The Cigar Box Pickup
Posted by Eben Cole on
In our article Art Stimson: Spokane’s Missing Link in Electric Guitar History we uncover a trove of new information about Art Stimson, the Spokanite who we believe was the primary inventor of the magnetic electric guitar pickup. In that article you also learn of a once forgotten pickup, handmade by the inventor, discovered in a family steamer trunk, nestled amongst other family keepsakes, stored away for decades. If you haven’t read that post yet, by all means go do that now. What follows is the story of that pickup.
This story began with a guy walking into a guitar shop. When Richard first came in for repair work on his grandfather's 1920's Gibson L3, we struck up a conversation and Richard was amazed that I might know more about his grandfather's place in music history than he did. That conversation motivated Richard to bring us the "Cigar Box Pickup", a brassy chunk of carefully wrought early electronics, hand cobbled with care and ingenuity, that sat dormant in a cigar box betwixt family photos and old journals for decades. This is our endeavor to learn as much as we can about this unique tidbit of guitar history, made by the guy who electrified us all.
To dive down this rabbit hole we gathered together a group of vintage electronics super-friends to help us take a look under the hood:
- Eben Cole, Vintage instrument expert
- Brad Perry, Pickup ‘designer and winder’ for Silver Hand Pickups
- David Covillo, Electrical Engineer and analog recording engineer
- Joel Street, Vintage electronics expert
- Derrick Fernandez, Patent drafter to help us interpret the patent work and provide diagrams of our mystery pickup
Here's what we found…
First off, it's a really unique looking and intriguing piece of hardware. You can tell right away it's not a production piece. Notice the different screws, the early blade design, and the attached bridge.
On the side you can see an audio connector common for 1930's radio equipment.
You can tell from the back that the brass casing is constructed with handmade parts.
Let's Take the Top Off
Inside the casing there is a layer of paperboard packing in the bottom half. Above that you can see two overlapping coils.
Under the Covers
Inside there's a horseshoe magnet and wood blocking to keep things in place.
Top Angled View
While it was in this condition we ran several tests. We found that the magnet was extremely weak, well under 100 Gauss and the resistance was about 1/10th of what a typical Strat pickup would be.
Under the Front Cover
Under the top cover you can see Art has used a piece of recycled brass for the casing. We've done quite a few image searches, but haven't found what this may be a part of. If you know, it could help us figure out a more accurate date for this pickup. Please drop us a line! (New info on this at bottom of post.)
Here's how it all goes together
Our friend Derrick Fernandez was kind enough to put his drafting skills to work to give us a detailed look at how this pickup goes together.
And, then we put it back together.
Here's the Art Stimson "Guitar Box Pickup" installed on his 1920's Gibson L3.
After it was installed, Joel Street was able to fashion a perfect cord to work with it and we plugged it in.
NOW... WHAT WE KNOW, WHAT WE KINDA KNOW, AND WHAT WE KNOW WE DON’T KNOW
We definitely know that this pickup was built by Art Stimson using mostly recycled materials he could find at the time, and utilizes a horseshoe magnet with a dual coil design, wired for a humbucking effect.
We feel this might have been a personal endeavor to forward his designs after the second patent application at Dobro, based on the construction and where the technical ideas sit. Or he simply may have wanted to electrify his personal guitar (as you can see from the video below, it works quite well on Art’s L3). This pickup evolves the design, from the canted magnet angle of the 2nd patent and feels like a more streamlined, elegant approach in general.
What we don’t know is exactly when it was made, so it’s up to historians with skills beyond ours to see if they can place it exactly, and let the esotericists (mad props!) speculate on who did it first. We feel the evidence is in Art’s favor.
What else do we know? We know it still works! Even after decades in storage, the magnets were not fully degaussed. Amazing. So we took the whole crew down to Lead Pencil studios in Spokane, WA and had a friend pick out some classics that might have played on this pickup when it was first made.
Check out Art Stimson's "Cigar Box Pickup" in action...
It’s been a fun adventure working with the Stimson family and all our fellow guitar nerds that came together to help us understand this unique story and aspect of guitar history. Special thanks to Richard Stimson (Art's grandson), Diane and Linda (Art's granddaughters), Leslie (Art's great granddaughter) and Lynn (Art's daughter-in-law). Seeing a forgotten piece of a family legacy resurrected to make music again was truly an honor.
We're working on a short documentary about all of this, don't forget to sign up for our newsletter (in the footer) if you'd like a ping when that comes out. And if you're a tone conscious guitar nerd, check out the Missing Links Brad winds for us. They'll melt your face off.
Photo credit: Erick Doxey Photography
Written by Eben Cole and Scott Mueller
UPDATE: Not 2 hours after this blog had posted, Wilhelm Underwood (of Spokane) shared this pic with us. It sure looks like a ringer for the metal the case was made out of. The font, size, and dimensions all seem correct. This posting on EBAY says this sign might be from the 50's or 60's, but mention it's just a guess. Do you know more? Please drop us a line!
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Thank you for looking into this. Art was my grandfather and for a time my sister and I lived with he and Ovita in Nine Mile Falls back in the mid 50s. I am an electronics technician, inventor and radio station engineer. A few years ago I inspected the pickup from the cigar box. I was convinced it would still work and I just loved hearing it in action.
This is amazing!
Outstanding ! Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for sharing the story of my Great Grandfathers story and invention!
Thanks again Scott and Eben for helping our family share the story of our grandfathers amazing life!