Sevenstring.org interview - Tim Mills of Bare Knuckle Pickups
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<strong>Sevenstring.org Interview - Tim Mills of Bare Knuckle Pickups</strong>
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<b>Interview: Tim Mills</b><br />
<font size="1"><i>Interviewed by: Nolly</i></font><br />
"Tim Mills, the owner of Bare Knuckle Pickups, prides himself on a single concept: Wind the pickups by hand, and offer the highest-quality materials available. It's a concept that works, the proof of which is in the pickups. Bare Knuckle Pickups are definitely designed to ensure that the player knows his or her hard-earned cash has been well spent. " -Brett Petrusek, Musician's Hotline
<img style="padding:20px;" align="left" src="http://i.imgur.com/OcGt5.jpg" alt="Tymon (left) and Paul (right)" /><br />
<span style="color:red;font-weight:bold;">Sevenstring.org:</span> Hi Tim, thanks for agreeing to do this interview! Perhaps a good place to start would be to get a little background info - what led you to start making pickups, and how soon after was the first Bare Knuckle pickup born?
<span style="color:orange;font-weight:bold;">Tim Mills:</span>: Firstly Iíd like to apologise for the time itís taken to do this interview Ė the best part of a year I believe. Since revamping our website at the beginning of 2011 along with the introduction of several new models to our range of pickups Iíve virtually been living in the workshops. I do appreciate the support weíve had from sevenstring.org and get to correspond with many of the forum members regularly through email, so getting this interview done was a priority as soon as I was able to stick my head above the parapet. It was the insistence of members of sevenstring.org that originally pushed me to start producing seven string pickups and gave me the confidence to invest in tooling up to make them. Requests also poured in for covered 7 string humbuckers, something that no one else was doing at the time and again we responded by developing the tooling needed so a big thank you all round as the forum genuinely helped us move forward in a big way.
Like all guitar players Iíve always been interested in gear and over the course of my playing life have experimented with all kinds of kit, not least pickup upgrades. It was around 2001/2002 that I started moving predominantly to playing LPs and managed to get a couple of early Ď70s LP Customs to add to my mainstay í82 Ivory Custom that Iíd had since 1990. I was lucky enough to get these guitars for Ďsensibleí money but needless to say the pickups in one werenít working and in the other were highly microphonic. Both guitars played nicely so I set about trying to sort out the pickups and I think that was the point I really started to take pickups apart, see how they worked(or didnít work!), what they were made from and so on. Very soon, with the help of an engineering friend of mine called Ray, I had my first winder up and running. In fact I still use the same machine today. The next year and a half was spent winding coils Ė I looked at all kinds of different pickups, spoke with lots of other makers and explored different ways of making pickups as I tried to formulate my own approach. One colleague in particular I ran into very early on was (and still is) invaluable and mentored me greatly making sure I came to my own conclusions whilst impressing on me the need to produce my own parts (more about that later).
By 2003 I felt ready to launch the company, Bare Knuckle Pickups Ė the name came from a parallel I drew between my love of playing guitar and martial arts, both creative forms that use the hands to execute them. The idea of a Bare Knuckle fighter (namely Bob Fitzsimmons 3 times world champion was born in Helston, Cornwall which is very close to where we are) suited the image of the company perfectly and tied in nicely with the retro way I envisaged the brand developing.
Although Bare Knuckle was incorporated in June 2003 the website didnít go live until the autumn of that year. We did our first guitar show that November at the NEC in Birmingham and we havenít looked back since.
<span style="color:red;font-weight:bold;">SS:</span> What is your background in music, and are you still involved in any musical projects at the moment?
<span style="color:orange;font-weight:bold;">TM:</span> I started playing guitar relatively late around the age of 15 I guess and as with all of us, once the bug had bitten I was hooked. Much to the dismay of my parents who wanted me to do a Ďproperí job I was determined to make a career in music with my guitar so set off playing in a variety of bands both here in the UK and then in Germany. I soon discovered that making a living from music wasnít as easy as I thought so upon returning to the UK started teaching guitar privately and steadily built up a good roster of students which kept me going and learning all the while as I went. It was through the teaching that I started working for British blues rock singer Elkie Brooks Ė after teaching her son guitar I was soon being asked to play on tracks in her studio leading to whole albums and then becoming part of her touring band which I did through most of the Ď90s.
