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G&L: What’s new for 2018?

February 10th, 2018

Doheny SH 2017 was a very active year for G&L and they’ve gained steam, rolling into 2018 with a lot of new products, features and a whole new look on their website. Let’s take a quick look at what’s new for 2018:

New Website – G&L has launched their new website, and it’s cleaner, more modern and better pictures and images. G&L is also clearly promoting their heritage, and the Leo Fender story in a more obvious fashion. Makes a lot of sense when your founder invented the modern solid body electric guitar and bass. They also have a new “CLF Research” Instagram and Facebook page.

It’s still a work in progress, and there are some guitars and options in my price book that are not on the site, and vice versa. So we are working through that, and if you have any questions, just check with us and we’ll get an answer.

NAMM – G&L had a booth at NAMM for the first time in many years. It was packed, very active, and they had some great one-off guitars on the wall (we snagged a couple). Phyllis Fender was on hand to sign copies of her new book about Leo Fender the man. It’s the story of Leo, not a history of Fender guitar. It’s a pretty quick read and quite insightful about a very unique and creative individual that did not even play guitar.

G&L Custom Shop – G&L has launched their Custom Shop concept, and there is a dedicated section on the website for custom shop guitars. There a new finishes — the nitro option is back — the availability of hand-wound and signed pickups off Leo’s original CLF pickup winder, mild aging if you want it, and in general a much higher level of attention and hands-on TLC. Considering how good the “factory” guitars currently are, this is a pretty high bar. It’s not clear how “custom” you can get, and this is a work in progress. I don’t have a enough detail to know if you can put P-90’s in a Doheny, make a single pickup Fallout with Solamente wiring, etc. It’s baby steps as they feel out the process, and if you are interested give us a shout and we’ll work through the process with you.

What’s Out – The SC-2 is gone for 2018. My feeling is that once the Fallout came along, that really took the air out the SC-2. It’s fun guitar but they still have the ASAT special and it’s the same pickups.

What’s New  – The Doheny was new for the fall of 2017 and they’ve now rolled out the Doheny Deluxe and Doheny Semi-Hollow. The Deluxe is a Flame Top guitar with wood binding and rear-mounted controls. But you don’t have to get binding, and what we also like about the Doheny is that Fixed or Vibrato bridge is the same price. Also the MAP for this guitar is $200 less than then similarly outfitted ASAT Deluxe.

The Doheny Semi-Hollow comes standard in swamp ash and also includes wood binding and rear mounted controls. Our feeling here it to opt for an Okoume back when ordering this guitar. Semi-hollow guitars tend to gain some nice harmonics, but lose a bit of low end. The Okoume back will add in a bit of roundness and warmth.

Also note there are no neck profile options on the Doheny. It’s a Modern Classic, but you can opt for a different radius. The Doheny has its own 21-fret neck, and it’s not tooled to handle all the other profiles. The “MCNK” seems to be very popular, so I think they are sticking with what most people want anyway.

Also new is the CLF Heritage L-2000. This is a throwback L-2000 with an 80’s neck profile, the cool 80’s metal control plate, glossy neck finish, and “Heritage” MFD pickups. It’s available in four colors and no options. To keep the weight down they are using Basswood on the solid colors and Okoume on the bursts. Both woods work very nice on a bass, with punchy and clear fundamental notes.

Not Sure – The Invader and Invader XL are still in my 2018 price book but not on the new website. I don’t think they are dead, but that there is a make-over in the process in terms of a more shred-friendly neck profile and other features. The Anderson/Suhr market is something G&L has yet to crack, and they’ve got their eye on it. The ASAT Fullerton Standard is on the website but also not in the price book, and I know that’s currently not in the plans.

While I’ve not scoured the prices in excruciating detail, nothing pops out, and all the base guitar MAP prices appear unchanged. Rosewood is now a $50 MAP option and “Caribbean Rosewood” (Chechen) is now the standard “brown” wood. We really like Chechen, and while it’s not as dark as Rosewood, it’s got really interesting grain and it feels nice and smooth. Due to CITES regulations Rosewood has become problematic, and the supply is erratic.

Neck Profiles – The 2018 book is not listing the V-profiles, U, the Wide C, or Heritage profile. But the website is. We’ll have to sort this out, and it could be that the wide range of profiles will be reserved for Custom Shop. I will lobby for the Soft-V though….

