Traverse City’s Honeypot Pickups Reverberates in Local Music Scene and Beyond
No Sweeter Sound
By Kristi Kates | Sept. 2, 2017
When Cameron McLean says that he prefers a “sweeter” guitar tone — a less harsh, prettier sound than what you might often hear in rock music — he really means it. In fact, he built a company devoted to the cause: Traverse City’s Honeypot Pickups.
Essentially sensors that capture and convert the mechanical vibrations of instrument strings into an electrical signal that pumps sound through an amplifier or speaker, pickups are the narrow, dotted, rectangular bar that you see under the strings on a guitar body (not the guitar neck). McLean’s painstakingly crafted and tested pickups are renowned for delivering rich tones that sweeten up jazz, blues, country, and even rock ’n’ roll.
McLean is a longtime musician — he started playing clarinet in fourth grade and moved on to guitar by seventh — but he’s been tinkering with instruments nearly as long.
“I’ve always liked rock and jazz music, and I’ve always been good working with my hands,” McLean said. In high school, he started modifying his guitars. Eager to learn more, he went on to attend the Galloup School of Guitar Building and Professional Guitar Repair in Big Rapids, Michigan.
“They teach you how to build a guitar from the wood up, including the pickups,” McLean said. “You end up building four guitars over a six-month period — two acoustic, one electric, and one carved archtop, like a Gibson 335. It’s a really intensive program that’s a lot of fun.”
Particularly captivated by pickups, McLean began experimenting by winding his own.
“The first ones we wound were basically us just trying to see if they’d even sound good at all,” he explained. “As you go further, you learn more, and that helps you improve them more.”
As McLean’s pickups became better and better, he decided to solidify a couple of flagship models to sell and then work forward from there. Today, each of Honeypot’s pickups start with a bobbin (that rectangular piece), which is essentially two pieces of fiberboard with magnets in between. “Then, we wind a piece of wire almost as thin as a human hair — two-thousandths of an inch thick — around the bobbin between 7,000 and 8,000 times,” McLean said.
While suitably industrious, McLean isn’t winding all of those wires by hand. Honeypot Pickups uses what’s called a Schecter machine, in which the technician guides the wire into place as the machine itself spins the wire around the bobbin. The next step is to solder two leads onto the pickup. And the third step — which is where the Honeypot name comes from — might surprise you.
“We then take each newly made pickup coil and dip it into beeswax,” said McLean. “This stabilizes the wound wires and prevents strong feedback sound once the pickup is used with a guitar.” Keeping things local, Honeypot Pickups uses local beeswax from Edson Farms Natural Foods Market in Traverse City.
Each pickup is individually tested by installing it into a guitar which is then played through a series of different amps and cables, each representing different music performance situations. McLean and his crew have now established their two flagship models — one set of Honeypot Pickups for Telecaster guitars, and one set for Stratocasters — with more on the way.
They recently added pickup sets for humbuckers (a double-coil pickup that uses two coils to “buck the hum,” or cut out even more electronic interference), and for P-90s, a classic single-coil Gibson guitar pickup. After only a year and a half in business, Honeypot, with its established company website, has found the reach of their busy hive already extending as far as California, where several musicians have purchased its gear. Locally, Honeypot works with Traverse City Guitar Company, where McLean said it’s been very beneficial to have the pickups available for people to try out in person.
“What I look for in a guitar pickup is a modified vintage guitar sound, which is sweeter in tone than what you’ll usually hear elsewhere,” McLean said. “I figure if I really love the way it sounds, other people will too. The pickup may be just one component — but I feel that it’s the heart of the guitar.”
Find Honeypot Pickups online at honeypotpickups.com (248) 928-4299, and at Traverse City Guitar Company, 322 E. Front St., in Traverse City (231) 943-1211.