NPD (New Pickup day): ZEXCOIL Underwound SV5 Set for Stratocaster

Discussion in 'Guitars in General' started by StratoCraig, Mar 16, 2015.

  1. StratoCraig

    StratoCraig Member

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    (TL;DR VERSION: These are great pickups! If you love the Strat sound but you hate hum, these pickups are for you.)

    I want to say up front that I have no connection to Zexcoil designer Scott Lawing or his company, Lawing Musical Products LLC, other than as a satisfied customer. I paid full price for my Zexcoils. I was not asked to write a review. I am not getting any compensation for writing this review. I am doing it only because I am very, very impressed with my new Zexcoils and I want to spread the word about these amazing pickups.

    For the last few years I've strongly favored vintage-style single-coils for my Strats, usually one or another of Fender's designs. My '07 Deluxe Players Strat originally came with Vintage Noiseless pickups, but something about them didn't sound right to me (they had no balls, basically), and I eventually replaced them. That guitar currently has Fender Original '57/'62s, which are my favorite vintage-style Strat pickup.

    Lately, though, the hum caused by the overhead track lights in my music/computer room has been annoying me more than usual. I've noticed that I have been favoring my Gibsons over my Fenders for practicing, partly because they don't hum. So I started reading up on newer noiseless pickups to see if anything might be worth trying.

    Most noiseless pickups are variations on Seth Lover's humbucker concept. Sometimes, as in a PAF humbucker, there are two coils side-by-side, wound in opposite directions to cancel out noise. Others, like Fender's Vintage Noiseless pickups, stack the two coils. A third way to do it is the split-coil approach, where one coil is used for half of the strings, and the reverse-wound coil for the remainder. This has the advantage that only one coil is used for any given string, giving a more traditional single-coil sound, but without hum. The standard Fender Precision bass pickup is a split-coil design. Leo Fender also used split coils much later in his life for the G+L Comanche guitar.

    Zexcoil pickups can be considered extreme split-coils. A Zexcoil pickup actually has six coils, one for each string. Three of the coils are wound in one direction, and the others are wound the other way. This gives excellent note definition and clarity, along with very effective hum cancellation.

    There are several different models of Zexcoil pickups, but the one most appropriate for the sort of very traditional Strat tone that I wanted is the Vintage Single SV5 pickup. The SV5 comes in a few different winding levels. In addition to the standard SV5 model, there are also underwound (SV5U), double-underwound (SV5W), and overwound (SV5O) versions, as well as the higher-gain SV5+. The differences between them are about what you'd expect: underwound pickups have a bit less output and a more scooped tone, while overwound ones have higher output and more midrange.

    With a little help from TGP user (and Zexcoil designer) ScottB, I chose the Underwound SV5 set, which consists of an SV5 for the bridge position, an SV5U for the middle, and an SV5W for the neck position. There's nothing stopping you from using the same winding all three positions, if you want (you can design your own set, or buy pickups individually), but an advantage of the SV5W/SV5U/SV5 arrangement is that the perceived volume levels of the three pickups are nicely balanced.

    Installing the Zexcoils was pretty much the same as installing any other Strat single-coil, but I found it to be a bit easier than installing Fender pickups because the base of the Zexcoil's bobbin is made of what looks like printed circuit board material, with the holes for the mounting screws pre-threaded. The fiber-board material that Fender uses for their vintage-style pickups isn't always easy to get screws into, but the screws threaded into the Zexcoil base with no trouble at all.

    Here's the underside of a Zexcoil pickup (mounted in my pick guard, but not yet wired in):

    [​IMG]

    I used traditional Strat wiring, with a master volume knob and separate tone knobs for the neck and middle pickups, with no tone knob for the bridge pickup. I followed the manufacturer's advice in setting pickup heights. I also followed their recommendation to use 500k volume and tone pots and a .022 uF tone cap.

    Here's the guitar with the Zexcoils installed:

    [​IMG]

    With the guitar fully re-assembled and a new set of D'Addario XL Balanced Tension 9-40 strings installed, I was finally able to put my new Zexcoils to the test. To put it simply, they passed with flying colors. I never expected any noiseless pickup to sound so much like a real Strat. The glassy treble, the twang, the quack, that beautiful singing quality -- it's all there, and clarity and note definition are exceptionally good. Zexcoils are not just good as noiseless pickups go; they are truly great pickups, and they're noiseless!

    However, I think 500k pots may be a bit much, at least for this Underwound set; the tone is just a bit too bright and spiky. If I really wanted to rewire the guitar again, I might try all 250k pots, but my guess is that would be a little too far the other way. With clean tones, the neck pickup sounds just about perfect if I turn the tone knob down to 7. For now, I'll just leave it that way, but I think a 500k volume pot with two 250k tone pots might be the best setup. Then again, with heavily-saturated overdrive, the extra treble actually sounds really great. Decisions, decisions!

    I tried various pedals and experimented with some well-known tricks, such as the "Wind Cries Mary" technique of turning the amp way up and turning the guitar's volume down to about 5. The Zexcoils behaved flawlessly. Everything sounded right. But there was no hum.

