Strat (any pickup combination except middle & neck or bridge pickup only) 2 x 250k 125k
Schecter Dream Machine (Strat or Tele) 2 x 500k 250k
Fender Tele (>1967, e.g. the black Water of Love Tele) 2 x 1000K 500k
Fender Tele (<1967, e.g. Mark’s sunburst Tele Custom) 2 x 250k 125k
Les Paul (bridge or neck pickup) 2 x 500k 250k
Les Paul (bridge & neck pickup) 4 x 500k 125k
Total load for different guitars and effects/amps setups
Besides the load of the guitar pots, the load of other devices in the signal chain also matters. These will combine with the load from the pots following the same formula (parallel resistors). However, not all effect devices matter, only those up to the first in the chain that transforms the signal to a low output impedance (most effects will do, even when switched off, but some, e.g. the volume pedal, do not).
small value – soft and sweet (or muddy, depending on the other settings) high value – bright (or harsh, depending on the other settings)
Fender Strat (125k) into rack or tube amp or through Active Lead cable (1996 – 2001 tours, 1000k) 111k
Schecter (250k) into rack or tube amp or Active Lead (1000k) 200k
Live in 1979: Fender Strat (125k) into Morley volume pedal (68k) into MXR Analog Delay (500k ) 40.5 k
Water of Love Tele (500k) into Morley (66k) into MXR (500k ?) 53.5k
Making Movies album: Schecter (250k) into Music Man (319k ) 140k
Alchemy: Schecter (250k) into Nady Guitar Transmitter (500k ?) 166k
Studio: Fender Strat (125k) into Ernie Ball volume pedal (250k) into rack (1000k ? ) 77 k
Les Paul (bridge or neck pickup) into Ernie Ball volume pedal (250k) into tube amp (1000k) 111 k
The effect is less pronounced with a Les Paul but still existing (the resonance peak is less strong than with single coils). On guitars with active pickups, e.g. the Pensa/Suhr MK 1, the pots and other loads do not matter at all.
Can I get any benefit of this and shape the sound of my guitar with my setup
Here is a good and very short answer: yes! You can decrease the load value by simply adding a small resistor – a part for a few cents – into the signal chain to emulate other values in the list above. The resistor connects hot and ground, and can sit anywhere in the signal chain, e.g. between the hot wire and ground on the volume pot, between hot and ground at the output jack, or in the guitar cable plug.
You can use an online resistor calculator like this one to calculate the value you need. Simply put the value of your guitar alone (see list above), for your first effect(s) or amp (you will find most values in the list above as well), and for the resistor into the fields of the online calculator, and press ‘calculate’. Change the value of the resistor until you reach the target value for the sound you are looking for, found in the second list above.
Example: you have a normal Strat (125k) that you play into a tube amp (1000k, try 500k for a non-tube amp), and want the soft MK 1979 live sound (Strat, Morley, MXR -> 40.5k). Enter 125 and 1000 into the first fields and some start value into the third, calculate, clear the result and change the resistor value until you get near 40.5. In this example you will need anything about 50k. Buy a 50k resistor – the smallest wattage, usually 0.25W will do, more will not hurt either – and put it into your guitar, or into the plug of a dedicated guitar cable for this sound.
If you want to increase the value, you can exchange the pots in your guitar, or put a standard effect device (500k or 1000k input impedance) before e.g. your passive volume pedal (250k for an Ernie Ball, 68k for a Morley). This way the volume pedal value can be neglected, only the one of the effect will matter.
I might make a future video to demonstrate the change of sound with different values, check out.
A few days ago I wrote a blog post in which I compared the first Sultans of Swing solo played with 010 strings and with 009 strings. With today’s blog post I want to have a closer look at some details of that sound: I recorded a video to compare lots of different pickup combinations, and to compare 009 to 008 strings. I used the same Japanese Strat copy with the Sultans pickguard with VFS-1 pickups. This way I could emulate sounds that Mark might have created with both Fender pickups or with his DiMarzio FS-1. I recorded the guitar directly into the desk, using the same setup as the last time. Maybe I should have used an amp and mics to get a more authentic sound, this way Mark’s version always sounds much better (well, his would still sound better if I had used an amp anyway 🙁 ). If you have questions about the setup and effects and such, refer to the last blog post.
