Tag Archives: treble

The Taming of the Shrill: How to Rein in the Extra Brightness of an Offset Guitar

Whether it’s fawning over custom colored Jags or addressing some playability problem on a Jazzmaster, it’s safe to say we talk a lot about offset Fender guitars. It’s been an honor to help guitarists understand the quirks associated with them, yet one such quirk we’ve not addressed previously is the tonal range of these guitars.

While it’s true that both the Jaguar and Jazzmaster are capable of some truly bright trebles, they’re also capable of some deep, complex low end. Newcomers to the sound often home in on that brightness and fear that they’ve bought a guitar they can’t use. If that’s you then I’m here to help.

In no particular order, here’s a short list of ideas to help you tame the shrill from your offset Fender guitar. But before we dig in, I’d like to note that guitars being the sum of their parts, the suggestions I’m about to make likely won’t offer a night-and-day change in the sound of your guitar. To put a numerical value to it, you may find that they only amount to a 5% difference, but that could be the 5% you need.

This list may be offset-centric, but these suggestions can apply to just about any guitar.


Examine Your Amp Settings

We guitar players can be rather superstitious. Once we find that sound in our heads, once we settle on those ‘magic’ numbers, it seems like sacrilege to deviate. If this is you, take a deep breath and get centered because the very first suggestion I have for those afflicted by harsh treble frequencies is to simply dial them out.

For symptoms of excessive brightness my prescription is to start with the Presence, assuming your amp has this control. Presence knobs govern the very top of the top end (around 3-7khz-7khz) and as such turning down this knob can have a dramatic effect on undesirable ice-pick frequencies.

Treble controls most often govern the more tuneful highs in of a guitar signal (typically 1.5khz-4khz) so you may find that pruning too much here kills some pleasantness. Still, with the ample treble produced by Jazzmasters and Jaguars, you may find that you won’t need as much to keep things defined.

Now, your instinct may be to roll up the Bass knob and that may certainly help a thinned-out guitar, but be careful not to use this as a catch-all solution. Guitars generally live in the upper EQ bands of a mix, and while punishing low end sounds (and feels) great on its own, you also run the risk of muddying up a full band sound by boosting bass too much. Remember to leave space for other instruments.

You can also try utilizing the tone controls of drive pedals in the same way, cutting highs before you hit the amp. Using a darker pedal or settings before a bright amp can yield some lovely tones, or if you’re the kind that likes bright cleans and dense overdrive, this may be the way to go.


Roll Off that Tone

 Knob

I think a lot of folks have been emotionally scarred by the cheap electronics of affordable instruments, but there’s really no reason to fear the humble variable low-pass filter. Sure, a bad tone control can do sickening things to the sound of a beloved instrument; a good one can be an effective secret weapon.

I’ve long maintained that the stock Jazzmaster tone control is one of the most usable ones around. The combination of the 1meg linear potentiometer and a 333 capacitor just seems to dial out the exact high end frequencies that my ears find so unpalatable without sacrificing clarity.

It may help if you think of your tone control as a taste control instead; depending on your musical situation, you can really change the flavor of your guitar’s response to fit the moment. On my personal Jazzmasters, I leave the Tone knob at 6 or 7 as my basic sound and if I need a thicker sound, backing off to 4 or 5 does the trick. If I need twang, rolling up to 10 is almost like picking up a really good Telecaster. I’ve even gone so far as to install Gibson-style pointers on my Thin Skin Jazzmaster so that I can take note of exact settings.

When used in tandem with some smart amp-based EQ whittling, these first two suggestions may be all the only bits of the list you’ll ever need.

Try New Strings

Most people can throw down $5-$7 on a set of strings once in a while, and if you’re feeling blue about your tone, changing up your string brand or gauge is one of the most effective tweaks you can make.

Every brand has their own feel and sound, so it’s worth experimenting a bit. Say you’re a devotee of nickel plated strings but you’re getting a little too much zing. Try a set of pure nickel strings next time around, which tend to be warmer. If 10s lack some low end thump, try stepping up a gauge. Flats, ground-round, coated and uncoated, different metals… There’s a whole world of options out there. Go nuts.

Swap Pots

A common mod you’ll hear about from Jazzmaster owners in particular is tossing the stock 1meg volume and tone pots out for a lower value. Doing so warms up your guitar’s sound by shaving off a bit of the volume and high end response.

