If you subscribe to the theory that different models of guitars seem to fall in and out of fashion, it seems that guitars equipped with humbucking pickups are experiencing a strong resurgence in popularity. We have recently observed that variations on the Fender offset body design are also hot, usually but not exclusively mounted with fat P90s. Twenty years ago the Stratocaster ruled, while Telecasters have always remained solid workhorses, but the tone of humbucking pickups has become very desirable again after a long stretch when their stereotyped sound just wasn’t happening for many guitarists, and especially those caught up in what was happening in Austin, Texas…
Before we tease you with still more irresistible humbucker reviews, let’s get a few things straight for the record… First of all, there is no single ‘PAF tone.’ If someone were to have, say, a dozen different authentic PAF pickups on hand (and we have), listened to them all, and then wound their own version to sound like their favorite among all the originals they had heard, that’s fine, but it won’t be representative of ‘all’ PAFs — only the one that the winder happened to prefer over all the others (assuming he has the experience, patience and skill to approximate the true sound and feel of the original in the first place). Gibson PAFs varied widely in tone, from bright, clear and incredibly chimey, to thick, penetrating and elegantly aggressive. In between these extremes you might find some that sound dull and unexciting, bland and seemingly weak. Our vintage early ‘60s patent number Gibson humbuckers are single coil-bright, incredibly lush with harmonic overtones and beautifully clear, but that may not be the sound you are looking for. Some players might even pass on them in a blind test when compared to a bigger, thicker humbucking tone. Ultimately, the only thing that really matters in the endless discussion of humbucking pickups is whether or not the sounds you are hearing are inspiring you. Acquiring truly ‘magical’ tone is another matter…
Ron Ellis is an engineer by profession with deep experience in materials analysis who still works on a fusion reactor while winding pickups in his ‘spare’ time. In our second conversation in these pages, we discussed the development of his ‘LRP’ humbucking pickups that were chosen by Lee Roy Parnell and the Gibson Custom Shop for Lee Roy’s signature goldtop. Ron and Lee Roy spent months evaluating prototypes before settling on the final set, and their story is both fascinating and instructive. Enjoy…
TQR: How did this project initially unfold, Ron?
I had been working on my humbuckers for a number of years before I had actually met Lee Roy. Bill and Clay Hullett introduced us, and soon after that I made him some Tele pickups. This led to Lee Roy asking me if I would be interested in working with him and the Gibson Custom Shop on his signature Goldtop Les Paul. I asked him what his reference was for the old PAF sound, and he said, well, something like Duane Allman’s tone. Lee Roy being a slide player and a big Allman Brothers fan, that made sense. Being a Duane fan myself, I just used my ear and made adjustments on a number of prototypes to what I thought had that particular type of PAF sound. I tried variations of magnets, wind patterns, build, tension, and offsets on the coils. I had most of the parts made to my specs, with the same materials used in the originals. I would test them, and then send them off to Lee Roy to try out. We went through maybe 12 different prototype sets before we narrowed it down to two final sets. I then flew back to Nashville, where we met at the Custom Shop to test the prototypes.
They had a number of the LRP prototype guitars there with the pickups I had made. Lee Roy had been in there testing before I came back, along with session ace Bill Hullett and his son Clay lending their experienced ears, and comparing some guitars they brought in. We all finally settled on what became the LRP set. While I was there, Rick Gembar, head of the Custom Shop, asked me if I would be willing to put the LRPs up against a vintage ‘59 Les Paul that is known to be exceptional. I said sure, and he told me to open an old Lifton case sitting next to me in his office. Inside was a beautiful ‘59 ‘burst known as Goldie.
We took it into the next room where Phillip Whorton, Chad Underwood and Lee Roy were setting up his 50-watt Marshall and a 4×10 cabinet that he uses on stage. Lee Roy plugged in Goldie first and of course it sounded amazing. It’s one of those reference LPs. He then played the Goldtop prototype with the LRP set, and it immediately presented a more harmonically rich 3D sound, with more second and third-order harmonics. As Lee Roy went back and forth between the two guitars, everybody in the room agreed that the prototype with the LRPs sounded better. Eventually, Lee Roy looked over at Rick, smiled and said, “See what I mean?”