Coming from a predominantly rock and metal playing background and finding myself in a band with some seriously scary session players was a real eye opener and a steep learning curve but it did me no end of good and I learnt masses about playing, production and writing. Also at this time I was very actively involved in a metal band with my wife on vocals and we toured the UK extensively as well as opening for other main touring acts and doing several sessions for Radio 1.
For the past 10 years Iíve played in an Ozzy tribute band here in the UK Ė essentially a group of my closest friends which still gives me the chance to get out and play without the pressure of touring all the time. It also gives me the opportunity to test pickups in a live environment which is something Iíve always done since day one and have grown to rely on as the final bench mark of a pickupís performance.
In between all of that I have worked for Iced Earth over in the US contributing some solos to one of their EPs as well as writing some tracks for a couple of their albums with Jon Schaffer. I also very briefly did some writing and playing with Chitty Somapala in Germany as part of a band called Civilization One but by this time Bare Knuckle was absorbing all of my spare time and I couldnít manage to keep going back and forth to Germany.
Right now I still get to go out and play with the tribute band Ė itís called No Rest for the Wicked and itís simply the best fun ever. I get the chance to play the guitar parts of Rhoads, Lee and Wylde which are both challenging and enjoyable. Weíve also just started recording some original material which will feature both the guys from the band and my wife which Iím very excited about. Iíve no idea how long itíll take as my priority is always Bare Knuckle but itíd be nice to think itíll see the light of day at some point.
<span style="color:red;font-weight:bold;">SS:</span> Just how much of a difference can people expect to notice when comparing a handwound pickup such as one of yours with a regular mass-produced pickup? If your business continues to expand, would you entertain the notion of outsourcing production?
<span style="color:orange;font-weight:bold;">TM:</span> The majority of players hears a wider frequency response and notice an improvement in dynamics Ė the tone feels bigger in every direction. Thereís absolutely nothing wrong with mass produced pickups, they all reproduce a tone and as such are useable, itís just by handwinding our coils and in particular scatter winding them, we can allow the pickups to be more responsive so they reproduce more frequencies off the string. By winding each coil and making each pickup by hand, one at a time, we are able to spend the time making sure our pickups reproduce the tone of the guitar to their optimum.
I started out making pickups because I wanted to make a better sounding pickup; as part of that journey I also discovered I enjoyed the process of making the pickups too. I would never entertain getting our pickups made anywhere else as it would go completely against all that I believe in and all that goes into a Bare Knuckle. I started out on my own, the team is now up to ten full time employees on the production side and they all wind and make pickups alongside me exactly the same way I do. As the business expands I aim to continue employing more staff in turn providing more jobs in our area of Cornwall and maintaining the production techniques, skills and quality that are the foundations of Bare Knuckle.
<span style="color:red;font-weight:bold;">SS:</span> Your pickups have become very highly regarded by the guitar-playing community - when you started out did you ever expect to reach the position you are currently in?
<span style="color:orange;font-weight:bold;">TM:</span> Initially, if Iím totally honest I thought Iíd found something that would just give me another string to my bow and keep me working inside the music industry, however within a few months of launch it soon became apparent that a lot of players shared my vision of Bare Knuckle. Iím extremely pleased so many players have taken to Bare Knuckle and continue to do so. Iím completely committed to pushing the company forward so that more players are using the pickups, getting inspired to play and making music which has to be the ultimate goal.
<span style="color:red;font-weight:bold;">SS:</span> Bare Knuckle Pickups' customer service is one of the most consistently praised aspects of the company. Has it been difficult to maintain the level of personal service people have come to expect while the amount of business has skyrocketed?
