Leader of the Resistance: An Interview with Chris Charles

resistance pickups interview

For Chris Charles of Resistance Pickups, there was never any path in life but music. The UK-based guitarist’s career has run the gamut, from luthier and guitar technician to touring musician — and now — world-class producer of bespoke pickups. We spoke with Chris this summer about his influences, his first concert, his first DiMarzio, and the circuitous path he took to developing the Resistance Pickups brand.

Kevin: Okay Chris, let’s get started by learning about when Resistance was founded.

Chris: The company was founded two years ago. So, I just kind of made the decision to take the skills I was learning, fixing pickups and repairing them, and the guitar electronics skills, and kind of move that into actually starting a pickup brand. It just made sense.

Kevin: Tell me a little about your roots. When did you start playing guitar, and what kind of music influenced you?

Chris: Well, I actually came from quite a musical family. My dad plays, my uncles all played, so from the time I was young, there was a lot of ‘60s and ‘70s music going ‘round. You know, you meet up with family, cousins, and whatever, and there’s a lot of music bouncing about. And maybe at about 10, I decided, “I want to be able to do that.” So I started simple stuff, like basslines, on an old classical guitar, and a couple of riffs and licks here and there and going to Led Zeppelin. My dad took me to see Page and Plant at Wembley when I was ten. That was my first gig.

Kevin: Wow, that’s a heck of a first gig.

Chris: Yeah, that was before all the foam earplugs, so I literally had loads of cotton wools shoved into my ears.

Kevin: So, would you say you came up, as a guitar player, on Classic Rock?

Chris: Yeah, definitely. Initially, I wanted to play what my Dad and Uncles were playing, so, I’d start off with basslines, like Richie Valens and Buddy Holly stuff. It was quite quick, so then it was Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath. Then you get more into Blues: Jimi Hendrix, and then into Metallica, and then [you progress] to heavier bands…

Kevin: Sure. So then, at some point you were a working musician, and then you built a side business as a guitar technician. How did that transition happen?

Chris: Pretty much everything I’ve ever done has been with music. At one point, I was teaching guitar in the schools, and I was also working in a music shop; that’s where I learned the guitar set-up side of things. They were a Classical music shop, so they actually had me working on violins and cellos, because I played cello as well, when I was younger. And then I stopped, when I started playing guitar.

Kevin: I think that’s like a classic question to ask a guitar player: “What thing that made your parents happy did you stop doing when you started playing guitar?” Everybody stops doing something, whether it’s sports or school or whatever [Laughs]. Okay, so you were actually doing technician’s setup work on Classical instruments as well.

Chris: Yeah, lowering the bridge on the cheaper startup Classicals, re-stringing the more expensive ones, checking the tuning pegs, you know, really basic stuff. But then, obviously, I played electric, so then I’d be like, “How do I adjust the bridge on my Strat copy?” I’d always had a keen interest in electronics as well, so then I started to take the screws out of my Strat and started to look inside. I think I was 16 when I fitted my first pickup, a DiMarzio Super Distortion. I took the guitar apart and badly soldered this thing together. It ended up out of phase, with itself. [Laughs]

Kevin: Which means — inside wires are flipped?

Chris: Yeah, yeah, I swapped the wrong way ’round.

Kevin: So your first DiMarzio was a Super Distortion?

Chris: Yup, yeah.

Kevin: That’s another question you can ask every guitar player: “What was your first DiMarzio?”

Chris: Yeah, yeah. I had two DiMarzios, both Super Distortion. One was an original one, I got for £10 on eBay.

Kevin: Wow! When you say “original,” do you mean like literally from the ’70s?

Chris: Yeah, yeah, straight out of the ‘70s.

Kevin: Wow! For £10?

Chris: Yeah, yeah… it was all rusty and I think the wire had been cut too short, so I had to put more wire on it.

Kevin: You worked at Aria Guitars at one point, as a guitar technician, right?

Chris: Briefly. I was working for a big vintage Gibson dealer just outside of London at the time, as their guitar tech. I wanted to be able to move up, essentially, do something different within the industry, but the only way that was going to happen was to own the shop. But the owner of the shop still worked there, so that was never gonna happen. Then I got an offer with Aria, and went and worked with them for maybe four months. And then moved on from them to touring in bands.

Kevin: So the big question is, what was the event in your life that led you from a career as a working guitar player and technician to winding pickups?

