Rethinking pickup technology for a unique line of electrics
In physics, there’s a lot that doesn’t change: Apples still fall from trees, the earth still circles the sun, and it still takes a system of magnets and coils to pick up the vibrations from an electric guitar string—well, except when it doesn’t. Christopher Willcox, for one, thought there had to be another way. Trained as a luthier in the ’70s, Christopher opened a California guitar shop in 1980 and went on to experiment widely in guitar-building, testing different woods, materials, and methods to see how they affected tone and sustain. Pickups, however, were a lingering problem for him. As he later summed up: “The magnetic pickups used in traditional electric guitars have inherent noise, interfere with string vibration, and generate their own tone, never allowing the instrument to reach the perfection of its sound.” In search of an alternative, Christopher began researching new pickup technologies, and in 1988 he built the prototype for what he’d later patent as the Lightwave Optical Pickup System. His concept: by using infrared light rather than magnets to detect string vibrations, Lightwave would translate their motion into accurate, full-range sound without disturbing the string in any way. Ten years and several advances later, Christopher reincorporated his company as Lightwave Systems. Ultimately, though, he wanted to go back to building complete instruments: Combining his earlier work in wood selection and guitar design with his brainwave on optical pickup technology, he founded Willcox Guitars.
“Our main differentiator,” says Christopher, “is our non-intrusive, absolutely transparent pickup that allows the purest and most natural sound from stringed instruments. The LightWave Optical Pickup System is the first and only technology of its kind.”
The LightWave Optical Pickup System now comes standard in a range of four Willcox instruments known for their sleek looks and comfortable feel. As Christopher says, “We pride ourselves in offering guitars and basses with a straightforward and user-friendly design, without unnecessary frills.” Along with its flagship models, the Atlantis guitar and Saber bass, the guitar maker offers each in a “HexFX” version featuring a 13-pin connector that allows for individual string outputs in addition to the summed output of the optical pickup system. This extra functionality opens up options including full synth access and individual string processing and modeling. One additional Willcox model, the Stylus Electric Upright Bass, is scheduled to launch shortly. Beyond its production models, Willcox maintains a USA Custom Shop where instruments can be configured with premium tonewoods, variable hardware options, and a variety of finishes.
Willcox Guitars are sold primarily through a network of boutique guitar dealers in the U.S. and overseas—among them Chicago Music Exchange, The Music Zoo, and Bass Direct U.K. For customers without a dealer nearby, the company also offers limited direct sales through its website. Overall, Christopher suggests, the climate has probably never been more favorable for a small guitar maker with something original to offer: Social media and viral marketing have supplied the fuel to take a new idea global, while the improved U.S. economy, compared to four or five years ago, has made guitarists more apt to spring for a new instrument—even if it happens to be the third, fourth, or tenth in their arsenal. “We tend to attract experienced players looking for something different that is not available in their current collection,” Christopher adds. “And players more than ever are open to trying instruments from smaller boutique manufacturers instead of just relying on the big names in the industry. Our goal for the future is to bring LightWave Optical Pickup Technology to every viable category of stringed instrument in the market.”
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