New Colors – Rally Red (sort of Fiesta), Galaxy Black (jet black with a subtle light metallic flake), Shell Pink, and Surf Green joins the permanent ranks. Yukon Gold Metallic is out, and they are working on a better replacement. Nobody really liked Yukon Gold, including G&L.

Overall we like what G&L has been up to, and while sometimes they run before they walk, it’s all with good intentions. They also maintain a presence on Social Media, which a lot of companies just don’t bother to do. That’s good for the brand image, brand value, and ultimately resale value. We think 2018 will be a great year for G&L, and let us know if you have any questions or comments at studio@upfrontguitars.com

 

David Allen Strat Pickups – Impressions

August 12th, 2015

strat setDavid Allen makes a lot of different Strat® pickups, maybe almost too many to figure out what to select. The variability of available sound-clips and videos only adds to the complexity. So when we decided to carry the line we asked David himself what pickups were most representative of the range. He recommended three sets: TruVintage 54, Tru ’62, and the Voodoo Blues SSS set. So armed with our trusty G&L Legacy (swamp ash, hardtail, Emerson wiring assembly, maple fretboard) we set about trying out all three sets to see how they compared.

Dave Allen TruVintage 54

As with many of the David Allen pickups, they don’t attempt to completely follow every excruciating construction detail of the original pickup. Instead they focus on creating the sound of a ’54 Strat rather than just replicating the construction. The TruVintage 54’s are wound progressively in the mid-to-upper 5K range and use staggered, beveled Alnico 3 magnets. Having never handled a true 1954 Stratocaster® (tonally these pickups are modeled after an actual set of ’54 pickups) we can only say that they sound the way we “think” they should sound: Exceptionally clean, glassy, with a bouncy low end. Characteristically, the bridge pickup is pretty light, and to some may only serve to pair with the middle pickup. But the Alnico 3 magnets lend enough sweetness to the high end that it’s not shrill or brittle. So you can actually use a distortion pedal with the bridge pickup and get some decent rock sounds. The TruVintage 54’s are textbook Strat, and hit the mark for those putting together the ultimate vintage Strat.

David Allen Tru ’62

Like the 54’s, the Tru ’62 set is graduated set, but wound from the low to mid 6K range from neck to bridge. They also use staggered magnets but in this case Alnico 5. They are rounder and warmer than the 54’s and a little less glassy. But they project a more soulful nature, and have a deeper rounder bass. There is also a little less quack to the positions 2 and 4, but in return you get one great sounding middle pickup. It’s got good low end like the neck pickup, but more twang and bite. It’s my favorite position of this set, followed by the neck + middle. Overall, the Tru 62’s are a slightly huskier sound than the 54’s but certainly won’t be mistaken for anything else than a Strat.

David Allen Voodoo Blues SSS

The Voodoo Blues set is a light top/heavy bottom set with a twist. The neck and middle pickups are wound to about 5.8K with staggered and beveled Alnico 5 magnets. These are right out of the David Allen ’69 Voodoo set, and you  get one guess as to what tone they were aiming for. They are bright and glassy with a percussive and snappy low end. Just the ticket for some Jimi, SRV or Los Lonely Boys. The bridge is wound to 7.8K but instead of just more wire, it’s also a lighter gauge wire. The net result is more output without the loss of clarity and detail typical of a higher output pickup (technically a higher resistance without a big jump in inductance). So you get more punch and better pedal performance without a big tonal sacrifice. Players who want to rock their Strat but won’t compromise on looks or authentic tones will like the Voodoo Blues SSS set.

 The Wrap

These pickups are not radically different from each other. It’s not like we were testing Hot Rails versus a vintage reproduction pickup. But in each case as we changed sets there was an “oh yeah, I can hear that” feeling as soon as we plugged in. We were not in total agreement on what we liked best either. My favorite set was the Tru 62’s while our new Sales Tech Eric liked the sweet-but-glassy tones of 54’s followed by the Voodoo SSS. For the moment, the Tru 62’s are staying in our Legacy, but the discussion is not over yet….

 

David Allen Cool Cat P-90 Bridge Pickup – Road Test

June 28th, 2015
cool-cat-full

David Allen Cool Cat P-90 Bridge pickup

It’s spring. Time for new projects around the house and the yard. New grass, new weeds, cleaning and fixing whatever you see. Also a time I decided to freshen up the JR.

