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To a few of you, the very term “scatter-winding” may be new. It was to me not long ago. I was introduced to the term while reading the Book: The Fender Inside Story by Leo Fender’s right hand man, Forrest White. Forrest pointed out that those highly sought after “pre-CBS” pickups were wound entirely by hand without the precision of modern machine-winding techniques. Those pickups were “scatter-wound”, or in other words, they weren’t perfect. The windings did NOT fall neatly, one nestled tightly to the next. This scatter wind was not a design intention; it was simply a natural result of the human process.
Another interesting tidbit from Mr. White’s book: Leo made those pickup winding machines himself. As was the case with so much of what Mr. Fender was doing in the early days, he was breaking new ground in winding pickups. There was no commonly accepted “correct” way to do it. And so Leo sourced the motors he thought would work best, concocted his own apparatus for cradling and directing the wire and for holding the pickup bobbins in place. His celebrated drive mechanism: a rubber-band. Turns out there were no drive belts available that had the right amount of “give” for the delicate wire he was using.
And so it is that young ladies, often seamstresses by training, wound pickups on machines driven by rubber bands. That would not really be much of a story if not for this fact: they were not just ANY pickups, they were THE pickups. The pickups that defined early American Rock & Roll. The pickups of the “surf” sound. Buddy Holly’s pickups. James Burton’s pickups. Jimi Hendrix’s pickups. You get the idea. This list has no end. These are the pickups that reside in some of the most valuable and desired guitars the world has ever known, or likely will ever will. Holy Grail tone? In a word, yes.
Today there are a few small American companies winding pickups by hand the way Fender did in the “Golden days”. Leo would be flattered by the hefty prices those pickups demand. To Leo, hand winding pickups, with the resultant “scatter” winding was not just one of several options; it was the ONLY option.
Scatter-winding is more than mere folk-lore; there is some real indisputable science to it. The inductance between wire windings laying tightly parallel to one another is indeed quite different from that of the same windings scattered willy-nilly to one another. The modern method of machine-winding pickups may be yet another instance of newer not being better. Sure a programmed machine can wind a heck of a lot more pickups in a day than even a highly competent human can, but with a yardstick delineated by quality rather than quantity, my money is (quite literally) on the human.