Chris: When I was getting towards the end of my time at Aria, I found a job working for this touring company. But then they moved their offices to miles away, and I’d already been through that with Aria, and I was like, “I can’t be in this situation again.” At that point, I was like, maybe now’s the time that I start doing something for myself. Whether it’s building guitars, winding pickups, or buying a van and hiring out some touring musicians. I had these different options. Around this time, I got a phone call from a friend who ran a studio. He said he knew of a guitar company looking for a luthier. So I had a chat with them, and I started to work for them. While I was doing that — doing the re-frets, and the nuts, and doing all their guitar electronics and setups, I thought, “Well now’s the time to really push winding as well.” So, it all kind of happened in quite a smooth transition.

Kevin: It sounds like some unfortunate events wound up being, in a way, good, because it motivated you to start thinking…

Chris: It definitely did. One thing on quite a kind of real level, is ten years ago, I had the idea to wind pickups. And I was, quite honestly, I was put off, because at the time I couldn’t afford £400 for a winding machine. So, I got the plans to build a winding machine, and I thought, “Yeah, one day I’ll do this; one day I’ll do this. One day.” That was about the time I found that DiMarzio for £10. So, maybe I’ll buy that DiMarzio. Yeah, and then I wind up being in a touring band and things get in the way, and eventually, ten years later it never happens, right?

So, I thought, there’s no time to waste. Start doing it. I think the hardest thing though, was actually learning how to do it, and understanding why the first few pickups were not sounding great. I needed to take things apart and work out the problem: is it the materials I’m using, is it my winding technique? Is it the fact that I rushed building the pickup? Is it the fact that I wound it too slow? Did I wind it too tight? Did I wind it not tight enough? So, learning to build it was quite an act of patience.

Kevin: So, in terms of Resistance Pickups, where’d the name come from?

Chris: Well, I kinda bashed the name around; I had different ideas. I thought of using my own name. I thought of using, like a brand name. I thought of using my initials. And then, in the end, I thought I want something that appeals to guitar players and also sounds cool as a brand name, that I can make into a cool logo, and that kinda has something to do with pickups. I thought, you know, pickups are measured in resistance, so…

Kevin: Yeah.

Chris: I thought resistance is also going against the grain, doing your own thing. So that kinda worked with how the business was formed. Then I wrote a whole checklist of names and got a friend to design logos with a couple of different names [from the list]. Then I settled on Resistance. I thought, “it’s got to be that.” It’s how pickups are measured, and it’s kinda got a cool against-the-grain thing.

Kevin: Right. The name itself does not pigeon-hole you, in terms of how you present it.

Chris: Exactly, yeah.

Kevin: And I think that Resistance Pickups rolls off the tongue much better than Ohms Pickups.

Chris: Exactly.

[Both laugh]

Kevin: In the most holistic sense, what would you say is kind of your motto or your vision? Why, for example, why Resistance? Why not Seymour Duncan? Or, why not DiMarzio, or Lindy Fralin?

Chris: I built the website recently for the company, and I put, at the very bottom of the page, “No gimmicks; just tone.” And that’s kind of what I was going for. I mean, you could kinda say that that’s a gimmick [Both Laugh], but that’s the marketing angle.

Kevin: Well, I’ll keep that between the two of us.

Chris: Yeah. I spent a lot of time working in a lot of shops, working on people’s guitars, and got to try some really good, really nice sounding stuff. And I’ve settled on — in my mind — on certain types of pickups that I prefer for certain applications. So, you know, obviously, like a ’59 PAF is bashed around a lot, but I think, for me, one of the closest sounding pickups to that, at the moment, is the Gibson Custom Bucker. I think that really nails it. I think they sound great. So, I was like, “How can I make a pickup that sounds very much like the classic PAF?” I’ve played real ones. How can I try and make that sound like a Custom Bucker and a PAF, kinda combed? You know, how can I get that real sweet tone?

So, I started doing that, and then I looked at, you know, how can I make something that’s like a Super Distortion, like a high-output pickup, but that’s got the clarity that I want? Because, I found some of them are a bit fizzy. So, I’ve tried to find the sweet spots of tone, that I think as a technician and as a player, and an ex-guitar salesman, just sound great. That’s what I’ve tried to encapsulate.

