BY ART BYRON
PHOTOS BY ART BYRON
Buck Owens once asked Roy Clarke on TV’s
Hee Haw, “Hey Roy, what’s the difference
between a guitar and a git-tar?” Without
skipping a beat, Clarke delivered the punch
line: “Oh, about four hunnerd dollars!” At the
time, the inside joke underscored the ocean
of difference between cheap mass-produced
instruments and hand-built masterpieces. But
the line has become increasingly blurred in
recent years as higher-quality instruments flow
from places like Mexico, Korea, and China.
We stumbled upon great tone in a new
Mexican-built Fender Telecaster Deluxe at a
big-box store for $549. The playability and
punch of this instrument was outstanding—in
fact, we had a hard time selecting from two
identical Teles that day. Nevertheless, in the
ruckus of the store environment, with 13-year-
olds battling for sweep-picking supremacy
through 100-watt stacks, it was not immediately
evident that this guitar had a problem with
microphonic pickups. Back home, with the
amp’s master volume nudged anywhere past
3, the Tele squealed like a stuck pig. We’re not
talking the creamy, dreamy feedback Hendrix
got while playing the national anthem; we’re
talking the ice-pick-through-the-ear kind.
Buying new pickups and having them
installed would make this guitar cost as
much, in the end, as the US-built instrument
it resembles. Groan! If this happens to you,
there is something else you can do about
it: pot your own pickups. Potting pickups
with wax has been going on for a long time,
and was originally intended to attenuate
feedback—loose coil windings that vibrate
in sympathy with acoustic sound will induce
that acoustic sound into the amplified signal
and create a feedback loop.
But potted pickups also have a tone all
their own. It turns out that some of that
microphonic energy does contribute in
a subtle way to the sound of a pickup,
irrespective of its tendency to feedback.
Encase the pickup windings in wax, and the
sound takes on more characteristics of the
wood, with a rounder, fuller tone. Not that
we’re saying the wax-potted tone is “better.”
Tone is subjective. (Try potting a Danelectro
pickup some day. You’ll singlehandedly
destroy all of its mojo at one fell swoop!)
Potting a pickup is half science, and half art.
With a recording date looming, we didn’t
have time to earn degrees in either, but we
did have a handful of aromatic gift candles
and an old sauce pot that we’d just as soon
do without. The worst-case scenario, short of
burning down the house: a few lost hours, and
the indignity of buying some new pickups?
Other than the screeching feedback, these
pickups sounded fine, and were worth saving.
The entire operation—removing and
disassembling the pickups, soaking them in
hot wax, putting everything back together—
took about three hours, including extra time
for cooling the hot pickups and taking photos.
Much to our amazement, it worked exactly as
we’d hoped, with one small hitch: the chromeplated pickup covers are also microphonic.
(Doh!) We had to go back and remove the
pickup covers, inserting some flat rubber
pieces (cut from a wide rubber band) between
the pickup and the cover, to completely quell
all the feedback. This Mexican-built Tele
can now scream through the amp without a
trace of microphone squeal. The tone is fat
and well-burnished, the way a humbucker-equipped Telecaster Deluxe should sound.