In Particular Pursuit of Tone

I have a 2005 Fender “Special Edition” Standard Telecaster.  So far, in search of noise reduction I have replaced the stock pickups with Guitar Fetish GFS Li’l Punchers XL, and less than a year later in search of a more traditional Telecaster twang I put in a set of Tonerider Vintage Plus pickups, installed a copper foil shielding kit, reversed the control panel, and changed the white pickguard to black.  Am I crazy?

Solid body electric guitars are easy to modify, especially Fenders and other guitars with bolt-on necks. Within minutes you can reduce it to a collection of parts, using nothing but a phillips-head screwdriver. You can’t easily take the neck off of a set-neck guitar like a Gibson (it’s glued in), but the bridge, the tailpiece, the tuners, the pickups, the pickguard, and the electronics are all just screwed on. Thus, for many guitar players, the temptation to modify is almost irresistible. However good it is, it could be better. And even if it is someone else’s idea of good, it might not fit your own style or taste, or make the sound that you hear in your head. When that happens, it’s time to get out the screwdriver. Look out guitar!

The fact of the matter is that any guitar sound, no matter how lo-fi, hi-fi, muddy, twangy, dull, bright, out of phase, or strange, could be used musically in a particular context. When a player defines good tone, he or she often has in mind somebody else’s signature sound, often Eric Clapton on Crossroads or Layla (completely different sounds), Jimi Hendrix, or David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. Even if the player is not trying to duplicate the sound of a famous guitar hero, these are reference points. Seeking a particular sound can lead to purchasing guitar after guitar, numerous amplifiers, and a suitcase full of stomp box effects pedals. It is the leading contributor to the dreaded “Gear Acquisition Syndrome” otherwise known as G.A.S.

Although some players change out bridge components in search of more sustain, the most common components to swap are the pickups. That is my own particular affliction. Most of my guitars do not currently sport the pickups with which they came.

Guitar pickups are very simple devices.   Thin copper wire is wound around a fiber or plastic bobbin, with magnetic pole pieces in the center, one for each string.  The pole pieces are generally permanent magnets made of an alloy of aluminum, nickel and cobalt called “alnico,” although some pickups have steel pole pieces with ceramic bar magnets fastened to the bottom.   The alloy used in the pole pieces, the size of the magnets, the material of the cover, the thickness of the copper wire, the number of winds around the bobbin, even the pattern of the winds, all influence the sound of the pickups.  The pickup generates a magnetic field.  A steel string vibrating in this field generates a small electric current, which is sent to the output jack, and from there to the amplifier where it is converted into sound.  Sometimes a very loud sound.

Pickups with more windings than usual will often be louder, with more bass and mids and less top end.  These are favored by players who want a thicker, more overdriven sound.  Vintage-style pickups generally have fewer windings, less output, and offer a more complex top end.   I favor the latter.   Players describing the tone of pickups use words like “chime,”  “sparkle,” “punch,” “sizzle,” “edge,” and even “ice pick.”  Sometimes it sounds like they are talking about a fine wine.

When I put in the Li’l Punchers, they didn’t sound good to me at all.  They had a shrill treble, and not much midrange, giving them an unpleasant hollow sound.  I was ready to take them right out.  However, pickup height can have a dramatic effect.  I kept lowering them until the neck pickup was almost level with the pickguard.  When I reached the magic point, they suddenly became musical.  Here’s a clip from just before I finally did take them out:

Li’l Puncher clip

It sounds jazzy because I am playing an A Dorian scale against mainly Am7 and D7.  The pickups actually sound pretty good here.  However, I took them out because I had the same experience with the guitar every time I picked it up.  The pickups sounded good at first.  I would hear it as a fusion Tele sound, in Robben Ford territory.  As I continued to play, it bothered me, especially the bridge pickup.  It sounded somewhat twangy, but dark, and not too snappy.  Sometimes the solution is to play another guitar for a while, and come back to it, but I always ended up in the same place.  I liked the guitar, so they had to come out.

I chose the Toneriders because they got good reviews and were relatively inexpensive ($80 for the set of two).  The alternative was either Dimarzio Twang Kings for around $140, or one of several sets from GFS, which would have been cheaper than the Toneriders.   I was a little leery of the GFS stuff after the Li’l Punchers, although I think that they are basically good pickups that don’t suit me.  I have a set of GFS Vintage ’59’s (humbuckers) in another guitar and I like them a lot.  But I also have a set of Tonerider Pure Vintage in my Stratocaster, and I love those pickups.  I decided to go with the Toneriders.

First I disassembled the guitar and put in the shielding kit, following instructions on the Guitar Nuts site.  I had gotten the kit, which included adhesive-backed copper foil tape, solder, and some hookup wire, from Carvin a long time ago, but I never put it in a guitar.  You cut a piece of foil to fit the bottom of the routed cavity, then cut one or two pieces to go around the sides.  You peel off the backing and stick it to the wood.  In some cases you have to solder wires to the surface of the foil to connect the different cavities together because all the shielding has to be grounded.  Here is a picture:

Disassembled Telecaster with Shielding Installed

Disassembled Telecaster with Shielding Installed

(I am sorry that it is just a cell phone camera picture.)  The shielding reduced the hum significantly.  You don’t even notice it while you are playing, and I haven’t heard it on a recording either.

The pickup transplant was a success.  They are bright, twangy and snappy. The neck pickup sounds a lot like Keith Richards in a lot of Rolling Stones stuff, which is interesting because I think his Telecaster has a mini-humbucker in it.  The guitar is bright, but if you roll off the tone control you can get jazzy Steely Dan sorts of tones.  The bridge pickup is plenty twangy.  I am pleased.

As noted at the beginning, the other thing I did was reverse the control panel.  Normally it is switch-volume-tone.  I turned it around and swapped the volume and tone pots so that it is volume-tone-switch.  This allows you to pick notes while moving the volume control with your little finger, creating a volume swell effect.  You can eliminate the initial attack, then bring the volume up, which sounds like a cry.  Here’s a picture of the completed project.  You can see the reversed control panel:

Telecaster with Black Pickguard and Reversed Controls

Telecaster with Black Pickguard and Reversed Controls

How does it sound?  Some people think that the Punchers sound better.  I disagree.  As I said before, tone is a personal thing.  Tone is in the mind.  Here is a clip of the guitar with the Toneriders, same backing track, but new pickups.  You can hear some volume swells made possible by the control modification at the beginning of the track:

Toneriders Vintage Plus

Was it all worth it?  Yes, I love the guitar.  I think these pickups have found a home.  Maybe I have found a cure for this particular case of guitar modification syndrome, but the long term outlook is uncertain.  The world is full of guitars.


About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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