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  1. #1

    Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Hi there. There seems to be somewhat of a lack of knowledge of how a vintage Gibson Firebird is constructed. Today I got a chance to take apart a vintage '63 Firebird III pickup to repair a problem with a dead coil due to a faulty coil lead. The good news is that I was able to fix the pickup without having to rewind it. The better news is I have pictures to dispel all myths regarding the makeup of these things. They are not at all like a '70s mini humbucker. What they basically are, design wise, is two shrunken Melody Maker pickups wired as a humbucker.

    First, the whole thing is held together by the cover and base plate, and a bit of glue.

    Under the base plate are a couple of thin maple shims:



    The dual coils are simply sitting inside the tight fitting cover. Under the wooden shims is a thin, ferrous metal plate:



    Under that are two coils made up of thin, flimsy, translucent plastic bobbin formers. Inside each bobbin is a bar magnet. Picture a regular humbucker magnet cut in half horizontally. One coil has the North facing up, South on the other. The ferrous plate mentioned before is simply held in place by those magnets and is magnetically coupling them:



    The coils themselves are wound with the typical, purplish/maroon Formvar wire as found on period or earlier humbuckers and P-90s. Each coil measures around 3.2k and they are connected in series like a PAF.



    On the other side of the bobbins, the one facing the cover, there is another small strip of ferrous metal glued across the magnet bars. Again, apparently, to magnetically couple the two coils. On top of that there's simple transparent adhesive tape to insulate the magnets from electrical contact with the cover:



    In a regular PAF style humbucker the magnet is in direct touch with the base plate, cover, and pole pieces. Obviously, the FB pickup's designer took efforts to avoid this. The wood spacers on the bottom and insulating tape on top of the bobbins ensure that the magnets have no contact to electrical ground. I'm no pickup designer and I'm not sure why this matters, but here it is.


    b
    Last edited by barbarossa; 04-15-10 at 08:36 PM.

  2. #2

    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    thanks ..great info /wonderful pix

  3. #3
    Les Paul Forum Member MapleFlame's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    I Bet J45/aka Kerry would love to see these.
    Top carves are sexy

  4. #4
    Les Paul Forum Member j45's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Quote Originally Posted by MapleFlame View Post
    I Bet J45/aka Kerry would love to see these.
    Saw it! Unique pickup... unlike any other vintage Gibson p/u design. Now we need to open a few more and see when the PAF wire windings switched to the orange poly windings. My guess would be around '65 or so like PAT #'s but we won't know for sure until someone opens one up. Great post. i believe this may be a first. I haven't been able find a single internal pic of an original FB p/u anywhere....much less great shots like this.

  5. #5
    Les Paul Forum Member shuie's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Awesome. Thank you.

  6. #6
    Les Paul Forum Member tooold's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Thanks for the effort and the photos, Barbarossa, this is great! It's good to see what's actually going on rather than speculation.

    The coils are interesting - it seems like Gibson was always trying to use existing tooling to keep the costs of new models down - I wonder if these really are the same size as MM pickups?

    Has anyone taken one of the repros apart (SD, Lollar) to see how they're made? It would be interesting to compare.

  7. #7
    All Access/Backstage Pass Cody's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Fantastic stuff! Thanks!


  8. #8
    Les Paul Forum Member Rev.WillieVK's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Very very cool H.!!!

  9. #9
    Les Paul Forum Member and Host of Guitar Shop BCR/Greg's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Well done, sir!!!!
    Go ahead and break them, I'll fix them for you.

  10. #10
    Les Paul Forum Member bigtomrodney's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    I've often wondered about how they differ from the Epiphone mini-humbuckers but haven't been able to find anything online. Thanks for posting!

  11. #11
    Les Paul Forum Member DucRyder's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    very cool! thanks barbrossa
    "Runnin' with the Devil's advocate"

  12. #12
    Les Paul Forum Member kharrison's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    I love this place.

  13. #13
    Les Paul Forum Member jeffc's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Stupid question :
    What are the wholes in the cover, in the first pic ? Didn't these PUs were without poles/ screws like 70's minis ?


    BTW thanks for this great thread and pics

  14. #14
    All Access/Backstage Pass Cody's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    The PU is face down, so that's the base plate you're looking at.

  15. #15

    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Thanks for the cool pix!

    But.... how do you "disseminate" a pickup?

  16. #16
    Les Paul Forum Member
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    I believe "disseminate" is Latin for bad sex.
    You could be my kind of crowd
    A little bit edgy, a little bit loud

  17. #17

    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Quote Originally Posted by SuperReal View Post
    Thanks for the cool pix!

    But.... how do you "disseminate" a pickup?

    Bad wording on my part. I hope the pictures do indeed help to disseminate knowledge about what makes a Firebird pickup tick, is what I meant. I think...

    b
    Last edited by barbarossa; 11-17-09 at 07:27 PM.