<span style="color:orange;font-weight:bold;">TM:</span> Again Iíll be honest and say itís been tough Ė we get literally hundreds of emails a day along with phone calls and letters, all wanting advice. Itís extremely time consuming but itís the way I decided I wanted to work from the outset; giving one-on-one advice, educating players to their needs and getting the right pickup for the job to the right player. I would always rather talk to someone than not and to that end our customer service is as important to me as making pickups. Thereís absolutely no point going to great pains making the best pickup you can if it goes to the wrong style of player. Once I know what a customer really wants I can advise accordingly, make them the right pickup for their guitar and playing style and know theyíll be happy
I still answer the majority of emails personally and enjoy doing so as it enables me to learn more as playing styles evolve. In the past year I have employed someone to help on the sales front called Ben who handles a lot of the phone calls and also pitches in on email during the day so that I can still make pickups alongside the rest of the team in the workshop. However I am personally available by email or through our own forum for advice at anytime.
<img style="padding:20px;" align="right" src="http://i.imgur.com/5L3ZT.jpg" alt="Tymon (left) and Paul (right)" /><br />
<span style="color:red;font-weight:bold;">SS:</span> The pickups in your range are named after tracks by famous guitarists. When designing them do you attempt to replicate the construction of the pickup used on the original recording, or are you only aiming to recreate its sound?
<span style="color:orange;font-weight:bold;">TM:</span> Iím aiming for a vibe really. A pickup is one part of a chain that creates your tone with the most important link being you, the player. To make any pickup, or any piece of kit come to think of it, and say Ďthis will exactly replicate so and soís soundí is unfair, as the core of that playerís sound is what theyíre actually playing. What we can do is get you into the right ballpark to start with, and for me that means getting as close to the original pickup tone and performance as possible, so Iíll start with the spec of the original pickup as reference. Occasionally Iíll do it based purely on the tone from available recordings Ė for example the Irish Tour single coils are aimed at helping to reproduce the tone of Rory Gallagher. Rory picked extremely heavily with hefty strings and action through an amp cranked flat out. Most of us mere mortal players will never get within a mile of that style of playing using vintage output coils like Rory but by winding the coils differently and altering the output and response I can at least get us into the right output ballpark and tonal response. The rest is going to be down to practice.
<span style="color:red;font-weight:bold;">SS:</span> Are there any tonal qualities you aim for in all the pickups in your range, a signature Bare Knuckle sound as it were? If so, do you attribute it to any specific aspect of the construction process?
<span style="color:orange;font-weight:bold;">TM:</span> Each of the pickups in the range has its own voice or character Ė what I look for is an openness in that voicing and dynamic and a big part of that comes from the way we scatterwind our coils.
Scatterwinding is something that normally is only done by hand, thatís the way I do it and the method Iím most comfortable with anyway. By varying the tension and placement of each turn of wire as the coil is wound I create a more random winding pattern whilst maintaining the shape of the coil. This stops the turns of wire from laying so tightly and uniformly together in the coil which can cause extra capacitance and compromise high end clarity and response.
Also worth mentioning at this point is the contribution of all the other components in a pickup. With particular reference to a humbucker for instance, the integrity of the other parts such as the baseplate, pole screws and slugs, pole keeper and bobbins all have an effect on the performance of the pickup. Itís precisely for this reason that Iíve invested so heavily both in terms of materials research and financially - to produce our own tooling to make all of our own components.
<span style="color:red;font-weight:bold;">SS:</span> Arguably the most instantly recognisable pickups you make are the ones featuring the ďCamoĒ cover option. How did the idea for those come about?
<span style="color:orange;font-weight:bold;">TM:</span> It started out with the Warpig actually. My original idea for the Warpig was to look like it had been ripped off a part of an old tank. I set to experimenting with various acids and abrasives and started to develop the process with quite a clear vision of what I was trying to create. This later developed into the camo cover from a customer request for a cover with an Ďurbaní camo look. Whilst attempting to get a good finish with blacks and greys I stumbled across the green/brown camo finish which came about by blasting the cover with heat. Over the years itís changed a bit which I quite like as I really wanted all of the special finishes to have complete uniqueness about them. These days one of the team called Dan handles most of the camo, battle worn and burnt finishes still using the same techniques but with his own twist on it which is really cool. It was Dan who came up with our new Tyger finish which has gone down really well. I see that several other companies have started doing different types of cover now which is great but I like to think of it very much as a Bare Knuckle feature and something weíre going to continue doing.
