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Tech Talk

How Pickup Guru Tim Shaw Powered the American Professional Series

Learn about the different types of alnico magnets featured in each American Professional pickup.

Back in the fall of 2015, Fender’s resident pickup guru Tim Shaw (whose proper title is chief engineer) was tasked with a very important assignment.

The company was in the beginning stages of creating the new flagship American Professional Series of guitars and basses, and the pickups would be a huge part of the project.

Instead of the Fender Custom Shop pickups featured in the American Standard Series, American Professional instruments would eventually house brand-new V-Mod and Shawbucker pickups.

“The American Standard line was not ‘broken’, but we were able to say, ‘OK, what can we do to tweak them?” said Shaw, who has designed pickups for various other brands under the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation umbrella. “Over the previous couple of years, I’ve spent a lot of time with different magnet structures.

“When they asked me to work on American Professional pickups, I thought about the magnets and specifically how they sounded whether in the bridge, middle or neck position. That’s been done on a boutique level before, but this gave us an opportunity to voice them for position and purpose on instruments produced at a larger scale.”

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To crack the code, Shaw experimented with various types of alnico magnets, even putting different strength magnets in the same pickup. The final solution was a mix of alnico II, III and V in the Stratocaster and Telecaster models. That mixed-magnet concept continued to the Precision Bass and Jazz Bass models, with those pickups being refined and completed by engineer Michael Bump. To complete the line, the Jazzmaster and Jaguars boast redesigned V-Mod pickups with all alnico 5 magnets designed by Michael Frank.

The process took months of research and development in both Shaw’s hometown of Nashville and the Fender factory in Corona, Calif., but the outcome is a testament to the effort.

With the American Professional Stratocaster, all three single-coil pickups vary, with a blend of alnico II and III for the bridge, alnico II and V for the middle and alnico V for the bridge.

“The trick with the Strat is that positions two and four are just as important as positions one, three and five,” Shaw explained. “And we discovered that if we weren’t careful the ‘quack’ of two and four went away. So we then focused on reversing the magnets on the middle pickup, with alnico II on the bass and V on the treble because it made the quack sounds better.

“The whole set works well, especially with the model-specific treble-bleed circuit, as well.”

The Stratocaster HH was another challenge with the addition of the Shaw-designed Shawbucker 2 humbucker in the bridge position pairing with the Shawbucker 1 in the neck position.

“The Shawbucker 2 is not tremendously hotter, but it’s enough that those two balance well,” he said. “There’s a lot of versatility, and it also has a treble bleed that is voiced for it.”

The magnets in the American Professional Telecaster are positioned inversely from the Strat’s middle pickup.

“I messed with the winding on that one a little bit because I’m trying to keep the clarity of a Tele pickup without stabbing an icepick into your forehead,” he said. “It has alnico V for the wound strings and alnico II for the plain strings. Now we have a Tele where the neck pickup has personality and style. The bridge pickup is everything you need, too. It’s a Tele that is Instantly recognizable and very musical.”

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Similarly, the Telecaster Deluxe Shawbucker model also differs slightly from its Stratocaster counterpart.

“There are two volumes and two tones, so there’s a loading thing in the circuit which changes the way they respond,” Shaw said. “We also used a small wide range cover on the Shawbuckers with three poles over three poles as opposed to six across. So these pickups are cousins of what’s in the Strat HH, but they are not exactly the same.”

All of these improvements—in addition to the Precision Bass and Jazz Bass, both of which house a combination of alnico II and V—have made the American Professional Series pickups one of Fender’s latest and greatest innovations.

“It was a huge effort on the part of a bunch of people,” said Shaw. “It was fun to be a part of. We are trying to do things that people who make 20 boutique guitars a year do, but do it for 100 guitars a day. It just makes really good musical sense.”