By Greg Gagliano

Copyright 1999, 20th Century Guitar Magazine.

Some of the most popular guitars sold today are reissues of vintage models. They look good, they play well, they sound good, and most importantly, they cost substantially less than their original counterparts. Notice that I didn't say they sound or look exactly like the original model. And therein lies the rub. How do you get vintage sound from a reissue guitar? 

Some of the most popular guitars sold today are reissues of vintage models. They look good, they play well, they sound good, and most importantly, they cost substantially less than their original counterparts. Notice that I didn't say they sound or look exactly like the original model. And therein lies the rub. How do you get vintage sound from a reissue guitar?

First, let's assume you have a vintage sounding amp, this way we don't have to factor that into the equation. So what about the guitars? Most of my experience has been with Fender and Rickenbacker reissues, though I'm sure a lot of what I write here holds true for other makes from Danelectro to Gibson to Gretsch. Vintage buffs have been opining about reissue inaccuracies since the early '80s. Fenderphiles pleaded with FMI and FMIC to change the dot spacing on the '62 Strat reissue and Rickenbackerists begged Ric to make the body and headstock shape of the 360v64 series more accurate. Some reasons for inaccuracies: "close" is good enough, worn out original templates or tooling, new tooling made inaccurately, and companies wishing to avoid "vintage fraud" by unscrupulous people trying to represent super accurate reissues as originals (the Fender Custom Shop has avoided this by stamping the hell out of all the parts so there's no mistaking their pedigree).

After nearly 20 years, Fender has finally revamped the US vintage series to make them more accurate in terms of looks and sound. Rickenbacker, on the other hand, hasn't changed a thing and actually moved further away from the originals when it switched from nitrocellulose lacquer to a proprietary non-lacquer finish.

The guitar makers have long argued that true vintage enthusiasts will buy original examples of a particular guitar. Any "small" inaccuracies in the reissues are overlooked by the general guitar playing population at large since they are interested more in the overall "effect" of the reissue rather than a dead-on replica. Maybe so, but with all the books available, the general guitar playing population is quite educated these days and are more discerning.

Now, this isn't to say that a reissue that is 90% accurate is a bad guitar. On the contrary, they are very nice guitars, though they may not always cop the sound of the original. Fender has made huge advances in this area by making its pickups more accurate, especially in the Custom Shop. The Rickenbacker 360v64 6-string and 12-string models are great sounding and playing, but they don't sound like their original counterparts.

There are two things that can make a reissue guitar sound more accurate: pickups and strings. There are a plethora of vintage style pickups available for Fender and Gibson guitars. Lindy Fralin is winding some of the most accurate sounding Fender style pickups I've heard. Not much is available for Rickenbacker "toaster" pickups, but you can have them rewound to vintage specs.

Another, less costly alternative is to "unwind" them. The process is relatively straightforward whereby you remove windings of pickup wire from the bobbin to reduce the DC resistance of the pickup coil. This results in a thinner, more jangly sounding Rickenbacker. Compared to an original '66 360-12, my reissue 360-12 with original pickups had more output and really strong midrange tone. The originals had a reading of about 7.8K ohms and the reissues measured 11.5K ohms. The reissue didn't sound bad, and in fact sounded like it was equipped with old DeArmond Dynasonics (nice!), but it didn't sound like the original. I unwound the pickups to 7.5K ohms and the tone was much more accurate. Not exactly the same, mind you, but much, much closer to the vintage Ric's sound.

So why doesn't Rickenbacker make their pickups "right" in the first place? Well, that's because they technically are not "wrong". Confusing isn't it? John Hall, CEO of Rickenbacker, feels that reducing the number of windings is analogous to intentionally degrading their product and that unwinding doesn't necessarily yield a more accurate, vintage sound. During the design phase for the reissue toaster pickups, Ric tested close to 100 vintage pickups for a variety of parameters and the current pickup is essentially a composite of all these units. As with all hand wound pickups from the old days, there is a lot of variation to be found, hence the need to come up with "composite" specifications.

Beyond this, Rickenbacker even looked through all of the old production and purchasing records to make sure they were using original materials and specs. This has been a point of contention among vintage Ric fans since some of them believe that the reissues use the wrong gauge wire. However, CEO Hall is adamant that nothing other than # 44 wire has been used, although several different insulation materials and other wire coatings have been used through the years. The vintage buffs' ears aren't wrong and Mr. Hall's research isn't wrong so why is their a sonic difference?

Perhaps the flux strength of the alnico magnets is too strong (Seymour Duncan degausses alnico V slugs to get a darker, vintage tone) or maybe the pickups are simply overwound. However, there's more to simply correlating how a pickup will sound based on wire gauge and DC resistance. Joe Barden and some other well-known pickup makers have been educating players about what really makes a pickup sound the way it does. Joe says he doesn't even know the DC resistance of his pickups - he winds them to a specific inductance reading.

The problem with DC resistance according to most pickup makers is that all it tells you is the length of the wire. A pickup is an inductive device that generates AC signals and what's really important is the number of turns and the magnetic field - just like a transformer or choke. Given a fixed number of turns of the same gauge wire, the resistance will vary significantly depending on how the coil is wound (layered, scattered, or uneven handwinding), how much tension was applied during winding (tight coil vs. a loose coil), the type and thickness of the wire insulation, and the size of the bobbin. Regardless of the resistance reading, the same number of turns will very closely equal the same inductance reading provided the strength and shape of the magnetic field is constant.

Inductance readings of vintage versus reissue pickups will give a true benchmark. Unfortunately, it's not easy to measure inductance with a simple digital multimeter and no one would be silly enough to unwind a perfectly good vintage pickup just to count the number of windings. And that's where the pickup makers have an advantage -- they can dissect a dead vintage pickup and count the number of windings. Perhaps that's one reason why their pickups sound so accurate.

To summarize: reissue guitars are generally not 100% accurate reproductions of the originals though some recent offerings (notably from Fender) come very close; manufacturing reissue pickups to sound exactly like originals is based on science, but is more of an art; most players like reissues just the way they are, but some strive to make the reissue more accurate in terms of looks and/or sound.

And the conclusions are: if you want true vintage tone, buy an original vintage guitar if you can afford it. If not, you can make a reissue more vintage sounding with aftermarket pickups or, in the case of Ric toaster pickups, an unwinding or rewinding procedure. Depending on the type of vintage tone you are searching for, you may have to use vintage style strings as well, and we'll look at strings next month.

About the author: Greg Gagliano has decided never, ever to unwind any pickups again since it took him hours to get untangled from all the pickup wire.


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