When I’m explaining the basics of how pots work to a customer, I liken them to the flood gate of a dam. If the gate’s wide open, it lets all of the water through, while closing the gate permits only a trickle. The value of potentiometers does something similar.

A pickup wired straight to the output jack is what I’d call ‘wide open’ – the full signal coming from your pickup is going to the amp without restriction. When you introduce a volume pot you’re limiting how ‘open’ that gate can be. A 1meg pot is pretty close to wide open, letting a lot more signal pass than 500k, and 500k passes more than 250k. It’s because of this that we often pair certain pot values with different types of pickups (i.e. 250k for singles and 500k for humbuckers).

The stock value for your Jazzmaster or Jaguar is 1meg, which has much to do with the bright tone of these guitars. When you swap out for a lower pot value, you’re shifting the resonant peak frequency lower, invoking a warmer sound. Stepping down to 500K is enough of a change for many players, but going all the way to 250 shaves off an even greater amount of high end.

For an example of what lower pot values can do for you, Nels Cline’s famous “Watt” Jazzmaster has 250k pots, which works perfectly for a man known for hating treble.

My signature Redbeard cable from our pals at Sinasoid, available through Mike & Mike’s!

Ditch the Lossless Cables

While the arguments surrounding the effect of cables on tone are never-ending, it makes perfect sense that anything between your guitar and amp could alter your tone. And while many cable companies boast ultra-low capacitance, conductors made from rare materials, or instrument-specific lines, many of the most influential musicians of the last 50 years used whatever they could find to make that all-important connection.

Hendrix’ use of long, coiled cables is one of the examples many point to when citing how a cable can have a huge impact on the sound of a guitar. Coiled cables by nature are actually much, much longer than similar standard cables––there’s almost three times the material between the plugs! As a result, the signal from the guitar has to travel a much longer distance to reach its destination, and thus, increased capacitance. The greater the capacitance, the less high end that is transmitted through the cable.

Capacitance is no joke and is something worth considering when you buy a cable. That said, ultra-low capacitance may not be the best choice for everyone. When our pals at Sinasoid offered to design signature cables for the shop, I specifically asked for a longer, higher capacitance cable than what I was used to, and I couldn’t be happier. So ditch the buffer and short leads and see what happens.


Swap Pickups

A lot of players ask me for recommendations on darker Jazzmaster pickups, and usually the first four names out of my mouth are Lollar, Novak, Antiquity, and At-The-Creamery. Each of these manufacturers offer superior sound to most stock units and have tons of options even for Jaguars.

For those looking for vintage-correct tones, Duncan’s Antiquity Is beautifully capture the sound of a 60-year-old black-bobbin pickup, louder and darker than the IIs which emulate the brighter grey-bobbin pickups of the late 1960s. Comparing the Antiquity Is to the pickups in my ’61 Jazzmaster, they’re damn close. Of course, Duncan has many different Jazzmaster pickups.

Lollar’s standard Jazzmaster set is a lot like a 60-year-old pickup when it was brand new: healthy output with a bit more top end, as well as the signature Lollar midrange bump. I have these installed in my 2007 Thin Skin Jazzmaster and couldn’t be happier. Lollar also offer one hell of a Jazzmaster-sized P90.

If you need something weird, my friend Curtis Novak is my first choice. Curtis has a knack for stuffing non-standard pickup designs under a stock Jazzmaster cover, from Mosrite and Gold Foils to dummy-pole humbuckers. He’s a miracle worker.

Jaime from At-The-Creamery in the UK is a fantastic option for those who like to get into the nitty gritty details of pickup making, allowing the player to choose things like magnet type and output. He does brilliant work to boot.

Of course, each of these makers offer a wide range of pickups for all guitars.

Have you tried plugging into the Bass channel?

Try Darker Amps

With the popularity of the boutique amp market and its affinity for “jangle” it’s bit more difficult to find amps with a focus on low end and low-mids rather than trebles. I realize that not everyone can just get a different amp at the drop of a hat – I’m no spendthrift either – but if you find yourself in a position to consider a new or additional amp, then I have a few suggestions for you.

