Trade Secrets!

How to rewind a 1959 Strat pickup

Issue 77 December 25, 2008

Photo: 1959 Strat Rewinding the coil

Vintage pickup repair

This 1959 Strat has a dead pickup: no sound at all from the single-coil at the neck position. What I'm about to do could lower the value by thou$ands — yikes!

Erick Coleman, December 24, 2008
Photo: Erick Coleman
Why isn’t this pickup making any sound?
I’m hoping the pickup itself is okay—maybe it’s just that a control pot or switch needs cleaning. So I started by using switch cleaner on the pots and switches.

Hmmm... still no sound. It looks like the problem is the pickup itself. Dang!

DoxIT Pot & Switch Cleaner
These days a Strat like this has such high resale value that I don’t want to mess with the components any more than I have to. Buyers, players and collectors don’t like to see pots that have had their original solder joints broken, so I don’t want to remove the pickup by unsoldering its wires at the control pots. I’ll do my soldering work right at the flatwork of the pickup itself, where it’s less obvious:
Photo: removing the pickup
Before actually disconnecting anything, I heated the solder lugs on the flatwork (the points where the coil wires are soldered to the wiring harness). I’m hoping one of these has a cold solder joint or a short that could be revived by reflowing the solder.
Sometimes this trick works, so I’m hoping for the best and using a low-wattage soldering iron (25 watt) to prevent damaging the nearly 50-year-old bobbins and lead wires.
Photo: wiring harness
Still no luck. The pickup’s silent. This is going to be major surgery after all. The vintage value of this pickup could go down by thousands of dollars because of the work I’m about to do (yikes!), but it’s the lesser of two evils: a vintage pickup doesn’t do anybody any good if it’s dead!

Vintage Pushback Wire
I’m not the first to poke a soldering iron into this wiring. The green wire in the photo above isn’t original: it’s an unnecessary ground that someone added. Maybe he/she didn’t realize that the parts are grounded simply by being in contact with the foil shielding on the pickguard.
Photo: hot tip
TIP: Watch out for shrinking pickguards!
Vintage celluloid shrinks over the years. We’ve all seen misaligned screw holes on these old pickguards as a result. Removing the pickups allows their mounting holes to shrink: I’ve known vintage pickguards to contract so quickly that it was hard to reinstall pickups less than an hour after removing them! To prevent shrinkage, fasten the guard back on the guitar as soon as the pickup is removed.

Guitar Tech Screwdriver Set
Photo: Golden Age Prewired Pickguards
Golden Age Prewired Pickguards
Authentic sound, great looks, low price, and NO SOLDERING! Use a small screwdriver for the only connection needed. Wired by hand here in Ohio USA, using our acclaimed Golden Age pickups.

Photo: cutting the coil wire

Photo: unwrapping the coil
There was actually some damage to the outer wraps of the coil. I had hoped that simply unwinding the coil past the damaged area and reconnecting the lead would get me back in business. I cut the finish wrap loose and unwound the bobbin to see what I could find.

Some old Fender single-coils were potted in lacquer, making them very difficult to unwind. Most however were potted with wax, so they’re relatively easy to peel.

TIP: If you hit a sticky spot while rewinding a wax-potted pickup, hold the bobbin over a lightbulb to soften the wax so you can unwind it without breaking the wire.

Start wrap,
finish wrap:

The start wrap runs under the coil. The finish wrap is the end of the coil wire that winds onto the outer surface.
Photo: empty bobbin

Photo: pickup winding
After unwinding a few thousand winds by hand I still hadn’t uncovered the problem, so kept going and removed all of the wire. At the very end the problem revealed itself: the start wrap had broken and corroded deep inside the coil.

With all of the coil wire removed, I made sure there were no sharp edges, excess wax, or blobs of solder on the flatwork. Any of these could snag the coil wire during the rewind.

A quick trip to the winder, and the rewound pickup is ready to be potted.

Parts Kit for Strat Pickup

Schatten Pickup Winder

Vintage accuracy: When working on vintage components, accuracy is important. So use vintage parts to retain the value of the guitar. On most pickups, I use poly-coated Schatten coil wire for its consistency, durability and overall clear sound, but to match this 1959 pickup I’m using an old spool of plain enamel-coated wire that Dan Erlewine had kicking around his shop. A blast from the past!

Pickup Coil Wire

Photo: wax potting

The pickup was potted in a 80/20% mixture of canning paraffin/beeswax for about 15 minutes. I used a glue pot as a double boiler, and it worked perfectly.

Photo: finished pickup

Soaking the pickup in hot wax to prevent loose wires within the coil.

Electric Glue Pot
Photo: rewiring the pickup
Back in business!
The pickup works again! Before soldering it, I protected the coil with a temporary cover of cloth pickup tape. To stay true to the original, the cloth tape will come off before the pickup cover goes on. (I wonder if this coil might never have been damaged if the factory had chosen to use protective tape?)

Pickup Coil Tape
To keep the tape from sticking to the coil wires, I folded it back on itself so both sides were non-stick. This made a good “bib” for the pickup to wear during the soldering.

This vintage beauty is back in business with a minimum of invasive repairs — this Strat’s value stays in the stratosphere!
Erick Coleman signature

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