TQR: Yeah, and that’s what Lee Roy had told us, too. Let’s talk about the variables you tested to arrive at the end result.
What I have always tried to do is look at the absolute facts as far as what materials were used in the old days compared to now, but it ultimately comes down to the pickup winder’s ear. I’m just making pickups based on what I personally like.
TQR: That’s exactly what Tom Holmes will tell you, and really, that’s all you’re gonna get. He is a bit of an engineer, too, and he doesn’t believe in ‘voodoo.’ You mentioned different Alnico magnets and testing the number of turns and mismatched coils… How far did you get into testing different screw compositions, baseplates, wire, and true butyrate bobbins?
Well, I’m really fortunate that I have the background knowledge and lab facilities to be able to test all of these old materials in great detail. By using spectrometers and other lab devices, I’ve been able to figure out what parts and materials really do or don’t make a noticeable difference in the final sound of the pickup. I also had access to a number of old PAFs that I was able to take apart, test, and in some cases rewind. Each individual part and material selection for a humbucker contributes to the overall sound. For example, using different materials for the fillister head adjustment screws, slugs, magnets, covers or base plates can make a significant difference in the overall sound and feel. Screws today have a higher alloy content because of more stringent safety standards, which they didn’t have to comply with back in the ‘50s and 60’s. So you do all this testing, you get results back, you see these specific mass peaks, and you know what the ratios of the materials are. Then you have to be able to communicate with a manufacturer that is willing to correctly make the part for you, and this isn’t such an easy thing to do. When Fender and Gibson started making pickups they were doing it at a perfect time, because those materials that they used were available as off-the-shelf parts, and they just happened to make some wonderful sounding pickups. I had to have my fillister head screws made to my specs, and buy 60,000 to get them to agree to do it. Because of the many individual parts involved an the parts cost, I didn’t make much profit on the Lee Roy Parnell project. It was a great project to work on with a lot of great people at the Custom Shop, and of course becoming great friends with Lee Roy.
TQR: What about base plates?
Depending on the material you choose, yes, it can definitely change the sound. I can take off-the-shelf base plates and other parts available today and make a great sounding humbucking pickup. It won’t sound quite as good as one of my signature pickups with my own remanufactured parts, but there is no reason why you can’t get a good result with what’s available, you just have to know how to make the proper adjustments. I had been working on the humbuckers on and off for about 4 years when I could fit in the time around my single coil pickup production. A pickup maker has to be willing to put in the time, and try a lot of different things. To find the sweet spot and finalize it, you have to be willing to test over and over, make a small change and try it in the guitar again. You have to go a little bit too far to the left and then go a little too far to the right and back again to understand where the sweet spot parameters are and why.
TQR: What did you learn about wire? We know the actual size of the wire on a single spool varied a lot.
Yeah, and that’s still a problem today. I think the variables today are caused by the compression and stretching that occurs when the wire is put on the spools. They will run the wire off the mother spool down to a smaller spool and then down to a 6 lb. spool that is commonly used by pickup makers. When the wire that comes off the mother spool that was originally compressed and stretched goes on to the next smaller spool, the outer wind becomes the inner wind, and by the time a pickup builder gets an even smaller 6 lb. spool, that wire has been worked over a few times.
TQR: And if you are putting 5,000 turns on a coil and the wire you are using isn’t the size you think it is, there is no way to achieve a consistent result.
No, not at all. I’m constantly checking and measuring wire as I’m making pickups throughout the day. I will also use thicker wire or thinner wire with a specific tension for a specific result, which is again the result of years of testing.
TQR: And none of this was ever going on in Fullerton or Kalamazoo.
