Trade Secrets!

How to rewind a 1959 Strat pickup


Issue 77 December 25, 2008

Vintage pickup repair

1959 Strat

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!


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.

Switch cleaner

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

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:

Removing the pickup

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.

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!

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.

Wiring harness

TIP: Watch out for shrinking pickguards!

Hot Tip

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.


Check It Out!

No soldering! Only a screwdriver

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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.

Cutting the coil wire

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.

Unwrapping 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.

Start and Finish

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.

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.

Empty bobbin

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.

Pickup winding

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!


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.

Wax potting

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?)

Finsihed pickup

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.

Rewiring the pickup

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

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