<span style="color:red;font-weight:bold;">SS:</span> You often recommend lower output pickups (such as the Black Dog or Riff Raff) for players of extended range or baritone instruments. Whatís the logic behind this? Can a lower output and classically voiced pickup truly perform to the standard one would expect from a modern high output unit?
<span style="color:orange;font-weight:bold;">TM:</span> The longer the scale length of the instrument the brighter it gets and with heavy gauge strings and lower tunings thereís more string mass moving in the magnetic field of the pickups so if youíre not careful you can end up with all boom and hiss from a high gain humbucker.
When I was doing the recording work with Iced Earth we had to rerecord several older IE tracks for an EP and to give them a different edge we decided to uses baritones instead of regular guitars. We spent quite some time trying all kinds of different pickups with the high gain heads that were being used and the best results always came from the lower output pickups.
Again, it does boil down to the player and how they use their guitar so this isnít a golden rule by any means and there is always going to be the exception to the rule where a medium or even high output humbucker will be required.
<span style="color:red;font-weight:bold;">SS:</span> Do you have a personal favourite pickup?
<span style="color:orange;font-weight:bold;">TM:</span> I do, The Mule. Along with the Miracle Man it was one of the first I worked on and I personally find it suites the majority of what I play. Itís based on a late í59 PAF humbucker so itís no surprise to find itís versatile and that the voice is totally classic. Having said that, itís not like itís the only pickup I use but if I can only grab one guitar to go out on a gig with itíd have Mules in it.
<span style="color:red;font-weight:bold;">SS:</span> Are there any artists youíd love to see using your pickups?
<span style="color:orange;font-weight:bold;">TM:</span> Iím very fortunate to have worked with a lot of guitar players I admire, one of the highlights was Gary Moore buying a couple of sets of PG Blues humbuckers and asking me to rewind the neck coil from his famous pink Strat.
There was the day Jimmy Pageís No.1 LP arrived in the workshop Ė no need to explain what that felt like. As the case opened it was one of the only times Iíve heard complete silence in the workshops!
Performing open heart surgery on my kitchen table on one of Matt Bellamyís guitars along with Hugh Manson of Manson Guitars was quite an experience Ė two P90s, a Sustainer system and a Kaos pad all on one guitar!
I couldnít not mention the day I saw an order come through from Steve Stevens Ė I thought to myself, I wonder if itís Ďtheí Steve Stevens, well there canít be two Steve Stevens can there? Anyway after buying several sets through the online shop I got an email from Steve introducing himself, saying how much he enjoyed the pickups and wanting to meet up at Monsters of Rock the following week Ė an extremely cool guy, an even more talented player and Iím proud to have him onboard as a signature artist.
Then thereís all the new crop of players that are driving things forward at a rate of knots: Rise To Remain, Tesseract, Red Seas Fire, Periphery to name but a few. Iíve been lucky enough to make pickups for these guys and get to know their music which is an education in itself. Scarily talented people.
I would like to add that artists are still customers and a valuable lesson I learnt from Robert Keeley many years ago was that it doesnít matter who you are, everyone who plays guitar is an artist.
<img style="padding:20px;" align="left" src="http://i.imgur.com/H2EYg.jpg" alt="Tymon (left) and Paul (right)" /><br />
<span style="color:red;font-weight:bold;">SS:</span> Are you still developing new pickups to add to the range, or do you feel it is complete as is? If the former, how much R&D goes into a new pickup design before you feel itís ready to be an official model?
<span style="color:orange;font-weight:bold;">TM:</span> Iím always developing new pickups and I do feel there is plenty still to do at Bare Knuckle. For instance weíve just finished tooling up for Jaguar coils and will be introducing those in the not too distant future. Initially these will be vintage reproduction coils so a lot of the R&D is already done.