For smaller tube amps, the Fender Blues Jr. Lacquered Tweed is equipped with a 50 watt Jensen speaker, which offers less speaker breakup and a lot more low end than you might expect from such a small cabinet. I also highly recommend the Excelsior Pro, made in the tradition of 1950s low-wattage combo amps and reviled by some for its tonal inflexibility. Still, that 15” speaker sounds huge even at modest volumes and the amp loves pedals. They go for next to nothing on the used market.

For a mid-size amp, the Peavey Classic series tends to be overlooked but you’ll find warmth characteristic of Tweed-era Fenders at a fraction of the cost. For UK tones, the Normal channel of an AC30 works beautifully, but if you’re looking for something with more gain the Orange Rockerverb range should do nicely.

For heads, I have to say that the new Marshall Silver Jubilee reissue surprised me with the amount of lows it has on tap. The Mesa Tremoverb is another hugely underrated and darker-sounding amp, one higher-gain head that I wish I owned.

Come to the Dark Side

I’d like to echo the sentiments of our Sith Lord Vader, welcoming you to the more sinister side of tone. To be clear: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with brighter sounds! If chime is your thing, chase your bliss! Me, I’ll be over on the other side of the stage in my warm, woolen cocoon.

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Mike & Mike’s Pot[entiometer] Dispensary

IMG_6151-impby Michael James Adams

I… I really struggled to make a good joke there. I’m sorry for how lame that was.

So, we have this wonderful little Tumblr site where I keep a log of just about everything that I work on. Tumblr is easily one of the most fun blogging sites out there, and the community we’ve found there is so much fun. I’m constantly surprised to not only see our number of followers consistently rising, but also the amount of interaction we’re receiving. Day-in, day-out, we’re getting messages from all over the world asking for advice about pickups, setup techniques, which colors we like and why we’re so damn fond of Jazzmasters.

At times it’s daunting to answer all of the messages, but I LOVE it anyway; it is simply amazing to me that we can connect with other musicians across the globe, all of us united by our mutual enjoyment of gear. And to you reading on this website (mmguitarbar.com), it’s good to have you as well! I can’t believe anyone reads this drivel. You’re like secret Santas, every last one of you.

Among the topics raised, one of the most frequently asked questions goes something like this: “Why does my guitar not sound good? I replaced the pickups with [insert quality brand] and it still sounds like [insert expletive].”

Now that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I’ve been there before myself, swapping pickups for new units that cost a decent percentage of my take-home pay, only to find my tone slightly improved; that’s a frustrating, seemingly hopeless place to be in.

IMG_3949-impSo what gives? You buy the pickups of your dreams, unsolder as few connections and you’re suddenly underwhelmed with your purchase. I mean, sometimes that’s because what you bought wasn’t that great to begin with, but in today’s age of Youtube demos and Rig Rundowns, guitar players are far more educated–tonally speaking–than ever. More and more, it seems highly unlikely that most of us would spend money without knowing what to expect. We’re extremely blessed to have the Lollars, Novaks, Creameries, Bareknuckles, Rio Grandes, Fralins and Duncans of the world toiling away so that we can all sound better!

What seems far more likely to me is that while we’ve all been focusing on pickup problems, we have perhaps carelessly overlooked something perhaps even more detrimental to our sound: the wiring harness.

Yes, it’s true: you could have the world’s greatest pickups ever made–some would argue a set of ’59 Gibson PAFs–and your guitar could still sound muffled and altogether dull if the electronics suck. Allow me to explain, and if you don’t mind I’m going to pick on Gibson a little bit just because I hear about this issue most commonly with regard to humbucker-equipped guitars. I find that, with the exception of P90s, most players don’t complain as often about dark single coils. Sry.

Conventional tonal wisdom states that most single coils sound best with 250K pots because these pickups have a wider tonal spectrum than ‘buckers, meaning they generally put out a wider range of treble and bass frequencies than most humbuckers, which cancel hum but also some of the common frequencies picked up by each coil. That pot value effectively sets a cap or dam, if you will, as to the amount and frequency range of the treble available, so you end up with a clear and balanced pickup that won’t hurt your ears, dig?

If you use 250K pots with a humbucker, what you end up with is a pickup that lacks clarity and detail, and is devoid of snappy highs and tight lows. This muddier signal is EXACTLY the reason so many of us prefer 500K pots with humbuckers*, which allow more treble through and produces a drastically clearer and fuller sounding, erm, sound. So that’s why Gibson guitars generally come stock with 500K pots.