  18. #18
    Les Paul Forum Member jeffc's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Quote Originally Posted by jeffc View Post
    Stupid question :
    What are the wholes in the cover, in the first pic ? Didn't these PUs were without poles/ screws like 70's minis ?
    Quote Originally Posted by Cody View Post
    The PU is face down, so that's the base plate you're looking at.

  19. #19
    Les Paul Forum Member
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    most of the parts are interchangeable- same baseplate, same bobbins, same cover but no holes, different magnets, as stated before the firebirds have bar magnets in the bobbins like a melody maker, minis have a steel slug in one bobbon and screws running through the other bobbin but unlike a PAF type bucker the minis do not have holes in the bobbins- they have a slot like a melody maker (that you could put a firebird magnet in if you are making a firebird).
    So I disagree they are not at all like a mini bucker- they use alot of the same parts but they are a very different design in ways and sound quite different from each other

  20. #20

    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Jason ...do your firebird pup parts resemble these ?

  21. #21
    Les Paul Forum Member DHBucker's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    "The coils themselves are wound with the typical, purplish/maroon Formvar wire as found on period or earlier humbuckers and P-90s."

    Isn't Formvar (polyvinyl formal) a different coating for the wire than plain enamel? It is my understanding that the maroon/reddish wire Gibson used in the 50's and early 60's was coated with plain enamel. Fender however used formvar wire on their PU's and the wire was orange. Aren't poly and formvar the same thing? I think poly is not polyurethane but polyvinyl formal.

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  22. #22
    Les Paul Forum Member j45's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Quote Originally Posted by DHBucker View Post
    "The coils themselves are wound with the typical, purplish/maroon Formvar wire as found on period or earlier humbuckers and P-90s."

    Isn't Formvar (polyvinyl formal) a different coating for the wire than plain enamel? It is my understanding that the maroon/reddish wire Gibson used in the 50's and early 60's was coated with plain enamel. Fender however used formvar wire on their PU's and the wire was orange. Aren't poly and formvar the same thing? I think poly is not polyurethane but polyvinyl formal.
    I'm talking way over my head but I thought Fender used plain enamel insulated wire on Tele's and most other guitars and the Formvar insulated was used for Strats. I've also seen the word "Formvar" used when paired with the word "enamel" is in "Formvar enamel" and also worded as "polyvinyl formal enamel". I think polyurethane and polyester are used to insulate wires as well. Again I'm talking over my head and just parroting things I've seen and heard. It is also my understanding that Formvar, plain enamel, and polyyrethane are three different types of insulation used on vintage pickups... that in '64/'65 both fender and gibson changed to the "poly" (polyurethane) insulated wire or the "orange" wire wound pickups. The wire on the early Strat pickups is not nearly as orange as late 60's gibson pickups. I'm sure someone will come along and set this straight or correct me. But yes, it seems from the color the Firebird pickup would be plain enamel, not Formvar enamel.

  23. #23
    Les Paul Forum Member rudutch's Avatar
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  24. #24
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    I dont know what the rules are about answering a direct question like that- probably not cool but making a pickup and calling it a firebird if it wasnt 90% firebird internally it shouldnt be called a firebird IMO.
    Formvar is most often copper colored and it was used on strats alot in the 50's,Plain enamel is a variety of brownish chestnut black usualy it varies and it was used on all teles and all gibson pickups for a time and poly is often reddish or copper colored but it can be any color- blue, green, yellow whatever its just dye that they add. Gibson and fender eventually went to poly for some time. Formvar, plain enamel and poly are all different insulations.
    I should mention the current common firebird reissues have pickups that only barely resemble the originals- the reissues use powerful ceramic magnets and are wound at 24K if I recall correctly .
    I think the neck is 14K and the bridge 22 or 24K- we all know that right?
    Last edited by Jason Lollar; 11-19-09 at 12:02 PM.

  25. #25

    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Quote Originally Posted by Jason Lollar View Post
    I dont know what the rules are about answering a direct question like that- probably not cool but making a pickup and calling it a firebird if it wasnt 90% firebird internally it shouldnt be called a firebird IMO.
    Jason ..was this directed to my question...there's much discussion by Jwalker and his paf throbak builds ..so I doubt there's a hidden "rule" you should be cautious about ..anyway, I think in a round about way you did answer my q

  26. #26

    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Well, guess what: there are double white Firebird pickups.



    This pickup only needed its lead replaced and an associated short fixed, so I didn't take it apart any further to see what coil wire was used, or find out other details. These things are held together by glue and pressure, best not to disturb things any more than absolutely necessary.

    Even though, obvious differences to the first FB pickup I posted pictures of are noticeable. Different wood shim, bobbin color, lead color from the coils (red/black instead of white/black), no pole piece holes in the base plate.

