Interview with Jim Wagner of WCR Pickups
WCR Pickups have grown in popularity over the past few years among guitar players who like the sound of the old vintage PAFs, but want to avoid the high cost and inconsistencies of the originals. We wanted to know more about their philosophy. The following is an email interview conducted between Brian Scherzer and Jim Wagner of WCR Pickups on August 2, 2008.
Brian: I wanted to interview you about your design philosophy and various pickups because I know a lot of “old school” blues and rock players who use WCR pickups. What motivated you to think about making pickups?
Jim: I feel my style of tone fits right in here, as old school tone is what got me on this journey, one that I would never expected to be on years ago. The Allman Brother Band is what really tweaked my interest at first, specifically the Live at Fillmore East album. Nothing like it before, or since. If you listen close, it is fairly easy to tell that Betts was under wound, and Allman was over wound. Fantastic tones both. I was also always fascinated by Clapton, Toy Caldwell, etc. I used to have P-90s in my ‘69 SG Special, and used them for years playing all that kind of music in a West Coast Band called the Next Exit Band, which became Ground Zero just before I left it. Still, those tones haunted me and I decided to get rid of the excessive noise caused by P-90s in the clubs and bars. I routed the guitar, installed a set of buckers, didn’t like them, got another set, liked them even less and decided this could get REAL expensive. So, I bought a roll of wire and here I am today, still winding…..and winding….and winding!
Brian: Tell me about the beginning of your pickup journey.
Jim: Trying to get the tones I wanted with conventional materials proved to be elusive. People (mostly other players) started to notice my tones, and would ask me to help them get better stuff out of their axes, and then they even started to PAY me for it. Still not satisfied, one day I just went radical. I was looking for that hot slide tone of Duane’s from that Fillmore album, and just couldn’t get it. I tried everything….amps, speakers, effects, all to no avail. So I finally decided to do everything I shouldn’t. Different wire, different insulation, different mags and mag cuts, different potting material and application of, patterns, tensions, all different. Bingo, there it was!
Brian: Did you get a sense back then that you had something extra to offer people that would lead to this becoming your career?
Jim: Those first few pickups I made really opened my eyes, and I saw that I could get a LOT of different old, much desired tones using all new materials and recipes. I had by then so many thousands of hours in time and un-believable amounts of wire behind me allowing me to pretty much get any tone I really wanted that I usually know what a pickup will sound like before I even wind it. It takes time. There are a lot of new guys out there that think their stuff is good, but experience and practice trumps all in my book. You develop your own "fingerprint’ after a long time. You can get two guys to hand-wind, give them the same specs, same materials, same machinery, and they will sound different. I have been very, very lucky that a lot of players like my fingerprint. Humbling to say the least.
Brian: It seems that you really went after the PAF-style pickup as a specialty. How did this lead to your pickup design philosophy?
Jim: Since the early pickups found on vintage guitars were so random, I always have to smile when someone calls and tell me they want something that sounds like a PAF. We can only answer with: "Which one of thousands are you talking about?" Think about it. They had machines without counters, at least 4 different magnet types (tons of them were cheap rejects), inconsistent wire (which they finally quit using), MANY different operators, even varying voltages from the public utilities (which affects motor RPMs, especially back then), etc. Just look at the D.C. readings they (PAFs) had. Anywhere from 6.5k, to over 10k. Sound consistent to you? Wire tensions? Patterns? Another guess at best. Some sounded great, but most are just expensive junk. So, I just started trying to replicate the GOOD tones that people are familiar with.
Brian: How do you figure out how to provide customers with what they want, since there are so many variables in the vintage pickups?
Jim: Once someone tells me the general style they want to sound like, I can get them right in the ballpark. The rest is usually just minor tweaks, if any at all, with different mags and guitar electronics, all of which I carry on site. Generally, I ask if they like to play mostly clean (lower powered pups), fatter (mid to upper mid with #42 gauge wire) using pedals or high gain amps, or, do they just want to rock hard with minimal pedal usage (high output stuff, like the Iron Man) in which case you can almost throw out the pre-amp. When I am designing a new pickup, it is usually because a lot of people write and ask if I have something that sounds like such and such, or resembles this or that artist. People are always surprised just how much they can alter their sound and, in the long run, save a lot of money just by getting the pickups they need.
Brian: What would you tell readers about the basics of deciding if what they really need to get their specific tone is a new set of pickups?
Jim: Pickups are the root of the sound. If you don’t like the way your pickups sound, you will never be satisfied with the final tone because anything you add in between axe and amp trying to achieve it, is just adding extra noise into that sound envelope. Very frustrating. I know it was for me.
Brian: What do you believe that people need to think about before ordering a set of new pickups? Can you describe some of your pickup sets and what led you to create them?