We then have our new Black Hawk humbucker which is a blade design humbucker due out in the New Year. This one has been in development for the best part of a year, or to be more accurate, road tested. The actual design of this pickup was relatively quick taking a few weeks to come together once Iíd got my ideas across to our engineer and I then worked on the voicing of the pickup for several weeks before moving to gig testing. Itís at this point that I start making adjustments to the wind and fine tuning it. Iíve also put one or two with Misha from Periphery and Adam from Red Seas Fire (also helping out with Periphery too) as I value their views on its performance. Iím just finishing off the work on the 7 string versions and would hope to have everything ready for a launch in Jan/Feb 2012.
<span style="color:red;font-weight:bold;">SS:</span> The range adheres strictly to the traditional designs of each type of pickup. Do you have an opinion on more modern designs, such as hum-cancelling Strat- and Tele-sized units, or the use of more powerful magnets (neodymium for example)?
<span style="color:orange;font-weight:bold;">TM:</span> Iím quite conservative as a guitarist so initially I put my trust, as many players do, in whatís gone before. A lot of the seminal recordings that are always used as reference for tone come from the Ď50s and Ď60s so I based the foundation of my pickup construction on tried and tested designs such as the original Gibson PAF and P90 as well as the Fender single coils and then applied my voicings and ideas to those building blocks.
As far as hum-cancelling single coils go Iíve personally never had any issues with single coil noise so itís not an area that has really bothered me. Before you say, Ďah, but you use humbuckersí I would say in my defence that I do have several Strats and Teles as well as P90 loaded guitars all of which I use in my R&D studio with a Mac and a lot of other electrical equipment around me with no problems at all.
Personally I find thereís a lot of compromise involved once a single coil is turned into a hum-cancelling/noiseless design sounding neither like a full sized humbucker or a single coil; the dynamics change radically and the character seems to get lost. I fully respect that some players struggle with background noise from single coils and that for them the noiseless designs must be a godsend; there are some manufacturers like Kinman and Barden that offer some great pickups for those players.
As for stronger magnets, Iím always up for experimenting with new magnets and materials. To date I havenít had any satisfactory results with Neodymium or Alnico VIII though Iím afraid.
<span style="color:red;font-weight:bold;">SS:</span> There often seems to be a certain shroud of mystery around ďboutiqueĒ guitar products. Do you feel there is an element of ďblack magicĒ in pickup winding or is it an exact science, in your view?
<span style="color:orange;font-weight:bold;">TM:</span> There are no black magic or secret methods as far as I know; I generally find thatís just an excuse for not understanding your own methods and materials. In my experience patience, perseverance and consistency are the keys to getting things right, that and staying open to learning and improving what you do so that youíre always striving to stay at the top of your game. Iíve no qualms about discussing any aspect of how I make pickups Ė I know how hard it is to get to where I am now, how much its cost both physically and financially and how long itís taken. If there is a secret itís called hard work.
<span style="color:red;font-weight:bold;">SS:</span> Are there any other pickup winders out there that you see as kindred spirits, or whose work you admire?
<span style="color:orange;font-weight:bold;">TM:</span> There are a lot of very knowledgeable makers out there doing some extremely nice work with some very unique ideas that I greatly admire and itís always nice to see other peopleís work. Probably the first totally handmade pickup I came across a long time ago, and by that I mean someone who has literally made all their own parts as well as wound the coils, was Tom Holmes. That set the bench mark for me Ė extremely good engineering and amazing tone.
<span style="color:red;font-weight:bold;">SS:</span> Awesome! On behalf of sevenstring.org, massive thanks for taking the time to answer the questions!
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<span style="color:orange;font-weight:bold;">For more information on Tim Mills and Bare Knuckle Pickups:</span><br />
<span style="color:white;font-weight:bold;"><a href="www.bareknucklepickups.co.uk/ target="_BLANK">Official Bare Knuckle Pickups website</a></span><br />