Picking Up History

May 14, 2013
SB-abigail_ybarra

There’s a little old lady partial to cardigans who has earned a place in rock history. Her stuff goes for hundreds of dollars on eBay. She retired two weeks ago, and Los Lobos played her goodbye party at work.

Abigail Ybarra, “The Queen of Tone,” started hand-winding guitar pickups for Fender in 1958. Fender figures her pickups were on guitars played by Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix.

All I know about guitars is from hearing them. (I’m learning bass but haven’t progressed beyond Fleetwood Mac’s “Chain.”) But in electric string instruments, there are things called pickups: magnets wrapped in thousands of turns of hair-thin copper wire. They pick up (get it?) the strings’ vibrations and let the sound travel through an amp.

Most pickups are wound on an automatic machine, but some connoisseurs swear by “scatterwound” pickups — those done by hand with a device that looks a little like a sewing machine.

There are scatterwinding stars in the industry, like Ybarra, and fans of certain hand-winders hoard their pickups. Because winders retire. Ybarra trained her successor, Josefina Campos, for three years — and people already ask for her pickups by name.

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