Legendary Fender pickup engineer Tim Shaw goes in-depth on the American Professional series

The HUB: Hey Tim! Thanks for taking some time to chat with us today. Let's talk about the electronics in the new Fender American Professional series. There are some pretty exciting guitars in the series and the pickups have different shapes and windings and versions of AlNiCo elements. Can you describe the genesis of these pickups?

Tim Shaw: We periodically refresh different parts of the product line. We'd just done the American Elite series and it was time work on what was then the Standard series. I'd already done the first ShawBucker in the American Standards the previous year. We got to talking about pickups and we wanted to do something different.

The trick with this is that there's huge depth and breadth to the line and a lot of history. They're designed to be workable for a large group of players. There are some things you can do that are more esoteric in design for players who only play like this or only do that. The American Standard series, which is now American Pro, cuts across a lot of demographics musically and socially.

Fender American Professional Stratocaster Maple Fingerboard Olympic White

Pictured: Fender's American Professional Strat in Olympic White with Maple Fingerboard.

The first challenge with it was to do something interesting, but not mess it up. They were curious to see what I could come up with. I had been doing a lot of work with different pickups and different magnets because we had various combinations of AlNiCo 2, 3, 4 and 5 in stock. I'd worked with them over the years, but this was a time when I was actually focusing on listening to the differences between these pickups.

I started thinking about mixing magnets within the pickups. You've got plain strings and wound strings and they respond entirely differently. In a lot of Fender pickups, there's a tendency for things to be really bright if the magnets are strong, otherwise it will sound mushy.

I started messing around with AlNiCo 5 and 2 primarily, although there's some other stuff we've done AlNiCo 3 as well, and ended up with a bunch of pickups where we were mixing magnets. The result was that for the most part, the plain strings have one type of magnet, while wound strings have another. We came up with some pretty interesting stuff.

Working on the new American Professional, we were basically starting out with instruments where we knew there were going to be structural changes. We knew we wanted to make these electronic changes. We were able to target things and build the pickups as systems because we knew we were going to enlarge the necks and change the neck shape a little bit. We had a bunch of other little things we knew we were going to do.

When we were listening to all these pickups, we were doing it on the guitars they were going to go on. Electric guitars are systems and everything matters: if you know what's going to be there in the first place, you can optimize things for various configurations. That's exactly what we did.

The solution, in terms of what magnets we used, was different from instrument to instrument. I worked primarily on the Telecasters and Stratocasters. Michael Frank worked on the Jaguars and Jazzmasters, although he didn't need to find the same solution I did. I also started to work on the basses, but Mike Bump ended up finishing those. Quite frankly they liked the stuff he did better than the stuff I did, so Mike's stuff won, and that's fine with me. It's about making useful tools for a lot of people-that's the general genesis. Long story short, I started working on this late in 2015 and it was done by February or March 2016.

The HUB: You mentioned that you combined different AlNiCo magnets to produce a more even, balanced tone. Is that a good summary?

TS: Yes, that's a fair way to put it. That said, it's not necessarily a "balanced tone", but a "musically interesting and useful tone." The solution we ended up with on the Telecaster is different than the solution we used on the Stratocaster. The Strat has three different pickups. There are not only different magnet structures in each of them, but we adjusted the winding and stuff so we could get the maximum amount of versatility out of these instruments while still keeping the characteristics that everybody knew and liked about them.

Magnets have different strengths and they're made up of different stuff. AlNiCo as a term is an acronym for aluminum, nickel and cobalt. An AlNiCo magnet will have those three elements, although AlNiCo 3 doesn't have any cobalt in it, but you can't really go calling it AlNi, so they just call it AlNiCo. But they all use materials in different proportions. There's also a lot of iron in them and in some of the higher grades there's some copper and titanium as well.

If you're a magnet designer, or a motor designer, all this matters as you're trying to slam a whole lot of magnetic flux into an air gap. You will choose these things for different purposes. We can hear the difference in magnets. I was at a magnets conference once when I first started off and we were talking about how you can hear the difference between AlNiCo 5 and AlNiCo 2.  People started backing away like we were witch doctors. But obviously you can. This is something, as guitar players, we know.

Basically, on the Strat we ended up with different solutions for each pickup and position. The neck pickup has AlNiCo 2 on the bass strings and AlNiCo 3 on the treble strings. AlNiCo 3 has a real fat, warm sound. It was used first in Broadcasters. It mushes up if you're really playing bright hard stuff, but it's a really warm sounding magnet. It's a nice magnet for neck positions, and it obviously worked pretty well on the Broadcaster as well!

