What makes a Charlie Christian pickup a Charlie Christian pickup?

Discussion in 'Pickups' started by SpinWheelz, Feb 24, 2009.

  1. SpinWheelz

    SpinWheelz Senior Member

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    Is it just the single rail/blade and the hexagon shape? Is it wound to a very specific fashion, or are there variations on what constitutes a Charlie Christian pickup?

    I've listened to Charlie Christian records, I've read descriptions to the tone, but I still don't understand what are the exact components which comprise a Charlie Christian pickup.

    Any insight to share? Cheers.
     
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  2. gmacdonnell

    gmacdonnell V.I.P. Member

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    It's not just the blade, but the whole construction and sound of the pickup.

    The originals used huge cobalt steel magnets, (the two long bars in the picture below.) They actually played a major role in holding not just the pickup together, but attaching it to the guitar's top.

    [​IMG]

    These magnets had to be so big, because cobalt steel magnets of the 30's were very low gauss, So even with those big magnets, there wasn't much magnetic force.

    The wire was 38 gauge(!) which is essentially, a huge wire. No one uses it nowadays, unless replicating this pickup. It's just too big.
    In fact it's so big, they couldn't get many wraps around the bobbin before it would be full.

    It was a revolutionary design, but not very efficient. It weighs 2 lbs., takes a long time to build, is particularly prone to breakdowns and noise.
    I've also heard that the cobalt steel magnets lose magnetism much more than in later pickup designs, (can't confirm that, though.)

    As a result of the wire and magnets, even though it was a huge pickup, it generally only had a DC resistance of 2.5-4k ohms, with plenty of examples reading around 1-1.5k.


    But the thing is, all these features combined to create a very unique sound. The appealing thing about the Charlie Christian pickup is that it has a lot of power and warmth, but also a lot of clarity and responsiveness. It doesn't have the output of a distortion pickup, but it does put out a good amount of volume, often comparable to a P-90 with a much higher DC reading.


    People compare them to P-90's in tone, and while this is true to some extent, to my ear, they're a much more complex tone with a greater frequency range and clarity. Some modern P-90's, (esp. Lollar's low-winds,) and single-coils like DeArmonds have some similar characteristics, but it's hard to find another pickup with the same combination of warmth and clarity.

    This is why so many jazz and blues players hold it in such high regard.

    What winders like Kent Armstrong, (I think he was first,) Pete Biltoft, Jason Lollar, and Dave Stephens, have managed to do, is to substitute strong, much smaller alnico magnets for the original steel bars.

    I'm sure there's a lot more work that goes into it, however, in order to maintain that unique tone and not turn it into a P-90 with a blade.


    Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, Oscar Moore, Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell, Herb Ellis, and many, many more are among the players who made it so famous. Gibson even offered it as an option for 20 years after they stopped using it on production models, and they brought it back in the 70's for the ES-175CC.

    In the 70's and 80's, Danny Gatton re-popularized it, and also showed it could be surprisingly versatile. It even sounds great with some overdrive. Lot's of guys like Redd Volkert, Vince Gill and other country and rockabilly players have discovered what a great neck pickup it makes

    It was also very influential on Bill Lawrence and Joe Barden, (and subsequently Seymour Duncan and Larry Dimarzio,) as far as design features and tone.

    Soloway guitars are often shipped with Biltoft's humbucker-sized Charlie Christian pickups, Soloway Guitars - Listen, they used to post a lot of mp3's to show off the different tones.

    In addition, there's a UK company that's producing incredible, very accurate vintage reproductions of the pickup: Charlie Christian Pickups - CC Pickups


    Hope this answered some of your questions. I've been a fan of this pickup since I was a boy: nothing else sounds quite like it.
    It's so nice that it's back, and in many different options.
    Pete Biltoft is even producing versions that fit in Strat, Tele and P-90 slots, with a choice of colors!:dude:

    Take care!:thumb:
    I
     
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  3. Liam

    Liam V.I.P. Member

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    One of the most informative replies I have ever read, to a question that I didn't even know I needed answering. Thanks, that was excellent!
     