Some of the pickups — I’ve got loads of different ones that I’ve made — half of them aren’t on the website, because I don’t think I’ve got them right yet. So, when I get them right, I’ll put them on the website. But, until then, I’m holding them back. I guess it’s the trial and error, or research and development that I feel I’ve put into the sound of the pickup. Not every company does that, but what I’ve done is listen to theirs and go “What do I think sounds good?” you know. What classic tone will work here? What crazy pickup winding will work on the high output one? I did some weird things. For example, I just completely overwind one of the coils. It sounded great. And then I did some more research on pickups and I found out that’s how Gibson was winding the 500T pickup. So, actually, in over winding one of the coils, I was on the right track.

Kevin: Okay. And isn’t that called mismatched coils?

Chris: Yes. Well, pretty much everything that I build is being mismatched, because I think it gives you a more articulate sound. I’m not going to lie and say I know about the physics. I just did it, and that sounds great, to me.

Kevin: Right. Well, actually, I’d like to ask your opinion about that. Do you think that if you’re a pickup maker, you should be, basically, an engineer and you should always strive to know the math and the physics, or do you feel that if I make pickups that guitar players say work for them, and sound good for them, that’s all I need to know?

Chris: It’s definitely your last sentence. I couldn’t have put that better. I mean, I have spent a lot of time looking at what materials will create that sound.

Kevin: And my disclaimer is, of course, you have to know what you’re doing and understand the basics of how pickups work, and what different materials do.

Chris: Yeah. You have to know how the materials work, together and you have to know how to physically put them together. You need to know about degaussing and how you can, you know, charge or uncharge a magnet. You have to know those basics. You have to know how to solder. And that different materials give you a better sound. But if your goal as a pickup maker is to come out with a great-sounding pickup, I think that, for me, that’s enough. [I don’t need a physicist] to tell me what makes the best-sounding pickup, because no matter how much you put into that, you still might end up with a pickup that doesn’t sound great. It might sound sterile to someone’s ears. I’ve never seen a comparison like that. I’d be interested in seeing a comparison between something that’s being made, from researching the sound versus something that’s being made from researching the physics.

Kevin: Right. Obviously, you can’t make pickups if you don’t even understand how they work. But, where’s that line, where you stop obsessing about the controls of the plane and you look up and you actually fly the plane, and you drive with your ears.

Chris: Yeah, well I like that and I understand that kind of mysticism thing. Especially when I was younger. I thought pickups were the Holy Grail of tone. You know, I’d be like, “if I get these pickups and I put them in this guitar, it’s going to sound like the best thing in the world!” And then you might get a pickup and you play it and you’d be like, “okay, it’s not quite what I like.” And then you forget it and then you find another pickup, and then they kind of became this cool thing.

So, I got really into trying different pickups and trying different magnet types, and then I think that’s where I got the bug, and I thought, I’d love to be able to make them, because there was something mystical about it to me. But now, on the other side of it, I still see that. So, like I’ll see people talking about pickups online, like a Facebook group, or maybe if you’re just chatting with friends or other musicians about it, and they’ll be like “oh yeah, the tone…”

But, like a great example is the Fender Abby pickups. And people would be like, “yeah, she made the best pickups,” because she made them at the time when they were sounding the best and it’s all in her winding pattern. And if you actually watch her wind, she does flick her wrist in a certain way, each side of the pickup, so there’s probably some physics that backs up that.

Kevin: … That backs up the magic.

Chris: Yeah. It’s nice to hear that, but I’m sure that if you sat someone down who came from a complete physics background, and who was an engineer who could wind coils and they put those skills into making a pickup, and you sat me down or someone else who kinda comes from a more musical background, and you had us make pickups, they’d both sound good at the end of the day. So, I think it’s two different ways of getting to the end result.

Kevin: When it comes to Resistance Pickups, do you tend to have an inventory, so that if I order one right now, I’d have it in about a week or so, or is every order custom made?

Chris: It’s all custom made.

Kevin: 100% custom, or, for example, can I just say “I want a medium output humbucker alnico pickup, staggered coils, and I want gold screws,” or do you have several models that you make that come with options?

Chris: I have the pickups that I’m advertising on the website, and I have pickups that I’m still developing where the winds aren’t quite right yet. But anything can be ordered. So, for instance, if a pedal steel player came to me and said “I need a 10-string pickup,” I can do that, because I come from a tech background, and I work a lot with musicians anyway. I might be given something wacky to fix, like an old Hoffman pickup, or someone might say, “I need you to build one of these, because I’m making this guitar, or I want an 8-string pickup, or a 7-string pickup.” So, I’ll make anything that anyone wants to order, but then I also have the pickups I design, and people can specify what they want, within that. So, if they want string spacing, if they want a different color cover, or that kind of thing. The only thing they can’t really change is the magnet, and the wind count.