Except they generally don’t; Gibson, like any other company, has to save money any way they can so they can offer a product with enough profit margin to blah blah blah business stuff. Everyone does this, and if Gibson’s buying bulk potentiometers, they can save a bit of money on each part by loosening the tolerance. Most standard pots have a +- 20% tolerance, but for a little more money you can easily find pots ~ 5-10%.IMG_3339-imp

So Gibson-branded pots that claim to be 500Ks? Yeah, it’s highly likely that they aren’t. Whenever a customer of mine tells me their guitar sounds muddy or isn’t sounding the way they imagined, one of my first fixes is to replace the pots, and so I measure their actual, real-life rating with a multimeter and the results are surprising.

You remember our buddy, Nick? He’s the one that brought me his newish Explorer back in 2012, a lovely guitar in that alluring naturalburst finish. He’d swapped pickups 3 times with similarly disappointing results, so I measured his Gibson-branded, stock 500K pots and guess what? They measured at almost exactly 300K ohms. That’s (I am so bad at math but I think this is right) a 40% deviation from the rating on the side of the damn pot! Sadly, this is not the first time this has happened; sometimes I’ll find a pot hovering between 450 and 420 [insert drug humor] and sometimes as low as 370, but 300K? Damn, son!

As mentioned in this older article, I measured out a set of pots that were within reasonable tolerance from their rating (most were within 5-7%) and built a new harness. Upon installation, the difference was dramatic, to say the least; the previously muddy, ill-defined signal was replaced by an articulate tone, replete with note separation and clarity. Trebles were snappy, the midrange was airy and open, and the bass was just as thumpy as our hopes and experience led us to believe. To this day, Nick frequently tells me that his guitar is now what he always wanted it to be.

So, if your guitar sounds as if its wearing the roughest of Irish sweaters and could use some tonal refinement, before you swap pickups please consider having your electronics replaced as well. Because really, if you’re spending the money on killer pickups but leaving stock, out-of-spec electronics inside your guitar, you won’t be hearing those expensive pickups properly.

wiring50sAnd while you’re on the hunt for a good set of pots (we like CTS, Bourns and sometimes Alpha) please follow this wiring diagram**, which is the proper 1950’s style wiring that Gibson used on their holy grail instruments. I attribute the coveted ‘59 Burst sound not only to the wood and pickups, but also this scheme, which differs from modern wiring in the way the tone caps hook up and the way in which the tone pot is grounded. This makes a HUGE difference, and unless a customer specifies otherwise, this is the diagram I recommend using for most jobs. Seymour Duncan has a great blog explaining the differences in layman’s terms, and I’d also recommend using a treble bleed/volume mod network across the 1 and 2 lugs of the volume pot. Link goes to my favorite, but you can easily build them with your own parts.

In conclusion, the way in which your guitar is wired can have a huge effect on the way your guitar sounds. The things discussed in this article are somewhat simplified, but I can say with complete honesty that this trick as worked literally every time I’ve tried it, on both my personal guitars and those of my customers. Give it a shot! Don’t trust me? Look how cool Nick felt after I swapped out his wiring harness. He felt so good he didn’t give a crap about traffic.

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Nick is a traffic-hating badass. He’s crazy. He’ll point his guitar at you and everything. He doesn’t give a crap.

* Your mileage may vary, but most of us do prefer 500ks.
** The diagram omits ground connections for the bridge/tailpiece stud and to each pot.
*** Things come better in threes.
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Fastback ’59 Zebras: Show Ponies or Thoroughbreds? (Also, Horse Jokes)

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By Michael James Adams
Seattle-based hot-rod guitar company Fastback is Fastback at it again with their newly-released pickup set: The Fastback ’59 Zebras. Manufactured by hand with care, these pickups claim to be modeled after the fabled P.A.F. pickups found on our favorite vintage bursts, but do they live up to the hype? Let’s find out!

A Horse of a Different Color

The Fastback ’59 Zebra pickups are hand-wound at Fastback’s Seattle HQ and spec’d out like the original PAFs we’re all so fond of. Visually, this set couldn’t look more right; the cream bobbins are just the right color, neither looking too yellow or too brown as aged parts so often do. Customers can expect a choice between AlNiCo 2 and 5 magnets for different tonal variations, with the 2 magnets exhibiting softer, spongier highs and lows with round mids than their ‘three more’ counterparts. The pickups come with a heavy wax bath to combat microphonics – breaking with true vintage tradition to the joy of most people – and single braid wire for easy installation.