I compared a few licks with Mark’s original, using the guitar track that came available with the Guitar Hero game. I must say that after listening to so many pickup versions, it is not easy to judge which one is best. Depending on the speakers or the listening situation, sometimes this one sounds best, and then again another one. Please don’t forget that
I setup a poll again so that you can judge for yourself, and also see what others say. I only included the combinations that seem to be most likely, if you prefer something not mentioned here, let us know using the comments for this blog post.
As most of you voted for the thinner strings last time, I decided to go more into the details here. A the end of the video I am also comparing 009 and 008 strings. Remember, we have a hint that Mark used 008 strings. As both sets share a 011 b-string, I contrasted some single tones on the g-string and on the high e-string. I was surprised to hear how those ultra-thin strings sound, but listen for yourself. I also made a poll for the strings:
Listening to Sultans of Swing in 1979 was one of the reasons I started to learn the guitar. From this time on I wanted to get that magic guitar sound. One major component for a guitar sound is the right string gauge. I guess you all have heard about using heavier strings to get a fuller sound. On the other hand thinner strings are easier to play, and they give you a different kind of attack which can be nice as well.
For most of the big guitarists we know which brand and gauge they played during the different stages in their career. Of course we know a lot about Mark Knopfler’s strings, too, but unfortunately there is almost no information about his strings during the time of the original Dire Straits setup. And the guitar sounds of the first two albums are still the holy grail for many of us. Check this blog post for the earliest info we have, including the possibility that Mark played 008 strings.
I personally change string gauge periodically. After playing thin strings for some time I start to miss something and sooner or later I change to heavier strings, and with heavier strings the same is true so that I go back for thinner strings again.
This is why I recorded a video today in which I play the first Sultans solo with heavier and thinner strings for a side by side comparision.
I used a 1983 Japanese Squier Strat on which I installed the Sultans pickguard with the VFS-1 pickups. It seems Mark played a DiMarzio FS-1 (13k!) in the middle position of one of his two Strats in early 1978, combined with a normal Fender pickup at the bridge. With the ‘Sultans’ pickguard I can switch each of the three VFS-1 pickups individually to the DiMarzio or Fender sound. This is great as with a DiMarzio in the middle I would get new sounds but at the same time would lose not only the normal middle pickup sound but also certain flavours of the traditional bridge & middle sound. The same is true for a DiMarzio in the neck position – this is where Mark’s DiMarzio went to in October 1978. With the Sultans pickguard I have all these combinations, all normal Strat sounds plus any DiMarzio/DiMarzio or DiMarzio/Fender combination. 26 different sounds!
I put new Fender ‘regular’ nickel strings (010 -013-017-026-036-046) on the guitar and recorded the solo over the backing track. Then I changed the three unwound strings to 009-011-015 and recorded it again (with some subtle volume and EQ adjustments to match the differences). I left the bass strings so that I do not have to adjust the trussrod on the guitar and do a complete new setup. I did not try with 08 strings (008-011-014) as these should be similar to the 009s. If the 009s sound clearly better, I thought to examine the difference between a 008 and a 009 and a 014 vs. a 015 later.
I recorded the guitar straight through a treble booster into the mixing desk. You normally need a trebly amp setup (e.g. a vintage Fender or a Jazz Chorus) with a lot of reverb for this sound, plus a little bit of chorus. I added these ingredients in the recording software, just for convenience. Of course I cannot get the original sound 100% this way, as it requires a tube amp, some good microphones, a great recording room, a 1961 Strat, and more, but I was hoping to get something close enough to judge the strings.
So which string gauge sounds closer to the original sound? – I must admit I am lost a bit here. I first recorded with the 010 strings and felt that something was missing. With the 009 strings I felt it was better during recording. However, when I listen to what I recorded later I am not sure anymore…
Maybe you should judge for yourself. You can let us all know which you think is better with the poll below, or use the comment option below this blog post to share your thoughts.
This week I was playing around a bit with the combination of the fat-sounding DiMarzio FS-1 (FS in fact stands for ‘fat Strat’) plus a ‘normal’ vintage-sound pickup. I have the DiMarzio in the middle and a MK61 – a reproduction of a 1961 Strat pickup, becoming available exclusively on mk-guitar.com soon – in the bridge position of one of my guitars. For more background information on what this has to do with the early Dire Straits sound see this blog post.
I am sure that Mark had this combo in one of his two red Fender Strats until October 1978 when he moved the DiMarzio to the neck position. You can hear the typical sound on many live bootleg recordings from that time (e.g. Chester 1978, Live at the BBC 1978, live at the Whistle Test, Revolver TV, or Barbarellas/Birmingham). However, he probably had two ‘normal’ pickups in his other Strat which makes it difficult to tell exactly if something we hear e.g. on album one is this combination or not.