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  4. SpinWheelz

    SpinWheelz Senior Member

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    That's brilliant, gmacdonnell. Thank you so much for the explanation. Does a proper Charlie Christian pickup need a unique pickup cavity? I'm not quite sure how the pickup is mounted to the body.

    Thanks again for the wealth of information, mate.
     
  5. 5F6-A

    5F6-A Senior Member

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    Gabriel..... you are ace!

    BTW, I adore those pickups, they sound like nothing else on Earth.
     
  6. gmacdonnell

    gmacdonnell V.I.P. Member

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    Glad it was helpful!

    Spinwheelz, to answer your question, yes the original pickup will require either a lot of routing to a solidbody or drilling and routing to a hollowbody in order to fit.

    The screws mounted to the magnets originally held the pickup to the top of archtops like the ES-150 (see below), and provided the only way to adjust it.
    [​IMG]

    But it was also used on lap steels by routing out more wood. The same idea was used by John Lennon's (apparently a big fan of the sound of CC pickups,) tech in the 70's on his Les Paul Jr.[​IMG]

    To hide the long magnets, the pickup was mounted in the back, and the assembly covered by a plate of plastic. [​IMG]

    When Danny Gatton started using the CC pickup, (and selling Teles with them mounted,) he hid the routing under the neck pickup, so it would appear pretty stock:[​IMG]

    But it obviously takes a lot of work to get the pickup to fit, and most people don't want to alter their guitars that much, so Jason Lollar started making CC pickups with smaller Alnico magnets that required far less routing. [​IMG]


    Seymour Duncan was probably the 1st winder to start reproducing the pickup, although because of the work involved, it's a custom-order pickup. He makes a vintage-accurate version of the pickup.

    It's only recently that Armstrong, Lollar, Stephens, and Pete Biltoft have figured out how to get the same characteristics in a smaller pickup, that would fit into standard routing.
    Here's a picture of Biltoft's CC Riders:[​IMG]


    I'm sure one of the main reasons this pickup was less well-known was because of the work required to install it. Hopefully now more players will appreciate the wonderful sound it produces.

    Take Care!
     
  7. gmacdonnell

    gmacdonnell V.I.P. Member

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  8. EEF13

    EEF13 Senior Member

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    aren't the CC's one of the lowest output Pickups?
     
  9. gmacdonnell

    gmacdonnell V.I.P. Member

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    They have a very low D.C. resistance, but are good proof that DC resistance is not very reliable as an indicator of tone or output.

    Like Bill Lawrence, and other engineers will tell you, inductance is a much better indicator. A Strat pickups is usually 2.1-2.5 Henries, a Paf around 4-4.5. A "distortion" pickup will be around 8, or even more.

    A Charlie Christian pickup, depending on the maker, will usually be in the 2.5-3.5 range, though some makers wind them hotter.

    In terms of volume, they're actually pretty loud, comparable to many P-90's.
    But it's a cleaner, clearer sound.

    :)
     
  10. 5F6-A

    5F6-A Senior Member

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    yummy!!!
     
  11. gmacdonnell

    gmacdonnell V.I.P. Member

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    True, a delicious pickup!:thumb:
     
  12. frankfalbo

    frankfalbo Senior Member

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    I feel the Charlie Christian is best when coupled with an on-board active EQ system like the STC-3 with Slap contour. Aside from the 3-bands of active EQ, the Slap contour, while made for slapping and popping bass style, augments the perfect frequencies for...

    PSYCH!:eek:

    :applause:

    I've seen Seymour make these, and honestly I don't know how they aren't $1000. So much goes into making them right. Some guys are using 2-3 ply with bevels, but Seymour is actually putting the binding on, both inside and outside. The hookup wire is actually old too. Seymour gets it from old product. It's pretty cool to see how it all comes together. So like if there's an old radio or something that has that wire in it, Seymour will take it out of there.

    I want so bad to put one of these in a solidbody, like that Lennon thing.
     
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  13. 5F6-A

    5F6-A Senior Member

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    you really freaked me out for a minute....
     
  14. gmacdonnell

    gmacdonnell V.I.P. Member

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    Thanks for the input Frank, and you did freak me out for a second as well. :thumb:


    I just bought an older Guitar Electronics book, and after reading it I'm going to edit my earlier post to mention that Seymour was probably the 1st guy to reproduce this pickup.