Leslie West described the Les Paul JR as a plank with a mic on it, and he’s pretty much right. Not much there means there’s not much to go wrong. His tone was a very early influence for me so I’ve had a couple of JR-ish guitars over the years and now I have a stock 2009. Not Custom shop, not Billie Joe, just a JR. I bought it used and it was stock except for a Tone Pros adjustable wraptail bridge.

Stock Gibson P90’s aren’t junk. I’ve enjoyed all the ones I’ve had, but I felt the need for a change. The typical recipe for a P90 is 10,000 turns of 42 gauge wire on an A5 Magnet. Magnet strength changes whether by age or intent and has an effect on tone. So one A5 isn’t like every other A5 unless you seriously over or underwind or change magnets the sound is the sound.   And yet over the years I’ve had P90’s built by others and they do sound different from one another.

The David Allen “Cool Cat” P90 is an A5 42 gauge P90. It is built with the wood spacer and other original touches. It measured 8.9K at room temp, which does make a difference. If you measure a pickup you just took from the box UPS left on the porch in Connecticut in Febuary versus a pickup UPS left in a box on your porch in Arizona in July you’ll be surprised at the difference.

And so I installed the Allen CC P90 into JR. JR already had an Emerson wiring kit and repro Bumble Bee capacitor, so the spring freshen is complete, just add strings.

One am I use is a Tweed Deluxe Speed Shop 5E3 repro. It’s loaded with GOS (good old stock tubes) and a 1961 Jensen P12Q.   I also have an Emery Superbaby.   It is currently loaded with a 5751, JJ KT88, and a Mullard GZ34. The speaker is a large oval back pine 1×12 with a Warehouse Reaper 30 watt.

Just a note, I never use the tone circuit on the Emery. When I plug in, the signal is through the tubes, very few PTP wired components and to the speaker. Honest tones of what you plug in.

So what have I got? It sounds great. It’s alive and articulate and very responsive to my picking dynamic.

What did it do before? All of the above, but less so. Less enough to notice.

The Allen Cool Cat measures 800k hotter than the stock pickup. Sometimes those windings add up to a closed off congested kind of tone especially when the pickup is on “10”. In this case the stock P90 congested more than the Cool Cat when full up. So the tone of the Cool Cat on 10 is much closer to the tone of the Cool Cat on 8 whereas the Gibson goes through a much larger tone change and “darkens” from 8-10.

There’s more to pickup tone than windings though, and the Cool Cat sounds crazy good and wide open when you turn it down a few numbers. Turn up the amp and run the guitar on less than full volume and chords have a ring and a note separation that almost sounds like you stepped on a magic pedal.

Played into the Emery/Reaper combination I can get a really good LP bridge pickup sound. OK I’ll say it, like a good PAF, like an old Allman Bros tone. It’s got a real strong snarl if you want but that is more up to the way you attack the strings than the DNA of the pickup. Leslie West squeals and snarls are all there.

There are a whole lot of vocal qualities to be found on the first 7 frets. Picking style really brought this out. My pick choice and picking style is brighter than a friend’s who came over to try it, and it was very noticeable.

This isn’t an all mids kind of P90. There is plenty of treble, and it smooths out really well when you dial back the tone knob on the guitar.

Set the guitar on “10” and yes of course you can get all the Neil Young you can handle plugged into the 5E3.   The Cool Cat will do Cinnamon Girl all day. Cortez the Killer? Hell yes.

Yet the 5E3 and the P90 are so much more than Neil Young. Roll back the pickup and let the amp do the lifting and the beautiful lush chords of a Ryan Adams song come into full bloom. For Americana type music this really P90 works. For ripping power chord rock the Cool Cat really works.

I’m certainly pleased with this Cool Cat. It did what I wanted. It doesn’t do anything I don’t want. It’s a win on all accounts.

Neil Swanson

Alnico magnets and guitar pickups – How to choose?

