Installing a Lap Steel Pickup for Skyler of Fleet Foxes

This case only raised our anticipation.

Isn’t that the greatest sight in the world? A super heavy-duty road case with “Fleet Foxes” written on day glow green tape on the lid hinting at the treasures within.

My bestest buddy and coworker Mike Ball has had the good fortune of being hired by the Foxes as their on tour guitar tech, and he’s been having a blast! We’re super proud of and happy for Mike- maybe just a little jealous- and even though we miss him it brings a swell of pride to our American hearts to have our comrade jet setting and living the good life on tour all over the world. *sniff*

While Mike is living the glamorous lifestyle of a touring roadie, Leading Tone has indeed been reaping some of the benefits; we’ve already done some work for the Foxes’ monitor engineer (a man known only as “T-Spence”) and some other miscellany here and there. Skyler, the electric guitarist-yet they’re all multi-instrumentalists- stopped by a little while back and talked shop with us. He mentioned wanting to swap the bridge pickup of his fantastic old Tele with a pickup from a lap steel he’d acquired, and I was more than eager to perform the minor surgery required to make him happy.

That following Friday, I was invited to pick the guitar up from the Foxes’ practice/pre-production space in Seattle- a heavily guarded, highly secretive location known only to a few select individuals that is not at all unlike Mordor or the Wonka Factory. I was only too lucky to have access to its location, but sadly many Bothans died to bring us this information…

Meeting up with Jill , the Fleet Foxes’ manager, was easy enough and everyone was more than kind. I also had the chance to meet Morgan, who plays a mean upright bass for the band as well as many, many other instruments. I arrived early enough to hang out for a bit, and when the equipment showed up I was invited to inspect the gear for shipping defects. I can tell you, this band has a lot of drool-worthy gear: an old-school Gibson electric mandolin, a Gibson CF-100 and an old Martin with double pickguards. That’s only a very small taste of their collection, and I was thrilled more and more as I opened each case.

Our opinion: this guitar is to die for!

The big thrill was seeing Skyler’s guitar in person. A beautiful c. 1968 Telecaster with a Bigsby installed, this guitar has both tone and mojo in spades. I won’t even pretend I didn’t plug it in and revel in its natural sustain and other-worldly combination of girth and bite.

In working on Skye’s guitar, I knew the job would take some time. The pickup from a 50’s Fender lap steel isn’t just a direct replacement; not only are the screw holes in different places, the steel pickup has no third hole or extension in front of the pickup, so mounting this on a Tele bridge required installing new bottom brass and flatwork plates on the bottom.

I’ll admit it: I needed to research a little before I began. I didn’t want to inadvertently destroy a great sounding steel pickup with a careless stroke or too-hot soldering iron. I found some rather detailed photos by Googling “lap steel pickup in telecaster”. In no time I was on my way.

I had to take the pickup from this... (Example photo taken from Seymourduncan.com)

To this. (Example photo taken from Seymourduncan.com)

The first order of business was to saw off the extra protruding mass of the lap steel pickup’s bobbin, which prevented it from fitting in the bridge pickup route in the guitar. Very simple. I also took time to de-solder the pickup’s leads as the originals were far too short to run to the Telecaster’s volume and tone controls. I’d replace them later with some new cloth covered wire we had in stock.

A shot of the additional plates.

In order to run the wires through the new bottom plates, I had to modify and enlarge the pre-drilled holes in them, which wasn’t difficult at all. Time consuming, yes. Difficult, no. After that, installing those bottom plates was as simple as removing excess wax potting and affixing the plates to the bottom of the pickup bobbin. I used some amazing stuff called PR-600 (kind of an industrial, stick-two-trucks-together sort of glue) to get the job done, which will ensure that the plates never become detached from the pickup. This guitar is not only seeing a lot of road use, it’s also being transported between Europe and America frequently, so I wanted to make sure this pickup stays exactly where I left it.

Doesn't that just look better? I mean, that lap pickup has some serious wear. Sexy.

After installing this pickup, the sonic differences were immediately apparant. Previously, Skye had a Duncan stacked humbucker installed. It didn’t sound bad at all, but it also had pretty high output for the kind of music he’s playing. The lap steel pickup measured at about 7.3K- healthy resistance for a steel pup- and in that Tele it just sounded meaty. When I first plugged in, I expected the usual Telecaster bite, but I was greeted with a robust, round sort of darkness that had restrained highs and a bit of a midrange boost. A dark pickup for sure, but not without its own brand of treble sizzle. Really, really cool.

Leading Tone was invited to the Fleet Foxes’ most recent show in Seattle at the Paramount Theater. When I caught up with Skyler backstage, I asked him what he thought of it. “It’s f****** amazing, man! I love it!”

That’s what I like to hear.

<3

 

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