    And he's right, these pickups are an incredible amount of work to make, which I think is one of the main reasons they're less common.

    BTW, Frank, and insider info on whether Seymour has a CC pickup in a humbucker-size in the works? :hmm:
     
  15. Nigel Tufnel's tech

    Nigel Tufnel's tech Senior Member

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    1939 Individual blade CC.

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
     
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  16. frankfalbo

    frankfalbo Senior Member

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    That would be a lot of fun. It's a good concept but obviously requires compromises in the magnetic field, coil size, etc. For example take a look at VVG's specs,

    10,000 turns of 42 gauge enameled magnet wire is used for the bridge pickup
    8,500 of 42 gauge enameled magnet wire is used on the neck pickup


    That's probably a cool pickup, but has no correlation to a Charlie Christian, which uses 38AWG. That's more like what would go on a P90. Flip the equation around; you wouldn't call a pickup a "P.A.F" if it were wound with 38, right? I want to be very clear, I'm not saying there's anything "bad" about those pickups. Rightfully, he does say Charlie Christian "style" which is key. It's kind of the same thing that we do when we make a "Little 59, JB Jr, Li'l Screamin Demon, you know, like when someone wants a certain type of pickup in a different sized package. You have to make concessions. So maybe we do one but we call it the Little Charlie or something. Or maybe "The Chuck" :laugh2: I swear if any of you guys steal those names...:mad:

    The Custom Shop would take an order for such a product, but as for production, now you're talking about balancing size, material, and tooling etc. with cost, in such a way that you can have something that you're really proud of. That would take a bit of research. If it's a production pickup, it can't be $300, you know? But at the same time I'm not going to just make a Phat Cat with a blade and a fancy topper.
     
  17. gmacdonnell

    gmacdonnell V.I.P. Member

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    Hi Frank,
    All good points. I do think it's probably a tone of work for a pickup that's fairly limited in the number of guitarists who like it.

    As far as Pete Biltoft's (VVG) designs, he told me he uses those specs because the majority of his customer want something more like a P-90, but
    everything he does is custom wound, so he does the 38 gauge wire on request, if you want more a true Charlie Christian pickup sound.
    (Like your Custom Shop.)

    Of course, just the size and shape of the pickup has a big influence on the tone, and getting it into a smaller footprint would always be some sort of compromise, no matter who is winding it.

    BTW, I saw on the Custom Shop page what looked like a humbucking Charlie Christian. Now that would be interesting, if only I had the extra cash to try one out!

    I have to saw, for a company that's not just a couple guys winding in 1-room, Seymour Duncan (man and company) have a lot to be proud of.
    I don't think anyone can justifiably criticize their products quality, tone and their dedication to the art of pickup winding.

    With all the amazing boutique choices out there, plus companies like Duncan making stuff more accessible, it's the best time to be an electric player. No excuse for bad tone now!

    Of Frank, sorry to tell you, but Dave Stephens, (Stephen's Designs) already has a "Little Charley" pickup.
    But I like the "Chuck" idea: it's actually more clever!

    (P.S. Frank, have you ever seen the split coil, "Z" pickups Seymour made for Fender for their Japanese Venus XII about 10 years ago? All I know is they sound incredible, I actually think the pickups sound better than the original Fender XII pickups, I own a set of those, but they're not as warm, clear or sparkly.)


    Thanks Nigel: those are some awesome pictures!:thumb:
     
  18. 5F6-A

    5F6-A Senior Member

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    love this thread!!
     
  19. Sgt.Pepper

    Sgt.Pepper V.I.P. Member V.I.P. Member

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    Tuffie's Tech,
    is this pickup yours? I've never even seen a completely intact one like this (there's the bracket from one on ebay at the moment) and it's great to see these pics. Thanks.
     
  20. Nigel Tufnel's tech

    Nigel Tufnel's tech Senior Member

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    Not yet, That pickup is quite a find with the multi-bound edge + the parts. I was thinking of getting it but have nothing to put it in at the moment so i would be buying it for the sake of it.

    Here's another, I don't know the year but it's old, Pickup is said to have a reading of 7.2k.


    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]
     

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