November 2nd, 2014

The heart of any electric guitar is the pickup, and pickups play a huge role in the overall sound of any guitar. So it only makes sense that when players look to improve their sound, the pickup is the most common modification. There are dozens of reputable pickup makers to choose from; from large volume producers like Seymour Duncan – who virtually invented the aftermarket pickup market – to boutique winders making vintage style pickups with OCD-like fervor. And to a great degree they are all working with the same basic materials: Wire, magnets, screws, and various methods to hold it all together.

Arcane Strat Special Pickup

For an item of such critical sonic importance, there are not many ways to quantify their design. Besides the typical specification of DC resistance, which is a function of wire gauge and number of turns of wire, magnet type is the other most commonly specified feature of a pickup. The choices are typically a ceramic magnet or some type of Alnico, which stands for Aluminum, Nickel and Cobalt. Alnico magnet materials have been around for decades, and are the material of choice for the majority of high quality pickups. The benefits of Alnico material is that it’s efficient (think in terms of power-to-weight ratio) and it’s also very stable and holds its power well over time.

There are several different grades of Alnico, and the different grades are based on their metallurgical makeup. The most popular for guitar pickups are Alnico 2, 3, and 5; oftentimes referred to as II, III and V. Generally speaking the grades are not in order of “goodness” and the numbers simply denote a particular material composition. Besides what magnet grade is being used, the pickup maker can also vary the amount of magnetic charge (Gauss) the magnet has. Magnets bought in bulk are usually shipped un-charged, and the pickup maker energizes the magnet as part of the build process.

There has been a lot written on the qualities of the various Alnico grades, and the how a magnet material affects the sound of a pickup. So while I’m not blazing any new trails, here are my general opinions on the impact of Alnico grades, gained from my own personal experience and experimentation.

Disclaimer: There are so many other factors in making a pickup – wire gauge, winding tension, winding pattern, potting – that attributing the tonal characteristics solely to magnet material is somewhat folly. Also, some magnet grades are closely tied to pickup style, so you’re unlikely to see a high output metal pickup using Alnico 2 material.

Alnico 2 – Alnico 2 is used most often as a bar magnet material in humbucking pickups. This was the grade used in the early “PAF” pickups, and as a result is commonly employed in vintage-flavored designs. Examples of pickups using Alnico 2 material are the Seymour Duncan Seth Lover, Alnico II Pro, and the Arcane ’57 Experience. Pickups using Alnico 2 material tend to have a slightly soft attack, generally warm tonal characteristics and a slightly loose, bouncy feel. Wound strings have a somewhat woody tone and for some may lack enough definition. While pickups of this sort are generally not wound for high output, when pushed they develop a nice singing quality and make a pretty nice pickup for leads. Players who like to work their amps hard versus using pedals will dig Alnico 2.

Alnico 3 – Alnico 3 magnet material is used in both Gibson humbucker type designs and Fender Telecaster style pickups. Common in early Telecaster bridge pickups, Alnico 3 has good attack qualities, and a clear high end that some would describe as “grainy” and complex. In humbucker pickups, they create a nice balance of warmth, bite and clarity. This is the material used in the Arcane Triple Clone, which is modeled after the 1960 Gibson PAF. Tighter sounding than Alnico 2 pickups, lead tones are crunchy and pleasantly tight, and don’t get overly mushy in the neck position. A nice pick for both rich complex cleans and medium gain rock.

Alnico 4 – Not as common as the other more traditional materials, Alnico 4 is used by few pickup winders such as David Allen, Bare Knuckles, and Mojotone. The opinion is that Alnico 4 combines the warm feel of  Alnico 2 but with better attack and note definition. We really like the tone and pick response of the David Allen P-51 humbucker, which is an Alnico 4 pickup.

Alnico 5 – Likely the most popular magnet material, Alnico 5 shows up in both humbucking and single coils designs; Strats, Teles, and P-90’s. Alnico 5 pickups are characterized by strong output, clear tone, and punchy attack. This all sounds pretty good, and just about every conventionally constructed Stratocaster pickup uses Alnico 5. Some of most popular humbuckers use Alnico 5 including many Seymour Duncan models including the SH-1, JB,  and just about every Rio Grande pickup. Compared to Alnico 3 they may lack a little sonic complexity, but for those about to rock, Alnico 5 is a very good choice.

The Wrap – As they like to say in commercials, “your results may vary.” Your own experience with your own guitar will be the best teacher. Fortunately, pickups are neither very expensive, or hard to install. So do a little testing of your own and see you what you think. You can always drop me a line at sales@upfrontguitars.com.

