One of the little facets of Fender trivia not so widely known by younger guitarists, is that before 1998, the USA Vintage Reissue ’57 and ’62 Stratocasters carried a different design of pickup from the one they carry today. In fact, Fender’s old ’57 & ’62 Vintage Stratocaster pickup, taken from those earlier (1982-1998) USA reissue guitars, was the first replacement Fender unit to be routinely stocked by guitar shops in the UK. It initially appeared not in sets of three, but packaged individually, at a very, very low price – about half the going rate of the Seymour Duncan equivalent. But the Fender '57 & '62's price rose quite markedly as the pickup's reputation soared, and by summer 1994, it was selling at somewhere between £38 and £39.95, versus the Seymour Duncan SSL-1's typical retail figure of £42.95. The gap had almost closed, but big changes lay ahead for Fender's Vintage Stratocaster pickup. For better, or for worse?...
In this piece, I’m going to look back at the first, pre-1998 version of the Fender USA Vintage Stratocaster ’57 & ’62 reissue pickup - part number 99-2043-000. Along the way, I'll be comparing it with the current Fender ’57/’62 – part number 099-2117-000.
The differences between the old model and the new model leave no doubt as to which is which. The old version was wound with plain enamel-coated coil wire, whereas the current version uses formvar-insulated wire. Formvar is accurate for a 1957 and 1962 Strat, whereas plain enamel wouldn’t have been found on a Strat pickup until the latter part of 1963 at the earliest. So as regards the type of coil wire, the current ’57/’62 is more authentic than the pre-1998 version. The other clearly evident difference is that the tops of the pole-pieces on the current ’57/’62 pickups are very heavily bevelled, whilst the poles on the old ’57 & ’62 reissue pickups were not bevelled at all. Pre-CBS Strat pickups did have bevelled poles, but the chamfer was only very subtle – certainly not as pronounced as the bevelling on the current ’57/’62 units. To me, the extent of the bevelling on the current ’57/’62 looks overdone, and the old ’57 & ‘62, with no bevelling at all, looks more in keeping with a real 1957 or 1962 Strat pickup, despite still being inaccurate.
The pre-1998 version of the Fender USA '57 & '62 Vintage Stratocaster pickup had unchamfered poles, a dark maroon plain enamel coil, and more windings than the current version, creating a higher electrical resistance. This one is slightly modified, but retains the basic look.
But all this nitpicking over a bevel overlooks the fact that the entire concept of a Strat pickup which replicates both 1957 and 1962 units, is flawed. Simply, 1957 pickups were different from 1962s. In 1957, Strat pickups were ‘hand-wound’, and that meant the coils would be randomly wrapped, with the turns crossing over each other and varying in tightness – often producing quite abstract bulges in the shape of the finished coil. Conversely, in 1962, Strat pickups were fully machine wound, and this created a more uniform and predictable coil. Typically, a 1962 Strat pickup would also have a different number of turns from a 1957. Would all this affect the sound? Absolutely!
So whatever Fender had done with this pickup, it would be a compromise of sorts. But let’s now sideline the question of obsessive authenticity, forget about comparing versions, and find out how the pre-1998 Fender Vintage Stratocaster ’57 & ’62 reissue pickup actually sounded…
Well, the output level was classic Strat. With a coil resistance of around 6 kilo-ohms, and a set of alnico V pole-pieces, the pickup really couldn’t have had a more typical basic spec. The alnico as new was not ‘aged’ (demagnetised) in any way, so the tone was, out of the box, bright with a very detailed top end. Great if you’re a brilliantly accurate guitarist who likes playing clean, and your Strat has had a professional setup. If you’re not quite so accurate, and your guitar has a bit of fret-buzz here and there, let’s just say your audience is gonna know about it. A very zingy top end also makes getting the best overdrive sounds more difficult. But the tone is very pretty, and not prone to sounding nasal like the Texas Special bridge pickup.
In fact, the lack of a slight upper-midrange ‘spike’ is what always, for me, made this pickup sound less ‘vintage’ than the Fender Japan staggered alnico Strat pickup of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The Japanese pickup was a lot cheaper, not as well made, in no way authentic in appearance, and it didn’t have a wax-potted coil like this USA job. But it did have that mildly aggressive poke in the upper mids, which seems to characterise real pre-CBS Strat pickups.
I’ve heard the current ‘57/’62 pickups on other people’s guitars, but I haven’t had a chance to try them on one of my own Strats for a direct comparison with the old, pre-1998 versions. However, the current ‘57/’62 has a lower resistance than the old one. Today’s incarnation is specified at 5.6K, and that’s inherently going to give a noticeably more glassy and thin sound than the former version, with its greater number of windings pushing the resistance up to around 6K. The thicker insulation on the ‘new’ version’s formvar coil wire would compensate very slightly for the lower number of wraps, but with magnet strength like for like, the old unit should still sound more substantial and sweet than the new one. That seems to be evidenced in what I’ve heard, but obviously I can’t categorically confirm anything without having tested both variants on the same instrument.
For now, then, I’ll be sticking with my old version ’57 & ’62s. With decades of ageing behind them, they seem to have lost a touch of brightness, and that suits me very well. I suspect in comparison that a set of the current ’57/’62s would be a bit too ‘breaking window’ in tonality for my liking.
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