Kevin: Because that is that model. That’s what makes that pickup.

Chris: Yeah, yeah.

Kevin: Do you do like F-spacing for your humbuckers?

Chris: Yes, yeah.

Kevin: Do you have a P-90ish line as well, or just humbuckers and Strats and coils?

Chris: I’ve got a P-90 one as well.

Kevin: Okay, wow, so here’s a crazy question: could a customer get one of your P-90 models F-spaced?

Chris: Yes. I can do a humbucker-sized P-90.

Kevin: Oh wow, cool, cool. And do you do any hum-cancelling P-90s? Hum-cancelling, humbucker-shaped P-90s?

Chris: Not yet, although that is on the to-do list. The next thing I’ve got lined up is to start doing some bass pickups. I’ve not got ’round to those yet.

Kevin: Okay, one last thing question, and it’s kind of a nerdy question. So, for me, one of the biggest deals with — and I grew up in the ’70s — was that humbuckers were quiet and Strats were noisy and that’s the way it was. And then one of the biggest things that I can remember is when — I believe it was DiMarzio, it might have been Bill Lawrence — but DiMarzio was the first big company I remember coming out with the —

Chris: — Bill Lawrence Pickups great!

Kevin: Yeah, awesome, yeah, yeah. But I think it was — it might have been Duncan, actually — that came out with the first noise-cancelling Strat Pickups. So that was really a big, landmark moment in the Guitar Nerd World, in terms of “wow, I have a Strat, and it’s noiseless.” And once the ’80s kicked in, everybody was doing it. And now, I’ve become a really big fan of variations on that, for example, the hum-cancelling P-90, things like that. So, my question to you is, are you the kind of person who says, “well, if it’s a hum-cancelling P-90, it’s not really a P-90. It’s a pickup that’s very much like a P-90… it sounds very much like one, but obviously, it’s not really a P-90. Or, is your opinion, look… does it sound like a P-90 to you? Do you enjoy it? It’s a P-90… relax. You know, does the hum-cancelling part, literally, remove it from the true category?

Chris: Well, I actually play in a loud rock band at the moment, called Blind River, and we have two guitarists, and we’re both, from the very, kind of old school way of playing. So, we have a guitar, plugged into a tuner, maybe a cheap screamer, and then we use kinda JCM800 type amps — a company called Matrix Amps — Matrix VB800. With that band, humbuckers are great, because obviously, you don’t get any hum, but when you’re playing in a live band, and you’ve got two guitarists, and everything’s going on, no one’s gonna hear the hum. When you’re in that situation…

Kevin: It’s when you’re not playing, that it’s a problem, right?

Chris: Yeah, and then you’ve got the volume control to roll down. I don’t even use the channel switcher, so I roll down on the volume, to get the clean tone, and roll back up again. So, my train of thought is, if it hums, who cares? That’s the essence of the pickup. You wouldn’t buy a silent V8, would you? [Both Laugh] So, why would you buy a hum-cancelling pickup? But I understand their place, but I’ve not made any, so I can’t comment on the construction.

Kevin: But as a pickup lover, and someone who knows a lot about pickups, do you feel that just by definition, a hum-cancelling Strat pickup or a hum-cancelling P-90, it’s neither… it’s a hum-cancelling P-90 and it may sound great, but it’s not really a P-90?

Chris: It’s not really a P-90.

Kevin: Interesting, interesting…

Chris: It’s shaped like a P-90, but it will have another coil in there.

Kevin: It’s gonna get rid of the hum — but it’s got two coils — there’s no other way to go about it. Somehow, there’s two coils in there.

Chris: Yes. I prefer to say it’s a stacked P-90. It’s not their place. I think it’s P-100. Gibson P-100. But for me, the P-90 is that… it’s that sound. And to my ears — and I could be wrong, this could be personal preference — I think that there’s a difference in tones. From a hum-cancelling single coil to a hum-cancelling P-90, they do have a different tone, to the sound of the P-90, or single coil, and I don’t think anyone can really argue that fact. And to me, I prefer the sound of a true single coiler, whether it’s a P-90 or a single coiler. I just prefer that tone. I think the hum-cancelling ones lose that kind of top end brightness, and that subtlety, when you back off on the volume control, you can pick up on those nuances, you can hear the strings wobble, and that kind of thing. That’s lost in a hum-cancelling one, to my ears.

