Is the simplest design the best? It just might be.
There’s this principle or theory called Occam’s Razor which states something along the lines of “the simplest solution is most like the correct one.” If this holds true, then the Lace Alumitone pickups may be the way electric guitar pickups should be designed.
Well, holding one of the Alumitone pickups in your hand and examining it up close it is pretty easy to see that the construction of this revolutionary pickup is markedly simpler than what now seems like an overstated undertaking of bobbin, magnet, base plate, cover and windings of conventional pickups.
Instead of the conventional coils (hundreds of wrapping of copper wire around an oblong bobbins of which there is usually one for a single coil pickup and two for a humbucking pickup), the Alumitone uses aluminum bars that are about 1/8” thick and bent so the face of the pickup is standard humbucking size with sides that are about typical humbucker depth with mounting “ears” as used on conventional pickups.
Aluminum bars instead of coils: simple, right?
This isn’t your grandfather’s pickups.
In between two spaces created by a gap in the zig-zag shape of the larger middle bar of the three that creates the Alumitone’s foundation are bar magnets which are arranged in a bass 3 and treble 3 string arrangement which brings to mind Fender’s Wide Range Humbucker Pickups…
However there are bars instead of the individual polepieces of the Fender’s pickup. Deal breaker?
While there’s no individual adjustment for each string, by adjusting the pickup higher on the treble side of the pickup (and using the neck/bridge/string radius to its own advantage) the string-to-string balance is remarkably close to this player’s ideal preference. And some players prefer bars over pole pieces for their retaining consistent volume while bending strings…and the fact that they’ll work with both “F” (Fender) and “G” (Gibson) string spacing.
According to Lace’s website and correspondence with a representative of the company there is some copper windings. On the underside of the pickups is a small tape wrapped (and apparently epoxy sealed) proprietary (hence the epoxy) electronics that contains some copper windings (perhaps some kind of transformer?).
At this point, it might be worth mentioning that these pickup are passive, with no preamp or external (or battery) required.
The pair of pickups I received to review were two of the several variations finishes available of the several varieties of the pickup offered (they have a deathbucker!), chrome and stonewashed. There is also a gold anodized, black anodized, and silver anodized options. The stonewashed is a worn, well-played looking version of the black finished pickup. In addition to the humbucker sizes, the Alumitones are offered in single coil (Stratocaster) size and P-90 sized replacements, as well as variations for extended range guitar (i.e. 7 string) and pedal steel guitars.
So, how do they sound?
In a word: Hi-fi
Okay, what does hi-fi mean?
Well, in the audiophile world, it means lack of noise and distortion (to be addressed shortly) and true audio representation.
The Lace Alumitones are certainly quite (a Lace trademark and passion, ask EC), even in single coil mode (yes, the humbuckers are split-able). Their output is moderate, so distortion becomes more of an amplification issue…low-power amp run high, high-powered amp run low, pedals? So, your level of mojo is driven by your desire and ability to figure out the guitar/pickup/amp combination.
But, clean…the starting point of designing one tone’s and gain structure for the desired result…these pickups have definition: and not the definition that is typically used with guitar pickup descriptions, which usually means plenty of top end.
This is more about string-to-string recognition, where each sounds, well, definitely. But, not just because the tone is bright, there’s plenty of low woomph on the bass strings. Cut mids? Perhaps.
Our review pickups were installed in a Gibson Les Paul along with a pair of mini-switches in the control cavity so the single coil modes could be auditioned as well. A more permanent and practical installation would be replacing the guitar’s stock pots with push-pull switch pots allowing a more instant access to the tones.
The clarity of these pickups are great for guitarist with a well-defined precision style of playing as they do a great job of picking up the nuances of the player’s articulation. The Alumitones are somewhat less forgiving for those players with sloppy technique.
The humbucker mode on the Stonewash pickup is full and rich (with a clear top end). In single coil mode, this pickup, as expected, did loose some of its mid punch, but provided a great spank sound which is perfect for funk and R&B tones.
The bass frequencies of the neck pickup were a little overwhelming in humbucking mode, but ended up sounding absolutely perfect in single coil mode without any need to further adjust the pickup’s height and/or the amp’s tone control
These pickups do not fill up the pickup surrounds the way the original Gibson humbuckers (with the covers on) or the TV Jones Filtertron Classics Humbucker mounts did, and that fact was slightly disturbing while the pickups were installed in the surrounds prior to mounting. Once they were mounted onto the guitar the fears of a less-then-appealing appearance disappeared. They look different, no doubt, but the gaps between the mounting rings and pickups were minimal. It did not look stock (a pickup so radically designed couldn’t, or shouldn’t, look stock) but actually looked kinda cool.
So, does the Occam’s razor principle hold true?
The design of the Lace Alumitones is simpler and not only do they sound very much like conventional guitar pickups, they sound like really good pickups…especially for the stylized, accomplished player. Of course, the conventional copper wire around a magnet came first (disregarding the earliest horseshoe pickups), so there is the 80+ year hurdle for the Alumitones to leap over: conventional wisdom says if transistor amp were invented before tube amp, everyone would be clamoring all over themselves to get “transistor tone”. But every revolution starts somewhere. Perhaps, it starts here.
– Jake Kelly