Let's be perfectly honest, the guitar pickup, while amazing, simple, and sexy, is pretty much a dead horse at this point; and every company out there seems to be beating said horse relentlessly. ESPECIALLY when it comes to passive pickups! Don't get me wrong, every guitar I own, save for one, has passive pickups- and they sound great. They are a classic design that is age-old, time-tested, and basically cannot fail. It would take a very strange series of events to get a passive guitar to crap out on you. Passive pickups are proof that like many things, they may have really gotten it right on the first try... So why the dead horse analogy? Well take a look at that image above, and remember how it looks. Look familiar enough? Read on....
In 2015, we have pickup companies bragging that they have found the magic sauce to 'perfectly recreate vintage pickup x or y', or another company bragging that they have the same winding machine used to make the pickups back in the 50s... Yet again, we have other companies bragging that their handmade stuff is the best out there with the most output or maybe the hottest signal... Other companies still offer customized covers or new materials inside (or old materials) to get that vintage-y tone or modern-y tone. Yes, 1950s guitars kick ass, but it is 2015 and music has grown, no it has EXPLODED into new territories that could not have been envisioned in the 50s. Isn't it finally time for a change? If not even a change in sound, but a change in design? Here ye, good citizens!
I mean, quite honestly in a live context these minute differences in "classic pickup 1" compared to "classic pickup 2" are really just perceptible to the player (and often, I would argue, even the player couldn't tell you the difference, especially with the always-changing landscape of live stages and studios). Are the first five rows of screaming fans going to be able to tell that your pickups were wound with Seth Lover's sweat mixed in with ultra-waxy bobbins, Alnico magnets, and accidentally-imported Indonesian plastic for that perfect vintage woman tone?!
I think this meme really sums up the "chase for the holy grail of tone" quite perfectly:
All laughing aside, it rings quite true! In fact, it's probably the GOLDEN RULE OF GUITAR that no guitarist wants to admit to themselves! Jimi Hendrix would have become a legend even if he was playing a solid state amp and pedals that were un-buffered and NOT true bypass. He took, what was in essence fairly shitty old gear by today's standards, and forced it into making mind blowing new sounds! He was able to make art no matter the gear, and that's what we all need to remember.
So that being said, how DOES a pickup company push the envelope? How can we preserve the great tones from the past, but get better consistency in manufacturing? How do we really take the guess-work out of these classic pickups? I want my PAF to sound like a PAF, dammit!!!
How do we make a new horse? Pickups are arguably one of the most important things on your guitar. They are in essence the microphone- if your guitar's strings are its vocal chords!
The first step towards modernizing the pickup was when the active pickup was created. This pickup helped push hard rock and metal to the forefront and helped create an entire new world of guitar tones! Now, the EMG 81 and 85 stand as THE pickups of choice when you want to hot rod your guitar, get more volume/sustain/gain/output, and REALLY let those pinch harmonics scream! In fact, the active pickup totally revolutionized the world of bass guitar, allowing bass players to get clarity and punch like never before!
Active pickups use an additional power supply (most commonly a 9V battery) to power a pre-amp circuit in the pickups, so the tone you are able to extract from your vibrating strings is increased dramatically! Details you never thought your guitar had, can now be heard! So why don't we all use active? Well a lot of pros do, but many players think they still sound "sterile" or "harsh", or simply don't want to fuck around with batteries (let's be honest here- one bad gig experience with a dying 9V battery will scar a guitarist for life).
So, we have Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, BareKnuckle, Lace, MojoTone, and other companies like EMG and MEC that cater to the active crowd. Then all the guitar brands all have their own in house brands, like PRS, Fender, Gibson, etc. They all make great products, and I would recommend any of them to suit the millions of styles of music that are out there. They all achieve a myriad of vintage, classic, and modern tones that can play well in any setting! But are they all the same no matter what? If you buy a 59, does it sound like an old 59? Or a ten year old 59? Or a week old 59? How can we really know?
In 2015, where do we go from here? With so many billions of takes on the same thing, what will carry guitar into the future? Is there a way to get the best of both active and passive worlds? Is there a way to take the "black magic" out of pickup making?