Jim: To get what you want, you just have to know how hard do you want to drive, or how clean do you want to be? Pickups are just small AC generators, and the outputs are designed for what your needs are. The hotter the pup, the harder it will bang the front of the amp. Hotter will break up sooner, weaker will be cleaner. Some ranges will be mid-scooped, some will be mid-heavy. Different mags will make the same pickup coil(s) sound different. Weaker ones are softer, and the stronger they are, the more articulate they will get with more highs, stronger tighter lows, etc. It may seem like there are just way too many choices and make you wonder where to start. That’s why I do what I do. Refer to commonly known tones. The rest of the custom tailoring is easy after that. A funny thing about a lot of my sets. Almost all of them are good for most styles of music. It just depends on whether you want to play clean, or drive the hell outta them. For example, the BetSet…. very low-powered set of buckers, they do clean VERY well, and so are suitable for most jazz players that play clean. And even though the Fillmores are actually a hi-output pickup, I still have some jazz guys that prefer them. That made me realize that for jazz, there are a LOT of different flavors involved, and there appears to be no single favorite set for those guys. Here is some info on most of the WCR pickup sets and what led to their design.
The BetSet - Interesting story on those. I have a friend in Germany, Udo Pipper, who already had several of my sets. He actually got access to the Betts-Toler axe and had it for a couple of months. He sent me a CD that had all the info on the axe inside and out. That CD was all that I could ever possibly hope for. Combining the info with my already established knack for replicating tones, the BetSet was born. Those are all Udo uses anymore in his #1, offing his PAFs as just not good enough by comparison. They not only do the Betts tone perfectly, but I have rockers getting good AC/DC tones, and even heavy metallist, Jon Schaffer, used them on his last album. Great honkers!
The Crossroads set - After the Fillmore set came out, I had quite a few guys wanting me to do a more widely used PAF type of pickup in 42 gauge wire. Most notably a member of The Gear Page, Muddy (Michael Lawrence). He had tried the Fillmores, but they just weren't exactly what he was looking for either. Mick sent me some WOF recordings (so did friend Jeff Fleglar-Weldaar) and after some close listening, out came the Crossroads set. VERY similar to the BetSet except that the BetSet's bridge is wound slightly less than the neck and the Crossroads bridge is wound slightly MORE than the neck.
The DarkBurst set - Just going for some more of, although a different Duane Allman, sound. The DarkBurst set specs came right off that tobacco burst itself. They are a slightly overwound version of the Crossroads.
The Godwood set - The 42 gauge beast itself. That was an experiment to see just how much 42 gauge I could get on a bridge pickup and still have room to pot, pigtail, and tape. Since it's latest up-grade, it has turned out to be the very favorite WCR bridge of all, and the majority of guys like to use the Crossroads Neck with it, which is called the American Steele set by name when ordering. Used by such widely ranging different groups like the Marshall Tucker Band, Buckcherry, Iced Earth and others, this set pretty much does it all. It is my personal favorite!
The Fillmore set - That was the one that took off and started it all. I was looking to get that hot Duane slide tone. Once I achieved that with this set, it pretty much set the stage for how I designed and built pickups ever since. Different wire, insulation, tension, speed, patterns, potting material and application, etc. I got a lot of flak at first when I made my first claims about them, but after a couple of guys got some (Weldaar being the 1st ever to buy a set), they did a very nice online review, and CharlieS did the "Stormy" clip on my site. That was it! I quit my regular work as a Millwright. Carol quit her job to help solder, take care of advertising, accounting and inventory. We have been doing this ever since.
The IceBuckers set - These were the result of working with Iced Earth's Jon Schaffer. He had until then used the Godwoods in a very nice McNaught axe, but wanted to be more percussive and articulate, while still staying nice and fat. It was a tough recipe to figure out. In fact, this was the hardest set for me to get right yet. They are a very good vintage-style pickup, and when run through a hi-gain amp they distort very well, but without muddying the sound up at all.
The Moore-Green set – Designing these was a lot of fun. Thanks go to Roy from RS Guitarworks. He allowed me to share a booth with him at the Dallas Show a couple of years ago. Lucky for me, that axe was on display there. The real mind-bender was when I was asked if I wanted to personally check it out by a member of The Gear Page, Douglas Fairweather. I got my picture with it (by Doug again) and, like the BetSet, got all the info I needed to replicate that sound. Doug got the first set and, after they placed the pickups in a similar axe, they could not distinguish the tone of one axe from the other.
The IronMan set - This is the one that seems to surprise people the most. With a bridge at 22k, and a neck at 18k, plus Ceramic8 mags in both, they just do not have the limitations expected of them. Although they have a very high output, they are one of the most controllable pickups you'd ever use. They even clean up VERY well, and are a gas when it comes to splitting, series-parallel, etc. They are made with the lightest gauge wire I use. I started making those when good friend and brother, Jason Santy (the Tatooed Carrot), called me one day with the DC specs. I just figured out what wire and mags would go with them best, and wound them WCR style. The IronMan set are some real sleepers. When you crank them you will get a big surprise!
For more information about WCR Pickups visit their website.