AlNiCo 2 a little bit brighter and tighter so the neck pickup is 2 and 3. The middle pickup is 2 for the bass strings and 5 for the treble strings. AlNiCo 5 is a brighter, stronger magnet. And that sounds like it might have been counterintuitive except for the fact that, on a Strat, what's also important is the two and four positions, the "quack" positions. If the magnets get too soft or too mellow sounding under the treble strings, it doesn't quack the same way. On a Strat, the whole system had to work across all of the positions. We ended up with all AlNiCo 5 on the bridge pickup because, in the context of the guitar and the way the thing balanced out, that made the most sense.

The Teles, on the other hand, are AlNiCo 5 and 2. So there are AlNiCo 5 on the basses and AlNiCo 2 on the trebles because that sounded better. It's reverse to what the Strats were. It had to make musical sense.

Take a deep dive on Fender's American Professional Telecaster models.

The HUB: What's your procedure for prototyping and testing?

TS: When I start making a pickup, whether it's a single coil or a humbucking, I know generally what's going to happen when I do stuff. I'm seldom totally surprised. We tried some stuff. The Strat middle pickup did flip around a couple of times just to get the best quack, but in a lot of cases I'm not making nine of something to see what we like best. I may make two or three to bracket a concept, so to speak.

I make something I think is about right. But there are times when I just may make something for the marketing team—one a little bit hotter and one a little bit cleaner—because everybody's got different preferences. I may do stuff that I like the sound of for the way I play. Sometimes we'll bracket things, but for another project, that I can't tell you about right now, I made five different sets of pickups. I started out with what I thought I wanted and by the time we were all done I'd gone through five iterations, and that's a lot for me. Usually I'll nail it in two or three.

The HUB: Speaking to how the guitar is one complete system where everything influences everything, have you had instances where you would go back and say "This is how the pickup sounds, but I think you should change this in the body of the guitar", so the pickup is informing the guitar instead of the other way around?

TS: On this particular project, no, just because there was a lot of context to work on. The marketing team said in the beginning, 'OK, we're going to do this: We're going to increase the thickness of the neck. What's that going to do?' And I said 'Basically we're going to get a little more top end out of stuff because as the neck gets stiffer it flexes less and the high end is the first thing that goes with a flexible neck.' So basically, we already knew that sort of thing was going to happen.

But generally speaking, if it's an instrument that's already got a family like this there's a whole lot of other stuff that's happening and is either dialed in or pretty close to it. I'm working on a project now where a lot of the canvas is, shall we say, "as yet uncolored". So as this particular thing mutates itself through I'll say, 'OK, here's what we got and this is what the prototype is made out of. What do you want it to do?' And then if somebody says, 'Well, can I get more X or more of this?', then I'll say 'Fine. I can do this much electronically, but you're going to have to do that." So that may mean changing the bridge and tailpiece materials from a vintage to a two-point, for example.

Say it's on an offset guitar. Maybe we don't actually use the tremolo. Maybe we use something else like a stopbar, or whatever. If it's on an FSR or a guitar which has never existed, there's a lot more flexibility because there's not a whole lot of commonality in what it was. There aren't generations of people looking over your shoulder saying, 'Geez, why'd you do that?' You've got a little more flexibility if the instrument has never existed than if it has.

The HUB: We talked about the different qualities of various AlNiCo magnet types. Could you describe how the winding on these pickups affects their performance?

TS: Basically, we've got a couple of different variables. First off, in most cases the size of the pickup is a known factor. In other words, the bobbin everything gets wound on is as big as it is and you're not going to mess with the form factor. So, we've got a certain amount of space we can wind wire in. There are different gauges or thicknesses of wire we can use and there are obviously the wire types or gauges that are traditional, though we can certainly alter those as well if we need to.

Then there's another variable, which is the actual coating on the wire. We use three different coatings at Fender. There's what's called polysol, which is a modern coating that's quite thin. Then there's a coating called plain enamel, which is a more historic coating and that's almost not in use now except at guitar companies. Its manufacture involves benzene so given their druthers a lot of wire companies would not make it and it's getting very hard to find. It's a bit thicker than polysol. Then there's another older material called formvar which is often even thicker.

This wire is as fine as or finer than human hair and these coatings on it keep it from just shorting onto itself. So, they have different thicknesses and that changes one of the electronic variables in the pickup called distributed capacitance. A pickup where the wires are, closer together as they go around the bobbin sounds different than one where they're a little farther apart. And where they're a little farther apart, say if we use formvar-coated wire around the pickup, there's an airier sound than if we use polysol-coated wire on the pickup. The plain enamel's somewhere between those two.

You can voice these things by changing the number of turns you put on them, you can change the voicing by deciding what the coating is, you can decrease the actual diameter to potentially increase output and roll off highs, and there's a whole lot of freedom within those variables to basically fine-tune the sound of the pickup once you've figured out what the magnets are going to be.

This is like juggling multiple balls. I will always start out in a case like this, as I'm modifying the Strat pickups for instance, with the number of turns that we had most recently been using and I'd change one variable at a time. If you've got X number of turns on a pickup, but I'm going to change the magnets, I'll start out by just doing that so you're not trying to listen to three things at once.

