The Crow: Charlie Christian Pickups

I’d been playing guitar for about six years when I first heard Charlie Christian. Of course, everything changed that day in 1970. It was no secret that many of my influences had been influenced by those who had come before them, but it was usually a reference to a 1950s player. My teacher, Mike Bloomfield, implored that I study Muddy. Jeff Beck went on about Cliff Gallup and Scotty Moore, and Keith Richards wasn’t bashful about citing Chuck Berry. Peter Green and Clapton went on and on about B.B. King, Otis Rush and Buddy Guy. As a well-read (I thought) and curious musician, I assumed that Django and Les Paul had invented shred. Of course, hearing Charlie Christian banging out amazing single-note electric runs in 1939 set me straight. Above all, his mysteriously raw tone floored me.

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I hadn’t even realized that there were electric guitars before World War II. It made sense—big jazz bands were loud. If you’ve ever heard an orchestra the size of Benny Goodman’s you know what I mean. Guitarists were tired of playing “strictly rhythm” and wanted to break out sax-style solos. The crude but effective technology of the day allowed guitarists to plug in, finally giving them a fighting chance. Christian was not the earliest of the adopters, but his amazing chops and visibility with Goodman’s band made him the best known. Although not created for him, his guitar’s pickup became associated with the man, and became known as the “Charlie Christian” pickup.

The original object of a pickup was to reproduce the sound of a guitar as accurately as possible. Electric blues, jazz and rock and roll changed all that. Players pushed their equipment to the breaking point in search of an expressive voice. To keep pace, builders rolled out new improvements. Time marched on, all but forgetting the crude, rude and singularly raw single coil that Christian first employed.

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But I never forgot. The hauntingly rough-edged tone of Christian’s big single coil pickups were never far from my mind. I’d had a few over the years—usually mounted on a big-box jazz machine unfit for cranked up rock or roots music. A few pickup makers offered P-90s with a Christian-style plate on top, but I wanted the real thing. Not available. That is, until I asked my friend Seymour Duncan if he could replicate them. To my delight, he’d just finished doing exactly that. That first set went into a semi-solid guitar a few years ago, and the results were astounding. When I started thinking about The Crow guitar, I knew that I wanted those pickups in it.  6a00e54ee874da883301538e463116970b-800wi

Built to the original specifications, the CC has a fiberboard bobbin wound with unusually heavy (38 gauge) copper wire with an enamel insulation coat. The Alnico magnets are sand-cast and oriented with their north pole firing upward through a period-correct steel blade polepiece. Seymour hand-bound the top plate to match the originals as well. To add an interesting texture, I internally reversed the polarity of one pickup to create an out-of-phase middle position. Here are my notes and instructions in The Crow’s journal.

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The problem with the CC is that it was designed to be mounted from behind. The original setup involved a huge and heavy cantilever mounting bracket that hung the pickup from inside a hollow jazz guitar.

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To solve this problem without altering the pickup, I devised a trestle that would allow the unit to be mounted and adjusted from the rear of the guitar. I had a friend make me some in his machine shop. Elliptical slots allow the pickup to be adjusted transversely for string alignment.

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Once mounted inside the guitar, the pickups can be raised and lowered via a pair of hex screws counterbored into the back. This also eliminates having to use mounting hardware or bezels on the face of The Crow, which keeps the look pure. Also, because the pickup is mounted to the back, none of the pickup’s weight is on the top, leaving it free to vibrate. The Crow is going to be a visually impressive guitar, and the CC pickups will give it an equally stunning voice.

 

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Jol

Jol Dantzig is a guitar builder, designer, writer and filmmaker. He has worked for Gibson, Fender, Guild, Ovation, Gretsch, and was a founding partner of Hamer guitars—one of the first boutique custom guitar brands. Dantzig’s work has been played by hundreds of artists including Sting, Steve Stevens, Larry Coreyell, Dug Pinnick, Billy Gibbons, Keb Mo’, Nick Lowe, KK Downing, Glenn Tipton, John Abercrombie, Glen Campbell, Rick Nielsen, Kenny Vaughan, Lita Ford, James Honeyman Scott, Elliott Easton, Andy Summers, Peter Frampton, Martin Barre, Lyle Workman, Brad Gillis, George Harrison, Jeff Ament, Dweezil Zappa, Jeff Tweedy, Nancy Wilson—and many others.

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