Enter Fishman Pickups! Usually ONLY known for their great-sounding acoustic guitar pickups, Fishman is actually stepping into the realm of electric guitar for the first time with the introduction of not only "their take on the PAF/HFS/59/Pearly Gates/1950s vintage whatever", but with their introduction of a pickup like you have never seen before in your life! Aka, they will be recreating all the sounds we all love, but in a way that none of us have EVER seen before!
That is because this pickup is built like no other on the planet. Sans for the basic look or shape of a guitar pickup (see the very top image, who knew?!), Fishman pretty much threw the drawing board out the window on this, and started with a completely new principle and philosophy on how to listen to a guitar's strings. I am SURE this is going to piss off the vintage crowd, and I just can't wait to see and hear it!
Called the "Fluence Electric Guitar Pickup", Fishman is literally redesigning everything you thought you knew about a pickup. Now, don't think that I hate old style or vintage gear. I love it, and I play it, but Fishman readily admits that every year at NAMM guitarists are always "accustomed to hearing about 'the next new thing' in pickups every time NAMM season comes around". The dead horse returns! Worst of all, the manufacturing of these pickups is not always something that is 100% accurate. A lot of times a "magic guitar" that had those "magic pickups" had a manufacturing fluke that turned into one of those musical happy accidents.
So we know there are sounds we love from the past, present, and even new sounds to be made- and Fishman is taking all of this landscape into account with the Fluence series. According to Fishman, they have found a new way to accurately and consistently recreate sought-after tones.
Check out what Premier Guitar's Dan Formosa will be saying in the upcoming February issue about the Fluence pickups:
“Pickup winding can be something of a black art,” he goes on to state. “No matter the manufacturer or the person doing the winding, one pickup can sound different from the next. Even with consistent production methods, there are such wild card factors as inconsistency in the raw materials used by the manufacturer.”
“The sound coming from a vintage ’54 Stratocaster pickup or a ’57 PAF humbucker can be magical. But according to Larry Fishman, that ‘magic’ is precisely why his company sidestepped electric guitar pickups for its first 34 years: 'Too much voodoo,' he says. Fishman felt he could match the performance of existing electric guitar pickups, but not bring anything new to the party—until now.”
So Fishman dumped years of R&D into making something like never before. This is the base-line philosophy, and I love it:
“Understanding what’s unique about Fluence requires an understanding of how traditional pickups work—and don’t work. Like beloved family members, pickups have their faults. But as anyone associated with Fluence will tell you, this is not a story focused on bashing traditional pickups. Rather, it’s a love story about preserving the best qualities of great pickups without their associated problems, and at a reasonable cost.”
So how do they do it?!
Fluence pickups are designed around the idea of taking the coils of old pickups and rather than winding them like we've done since the 50s, they are NOW "applying" them. Here is where it gets crazy. Fishman uses PCB (printed circuit board) to create traces on the board, where you can "print" concentric lines and spirals of coils. This way you can blueprint ANY pickup out there, make a design to print to, and then recreate it, exactly the same, over and over again!
Picture, for example, a racetrack shaped printed circuit board the size of a Stratocaster pickup, with an opening in its center reserved for magnets. One board can hold one spiral, and because it’s printed, each copy is perfectly consistent. The next step involves stacking multiple layers of printed coils and interconnecting them until 'pickup' ability is reached.”
This has taken all of the guess work and "black magic" out of the build! The coolest thing of this whole deal?! Sit down for this...
HUM HAS BEEN ELIMINATED!
Even from single coils! So now you can get that single coil sound and not have to hate your life because of all the buzzing coming out of your amp! Fluence pickups can eliminate hum while keeping the original sound profile thanks to the new design and "filtering and boosting within the preamp.” How cool is this?! And never you fear, whether you play single coils or humbuckers, the pickups, while totally different than the last 80 years of pickups, will still fit in your guitar and not affect the look!
Stay tuned for some massive news from NAMM 2015 on this, as well as a hopefully huge influx of YouTube videos chocked full of tone demos as players begin to get their hands on this new technology!
Tom Morello even said that a guitar is nothing more than a piece of wood with some metal strings and magnets attached to it. And it's true, it's a pretty basic thing that you can really do A LOT with! This new tech should help both simplify the pursuit of great tone, while also giving players more reliability and consistency!
Check out these great videos where Larry Fishman himself explains all the fun facts behind these amazing new pickups!
“Our goal,” says Larry Fishman, “is to drive all amplifiers to happiness.”
And isn't that just perfect!