I'm using scientific method as much as I can to limit the number of variables that people are hearing so we can isolate what it is we're doing. Once we decide on the general combination of magnets we might say, OK, now let's listen to wire type. Or we like the airy quality here, but we need a little bit more output. How are we going to get that? So, we'll mess around with it that way.

The HUB: Is it fair to say that each position has its own number of windings?

TS: In this sense, yes. In the case of the Strat, for instance, they are calibrated for position, but we're also calibrating them for position as well as voicing the magnets within the positions. The Strat's a good example of it just because there's so much going on.

The HUB: One American Pro Strat has a bridge Humbucker. Can you tell us how the design of this humbucker came about and if it's similar or much different than previous?

TS: Sure. I got back into this whole family of pickups with the Humbucker we introduced on the American Standard Strat the previous year. When I was at Gibson we started asking ourselves in the early '80s if the guitars we were building then were as good as the guitars we had made 20 years ago or whatever it was. Well, the answer clearly was no. The difference between a '79 Les Paul and a '59 Les Paul is pretty enormous.

Again, those guitars are systems. There were a lot of things that were variable, but I was concentrating back then on the pickups and how they had changed. I reverse engineered to an extent Gibson Humbuckers from back in the day and ended up with a pickup that was referred to later on as the Tim Shaw Humbucker. It was like my version of what I believed Seth Lover had intended more often than not. It was a little family of pickups that I never signed or anything: they were just in production on certain historic series models.

Fast forward 30 years or so and the American Standard Strat with the ShawBucker got a bridge pickup that followed those original design principles, but was voiced to play nicely with Fender pickups. Left to its own devices you can easily have a humbucker where, as you're flipping from the middle pickup to the bridge pickup on a Strat, it just gets way louder and I didn't want that to happen. So that particular pickup had some breadth and nuance and basically played nicely with its friends.

Fender American Professional Stratocaster HSS Shawbucker

The American Pro Strat HSS features a fat-sounding Shawbucker in the bridge and is available with a maple or rosewood fingerboard.

When we started doing this whole thing for the American Pro I already had that bridge pickup and in that particular case I didn't mess with it at all. So, the new pickups, the new neck and middle pickup on that HSS guitar (maple, rosewood) worked perfectly well with the bridge pickup.

Check out our overview of the new Fender American Pro series of Strats, including each of the unique pickup configurations.

For the Strat HH, the bridge pickup we used with the HSS configuration becomes the neck pickup for the two humbucking Strat and there's a slightly warmer sounding bridge pickup in there. And again, it's easy to make things extremely loud so they just smash the front end of the amplifier, but basically 40 years ago, we didn't have a lot of pedals. Now we do. So, it's not just all about gain. And I am, left to my own devices, a fairly subtle guy. I like things that have breath and transparency and nuance.

When we did the American Standard with the humbuckers, the humbuckers again had to play in many cases with a single coil. The Tele Deluxe has a pickup that resembles the wide range pickups we used to make, but in fact is the same size as these other ones.

The Tele Shawbuckers are variations on these Strat HH pickups voiced for the Tele. When you've got two volume controls instead of one volume control, things interact a little bit differently. The Tele HH Shawbuckers were voiced to work well with that hardtail Tele bridge and everything else on that instrument. So, one pickup turned to four pickups basically.

The HUB: And what distinguishes them is the winding, the magnets?

TS:  Basically, there's a little more wire on the bridge pickup. The bridge pickup on the Strat HH also has a bit more wire on it. The Tele pickups are going to be a little more complicated to explain. There are some very subtle things that happen with the material that the pole pieces are made out of. The coils in each of those guitars are not necessarily just using screw coils and slug coils. There's a balancing act that goes on inside the pickups to find the sound we wanted for each position. The stuff in the Tele Deluxe is actually quite subtle. Mostly we're messing with the metallurgy of it as opposed to wire.

The HUB: We're curious how you approached designing something that was going to live in primarily alder bodies versus mahogany bodies. Is there a certain R & D that happens right out of the gate, or did you already have a sense of what mix of magnets was going to pair nicely with alder?

TS: We're pretty used to working with alder; in our world, that's a lot more common than mahogany. I had a pretty good idea where to start. At the Corona factory, we've got a sound room that's about the size of a 20-foot container. It's not very big. We had five identical black American Standard Strats that we put these pickups in and the three of us just locked ourselves in the room for a couple of hours and played. When we did the Tele HH (maple, rosewood), we had three guitars to work with and did the same thing.

Fender American Professional Telecaster Deluxe Shawbucker Electric Guitar

Pictured: Fender American Professional Telecaster Deluxe Shawbucker with Rosewood fingerboard in Candy Apple Red.