 

Humbucking Pickups – Less is more

September 8th, 2014

For single coil loyalists, the humbucking — or dual coil — pickup has always been a conundrum. The extra power and fatter lead tone is attractive, but not at the expense of clarity and attack.

The humbucking pickup was originally developed as the name implies to fight hum. In this case the enemy was 60-cycle hum and noise induced by lighting, appliances, and grounding issues. The late 50’s Gibson PAF gets the credit as the first humbucking pickup, but Gretsch and others companies were producing similar designs during the same period.

While elimination of hum was the goal of the PAF and other pickups, the phase cancellation of high frequencies provided a warmer tone, and the series resistance of the two coils produced greater output and more midrange content. Almost by accident, the humbucker pickup was not only quieter, but more powerful and less shrill than the single coil pickups from Fender.

As distortion became a greater part of the musical landscape, players realized than the humbucker pickup could push the front end of their amp much harder, making it easier to distort. Mind you, this was before the huge explosion of pedals — and master volume amps were in also their infancy — and having a pickup that could help produce distortion was pretty handy. Play a humbucker through any small Fender tweed amp and you’ll get the picture.

But given human nature, if a little of something is good, too much will certainly be wonderful. In order to drive amplifiers into a frenzy, pickup makers started to build pickups with more windings and stronger magnets. The grandaddy of them all is the Dimarzio Super Distortion; one of the first if not the first hot humbucker. Favorites of hard rockers and metal players, nearly every established pickup manufacturer offers at least one type of  high output humbucker.

But while human nature is predictable, so is physics. Pickups are inductors, and adding more windings to a pickup increases it’s output, but also it’s DC resistance and inductance. In general, increased DC resistance tends to increase midrange and reduce high end response. While how a pickup sounds is a result of many factors and the manufacturing process itself, as pickup output increases clarity tends to diminish and the sound gets darker. This is true of any pickup including single coils, and a “hot” single coil Strat pickup will generally be less glassy and clean than it’s vintage equivalent (not a bad thing at all if used in the bridge).

Tonally, the sound of a hot humbucker is a matter of taste, but to players used to the clean, transparent nature of a good single coil they sound dark, stiff, and dull. While they can create some pretty good crunch tones, their clean tones sometimes border on useless.

It doesn’t have to be that way though, and today there is a cottage industry of small builders trying to nail the sound of a “true” PAF pickup. Partly this is the dubious mojo of anything old and vintage, and partly because there is a realization that the original pickups sounded darn good. But while there “could” be some magic to a pickup wound in 1957 in Kalamazoo, the majority of the magic is magnet strength and DC resistance. And technically neither of those two things are magic, just physics.

With today’s cascading gain amplifiers and vast array of pedals, a really hot pickup is not necessary. Lower output pickups by their very nature will have a more even frequency response, more clarity, and better note definition. Even if you rarely play clean, the improvement in sound quality is noticeable even with pedals. Plenty of hard rock players known for their fiery licks use relatively mild pickups. The Duncan Alinco II Pro is one such pickup, and Seymour Duncan even now has a Slash signature version of the Alinco II. One of my favorites is the Duncan SH-1, which is used by Knaggs in their Kenai. This is also a fairly low resistance pickup (8K bridge) but I like the attack of the Alnico V magnet versus the Alnico II. The Arcane ’57 Experience is similar in nature to Alinco II Pro, and uses Alnico II magnets and moderate DC resistance. The result is good clarity, open midrange, and a balanced round low end.

How you wire up your pickups is important too. For humbucker pickups, 500K pots are the way to go, and a 1 Meg pot for the tone control can help improve the brightness of the pickup. For tone capacitors, .022mf is the general rule, but I like using a .015mf for the neck pickup. It does not roll high frequencies as aggressively, which is handy at the neck. If you are using “modern” wiring, a treble bleed capacitor/resistor is also a nice modification, but less so for “vintage” wiring. Wiring is a hole ‘nother blog post, and Premier Guitar Magazine has run a series of great articles on guitar wiring.

If your guitar is not loud enough, turn the amp up! Using a pickup purely to increase volume has detrimental sonic effects. You paid for all those watts, use them.