    One concern I had about the split-coil approach was whether there would be any noticeable loss of volume or change of tone when bending a string so that it crossed from its home coil into the range of another coil wound in the opposite direction. Wouldn't there be a dead spot at the mid-point between the two coils? ScottB told me that this used to be an issue with split-coil pickups, but he solved it. I tested this very carefully. I don't hear any change of volume or tone at all when bending strings, even in the higher frets where it is easy to bend the G string all the way past the D string's coil.

    To sum up: Zexcoil pickups are winners. They sound great, and the hum is gone. I feel like I've finally found the pickups I always wanted.

    I know I ought to post some audio samples here, and I will if I can get some made soon, but I don't have any at the moment and my daughter has once again walked off with my microphone and my USB-enabled mixer. We'll see what can be done about that...

    In the meantime, I'll just refer you to Zexcoil.com's Media page, where there are a number of different demos.
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2015
  2. Soothsayer

    Soothsayer (Paul) Supporting Member

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    Excellent review, I'm interested in trying these in my EJ strat.
     
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  3. StratoCraig

    StratoCraig Member

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    Thanks! I think you'll like the Zexcoils.
     
  4. xrleroyx

    xrleroyx Member

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    Thanks for the tl;dr because

    [​IMG]
     
  5. StratoCraig

    StratoCraig Member

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    UPDATE: I reduced the volume pot to 250k by putting a 500k resistor in parallel with it. This tames the overly-bright tone I'd been hearing. With the 500k tone pots turned down to 7 (roughly 250k), the guitar has just about the ideal Strat tone. So for the underwound Zexcoils, I think all 250k pots is the way to go. 500k probably works better with the standard and overwound sets and the Zexcoil Buckers; I may experiment with some of those in other guitars soon.
     
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  6. Zexcoil

    Zexcoil Vendor

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    Craig, thanks for the great review!

    I generally recommend 250 k with the Underwound stuff and 500 for everything else.

    Recently, I've started splitting the difference with the Convertibles. I use a 500 k volume pot and a 250 k no load tone (where I can). In series mode you run the tone pot wide open, but in split mode you can kick it in for more appropriate loading for the lower resistance single-coil mode.
     
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  7. wrxplayer

    wrxplayer Supporting Member

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    Earlier today I watched a video by Andy Fuchs demoing one of his amps and he was playing a G&L Legacy w/ Zexcoil pups. Really sounded nice. And I never knew how nicely Andy plays.
     
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  8. Fuchsaudio

    Fuchsaudio Member

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  9. Blix

    Blix Supporting Member

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    Man, that sounds so good Andy, color me impressed. :aok
     
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  10. BlueHeaven

    BlueHeaven Member

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    Wonder what set he's using...that sounds about perfect to me.
     
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  11. BlueHeaven

    BlueHeaven Member

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    StratoCraig,
    Any need for a treble bleed? Do you retain enough treble/presence as you wind down the volume?
     
  12. StratoCraig

    StratoCraig Member

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    If you like treble bleeds, you'd probably still want one. I don't like them myself; there are some cool tones you can get by rolling off the volume and cranking your amp (like Jimi in "The Wind Cries Mary") and that doesn't work with a treble bleed.
     
  13. Zexcoil

    Zexcoil Vendor

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    Andy has a Signature Set in his G&L.
     
  14. Zexcoil

    Zexcoil Vendor

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    I agree. If you generally like treble bleeds, you'll probably want one. Typical Strat values work pretty well for the vintage-voiced stuff. Carl Harvey turned me on to 150 kOhm and 1 nF (0.001 uF) in parallel. Works very nicely on the Stratty stuff, but on the higher output stuff (like Andy's set) it causes a slight treble boost from like 10-8 or so.
     
  15. BlueHeaven

    BlueHeaven Member

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    I was just asking about the treble bleed because to me part of what makes a Strat special is the presence/upper harmonics. I don't want a guitar to thin out too much (treble bleed complaint) but I haven't used your pickups (yet!) to know how they respond to volume rolloff. I wouldn't want to lose TOO much sparkle when dialing back the volume.
     
  16. Fuchsaudio

    Fuchsaudio Member

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    No treble bleed on my guitar. I hear a slight darkening depending on the cable/amp/effect I'm plugged into, but I've not made a decision whether to add a bleed yet. I may try it just for fun, but to me the tone is damn near perfect. Since that video I've had the guitar painted and switched to a Stone-Tone tremolo block and it's even better !! Lol
     
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  17. BlueHeaven

    BlueHeaven Member

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    Thanks Andy...that's good to hear. And re:your tone...I would agree wholeheartedly. I think that a good set of ears and a healthy dose of chops didn't hurt ya none either!
     
  18. Fuchsaudio

    Fuchsaudio Member

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    Thank you kindly sir !
     
  19. RYAN1987M

    RYAN1987M Supporting Member

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    Are you still loving your Zexcoils?
     
  20. Fuchsaudio

    Fuchsaudio Member

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