When you know you're going to have a pickup working with single coils, you don't need a whole lot of level. As I've said, I ended up winding to the bottom side of things. The Shawbuckers have an AlNiCo 2 magnet.  We have bar magnets in four materials: AlNiCo 2, 3, 4 and 5. In this particular case, 5 would have been too crunchy. Three would have been too mellow. It's like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Four would have been a bit crunchier. AlNiCo 2 was just right.

So that's what happened. That pickup also is not wax-potted. Almost everything else we've done with humbuckers has been wax-potted. Those are not. The original pickups at Gibson were not wax-potted ever, largely because of the materials they used. First off, it would have been an extra manufacturing step, which they tended to avoid if possible. Second off, the material the bobbins were made out of was a material called Butyrate, which melts at a relatively low temperature: the bobbins would have softened up in the wax bath. There is a sound you get and a transparency, and I'm going to use the word breath again, that you get in an unpotted pickup that I really like and which really suits this thing quite well.

The other thing we designed for the American Standard Strat that carried into the American Pro---and made a huge difference is its stacked volume pot. The value or the overall resistance of a volume pot affects the way the pickups sound because, if it's high enough, you get more top end basically and, if it's too low, it clamps off a lot of top end.

Fender pickups typically have a 250K volume control. Gibsons typically have 500K volume control. Original Jazzmasters and Jaguars, which were built for a whole lot of top end, had 1Meg volume controls: it's a million ohms. There is a period in the late '60s where Teles have that as well. There's tons of top end available on all these instruments.

Getting that volume control value right with the pickups is another part of the puzzle. With the Strats that have two single-coils and a humbucker we've got one part of the potentiometer that's only used for the single-coils and the other part is used for the humbucker. At that point, what we've come to expect from the single-coil, we get, and what we've come to expect from the humbuckers in terms of its performance, we also get.

So that was another very subtle thing. If you have 500K pots with single coils, they're going to sound too bright and if you have a 250K pot with a humbucker, it's going to sound clamped down. All of this little stuff matters and it gets back to what I said about the whole thing being a system. A lot of guys who record end up with really good ears and they can hear these differences.

The HUB: Do you yourself have any specific sounds or anything that you go for when you're testing? Whether it be an amp that you like using or specific riffs you go to or anything like that?

TS:  As a test amp I used a Paul Rivera Fender Concert for years. It was maybe not a Great Amplifier, but it worked well and I just got used to it. I've been working recently in a relatively small area and I just got one of the new silver faced Deluxes with the Bassman channel and the regular channel. That's a wonderful amplifier. I like things fairly clean. I play country, I play R&B. I play a lot of stuff like that. I'm the first person to hear most pickups, but I'm by far not the last! All of our senior Marketing guys are much better players than I am, and there are a group of players inside the company who will test pickups in many styles, through many amps. We'll also invite artists to try pickups without telling them what's inside to get their feedback.

The HUB: This is the first time in a while that the offsets have really been given this type of attention in a series that has been built in Corona. Can you speak to that?

TS:  I think offset players are like bass players in the sense that they are less set in their ways, but we had never done any real messing with the platform. There was never an American Standard Jazzmaster for instance.

It was decided early on that the '60s and '50s switching didn't really have any relevance for today. A lot of that got stripped away. Obviously, the Jazzmaster (maple, rosewood) got really stripped back and the Jag got messed with. Jags are weird because the scale length is so short. It can be difficult to get any "body" out of them. The series position gave us the ability to do that.

Michael Frank re-engineered the Jazzmaster pickups and made the bobbins taller, which let the wires sit closer to the magnets. The Jazzmaster pickup is so wide to begin with, you can't really mess with the way it looks, but by changing the magnet height, he changed the geometry of the coils. In doing so they lost some of that high-fidelity sound and picked up more interesting mid-range.

Curious how the American Pro Jazzmaster sounds? Join us for this in-depth demo.

On the Jaguars (maple, rosewood), he changed the function of the cage, the metal structure around the bottom of the pickup as a part of the magnetic field because the original ones are steel. The cage around a Jag pickup essentially funnels most of the magnetic field back towards the strings, which makes it louder, but also pretty darn bright. He changed that cage to nickel silver so it's still shielded. That took some of the edge off the Jaguar pickup.

Audition all of the sounds of the Fender American Professional Jaguar electric guitar series.

So, basically what we've done at this point is stripped down a bunch of stuff that was archaic and really interesting technically, but not really useful for most of the guys who were going to play this thing. And I think they're wonderful guitars. I think that the Jazzmaster is a really clean thing. We obviously improved the way the trems work, too, which didn't hurt. I'm a huge fan of vintage Jazzmasters, but I really like this new one.

The HUB: And so do we! Thanks so much for your time today, Tim.

TS:  It was a pleasure.