Interview: Fender’s Tim Shaw on the new American Performer Yosemite pickups

Fender’s pickup guru charts the genesis of the new pickups.

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“Dave Cobb is one of the best producers and engineers in the industry,” says Tim Shaw, the engineer behind the all-new Yosemite pickups in Fender’s American Performer Series. “He had an Esquire with a pickup that had been replaced or rewound many times and he couldn’t use it, so he asked me to come up with something interesting.

“I’d been experimenting with alnico IV in rod magnet form; it had been used in the 1960s as a bar magnet by several companies. Alnico magnets have different recipes or chemical compositions, and these have a major effect on how they sound. For our purposes, alnico IV is between alnico II and alnico V; it’s got more definition than alnico II but less attack than alnico V. Pickups made with it have a unique voice; there’s a very interesting ‘hi-fidelity’ character, as if you’ve recorded a great guitar with a great rig in a great studio and are playing that guitar sound in real time.

“I made Dave a Tele bridge pickup with alnico IV magnets and a unique winding spec. He liked the way it sounded and the guitar’s been on quite a few recordings in the past year and a half. That formed the basis for the American Performer pickups. As with the American Pro Series, we already knew the basic specs for the guitars and basses, and our test guitars were selected accordingly.

“Joey Brasler [Fender’s VP, Product Development] and I spent a week here, listening to prototype pickups, winding more, and determining what the voice of each guitar should be. Each guitar has a unique pickup set, and all of them have at least one pickup with alnico IV magnets.

“The American Performer basses all use alnico V magnets with new magnet wire specs and shellac-dipped coils. On the American Performer Mustang Bass, we went back to the original drawings for inspiration and designed a new pickup that pairs very well with the new American Performer Jazz bass bridge pickup.”

Can you tell us more about the wax-potted bridge pickup and shellac-coated neck unit on the Performer Telecaster? 

Pickups with no coating (or potting), sound a bit microphonic and ‘live’, even when the wire is wound as tight as possible on the bobbin. While this technique increases things like handling noise at lower volumes and can cause a high-pitched squeal when played very loud, it also promotes a more airy and transparent sound at lower volumes.

At Fender, we tend to use words like ‘potting’ and ‘coating’ as the same thing: both involve submerging the pickup in a material that will stick the tiny strands of magnet wire together to keep them from vibrating. Leo Fender’s workers dipped pickups in wax, but in the 1960s many Fender pickups were dipped in shellac instead of wax, and the specific reason for that is long lost.

Wax-dipped pickups are ready for production use as soon as they’re cool enough to handle, while shellac has a drying time, and that may help explain why Fender has continued to use wax most often. To my ear, shellac ‘breathes’ more than wax does; the pickups are a bit more responsive with shellac than they are with wax, and that’s an important component of the sound of the Performer Series pickups.

We use shellac on the Performer series for all pickups except the Tele bridge pickup and the DoubleTap humbucking pickups. Shellac sounds good, but it’s a messy coating and it’s hard to clean off exposed surfaces. Knowing this, I voiced these pickups in the series to work well with the wax potting.

The humbuckers feature a pat-pending coil-split design… can you explain how that works? 

The new DoubleTap pickups in the Strat HSS and the Tele HS have a patent-pending technology in the way the coils are wound. While the patent involves more than what we’re using here, the original idea was simple enough. Humbuckers typically have two coils connected in series. When we engage a coil split, we short the wires that connect the two coils to ground, which leaves one of the coils operating.

Unfortunately, half the pickup has noticeably less output, and I wanted to find a way to increase the output of that single-coil. The result was a single-coil with increased output and presence that pairs much better with the other pickups in the guitar. We’ll be exploring this technology further on other new models!

Read our review of the American Performer Strat and Tele, and the American Performer P-Bass.

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