    Anybody else have noticed different variations of old Firebird pickups?


    b

  27. #27
    Les Paul Forum Member lonesomesheik's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    @mike Shaw : I would say the opposite "bad latin for sex"

  28. #28
    Les Paul Forum Member Browneyes's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Very cool and informative! thanks

  29. #29
    Les Paul Forum Member andreja marovic's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup






    Here some 65 FBlll pick ups.
    I didn't want to open them, one of them looks like someone was curious and had to look inside.I don't think it's a good idea to usolder the covers unless you have a problem.Both pu's sound good.
    You can see the wooden shims in the cover holes
    .
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  30. #30
    Les Paul Forum Member
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    As Jason says, formvar, PE, and poly are 3 different insulations. They look very different too. Poly looks almost like bare copper wire. PE is very dark brown, as in the photos from the original poster. Formvar (usually double-build -- PE and poly are typically single) is rather bright and orange looking, at least my spool of it sure is.

    I'm not sure what the metal plates are for, maybe to ground the magnets to the baseplate?
    "Only if there is a God who created man is man worth anything beyond the chemicals of which he is composed."

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  31. #31
    Les Paul Forum Member TM1's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Quote Originally Posted by Zhangliqun View Post
    As Jason says, formvar, PE, and poly are 3 different insulations. They look very different too. Poly looks almost like bare copper wire. PE is very dark brown, as in the photos from the original poster. Formvar (usually double-build -- PE and poly are typically single) is rather bright and orange looking, at least my spool of it sure is.

    I'm not sure what the metal plates are for, maybe to ground the magnets to the baseplate?
    the metal plate acts in pretty much the same way as the plate on the bottom of a Tele pickup. It directs the magnetic field up. BTW, the bobbin's on these have almost always been Nylon. I have a number of Firebird pickups and have had a few apart. Very different from a regular humbucking and a mini-hum like on a LP Deluxe.

  32. #32

    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    I'm confused -- are you saying in 1963 and earlier FORMVAR wire was used on humbuckers and P90s by Gibson?

  33. #33
    Les Paul Forum Member
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    I have seen white, black and milky white clear bobbins. The metal plate makes the magnets stronger on the string side like don says and it boosts the output and bass noticeably on this design. if you measured before and after the metal plate with an inductance meter you would see it jump up a point after you add the steel plate- a good thing on the bridge pickup.

  34. #34
    Les Paul Forum Member
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    That's curious. I've made traditional baseplate Tele pu's and I've made some no-baseplate models, and the no-platers are very noticeable louder and brighter, which suggests to me that the plate pulls some of the field away from the strings rather than directing it up.

    And yes, all other factors (wind, turns, magnets) were the same.
    "Only if there is a God who created man is man worth anything beyond the chemicals of which he is composed."

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  35. #35
    Les Paul Forum Member j45's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Quote Originally Posted by cryptozoo View Post
    I'm confused -- are you saying in 1963 and earlier FORMVAR wire was used on humbuckers and P90s by Gibson?
    That's what was said in the first post but I'm sure it's a mental lapse from too many years working with vintage gear. Pre-CBS Fenders did but pre-64 Gibson pickups would be enamel insulated. The OP is extremely well versed in pickup minutia and well aware of actual composition.

  36. #36
    Les Paul Forum Member
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    The metal plate on the bottom definitely is there to couple the magnetic fields, but that little strip on the top: I'll bet that serves some type of calculated inductance purpose. Is that on the bass side or the treble side? If on the treble side, might be there to tone down some brightness. Or maybe mute the B string a bit? Just thinking out loud.

  37. #37

    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Killer thread! Thanks to everyone who contributed. That's why I love this place!

  38. #38
    Les Paul Forum Member
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    measure at the poles with a gauss meter next time you put a steel plate under a pickup and youll see what it does- a steel plate over the top of the pickup usually kills signal.
    you know brighter can sound louder even though it has reduced output!

  39. #39
    Les Paul Forum Member 58dutchie's Avatar
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Hi there,

    Do you think this is an original '65 Firebird (neck) pickup? (I think it is...) These pickups sit in my '99 Firebird VII, so I have three of them (all look identical). The neck one reads 6.2 (normal) and the bridge pickup reads a very unusual high 8.4 ! The bridge really bites!




  40. #40
    Les Paul Forum Member
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    Re: Anatomy of a Firebird Pickup

    Quote Originally Posted by 58dutchie View Post
    Hi there,

    Do you think this is an original '65 Firebird (neck) pickup? (I think it is...) These pickups sit in my '99 Firebird VII, so I have three of them (all look identical). The neck one reads 6.2 (normal) and the bridge pickup reads a very unusual high 8.4 ! The bridge really bites!



    Well, they certainly have a vintage baseplate, and you can see the shims through the holes, so on what's visible, you're "2 for 2". The readouts are closer to vintage spec than modern spec, especially the neck pup. The 8.4 reading on the bridge pup is higher than I've ever heard of for a vintage Firebird, not saying impossible but a clear outlier. Maybe a rewind or "hybrid" type of pickup. You can't really know unless you're willing to open them up.
    Maybe someone should post detailed pics of modern-spec Firebird pickups just for comparison sake.
    Last edited by Litcrit; 03-12-11 at 08:43 AM.

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