It’s really encouraging when pickup manufacturers combine the usual vintage-inspired suspects with products that are a bit more specialised. Oil City’s product range includes some intriguing twists on a few tried and trusted designs. This month, we’re checking out Firebird pickups in a PAF-sized format and a tapped vintage-style T-type.
Covered mini humbucker replacement pickups are relatively thin on the ground as it is, but very few are available in a full-sized humbucker format. The Winterizer II set is designed for players who want to achieve the covered mini humbucker tone popularised by Johnny Winter and Neil Young, without having to buy a specific guitar or irreversibly convert an existing one.
Although the full-sized Winterizer II sits under a regular-sized cover, it’s obvious that Oil City is not cheating with regular-sized bobbins. Wide open spaces under the cover are evidence that mini humbucker bobbins have been used.
Oil City told us that the Winterizer pickups are “exactly like real Firebird pickups”. The recipe involves 42 AWG plain enamel wire and an alnico 5 bar magnet for each bobbin. There is also a steel plate under the pickup bobbins to increase the pickup’s inductance. For the purposes of this test, I dropped the Winterizers into a high-end Japanese LP-type with 500K CTS potentiometer and paper/oil tone capacitors wired 50s style.
It’s worth establishing from the outset that Firebird pickups are far removed from humbucker and P-90 tones. In terms of sheer brightness, this set has more in common with Strats than Les Paul Standards. However, the tone is smoother, the output is higher and there’s no hum.
Once I got my head around the notion of loud, single-coil type sounds coming out of a Les Paul, I really started to have fun. Played clean, these pickups are sensitive and extremely articulate. Although bright, notes and chords have substantial midrange and you hear woody follow-through after the initial metallic attack.
The bridge pickup has a wiry and slightly nasal honk that’s funky when clean then snarly and slightly raw with overdrive. In contrast, the neck lends an almost semi-acoustic quality to the wound strings with a rounded singing sustain across the treble strings.
These are incredibly expressive blues and rock pickups and they’re absolutely superlative for slide. Down in Vestapol, with a pipe on the pinky, the Winterizers deliver raucous bar-room tones with harmonics and `ghost tone’ friction noises cutting straight through the dirt. Heady stuff.
Wapping Wharf & HonkyTonk Angel
Some of us can remember adverts for tapped single-coil pickups back in the 80s. The idea is to `interrupt’ the coil at somewhere around a standard vintage-spec DC reading then add a few thousand extra turns that can be switched in when the `overwound’ tone is appropriate. It’s certainly a cool concept, but for some reason tapped single coils have never really caught on.
The Wapping Wharf is a tapped Tele pickup with some very clever twists. It starts off as a regular HonkyTonk Angel bridge pickup, which is Oil City’s take on early-50s Esquire and Broadcaster tones. Rated at 10k, you may think it sounds a bit over-wound to begin with, but the magnet wire is vintage-correct
Since this is thinner than Fender’s later 42 AWG wire, you can achieve a higher DC resistance with fewer turns. So, despite the 10k reading, the HonkyTonk Angel side of the pickup is not over-wound at all; there’s enough space remaining on the bobbin for a tapped coil that brings the total DC reading up to 15k.
The slugs are all alnico, but Oil City mixes up the alloys. Alnico 5 is used for the wound strings and alnico 2 for the treble strings. The stronger alnico 5 is intended to produce a healthy output with plenty of treble and twang and the weaker alnico 2 sounds sweeter and the lower magnetic pull on the strings can only help sustain.
To complete this review set, Oil City provided us with a HonkyTonk Angel neck pickup. Everything about the spec seems vintage-correct, with low-pull alnico 3 slugs, 43 AWG magnet wire wound to 6.8k, a chrome-plated nickel cover and cloth-covered leadout wires. For testing, I installed this set in a blackguard replica with a lightweight swamp ash body and one-piece maple neck.
The Wapping Wharf spoils you for tonal choice. In low-wind mode, it’s a top-drawer Tele-style pickup with twangy but meaty lows and a harmonically complex treble response that cuts through without any hint whatsoever of shrillness. The string-to-string balance cannot be faulted and there’s a touch of microphony, adding acoustic `air’ without any squeal.
Chugging away on the low strings, you get a woody chunkiness with a clicky pick attack sharpening the definition. Play near the neck and single notes sound fully rounded with a vintage quack that’s just sufficient to provide sonic character without being dominant.
Move the pick closer to the saddles and you can get the metallic twang some may associate with Roy Buchanan. Pinched harmonics fly off the strings, and although there’s plenty of dynamic response, the treble string attack is smooth enough to play pedal steel licks without compressor assistance.
Switching in the extra coil boosts the overall level very slightly, but the tone change is far more apparent. Compressed transients and a midrange boost accompany some treble roll-off as the Wapping Wharf moves towards a P-90 growl. It’s a fat Tele-like tone that is certainly less `traditional’ than the low-wind mode, but it delivers the goods for big powerchords, rock riffs and meaty soloing.
The neck pickup is less microphonic than most vintage-inspired replacements, but there’s no lack of dynamics or definition. Oil City has achieved just the right amount of cover-induced treble attenuation to soften the attack and enhance the jazzy woodiness.
Single notes on the treble strings have a vowel-like rounded quality and jazz chord voicings are easy to discern thanks to an emphasis on the fundamental frequency rather than harmonic overtones. Achieving clarity without brightness is tough, but Oil City has pulled it off and the neck pickup balances really well with both modes of the bridge pickup.
The treble response is more consistent when the bridge pickup is in high-wind mode, but low-wind provides a more traditional contrast. It makes the in-between setting all the more distinctive and inspiring – induced mid-scoop combining with a pronounced phasiness that hints at a pseudo-chorus effect.
Oil City has made two outstanding sets of pickups. The Winterizers may be fairly niche, but if you want Firebird-like tone from a non-Firebird guitar, these pickups deliver.
Several years ago, I asked a well known boutique pickup maker about tapped single coils and he told me they don’t really work. The evidence suggests otherwise. You could choose which mode you prefer and hard wire it, or switch between modes using a push-pull. Both sound fantastic and the HonkyTonk Angel pairs up perfectly.
Winterizer II Full HB Set
• Price £170 (pair)
• Description Covered mini humbuckers in full-sized humbucker format, made in the UK
• Specs 42 AWG plain enamel magnet wire, alnico 5 blade magnets, steel inductance plate, wax potted
• Contact Oil City Pickups
0208 257 0281
Wapping Wharf bridge & HonkyTonk Angel neck pickup
• Price £59 (bridge) £54 (neck)
• Description Early-50s spec T-type set with 10K/15K coil-switching bridge pickup, made in the UK
• Specs 43 AWG magnet wire, alnico 2 & 5 magnets (bridge), alnico 3 magnets (neck), vulcanised fibreboard flat work, wax potted
0208 257 0281