A lot has already been said about handmade pickups versus mass produced, machine wound versions.
But there is a bit of mysticism and mythology that has been added along the way.
There certainly are many fine guitar pickups from both the big names, and smaller boutique winders.
For many guitarists, they want to use hand wound pickups, because that is the way is was done “back in the day”.
For others, they prefer the sound of hand wound pickups. You hear people often talking of qualities as if there was some secret ingredient or “mojo”.
I mean, how else could two guitar pickups made from the same magnets, bobbins, wire, and number of turns sound different?
Well I can’t speak for the Obi-Wan midiclorions, or the black cat bone sauce that found it’s way into some pickups, but there are real reasons why hand-wound pickups sound different.
There are actual differences in the properties of a pickup that has been wound in an scattered (or unorganized) fashion.
This unorganized style is often called “scatter-winding”.
Basic explanation of “skinning”
I won’t get deep into the details of the ‘why’, but in a nutshell there are actual differences in the properties pickups based on wind type.
In a machine wound pickup (that is not programmed to do any scatter winding), the wraps of wire around the pickup coil are neatly arranged and can be closely spaced together.
These wires carry a very small electrical charge when the strings of a guitar move over the charged magnetic poles of a pickup.
That charge is carried around the coil many thousands of times.
The charge that flows down the wire isn’t contained in the wire itself. As it travels, there is a charge that is outside the constraints of the wire.
This is where the high frequency of a pickup sound spectrum travels.
When the wires are very neatly arranged, and close together, an effect called coupling occurs.
This is often referred to as a “skinning” effect. What happens is the individual wires laying next to each other start to act like one wire.
The best analogy I have recently heard was describing how coupling is overcome on high tension wires.
If you have ever driven on a long stretch of highway where long distance power cables are visible, you might notice something interesting.
After every so many towers, a cable will criss-cross; this is done specifically to eliminate coupling.
Just as in power lines, the coupling effect can be overcome in pickup winding, by breaking the neat pattern of windings.
By simply reducing the number of wraps across the pickup bobbin, skinning can be reduced.
This can be done simply by moving the feed of the wire across the pickup faster.
The side effect of this is you may see more wire accumulating in the middle of the pickup, and not at the top and bottom.
For that reason, I will scatter wind wide several times, and then every few seconds, slow down near the sides, so the wire fills the bobbin more evenly.
Many describe the tone of scatter wound pickups as more complex, with nicer overtones and harmonics.
The interesting thing is that the pattern and speed of scatter winding can alter this effect as well.
Many winders have their own patterns that they have developed through experience (myself included).
When experimenting with scatter-winding, I recommend winding two identical pickups as far as wire and magnet type and number of winds.
But when actually winding the two, chose two different levels of scatter-winding (or minimal to no scatter).
Not only will you hear a difference, but I think you will find non-musicians can hear the difference as well.