- General Description
- Colours Explained
- Nickel vs. Brass!
These are what you’d probably call “standard” humbuckers covers – in that they have 6 holes down one side to accommodate the pole screws that are poking up through the top – and I think it’s safe to say it’s the look we think of when we talk about covered humbuckers – that Honey burst Gibson® Les Paul®, immaculately polished, all the chrome** hardware sparkling under the lights, and as a final touch of call, covered humbuckers! Beautiful!
Now, in reality, Humbuckers are a little more than being just cosmetic additions – so for the sake of honesty, we’ll break this write up down into a few parts so its simpler – and by the time we’ve finished, we should have ticked off a couple of the more common questions, as well as helping to figure out what size and colour you need.
So lets get straight into it.
Humbuckers nowadays come in a baffling range of sizes – and when we say sizes, we specifically mean pole (also called String) Spacing – and that refers to the measurement between the Top and bottom E poles, centre to centre. Obviously, you need the correct size to match your humbuckers – so here goes!
The history of the variations is a bit of a strange one frankly, the original humbuckers where all 49.2mm (or, if you prefer Imperial, 1 119/127”) – Gibson® made the design popular sometime in the 50s, so it might be a bit of a sweeping statement, but as a rough guide – the originals are all 49.2mm.
Fender® eventually moved into Humbuckers (if we conveniently skip over the wide range humbuckers of the early 1970s!) sometime in the late 70s/ early 80s, and to accommodate for their wider string spacing at the bridge, they opted for 52mm pole spacing.
So alongside Gibson and Fenders developments (or possibly foreshadowing them) you have the aftermarket manufacturers who are also making humbuckers as direct replacements – and generally, they offer a “wide” and “narrow” version – the widest for Fender® and the narrows for Gibson® (and that excludes the Tokai®, Epiphone®, Ibanez® guitars – but lets not get too far into that!)
So as a very rough guide, here goes! A few brands we know about, and what fits what!
DiMarzio® – Standard– 48.6mm, F Spacing – 51.05mm
Gibson®* – Historic - 49.2mm, Modern– 52mm Bridge, 49.2mm Neck
Seymour Duncan® – Standard - 49.2mm, Trembucker® 52.5mm**
Artec Sounds – Neck – 50mm, Bridge – 52mm
G&B - Neck – 50mm, Bridge – 52mm
Rosewell Pickups® - Neck – 50mm, Bridge – 52mm
Ibanez ® - Neck – 50mm, Bridge – 52mm (Excluding models fitted with US made DiMarzio® Humbuckers)
Fender®* – 52mm
Wilkinson® - Neck – 50mm, Bridge – 52mm
Axesrus® - we do things a bit weird, because it’s all hand wound to order – but as a general rule, we do 49.2mm, 50mm, 52mm and 53mm…(we don’t link string spacing to position)
*Just watch out with Fender® and Gibson® - they’re the mega companies in all this, so there are a lot of them out there, and more than a few anomalies – I’ve seen Gibson
® 57s with 52mm pole spacing, and I’ve seen Fender® enforcers coming in at 49.2mm – rough guides are fine, but they’re no match for using a ruler on your pickup!
**All Trembucker® humbuckers are a little strange – whilst the spacing isn’t that strange – the bobbins used to achieve it, are – they’re actually larger than a standard humbuckers (and I mean all standard humbuckers!) – so our covers won’t fit a Trembucker®
But yeah – I think that covers the worst of it! As I remember more, I’ll add them to the list!
So we know what the things made of, and we’ve got a good idea of what size we need! How do we fit them?! Well – the unavoidable answer is by soldering them to the base of the humbuckers. I wish it wasn’t the case, but it really is the best way to do it!
An ungrounded cover (that’s basically what you’re soldering them for) is prone to act as an antenna that will pick up every scrap of interference in and around the guitar – so as well as acting as a solid point to affix the thing; it also saves you from ending up with a noisy pickup.
Its not too bad a job really – you need to raise the screw poles a little on the pickup, remove the cloth backed tape around the edge of the bobbins , and port the cover into its final position over the pickup. Mark the centre points on either side (between the D and G poles is usually a good spot – but no need to be accurate), remove the cover, and sand down to expose the nickel underneath the plating and copper.
Once you’re through, you can put the cover back in place, and solder in in place, and you’re job done – securely mounted, and grounded.
Now, there’s also the contentious matter of wax potting – I’m going to stick my neck on the line and say “yes, you will definitely need to re-pot a pickup once you’ve fitted a cover” – but I know full well, its not strictly true. Chances are your coils are already potted pretty well, and you’ll be fine if you don’t… but we all know that we don’t live in a perfect world – so if you do notice your pickup is feeding back more often with covers fitted, then it might be time to research wax potting. (I’ll skip the intricate details for now)
Right – this is the fun part! The purely cosmetic part where its completely up to you what you go for! (No tech support required!) We’re really just including this to make sure there’s no confusion when it comes to the more subtle differences.
It is what it is – fairly low karat gold is usually the case when it comes to plating (at least outside of jewellery) – interestingly, the variation between different parts in gold comes down to the karat of gold used in the plating – the darker, more orange gold colours come from higher quality gold. Ours are fairly middle of the road “guitar part gold” to be honest. Worth nothing that whilst gold normally wont tarnish, it will get dirty, and cleaning gold plate is the very devil, because its soft and thin (we’ve all seem gold humbuckers where the platings rubbed off – that’s why! Its not that its cheap gold, or “not gold” (granted, its low karat usually)) – it’s possible to just rub straight through most gold plate with a bit of force and abrasion. So go for gold (all gold, not just our humbuckers covers – but anything gold plated!) with caution – looks great, but If its getting used and abused every day, it’s going to show its age.
