We guitarists are an interesting bunch. While the world of audio and technology has come leaps and bounds, a guitar in 2014 is more or less what a guitar was in 1954. Sure, CNC machines have replaced a lot of the work done by craftsmen, but guitars are still mostly hand built. That is especially true of pickups and amplifier technology. Guitar amps are predominately still vacuum tube based and pickups haven’t had a breakthrough in 30 years. The former is starting to have a revolution with the advent of computer-based modeling technology. Pickups, well Fishman wants to do something similar with its new Fluence line of electric guitar pickups.
What a Pickup Is
The electric guitar pickup is a specialized type of microphone. It picks up vibration from the strings of a guitar. They’re surprisingly simple in concept. You start with a bobbin, you add copper wire winding it around the bobbin. On the bottom is a magnet, usually an alloy of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt (alnico), ceramic, or on some, neodymium magnets. They come in single coils (most commonly found in Fender-type guitars) or double coils, more commonly called humbucking pickups (the coils are wound in reverse polarity, which in theory cancels hum). Humbuckers are commonly found in Gibson type guitars.
While they seem simple enough, pickups are more a black art than a science. Slight differences in the wire, magnet, or the windings can make them sound slightly different. In the 70s and 80s, as the science of pickups became more understood, this lead to the rise of pickup companies and legendary names like Seymour Duncan, Larry Dimarzio, and Bill Lawrence. Now there are literally thousands of pickups from dozens of companies. All of them are basically the same technology that was introduced when FDR was president.
Okay, I lied. There is another kind of guitar pickup. They’re called actives. Instead of being powered by your amp via the guitar cable, these pickups have their own preamp circuit that is powered by a 9-volt battery. Results have been controversial. Actives are louder and more consistent, but tend to have a more compressed sound that players feel is less organic and leaves the instrument out of the equation. They are popular among hard rock and metal players for that volume and compression.
Sometimes it takes a new set of eyes to move things forward. This may be the case here. For the last 30 years, they have been a company who has made transducer and piezo electric pickups and preamps for acoustic guitars and other stringed instruments. While the electric world has been left in a time warp, active preamps and pickups for acoustics have moving forward with the rest of the audio industry. So, when Fishman decided to play in the electric pickup market they had a clear slate to work with.
Everything I said in the last couple paragraphs, you can throw out the window. That’s what Fishman did. They only thing they kept, for obvious reasons, was the form factor and the magnets. The hand-wired bobbins are out the window. In their place is the Fluence core based around modern circuit technology. Each Fluence coil has two of them. The Fluence core allows them to keep a consistent experience while eliminating the hum and signal degradation found in traditional pickups. The analog circuitry in each pickup mimics the tonal properties of two different classic guitar pickups. They studied and mapped the tone qualities of the most desired pickups out there and made them something you could reproduce through modern technology. If this sounds familiar, this is the approach companies like Line 6 and Peavey use in capturing the properties of tube amps for the amp models on their their modeling amps. They took a very analog industry and brought it into the digital age.
This technology allows unprecedented versatility from pickups. Each Fluence pickup has two different voicings. Add some push-pull control pots and you can effectively have two guitars in one. The single coil replacement will give you either vintage single coil or a overwound Texas sound for a SRV blues. The Classic Humbucker Bridge will let you choose between vintage and hot PAF tones. The Modern Humbucker Ceramic will give you the choice between EMG-81-like active sounds and a high-output passive sound.
They also went on to improve the game on how powered pickups are well, powered. While these can be powered by a 9-volt battery like your EMGs or SD Blackouts, Fishman wasn’t content. Their solution was so obvious that everyone will be scratching their head why they didn’t think of it first. Guitars with a tremolo have a back cover, so do guitars with rear routed electronics. Why not replace this cover with a USB-chargeable lithium-ion battery with 200+ hours of battery life? So, that’s exactly what they did.
Models, Availability, and Pricing
The initial round of Fluence pickups will consist of 5 models: Single Coil, Classic Humbucker Neck, Classic Humbucker Bridge, Modern Humbucker Alnico, and Modern Humbucker Ceramic. They are working on other pickup form factors for the future. These are just the beginning, not the end, of Fishman’s electric offerings by any means. The battery covers will come in tremolo cover, Les Paul, and a universal (though I’m not sure how that would work with 10,000 different control backplate designs). Pricing is not yet available, nor is exact date of availability, but they are pushing for the end of spring.
The guitar world has started changing a lot in the last 5 years. It’s become a lot more tech savvy. You’re getting great sounding modeling amps, Tronical robot tuners, and now a radically different vision of what an active pickup should be from Fishman. I’m excited about these as I am with any product in a long time. They give new blood to an industry that really needed it. I was planning to replace the pickups in both my Strat and my ESP Eclipse anyway, so if they end up not being too expensive I may give these a try.