 

The G&L ASAT Classic Solamente: One pickup is enough

January 28th, 2014

In 2013, G&L surprised some ofsolamente us by coming out with the ASAT Classic Solamente. Solamente means “only” in Spanish, meaning that G&L had finally come out with their own version of a Fender Esquire type guitar. For quite a while I had been quietly pulling for a single pickup version of the ASAT Special, but this was close enough.

Historically, the Fender Esquire has been part of the Fender lineup almost as long as the Telecaster itself. The Esquire was mostly a way to sell a guitar a lower price point, and less so a recognition that many players never used the neck pickup. The original concept of the Tele neck pickup was to emulate a bass guitar, and the “true” tone of a Tele neck pickup was dark, and murky. I remember getting my first Tele in the 70’s and wondering what the heck was going on with the neck pickup. I quickly swapped it out for a Velvet Hammer Strat pickup and was much happier.

Over the years Tele neck pickups got more “normal” as players expected that a two pickup guitar should have two useable pickups. A modern Telecaster neck pickup is much more versatile than the vintage stuff, although they are still somewhat a mixed bag. The G&L MFD ASAT Classic neck pickup overcomes nearly all the shortcomings, and is a good blend of clarity, traditional tones when you need them, and more punch when you don’t.

But we are really talking about one pickup guitars, specifically the Solamente.  It’s an odd move to emulate a fairly unpopular guitar, and through the years there have not been many Guitar Heroes wielding an Esquire. Brad Paisley and Bruce Springsteen are the only ones that come to mind, and The Boss is not really a Guitar Hero. But G&L did it anyway, and should we be glad they did? Yes.

Guitar pickups by the very nature of their design create a magnetic field. In order for them to create a signal, strings need to have some proportion of iron in them to disturb the magnetic field. This also means that pickups have some amount of damping effect on the strings. This is precisely why setting your pickups lower tends to improve tone and sustain, while having them close to the strings makes them louder but can create some odd sonic artifacts (and even make them sound out of tune).

Single pickup guitars – especially those without neck pickups – dampen the strings less, and they just ring out better with a cleaner, bigger tone and more sustain. The Les Paul Junior is a great example of this, and players like Keith Urban get a huge range of tones out a little mahogany plank and a single P-90 (and he has some interesting single pickup custom Fenders). The Solamente has that same open chime, and there is more richness to the notes. It’s bright like a bridge pickup, but with more character and dimension.

You’ll also notice that there is still a pickup selector switch. There are a myriad of “Esquire” switch wiring schemes, and Fender has used a few variations over the years. The Solamente uses a fairly traditional version in which the “neck” position uses a resistor/capacitor network to emulate a neck pickup. It’s a darker treble tone and is reminiscent is a bridge humbucker. The middle position is a normal volume/tone circuit, and the bridge position bypasses the tone control. In effect, even though there is just one pickup, you can preset three different tones. Recently, Premier Guitar magazine devoted several articles to variations on Esquire wiring, and they are available online.

The Solamente is also available with either the G&L MFD design bridge pickup, or their traditionally designed Alnico pickup. In our opinion the MFD is the only way to go. Simply put you can just do more with it. It’s got the output, midrange punch, and upper end complexity to be a country pickup, a rhythm pickup, and a rock and rock pickup. It drives pedals really well, and in the “neck” position with some gain does a great rendition of a P-90 or Humbucker. I play an ASAT Classic S (modded with two large MFD’s in the neck and middle) in a cover band. When I think of it, there are about three songs all night when I’m not of the bridge pickup. With a Solamente and a little tweaking, I go could probably go all night.

There are not many players who will own just a one-pickup guitar. But I know very few players who own just own guitar. Single pickup guitars have a magic all their own, and part of their charm is their simplicity and their tone. Sometimes having less to work with makes you more creative, and you rely more on yourself than on the guitar to be creative. I’ve owned a Les Paul Junior for several years; it still surprises me on how versatile and massive it sounds. The G&L Solamente is very much the same, but with a G&L flavor. It’s a worthy addition to your collection for home or stage.

For more information on the ASAT Solamente:  www.upfrontguitars.com

 

 

 

Which G&L: Legacy or S-500?

