It’s strange to think that electric guitars, and more specifically here their pickups, still largely adhere to a design principal that has remained fundamentally unchanged since its inception in 1934. Copper wire is wrapped around a magnet with individual pole pieces, which convert string vibrations into an electromagnetic signal and voila –– never again would the humble guitar have to fight to be heard above the din of acoustically more strident instruments like drums, piano and brass.
However resistant many purists may be to the winds of change, there will always be clever buggers beavering away down in the lab, if not exactly re-inventing the wheel, at least trying to drag it into the 21st century. And that is exactly what renowned acoustic pickup producers Fishman have done with their new range of active electric guitar pickups.
The Fluence range, which currently includes single width Strat, Classic Humbucker and Modern Humbucker models in black, white or nickel finishes (rrp $350 for a set of three), is based on modern circuit printing technology by which wire coils are ‘printed’ onto a circuit board in a way that is much more exact and controllable than a winding technique. This printing process is repeated and stacked 48 times on top of a spacer, with a further 48 layers mirrored underneath, with the coil direction perfectly reversed to prevent any hum or noise.
The single coil versions as supplied for this review on a relatively inexpensive SX Strat copy use Alnico IV rod magnets and a battery-powered pre-amp to boost certain frequencies and attenuate others in order to arrive at the desired voicing for each model of pickup. This pre-amp also allows Fishman the rather cool option of storing two completely different frequency settings for each pickup, which can be used as either a set-and-forget option, or wired to either a push-pull tone or volume knob, or to a separate two-way selector switch. In the review model’s case this means a choice of either Vintage Single Coil or the Hot Texas Single Coil a la Stevie Ray Vaughan, which has a bit more grit and girth in the mid range and perhaps a touch more output.
The pre-amp of course requires a power source, and Fishman have brought their considerable skill and innovation to bear on this aspect in developing their own lithium ion battery system (not included, rrp $160), which can either slot into the Strat backplate or fit under the pick guard, offering up to 250 hours of play time.
Not only does that put your rather expensive high end 9-volt battery to shame, but also you can recharge in around two hours by plugging in a mini USB cable to a wall socket or computer. You can, if you prefer, simply run the pickups on a standard 9-volt battery.
As luck would have it I had a good opportunity to try out the Fluence-rigged Strat at a good-sized outdoor gig a couple of days after picking it up – the annual Big Nui gig at Wainui School. For a school fundraiser it has very high production values, a large stage, some impressive talent and a beautiful bush-clad setting, so I welcomed the opportunity to crank up my Mesa Boogie Stiletto and see what the Fluence pickups could deliver.
I opted to use the review guitar for a dropped-D song rather than the whole set, as I hadn’t spent much time with it. My immediate impression was that these pickups deliver great clarity and precision, and that while they are voiced for authentic Stratocaster tone, it seems like that tone has been somehow distilled and concentrated, like a single malt scotch.
Original Strat pickups have oodles of personality but do vary from one guitar to the next. They’re occasionally a little uneven-sounding and theyre undeniably noisy in certain situations, particularly where stage lights are in play. There was none of that here, not a hint of noise, just beautiful undiluted tone.
Rolling back the volume had no effect on the higher frequencies, as is often the case with single coil pickups, while the active system enables you to run long cables without capacitance having an effect on the high-end frequencies.
Having a more leisurely workout with the guitar at home I checked out the Hot Texas voicing and was very impressed with the extra tonal possibilities this great feature introduces to the mix. I set the pickup selector to ’neck’ and dropped into a few bars of Cold Shot and there it was –– the spirit of the master Texas bluesman was filling the room!
In summary, Fishman are a company who set the innovation bar extremely high, and strive to live up their own great reputation with any new products. They don’t seek to dazzle with banks of LEDs, dials and switches –– every feature on a Fishman product seems thoroughly researched and developed, built to last and there because it makes the device sound better or more intuitive to use. All of which certainly applies to the Fluence range of pickups.