Engineer and guitarist Scott Lawing hopes to grow his Zexcoil brand—with the help of some well-known musical friends
Listen to Scott Lawing for a while and you’ll soon know more than you’ll ever need to know about the arcane world of electric guitar pickups.
It doesn’t take much to get him started on pole pieces, wire coils, magnetic pulses and polarity.
But what else would you expect from a 51-year-old engineer with a Ph.D. from MIT who has been playing guitar for 35 years?
Lawing, however, does much more than talk about pickups. He makes them too, in a spacious workroom in the rear of his Newark home—and he thinks that his products, marketed under the Zexcoil brand—are better than many others on the market.
Well, Lawing isn’t about to spill all the details. Coca Cola’s formula is still a secret, isn’t it? But a quick explanation of how pickups work and how they’re put together can help make the differences as clear as a Stratocaster blasting clearly without a hint of annoying hum.
To produce sound, an electric guitar senses the vibrations of the strings magnetically and routes an electronic signal to an amplifier and speaker. The sensing occurs in a magnetic pickup mounted under the strings on the guitar’s body. The pickup consists of a coil wrapped with thousands of turns of fine wire around a magnet or pole piece. Many electric guitars have two or three different pickups located on the body. Each pickup will have a distinctive sound, and multiple pickups can be paired, and wired in various combinations, to produce additional variations. There are many types of pickups. For example, some pickups extend a single magnetic bar or pole piece under all six strings. Others have a separate pole piece for each string. Most often, an iron alloy called alnico V, a mix of aluminum, nickel, cobalt and other metals, is used to make the magnet.
Since the pickup is a magnetic sensor, it “picks up” not only the vibration of the string, but it can also be susceptible to external magnetic noise, mostly emanating from AC power lines — what is commonly referred to as “60-cycle hum.” Pickups can be made to cancel 60-cycle hum by utilizing multiple coils that capture the external noise signal at opposite polarities.
Lawing’s Zexcoil pickups use six coils, whereas most conventional pickups use one or at most two. (The name Zexcoil, he explains, is a play on the German word sechs, for the number six, which is pronounced “zex.”)
But he doesn’t align the coils as in conventional pickups, arrayed directly underneath each string and perpendicular to each one. Rather, he arranges six coils so they run in a diagonal fashion across the body of the guitar, slightly overlapping so each magnet rests underneath two strings.
This alignment, Lawing says, enables the pickup to cancel 60-cycle hum effectively and also to capture more precisely the sounds made by each string.
Lawing makes a variety of pickups, primarily for Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars. The pickups typically found in these guitars only have one coil, so they tend to exhibit a lot of 60-cycle hum. One of the holy grails for guitarists is a hum-canceling pickup that captures the tone of these vintage pickups, and this tone is largely a result of their alnico pole pieces. “I can do something that has the response characteristics of alnico V, but by using different materials. We have something else in the core of the coil,” he says, being careful not to give away his secret.
“The pickup is a sensor, but it’s also a filter. It picks up the tone, and it alters it, it colors it. One of the things I’ve learned is that the main driver of that coloration is the properties of these pole pieces,” he says. “By manipulating the properties of the pole piece, you can change your tonal coloration all over the map.”
Most of Lawing’s sales are to musicians who want to retrofit their guitars with a new set of pickups. “They change them just because they can,” he says.
However, given the wide range of musical genres that can be played on an electric guitar, it’s not always easy to determine which style of pickup would be best for a particular musician. To help guitarists make their selections, Lawing offers advice on the frequently-asked-questions page of his website, www.zexcoil.com, and responds promptly to those that are emailed to him.
He started making pickups in 2007, when he and his wife, Claire, were living in Phoenix, where he worked for Dow Chemical. He was still “early in the process” of trying to design a better pickup when Dow transferred him to Delaware in April 2008 and the couple settled in Newark.
“Claire believed in it the whole time. Sometimes she believed in it more than I did,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this if she wasn’t as supportive as she has been.”
Business has been growing steadily, he says, “but we’re really just a mom and pop shop with a good idea.”
As of now, virtually all Zexcoil sales are made online. He currently sells about 50 pickups a month (most electric guitars require a set of two or three pickups, depending on the model). Basic pickups cost about $100 each; sets of three range from $285 to about $420, depending on their features.
Lawing is exploring the idea of creating a pickup that he can place in retail distribution, through music shops and guitar dealers, but he says he will have to find a way to streamline the production process so he can sell them at a lower price.
He has hired a subcontractor to wind the wire for the coils of the pickup. The rest of the process involves mounting six coils on a circuit board, inserting spacers for positioning, removing the spacers and replacing them with pole pieces and, finally, mounting magnets on the bottom of the unit. It takes about an hour to make a single pickup, he says, but the gluing and drying time between each step spreads the process over four or five days.
As the business grows, Lawing has continued working part-time in his professional specialty, chemical mechanical polishing, while also playing lead guitar in a tribute band, In The Light, which usually creates and performs one show a year. This year it was The Who, performed at World Cafe Live at the Queen in June. Previous ventures included Queen and one based on Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti album.
While he’s working at home, Lawing admits he is “waiting for the phone to ring” with a huge order or an endorsement that could propel him into the major leagues of pickup manufacturing.
Actually, he says, the phone has rung “a couple of times” with something big, but some of his better customers are reticent about using their names in endorsements.
One of his better customers, Lawing says, is Walter Becker, half of the songwriting team at the core of the rock band Steely Dan. “I think he’s got at least one of just about everything we make,” he says.
Another big booster is blues guitarist Anthony Stauffer, who operates the Texas Blues Alley, a website that offers guitarists lessons and a place to talk about their passions and their gear. Take a close look at the videos on the site, Lawing says, and Zexcoil pickups will be visible on almost every guitar Stauffer is playing.
That sort of visibility, he says, is helpful in building the business.
“We’re in the black, but not hugely in the black. It’s sustaining,” he says. Pausing briefly, he adds, “now, if one of these big guys calls…”