Black is Black – it’s commonly thought to be power coating or painted, but it is actually Electroplating (in a fashion anyway), and as such, offers all the benefits/drawbacks there within – it’s actually a process that causes oxidisation of the base material (that copper layer) which is then converted into Cupric Oxide. Its not exactly common with humbuckers covers, but it looks fantastic as long as you keep it clean!
These are just the unfinished covers, no copper under plate, no electroplate, as pure as they come – just a shaped hunk of German silver, completely with little tool marks and scuffs from manufacture. A nice little part to use as a “ready made” relic, but they can be polished up with a metal polish to a mirror shine. Without an electroplating, they age very quickly – so aftera year or two of serious playing, expect to see that zebra stripe pattern where you’ve hit the cover with your pick, but never under the strings.
You’ll see Cosmo being called “Black Nickel” or “Ruthenium” – but its all the same thing, a sort of gun metal grey, somewhere between Chrome and Black. Really nice colour, and often turns up on Ibanez® guitars, but its very rare as a humbuckers cover colour. It’s a fairly stable element though, decent scratch and wear resistance, and not overly reactive, so it won’t tarnish too easily. Again, just like black – got to keep it clean – it shows up finger prints.
Chrome & Nickel
Now Chrome and Nickel are a strange one – you ask 90% of guitarists what colour hardware they’ve got on their guitar, and they’ll answer ”chrome” – but it’s actually much rarer then you think (or at least it was, its becoming more common because it’s a great material for plating!) – High wear resistance, good scratch resistance, and very little reaction to acids (that’d be our sweaty hands!) – It’s a great choice if you like silver.
Weirdly though, it wasn’t really used until recently – most “silver” hardware you’ll see on guitars before the 1990s, will have been nickel plated. Not a clue as to why. It’s not too tricky a job to ID though if you’re in any doubt. Chrome has a certain blue tint to it – think about a screw driver, a pair of pliers, that’s chrome plate. Nickel has a slightly more yellowy tint to it, if you’re looking for examples – normally turns up on more decorative stuff, but if you’re struggling, the low strings on your guitar will be nickel wound.
Right - the age old debate! Brass Vs. Nickel! Time to don the Flak jacket and get this laid out as straight as possible.
Basically, (and we've been as guilty as anyone else in this) it is a commonly held belief that a brass base and/or cover on a humbucker was simply a sign of a cheap pickup - the cover especially! "its a cheap material!", "it sucks out top end!", "it colours the tone!"
And Nickel? (or German silver - bit of an archaic name, but handy for avoiding confusion with the colour of the electroplating!) - its gods gift to the audiophile right? "Its tonal pure!" "You dont lose anything!" "It doesn't change the sound!" "You get more sustain!"
And this is pretty widely accepted too - good pickups - nickel, cheap pickups - brass!
BUT - it’s not really that cut and dry believe it or not.
Everything we believe about brass, is 100% true! Let’s start off with that comforting little fact! They do suck out top end, and it is cheaper, but, that’s not nesecerilly a bad thing! Brass covers (and bases!) can be used to temper a pickup.
So, we’ve made this little graph on the spectrum analyser! 2 graphs, one ontop of the other, both showing the frequencies being produces by the same coils and magnet, on either base, with either cover (or without)
Its worth knowing the specs on the pickup itself too. Its nothing overly flash – probably something we’ve all tried over the years – its 8K, 42 AWG Plain enamel, Rough cast Alnico 2 bad magnet, in the traditional style, 6 slug poles, 6 screw, and its all in an Epiphone® Les Paul, with a 10 strings.
I’ll upload the recordings too hopefully next week, and you can hear the difference next to the graphs – but for the time being, the graph makes some interesting reading.
We can see that brass bases vs nickel actually makes very little difference on its own – theres a slight boost in the low end range, between 100 & 500 hz with brass (so a brass base isn’t actually sucking out top end, its actually boosting low end a little!) – but, atleast in this case, with a vintage spec humbuckers, there isn’t a world of difference.
UNTIL – we add a cover! Then things get interesting.
Adding in a brass cover to brass base completely hammers the signal – everything becomes compressed – with a very noticeable “suck” between the 1Khz and 20 Khz range – when its said “brass sucks out top end” – it does! Sucks out a lot of mid range too – frequency range between 1 and 5 Khz is “prime guitar”!
The effect is still happening with brass on a nickel base, but its actually a little more subtle – and its actually quite pleasant to be honest. You’re losing a lot of the 5-20khz range, but that’s not that desirable a frequency range (its that weird “driving down a gravel path” sound) – so whilst brass on brass is a bit…well… its not great, its heavily colouring the tone. Brass on nickel? Actually pretty useful if you’ve got a really nasal humbuckers that needs taming.
Nickel on Nickel, for me atleast, was my favourite – we see a slight boost in the same range that brass/brass sucked out – and in this instance, its actually very pleasing – we see less transients in the graph too – the jumps between the peaks and troughs are a little smaller, a little more gradual, and that corresponds with the tone of the thing too – it did, honestly, feel, a smoother pickup.
Nickel cover on brass base, is probably the weirdest of the bunch for me- knowing that nickel and brass bases behave the same without a cover, both have a “compressed” signal with a brass cover, and nickel on nickel results in a boost across all frequencies – defying all logic, having a nickel cover on brass? That compresses the signal again, but it’s fairly uniform – there isn’t any real loss of any specific frequency range – its just all a little bit quieter.