The FS-1 is a hot pickup, with a DC of about 13 kOhms. When it is played together with a normal 6k-pickup, the resulting sound has more midrange but still clear treble, and is less ‘quacky’ than the middle & bridge combo normally is. Another nice feature: hum is reduced as the FS-1 has the opposite magnet polarity compared to a 60ies Fender pickup.
The guitar in the following video is ‘nothing special’ – a Part-o-caster with mainly Japanese Squier parts. I recorded directly into the mixing desk, and added an amp simulation plus some basic effects (reverb, some very subtle delay, and a limiter) in the recording software.
I recorded two versions of ‘Down to the Waterline’ (a song where I was wondering if it is with the FS-1 or not… ): one with the tone pot fully up, and another one where it is rolled back to about 7. Maybe I should use an amp to add that slight distortion, and spend more time with a/b comparing to find the ideal EQ and effects settings, this time it was just a quick shot.
For better hum shielding, the strings on electric guitars are normally grounded, which means they are connected internally to the ground of the guitar. For this purpose, usually a ground wire is connected somewhere to the guitar bridge, in the case of a Stratocaster with tremolo this is normally a wire from the case of the volume pot to the ‘claw’ that helds the tremolo springs. As the springs are – like the whole bridge – made of steel, the bridge is grounded via the tremolo springs, and the strings via the bridge.
Many guitarists, even the guitar freaks, are not aware that there are two different ways how this was done on the classic (= vintage) Strat. And I have never seen this issue discussed in any guitar book or website, so let’s cover it with this blog post.
The ‘normal’ way (as it is on most Strats and copies) with a wire from the volume pot to the tremolo claw was not the original way how Fender did it but was introduced about 1964/65. In all the years before, the wire went from the tremolo claw to the ground lug of the output jack! Electrically it does not matter whether it runs to the volume pot or the output jack (except some theoretical arguments that might cause a very small and usually negligible difference) but to build a ‘vintage correct’ Strat (or Schecter Dream Machine) it is of course important to know.
The wire runs (see picture below) from the tremolo claw through a drill hole into the electronics cavity, from where it directly runs through the drill hole to the output jack cavity where it is connected to the jack.
The ground wire on the Schecter Dream Machines and on the mk-guitar.com pickguard replicas
On their Dream Machines, Schecter used the original style that Fender used from 1954 to 1964, the wire from the tremolo claw to the output jack. The pickguard is connected with only two wires, the hot (yellow) and the ground (black) wire. It is a bit different on my replica pickguards which feature the post-1964 style. They come with a third wire, that is soldered to the ground plate of the pickguard (where also the ground wires from the pickups are soldered) and must be connected to the tremolo claw. I did it this non-original way because it is the most common way on a Strat. If I delivered these without this ground wire, you need to connect the existing ground wire from the tremolo claw on your guitar to the output jack. If you have bad luck, the wire will be not long enough to reach the output jack, or the drill hole between the electronics cavity and the output jack is not wide enough for three wires instead of two.
If you build your own Dream Machine and want to do it the vintage-correct style, you can unsolder the ground wire on the replica pickguard (or simply cut it close to the solder point) and run a wire from the tremolo claw to the output jack. I could have shipped the pickguards without this ground wire, and instruct you to solder the one on your guitar yourself to the ground plate of the pickguard but this requires a strong soldering iron as the shielding plate and the whole metal pickguard absorb a lot of heat so that the solder does not flow very well, an effect that is by the way much stronger with the brass or chrome pickguards compared to the white aluminium pickguard.
The original wiring has the advantage that it is a bit more comfortable to work on the electronics of the opened guitar, as only two wires instead of three connect the pickguard to the guitar. One thing however is important NOT to do as this causes a danger of hum due to a ground loop: never use both ground wires (from the pickguard to the tremolo claw + from the tremolo claw to the output jack).
Mark plays the tune on his ‘Blue Ice metallic’ Pensa. It is the guitar we could already see in the BBC Guitar Stories video from 2012. It has two Lindy Fralin soapbar pickups, a Hipshot tremolo and Hipshot locking tuners, 22 frets, swamp ash body.
Mark uses the bridge pickup. In the background we see a Komet amp played into what looks like a vintage Marshal cabinet.
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