If you were a guitar store owner in 1971, you would have seen something incredulous in the Fender catalog for that year: a Telecaster with two factory-installed, chrome-covered humbucking pickups, with the name "Fender" inscribed on the front of them, as if to reassure the viewer that, yes, in fact, that was a Fender guitar.
Prior to the '70s, Fender had always been the single-coil company; putting a Gibson humbucking pickup into a Telecaster was unheard of (even Keith Richards wouldn't modify his until 1972). However, these massive humbuckers on the new 1972 Fender Telecaster Deluxe, Custom and Thinline weren't just any humbucking pickup, they were brand new Fender Wide Range pickups. And they were different from anything made before or since.
In 1955, electrical engineer Seth Lover working for Gibson invented the "Patent Applied For" humbucking pickup designed to eliminate the 60 cycle hum that interfered with early guitar pickups. It wasn't the very first humbucker (a term appropriated from a different technology used by telephone companies that operated on the same principle), but it was the first that earned widespread acceptance, helped by Gibson switching nearly all of its production guitars to PAF humbuckers within four years.
By the early 70s, the powerful, full-sounding Gibson humbucker had come to dominate rock 'n' roll, jazz, and the emerging heavy metal genre. Even blues artists, which had traditionally been adherents to Fender's biting single coil Telecasters and Stratocasters, began to turn to the clarity that the humbucker offered.
During this period, Fender was flush with corporate CBS money, and they wanted their own humbucker. So they went right to the source; in 1967, Fender's chief engineer Dick Evan offered Seth Lover a job with a 25% increase over his salary at Gibson. And for them, he created the Fender Wide Range Humbucking Pickup.
The Fender Wide Range is more of a combination between a Fender single coil and a Gibson humbucker than anything else. While similar in construction to the Gibson humbucker, the Wide Range features individual magnets as polepieces, like vintage Strat or Telecaster pickups. The Wide Range also used larger coils, purportedly to get greater resistance with fewer coils, which necessitated a larger cover than the Gibson humbucker.
But what makes it truly unique was that the magnets were shaped as screws that were (in theory) adjustable in height, similar to the Gibson humbucker's non-magnetic screw-shaped pole pieces, which required the use of a magnetic alloy called CuNiFe (Copper, Nickel, Iron) instead of the highly brittle, but more common AlNiCo (Aluminum, Nickel, Cobalt). This allowed the Wide Range to maintain Fender's famous high end sparkle and snap, with the fullness and hum cancelling ability of a humbucker.
The Wide Range debuted in early 1972, on the revamped Telecaster Thinline, with two new top-of-the-line Fenders, the Telecaster Deluxe and the Telecaster Custom, featuring it released later that same year. In the mid-70s, Fender released the Starcaster, an obvious dig at Gibson's near monopoly of the hollow body and semi-hollow market, featuring a pair of Wide Range humbuckers. The Starcaster was the last model to feature the original Wide Range humbuckers.
At the end of the 1970s, many older, more-established guitar brands were suffering from imported challengers and rising costs of production. Fender was especially hurt; build quality diminished, as CBS traded Fender's reputation for any chance to return the company to profitability. In 1979, Fender discontinued production of the Wide Range humbucker and all four models associated with it. By 1983, Fender only offered Telecasters and Stratocasters, as well as a variety of guitars designed to use up remaining factory stock of unused instruments.
In 1998, however, over a decade after CBS had divested itself of the Fender name and musical instrument production, Fender released the Mexican-made Classic series 72 Telecaster Deluxe, 72 Telecaster Custom and 72 Telecaster Thinline, all based off of the original versions, featuring brand new reissue Fender Wide Range humbuckers. (Although in 1983, Fender Japan began making guitars with Wide Range lookalikes, but these are Gibson-style ceramic magnet humbuckers with Wide Range covers on top - Squier guitars and some other Fenders also use this type of design, notably the Mustang Special and Pawn Shop 70s Strat Deluxe, which use Enforcer "Wide Range" humbuckers, which are Enforcers with a normal humbucker-sized Wide Range-style cover).
However, as many aficionados will point out, the current Mexican reissue Wide Ranges are nothing like the Wide Ranges of yore. This is true. The reissues, which are currently found on the above Classic 72 Telecasters, which received an update in 2009, and the Modern Player Starcaster, and on the now-discontinued Pawn Shop '72 and Lee Ranaldo Signature "Jazzblaster" Jazzmaster, differ significantly from original Wide Ranges in two ways. Firstly, they no longer use CuNiFe magnets, and secondly, they use AlNiCo bar magnets similar to Gibson humbuckers.
The reason for both of these changes is related; simply, CuNiFe isn't made anymore. Unlike AlNiCo, which is fairly inexpensive and easy to source, CuNiFe is a specialty alloy that doesn't benefit from the economy of scale that AlNiCo does, with CuNiFe replaced by the cheaper (and non-magnetic) FerNiCo in industrial applications. Brittle AlNiCo lacks the machinability of CuNiFe, which prevents identical replacement of CuNiFe screws with AlNiCo.
Wide Range fans are quick to dismiss the current reissues as nothing more than regular humbuckers in Wide Range covers, and they're pretty much right. Though the reissues still use larger coils and bobbins, and fewer coil winds than the traditional humbucker, it isn't really enough to distinguish between the two types of pickups. But, that doesn't mean that the reissues are bad pickups, it means that they just lack the chime, sparkle and charm of original Fender Wide Ranges. Different does not mean worse.
Luckily, this also means that there is plenty of demand for "more authentic" aftermarket Wide Range replacements and many boutique pickup manufacturers offer Wide Range replicas (very rarely with CuNiFe magnets, though). Major aftermarket Wide Range Humbuckers producers are Lollar, Curtis Novak and Telenator and The Creamery, with some offering rewinds and upgrades of Wide Range reissues to aftermarket specifications.
Fender Wide Range humbuckers were only made for a few years in the 1970s, but they were the Fender's first introduction into the world of humbucking pickups. And while Fender has largely turned to noiseless single coil pickups, and reverse-polarity/reverse-wound single coils, as a way to maintain the Fender sound while removing the unwanted 60-cycle hum, the Wide Range humbucker still has fans that love their unique sound and design. The original Wide Range's rarity is only matched by its charm, and every guitarist should have a chance to play a set of these unique pickups at least once.