What's the Secret to an Electric Guitar’s Unique Sound?

Close-up of a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar

Vulcanized fibre sees broad usage in the fabrication of everything from suitcases to automobile parts to musical instruments. This material comes in two types: commercial grade and electrical grade, the latter of which is also known as fishpaper. The fishpaper version of vulcanized fibre is particularly useful in applications that employ the use of electricity, such as home appliances, electrical insulation, and circuit breakers.

For the purposes of this article, however, you only need to know this: fishpaper rocks.

Vulcanized Fibre: A Key Component in Electric Guitars

Vulcanized fibre begins as a form of absorbent paper made from cotton rags or a high-cellulose wood pulp. Treating this paper with zinc chloride causes a chemical reaction that swells the fibers, turning them into a near-gelatinous state. Sheets of this gelatinous paper are layered then pressed, heated, and dried to form sheets at a variety of desired thicknesses.

The result is a material that’s durable, ductile, heat- and cold-resistant, and can be machined with an array of processes to meet nearly any desired form. Lighter than aluminum, vulcanized fibre also resists wear, impacts, and abrasion.

With all these features, it isn’t hard to see why Fender began using fishpaper to manufacture bobbins for their electric guitars as far back as the 1950s.

For the musically uninitiated, a bobbin of an electric guitar pickup is a reel-like structure that the pickup's copper wire coil is wound upon. Bobbins are also found in electric bass guitar pickups.

The pickup itself is an electromagnetic transducer—ultimately, it is what makes the guitar electric. Strings pass through the magnetic field produced by the pickup, and when they are strummed, they disrupt the field and produce a minor amount of current. This current passes through the pickup’s copper coil, through the cable, and into the amplifier to produce what we know as the electric guitar sound.

In 1954, Fender realized that they could minimize feedback and reduce the microphonic tendencies of the electric guitar sound in their Stratocaster models by using vulcanized fibre to craft the bobbin.

Guitar enthusiasts will recognize the term “black bottom pickup,” which refers to the now-famous black vulcanized fibre bottom of the vintage Stratocaster pickup. Later Stratocaster models used a gray bobbin, also made from vulcanized fibre.

For Those About to Rock

The unique sound provided by the Stratocaster caught the attention of many famous rock ’n’ roll guitarists and fans alike. Here are a few legendary guitarists that may owe some small bit of their fame to the fishpaper used in black or gray bottom pickups:

Ritchie Valens

Ritchie Valens produced one of the first chart-topping Spanish-language hits in American pop music: La Bamba. His guitar of choice was the Fender Stratocaster.

Eric Clapton

Rock legend Eric Clapton built his most famous guitar, Blackie, from the parts of three separate Stratocasters. In the introduction Clapton wrote for The Stratocaster Chronicles, Clapton discusses how he bought a guitar shop’s entire stock of Stratocasters for hundreds of dollars, using some for parts and gifting others to friends. Those guitars would now be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

George Harrison

The Beatles’ famed guitarist favored the Stratocaster as well. His infamous guitar—Rocky—was featured on many of the band’s albums, including “Help” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Buddy Holly

One of the earliest rock ’n’ roll artists to use the Stratocaster, Buddy Holly used the instrument to popularize not only the guitar, but also many of the standard rock ’n’ roll chord progressions still in use today.

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix played a left-handed Stratocaster at Woodstock in 1969, arguably one of the most famous guitar performances in modern history. Hendrix’s guitar sold for £198,000 at auction in 1990 and is rumored to have sold privately for around $2,000,000 since then.

Vulcanized fibre continues to be a popular material for fabricating bobbins today and is still in use by Fender, Gibson, and other major guitar brands.

It probably wouldn’t be accurate to say that the use of vulcanized fibre in their Stratocaster pickups led directly to the fame of all these great guitarists—but it sure didn’t hurt.

Image Credit: Marco A. Fernandez / Shutterstock.com

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