Without treading on any toes, these guys that make claims about having an original old winding machine means nothing. If you look at those old winders, the wire varied even more so in the old days, so if you set up the machine with a tensioner for a specific thickness, that thickness is going to change, and the wire will go on loose, or it will go on tight depending on how you set that tensioner. I find that I can be more consistent with my fingers doing either a scatterwind, or what I call a machine handwind, because I can feel the tension.
On the old machines because of the variation in the diameter of the wire going through the tensioner, you would have the wire jumping all over the place. The machines today are very, very accurate, and the wire can go on layer after layer very tight. That creates a different sound, and with a humbucker and two coils, you can use a specific type of wind on one coil and something else on the other. It’s like grandma’s corn bread… we all know what the ingredients are, it’s just how you put it all together.
TQR: And ultimately, you have to make decisions based on the quality of your listening, or that of others like Lee Roy if you have access to them.
Fortunately, I have a number of great player friends I know that help me with testing all my pickups. Peter Stroud has been a huge help, as well as my good friend Jeff Ruiz here in San Diego. You have to carefully listen to players with different styles, feel, touch and practical needs to make the proper adjustments. Lee Roy and I talked for countless hours about the different humbucker sounds created by great players from the past.
For instance, Michael Bloomfield playing a ‘59 Les Paul straight into a cranked Super Reverb on the Super Session LP. To me, “Albert’s Shuffle,” is the killer PAF reference sound. Lee Roy is in that group of the all time greats, and he has experience playing those old guitars and he knows in great detail what they sound like. I was at Joe Walsh’s house a few years ago and I had my old ‘64 Tele with my Broadcaster pickup in it. After he played for a while, he stopped and said, “You know, this goes to show that a great old Telecaster pickup is hard to distinguish from a great PAF bridge pickup.”
TQR: That’s true. Unfortunately a lot of people haven’t had the opportunity to hear these things live in a room, or better yet, to play one themselves. The records are great, but to hear one in your hands is a completely different thing, and I will always lean on clarity as a common denominator. Even though your LRP is a tad more compressed than some PAFs, the clarity is all there, the note separation and the bloom as the notes expand. Yet, some people whose idea of a great humbucker is a hot humbucker might feel they are kinda weak.
Yeah. The LRP set is what I did for Lee Roy’s application and I wouldn’t call it your typical PAF. It does compress, the notes bloom a little more, and it is what a lot of players prefer in a humbucker sound. Dan Boul, Peter Stroud’s partner at 65 amps likes the bridge a little hotter so it drives the front end of the amp a little more. He asked me if I could wind the bridge a little hotter, and I told him I could, but with that particular wind and magnet selection, if you go too far it will lose some of the clarity and feel.
TQR: The best sounding PAF neck pickups have always seemed to have the lowest resistance readings. I’m sure you could also look at inductance, but most of us don’t have an inductance meter…
Resistance is really the last thing I pay attention to when I wind a pickup. I pay very close attention to the inductance and some other key measurements within the coil, and this is what makes all of my pickups very consistent. Using the resistance as a reference is OK for conversation, but it can be misleading in terms of what the pickup actually sounds like. For example, the ambient temperature can give you different readings. If I wind a Strat neck pickup to 5.8k in my shop at 60° then send it to Austin where it is 90° it can read well over 6k, depending on the temperature and humidity. Also, the tone and feel of the pickup changes at different temperatures. If you listened to a pickup in a room at 60 degrees it will sound tighter, thinner and more fundamental on the note. At a higher temperature it will open up, feel looser, resonate and sound more 3D. I tell people when they get my pickups that as they play that guitar for a month or so the pickups are going to start to relax and everything will seem to flow.
TQR: It’s almost like forming the dielectrics in the capacitors of a new amp. Things change. I have heard new pickups in a guitar open up as you described over time — it’s like breaking in a speaker.
