Whilst Fender’s Made in Japan Vintage Reissue Stratocasters were carrying non-authentic pickups with moulded plastic bobbins by the late 1980s, the Telecasters continued to sport trad-spec pickups. Or so it would seem, looking at this bog-standard early 1990s bridge unit from an MIJ reissue. The features will surely be familiar to all Tele fans... A separate fibre top and bottom plate, held in place by six alnico V magnetic pole-pieces, then wound with coil wire, wrapped in black string, wax-dipped, and appended with that familiar slab of copper underneath. So, is this pickup as good as it looks? Does it have the exact spec of a real vintage Telecaster pickup, or is this a book which shouldn’t be judged by its cover?
Whilst the MIJ ‘vintage’ Strat pickup of this era looked alien in relation to the original, it did sound pretty convincing. But this Tele pickup, to an extent, has the opposite characteristics. It certainly looks, at least at a glance, fairly well in keeping with an old pre-CBS model. Soundwise, however, it’s significantly thinner, much brighter, and noticeably lower in volume than the pickup it’s meant to repicate. Why? Because beneath that wax-saturated string, it has fewer coil windings than a real vintage Tele bridge unit.
In fact, whilst what you see in the photo is unmistakably Telecaster in terms of image, it’s essentially wound as a generous 1950s Strat pickup. It has a resistance (strongly related to the number of windings) of around 6.5K ohms. A pre-CBS Telecaster pickup would have a higher resistance, typically somewhere between 6.8K and 8K. But a ‘50s Strat pickup would measure somewhere between 6K and 6.5K. So with this MIJ Tele unit, you have a coil spec which falls within Strat territory. Accordingly, you get that very bright, Strat-type treble and lighter midrange. Of course, this doesn’t mean the MIJ Tele will sound like a Strat. Changes in the magnetic field brought about by the metal bottom plate, in combination with the physically quite different construction of the Telecaster as compared with a Strat, will mean that in its native guitar, this pickup produces a very bright and semi-scooped Tele sound rather than a classic Strat sound. However, it’s not, by default, a vintage Tele tone, and on that basis one would have to describe the pickup as inaccurate when evaluating it as a replica.
CAN THIS PICKUP SOUND ‘VINTAGE’?
The easiest way to address the excess brightness is to roll off some treble using the guitar’s tone control. This definitely brings the tone into the 'vintage Tele' ballpark when the instrument is played clean. However, when you start to crank the guitar into overdrive, the deficiency in coil windings becomes more of a serious problem. Firstly, there’s a volume shortage, which means the pickup won’t push the amp as hard as an original Tele. You can try to compensate for that by moving the pickup closer to the strings, but these are relatively strong alnico V pole-pieces, so if you go too close you’ll get undesirable ‘wolf tones’, caused by the pull of the magnets adversely affecting the string-vibration. Secondly, the pickup has comparatively little poke in the midrange, and the midrange is where overdrive sounds are made or broken. Short of employing an EQ effect to boost some of the mids slightly between guitar and amp, this is something it’s very difficult to do anything about. Rolling off some treble definitely helps, but you do need that midrange kick to really capture the personality of an old pre-CBS Tele.
Not all of the MIJ Vintage Reissue Teles had these under-wound lead pickups. Going back into the 1980s, the earlier models (or at least some of them) had authentically-wound units. Exactly when the spec was changed, and for how long after that the remains of the old spec jobs were still appearing, I don’t know. But my 1985 ’62 Custom Tele reissue had an authentic spec bridge pickup, and the corresponding model I bought in 1989 (which I still have) also has a bridge pickup with that higher (correct) resistance. However, the trouble I had trying to replace my original ’85 MIJ Custom Tele with one that sounded the same in ’89, suggests that by the end of the ‘eighties the under-wound pickups were in widespread use, and I was just lucky to eventually find an exception. I also can’t be sure when the Tele I bought in ’89 was made. I bought it new, but it could have been lingering around in the small music shop for quite some time. There's more on my '80s MIJ Teles on the link below if you're interested in that story...
Fender MIJ '62 Telecaster Reissue
So it’s evidently worth asking for the pickup spec if you’re buying an old MIJ Telecaster reissue – particularly one from the 1980s. That extra 1,000 ohms of resistance does make a difference. This pickup looks great (apart from the thin plastic connection wire), and it sounds perfectly okay too. It’s well made, the wax-saturation seems very solid, and there’s no hint of microphonic whistle. But sadly, its personality is too hi-fi and polite to be mistaken for a ‘50s or early ‘60s job. To quote Catchphrase's Roy Walker, a TV host at the height of his popularity when this pickup was made: “It’s good, but it’s not right”.
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