Kevin: And I think this may be a context where the physics is unavoidable. It’s very simple. It’s not a series of six magnets bound with a bunch of wire. It’s some variations that coils so that it cannot produce the same kind of tone, the same kind of signal. It can’t.

Are there any particular pickups that you would like to make our readers aware of?

Chris: I kind of touched on them briefly. The Crystal 57 is my version of a 57 PAF pickup, so it’s a bit brighter, quite low output, I think it’s around 7k. And that normally comes unpotted. It’s got an internal start lead like the old PAFs did. The start leads are actually in the coils, so the coil was misshapen, around the start lead. So that often led to them sounding more open and a lot more microphonic. So, I normally supply that pickup unpotted. Some people choose to have it potted, if they’re using it in a louder, more gainey play spot.

Kevin: Is that an option if somebody orders one?

Chris: Yeah, yeah. It’s an unpotted pickup, but I do say, you can have it potted. Generally speaking, when people order that pickup, I just send them a quick email and say “just to let you know, if you’re planning on using this in an AC/DC type band, you might find it squeals, or you might like that and control it, ’cause you can get those really cool, screaming, Spinal Tap sustain things going on with that type of microphonic. You can use that to your advantage. That’s a cool-sounding pickup. That’s probably the one I’m most proud of, just because it kind of nailed the PAF tone that I thought I wanted to hit, that slightly bright side of it. And then the Dark Sunday is more of a Hard Rock and Metal pickup. That one was from playing in bands that detune. So, I started to wind high-output stuff with ceramic magnets, and I found that I couldn’t get enough clarity when you drop the tuning. I found that I was losing power as I tuned-down. Pickups that I was creating just weren’t hitting the spot. With Dark Sunday, I got the mix right. It represents the point I got to when I was happy with being able to get that kind of clarity when you’re de-tuning.

Kevin: Okay. You said that Dark Sunday is for guys who detune, or it accommodates detuning really well, but…

Chris: It accommodates detuning really well, but it does regular tuning. Yeah, yeah… it’s still got a classic sound, so you’d be equally happy playing Black Sabbath riffs on it as you would be kinda playing detuned on it, that sort of thing. It’s not what I actually play, but it does work well in that application. And that’s got three magnets.

Kevin: Three magnets?

Chris: Three ceramic magnets, yeah. Yeah, so it’s a large ceramic magnet, and two ceramic spaces on either side. So instead of maple spaces, like in the 57, it’s got ceramic spaces.

Kevin: That’s really interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that. Is that something that you have invented, or have you seen that before?

Chris: No, my mind’s gone blank, but I think it’s a Gibson Dirty Fingers.

Kevin: Does Dirty Fingers do that? More than one…

Chris: I think so, yeah.

Kevin: Really? I never opened one up, so I didn’t know that.

Chris: I’ll double check that.

Kevin: Okay. ’cause the only other situation I could think of where I know there’s more than one magnet in a humbucker is… this is like 1979, 1980… I used to get Mighty Might catalogs, and they had a pickup called the Mother Bucker.

Chris: Yes.

Kevin: Which was three coils, right? And I’m sure there would be two magnets, right?

Chris: Yes.

Kevin: I’ve never heard of using more than one magnet in a humbucker. Seems to me that there is always one magnet. It’s really interesting that you do that. Very cool.

How can readers order your pickups? Is it as simple as going to the website? Or is there something special they have to do?

Chris: Well, you can go to the website, which is resistancepickups.co.uk. There’s a contact form, so you can go on the contact form and email me [a custom request] or you can select the pickups I’m advertising — my range — and it will take you to a PayPal cart. The easiest way is through Facebook or through the website.

Chris Charles is incredibly friendly and possesses a staggering knowledge of guitar electronics. While my “interview” with him ended here, our conversion continued for more than 30 minutes. We wound up getting into a deep discussion about the true nature of P-90s and whether or not noiseless technology is a must-have for session players and live performances. As our conversation wrapped-up, I realized that we barely scratched the surface and a follow-up is much needed. We’ll be talking to Chris again in the future for sure!