The pickups open up after they are played for a while, for sure. I think it’s more of a feel thing – they just feel better with some time on them. Pickups are only as good as the guitar you’re putting them in. I wish I could say that my pickups will transform any guitar into a great one, but I can’t. The pickups only amplify the tonal character and resonating properties within that guitar, but it is pretty amazing what a good set of pickups will do for a mediocre guitar. Customers want different PAF sounds inspired by their favorite players, so I try to work with them on getting that sound, but there are so many variables involved, like the players ability, their touch on the strings, the amps, pedals, cabs and speakers being used. Some customers will say, “I want to sound like Jimmy Page on the first record.” I’m considerate, but I also try to be up front and honest with them about what they’re after. Page sounds like Page no matter what guitar he plays. The major contributor to the sound is the player first, and at what volume level they play. I make two humbucker sets – the LRP set, and what I’m calling the ’59 Bette (pronounced Betty) set to honor my wonderful mom. The ’59 Bette’s are my take on the more typical brighter and fundamental PAF tone, with a little more of an edge to them. I prefer the LRP’s myself. I think it’s a more pleasing and useful sound than most of the original PAF’s I’ve heard and played. Whether it’s a Tele, Strat, or a Les Paul, you want it to compress a little, then release, with bloom and swell. It’s a pliability and bouncy feel we associate with the great old guitars and pickups… There are exceptions, like ‘60s Telecaster pickups that are more fundamental on the note – more like the Bakersfield kind of sound. I have guys bring different contemporary pickups to me and some of them sound beautiful, or they are kick-ass and really drive the amp, but too often there is nothing beyond the fundamental. And that seems to be the main difference between a great old pickup and a lot of the pickups being made by winders today.
TQR: We noticed that with all the PAFs we had with gold-plated screws. Dull. Nothing.
Yep, I offer raw nickel covers, polished nickel – which I recommend, or I can get them nickel plated and polished to a mirror finish. For the polished mirror look, they have to flash copper on them, polish that down and then plate them with nickel. When you add the copper, it can change the sound somewhat, or with gold plating it’s like throwing a blanket over the pickup. I just won’t do it anymore.
TQR: Do you pot your humbuckers?
No, not the coils, I do a slight potting technique on some of the parts though. I have potted the coils slightly – there have been a couple of high-gain guys that bought the LRPs and wanted them potted a little. One guy called me and he said, “Dude these sound absolutely fantastic, but when I’m gigging or recording they squeal some.” I told him they can be a little microphonic because they are exactly like an old PAF in every detail, and an old PAF will squeal, too. I potted them a little and sent them back to him, and he said they worked out OK, but he still had some slight microphonic issues with his set up. I told him to just try a longer cable and move away from the amp a little, and he said “Wow dude, that worked. Thanks man!”
I worked on the Blackguard Book with Nacho Banos, where I did extensive lab tests on a number of old Blackguard Tele pickups. I learned a lot from that little project, and I have continued to do research on old Tele, Strat, Humbuckers, P90’s, and now P-bass/Jazz pickups. Because of my experience with my day job, I have a lot of knowledge about materials, how they’re made, and how to manufacture them.
I never want to come across as an authority on vintage pickups — they were all over the map in variations of materials and manufacturing. Everyone has their opinion and interpretation of how the old ones were made. The test equipment I use doesn’t lie or come up with BS stories about what they heard from the good old days. I just go by the plain facts. Not all vintage pickups sound good, but when you do find the good ones, they can be pretty exceptional. Alan Hamel used to say… “31 flavors”, and I think that sums it up. I’ve always been curious about the great old pickups, but I think what really got me going on this whole journey was about 12 years ago, when I went into Guitar Center in Los Angeles and I picked up a 1960 Telecaster. I plugged in to an old brown Vibrolux and I thought, “What in the hell is this, why is this so freaking great?” That was the moment when my engineering head kicked in and I realized I had to try to figure this out. It was like dying and going to heaven and God hands you his 1960 Telecaster. As I played it, it was as if the guitar just disappeared… I was more creative and I probably played better than I have on any other guitar. To this day, I remember the sound of that Telecaster… and mostly the feel of those old pickups… That’s what got me started on this crazy journey. TQ