Our set was wound slightly hotter than the measurements listed on the website (not that I’m complaining!) with the bridge measuring in at 8.4K and the neck at 7.6K. Installation was a breeze, and within no time I was slinging hot licks all over the place. Or whatever people do with guitars these days.

With these pickups loaded into my recently-acquired ’97 Squier Vista Super-Sonic, the difference in sonic fidelity was immediately identifiable. Of course the Zebras were a marked improvement over the stock Korean ‘buckers, but being a guitar tech I’m no stranger to vintage PAFs and I must say I was impressed. Fastback’s really hit the nail on the head here, folks.

Black and White and Cred All Over

The neck pickup had all of the airy, vocal midrange I expected from a pickup claiming to be a PAF, but few of them ever really get all the way there. The lows were pronounced but not overbearing, and the highs were sweet and supple, with a warmth and body all their own. Clean or dirty, this pickup retained the clarity and note definition associated with classic units. With overdrive, I was enveloped in heavenly fat tone.* Really a superb pickup in every way.

The bridge unit absolutely blew me away; creamy, chunky drive that stayed tight enough to appease my modern sensibilities, but was in no way sterile or shrill. The midrange was warm yet distinct, bringing to mind my favorite Jimmy Page sounds from How the West Was Won. Highs were stinging but round, while the lows were well-defined and present, but not as much as one might expect given current “PAF” offerings. Let me explain:

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Our test unit was 8.4K, slightly hotter than the one pictured above.

Though not as ample as I expected, the lows have a slightly different EQ curve, which seems to sacrifice some of the really round, fat low-lows in favor of a slightly higher bass frequency center, which means it never gets woofy or muddy. The E and A strings particularly had a very pleasant midrange kick, but were resplendent with a softer, woody overtone that immediately harkened back to the golden era of single-cut solid body guitars.

Again, the Jimmy Page comparison is apt here, because while his tone in HTWWW is freaking huge, I wouldn’t even begin to describe it as being as big and spectrum-killing as so many of our modern guitar ‘heroes’ might have you believe. No, Page’s tone is focused and cutting, neither overly bright or bassy. In a word, perfect – same as these pickups. I imagine the lows would be more pronounced in a more traditional mahogany body/maple top instrument, but I really dig the sound.

When used in tandem, these little beasts really come alive! The vocal qualities I mentioned earlier are magnified, with that quintessential open ‘ah’ vowel tone cutting through any dense mix. Literally anything I played with this selection sounded good, and that’s saying a lot. From legato minor-key runs to all-out, cacophonous freak out sessions, everything was gloriously tuneful.

I didn’t mention how well these pickups respond to tone knob variations. Even with a small twist from 10 to 8, the pickups warmed up beautifully, shifting the focus from brilliance to the woodier qualities we all associate with mahogany guitars. Thing is, this guitar isn’t mahogany, it’s basswood. Sure, the Super-Sonic isn’t the traditional guitar we’re all familiar with, but all of the warmth and lively sound I’d expect from a Les Paul was at my fingertips in a decidedly Fender package. Drop these pickups in a Les Paul, and I guarantee you’ll be thrilled.

Yay or Neigh?

Overall, I couldn’t be happier with these pickups. They’re every bit as magical as some of the original units I’ve played, with just a touch of modern wizardry thrown in. Too often, major pickup manufactures seem to be following in the current business model of most amp manufacturers, where doing absolutely everything comes before simplicity and good tone. We’re often left with amps that do everything averagely, with obscene amounts of high and low end which ultimately translates into a lackluster playing experience.

So you can understand why I really appreciate that Fastback has created a pickup that isn’t super hi-fi and doesn’t try to cover the breadth of the sonic spectrum. Instead of making a pickup that has huge amounts of earth-shattering low end and enough highs to blind a bat, it seems like Fastback tailor-made a set to suit full band situations with a focused, brilliant tone that cuts as much as it grooves. Undeniably fun, and easy on the wallet too!

Equine jokes.

Fastback ’59 Zebras
$80 each/$150 per set
Available direct or via Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar

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*Not to be confused with heavenly Fatone, which would be soooo dreamy

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