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The Best Scatterwound, Single-Coil Pickups for Electric Guitar (For Most People)

Brooklyn's Farhad Soheili recreates classic pickups—and classic sounds.

Kris Herndon

Almost a hundred years ago, a Los Angeles musician named George Beauchamp started to experiment with ways to amplify the sound of a guitar. He got good results with insulated wire wrapped around a magnet, a combination he’d adapted from the amplifier on the playback device that was state-of-the-art at the time: the phonograph.

As any guitarist reading this will realize, Beauchamp had invented the single-coil pickup, and forever changed the way music is played. His tinkering would lead to the foundational instrument of rock music, what we now know as the electric guitar.

Fast forward one hundred years, when another guitarist from Los Angeles got really, really good at fixing guitars. So good, in fact, that he started fixing them full-time, first in L.A. and then in New York. And then, he started making guitars from the ground up, designing everything, including the electronics, himself.

That guy, who now lives in Brooklyn, is Farhad Soheili. The guitars he designs and builds at FSC Instruments are the guitars he’s always wanted to play. They’re inspired in part by vintage instruments that have passed through his hands—rare, classic, time-tested guitars that have come into his shop for repair.

“We started building guitars in 2016,” he tells me. By that time, he’d been repairing guitars for nearly twenty years. Since then, “everything is made in-house, and it’s all custom. The body, the pickups, the neck, they’re all made in-house.”

One thing that surprised Soheili about the business of selling high-end custom-made guitars is that he also sells a fair number of the pickups he designed. Just the pickups, by themselves. He’ll install them for you, or ship them to you so you can put them on your guitar yourself, or have your local luthier do it.

Soheili’s original intention wasn’t to get into the pickup business. But the pickups are popular. Why is that?

First off, a whole guitar from FSC instruments will run you somewhere in the range of $2,500-$3,000, and not everyone has that kind of money lying around. The pickups, by contrast, are a decent return for a smaller investment of your funds, a way to improve the tone you get out of the guitar you already have.

Secondly, Soheili says, guitarists like his scatterwound, single-coil pickups because of their distinctive sound.

“They just sound perfect, and they sort of complement a certain type of playing,” he says. “It’s just one of the many things we offer that is very popular. A lot of guitar players have gotten their hands on them. Anybody that has bought a set or played a set has gotten very excited about it,” Soheili laughs.

The pickups are a popular option with full FSC custom builds as well: “The guitars that we do build, you can pick those pickups as an option from the menu, and most people do go with them.”

So what do they sound like? “The pickups are based on vintage-sounding pickups. Vintage pickups are the best pickups ever in my opinion. In most peoples’ opinion,” Soheili adds, with a laugh that says he’s actually serious.

Pickup coils use very thin insulated wire, which is wound around a magnet, somewhere in the range of 6,000 to 8,000 times. This contraption picks up the vibration of a plucked string and transforms that to an electrical signal that can be output through an amp.

The winding wire around a magnet part—that’s something that can be done by machine, for either small or large quantities. As electric guitars became popular, obviously, they began to be mass-produced; and while the correlation is imperfect, mass-production isn’t always great for quality.

The term “handwound” gets thrown around a lot when people talk about specialty pickups, including Soheili’s. And it has a sort of artisanal, hipster-Brooklynite sound to it, as though each pickup is handcrafted by a monk using only curated, locally-sourced, organic ingredients.

But it’s a little more complicated than that.

What sets FSC pickups apart is not that Soheili makes tiny batches of pickups, or that he patiently hand-winds each coil 7000 times himself. (He doesn’t: “The pickups are all made in-house, or they’re made by others to our specs,” he explains.)

What sets them apart is that Soheili reverse-engineered his pickups to match the sound of some of the best classic instruments that have come through the shop. Not just by ear but by measuring the electronic output of the sounds they produce.

“You measure the output of the original pickups,” Soheili explains. “Because one thing that happens is that pickups age over time. So they don’t have the same readings as they would have on day one, when they were built. So I take them now, and I try to match the sound now.”

The end result is “somewhere between how it would have been and where it is today—because obviously, it will continue to age as well. But it’s the same technique as it would have been in 1959.”

The end result will sound familiar and “right,” because you recognize the sound from great recordings you’ve heard. It will feel responsive to the touch, where some mass-produced pickups have a dull or muted feel.

“I wanted it to have a very old sound to it,” Soheili says. Guitarists get into that shit.

Kris Herndon writes about art and design, entrepreneurship and culture, boxing, television, music, and many other topics. Her byline has appeared in The New York Times, Refinery29, Oprah Magazine, Entrepreneur, Wired, Metropolis, BuzzFeed, The Watercooler, Think, Stop Smiling, Paste, Art Papers, Architecture Boston, Reader's Digest, and many other publications. Her first guitar was a Silvertone with lipstick pickups.