August 19th, 2013

Hands down, the Fender Stratocaster® is the world’s most popular guitar, and has spawned probably hundreds of copies. Being also designed by Leo Fender, the G&L Legacy is what we can assume to be the evolution of the Strat: Improved floating bridge, updated tone controls, and slightly fatter pickups (compared to a vintage style Fender anyway). The Legacy looks and feels a lot like a Strat, but the tonality of the bridge, slightly beefier neck and the pickups gives it the G&L vibe. Plus you can pretty much spec out your own G&L, but that’s for another day.

The “other” Legacy — the S-500 — often gets left out of the conversation. With it’s G&L Magnetic Field Design (MFD) pickups, the S-500 has slightly different, more industrial look. And while rock ‘n roll is supposed to be the music of rebellion, guitarists can be very conservative, and things that deviate from “vintage” often get rejected. With the exposed socket head pole pieces of the S-500 pickups, the guitar looks just different enough to get passed over by some players as “not right.”

But is the S-500 a better guitar?

Possibly “better” is the wrong word choice, but the S-500 is possibly a more useful guitar in the context of playing and performing. It’s in the best commercial interests of G&L to produce something that is essentially akin to a Stratocaster. While I can’t say for certain, it’s probably G&L’s best selling model too (though I sell more ASAT’s than Legacy’s). But the G&L MFD pickup is intended to be an improvement over the conventional Alnico pickups designs, and in theory the S-500 is supposed to be an evolutionary step forward.

The basic concept behind the MFD pickup is that it’s really built more like a P-90, with a ceramic bar magnet underneath, and with six adjustable steel pole pieces. The MFD pickups also have a fairly low coil resistance, but a stronger, broader magnetic field. The low coil resistance results in a more even frequency response, but the magnetic field creates a greater signal output. The result is a fairly “hot” single coil with a full frequency response, and none of the peaks and hot spots characteristic of an over-wound conventional pickup.

Sound Comparison

The overall sound of an S-500 versus a Legacy is that it’s a little fatter and warmer. The tone is slightly darker, there is less midrange scoop, and they are not as glassy and bright on the top end. Sounds terrible doesn’t it? Well not really, especially given the fact that nearly all rock music these days is played with some amount of overdrive or distortion. The greater midrange, output and lack of icy top end of the S-500 makes it a great choice for more modern sounds. Overdrive tones with the S-500 are rich, harmonic, and much fuller than than a guitar with conventional pickups. The bridge pickup is absolutely more useable than a Strat bridge pickup, and the in-between tones of the neck + middle and middle + bridge are also punchier and less brittle. The higher output and slightly attenuated high end works great with pedals too.

In the context of playing live, the S-500 holds up very well, and can be heard in the mix without getting shrill or piercing. The extra heft of the MFD pickups and their fuller, creamier overdrive tones project very well, and fit many styles of music from classic rock to progressive. Bedroom tone and live tone are very different animals, and while the S-500 may lack some of the glassy cleans of a Legacy, it’s a great tool for covering a wide range of musical styles.

I will reference a story that has been told several times in different publications: Jimi Hendrix was known for using a long, cheap Radio Shack coil cable with his Strat. Coil cables are notorious for having a lot of electrical capacitance, which cut high frequencies, boosts the midrange, and makes the tone darker. The net effect of Strat + Coil cable is a warmer, darker Strat with less high end.

Blues legend Buddy Guy has often performed live with a Stratocaster equipped with Fender Lace pickups. These are noiseless dual coil (humbucking) designs that sound very clean but have a lot body and output. For years Clapton Strats have used active EQ and noiseless (humbucking) pickups. While I hesitate to drop names like these in this lowly blog, they are good examples of true guitar heroes that don’t always adhere to tradition and pure vintage setups.

Cheap Advice

If general jamming, low volume playing, or traditional blues, funk and rock tones are your bag, the G&L Legacy is great choice. You’ll hear the sound you hear on the records. And as there is a plethora of aftermarket pickups that will drop right in, you’ve got huge leeway to experiment. If you really like to rock and can deal with the look, go for a Legacy HB with the bridge humbucker.

If you tend to play out, use effects, and cover a wide range of music (such as a cover band) the S-500 is worth serious consideration. While it can’t cop the pure scooped glassy tone of a Strat or Legacy, it’s still single coil in nature, but can morph in many different directions with ease. You can experiment and mix MFD pickups with conventional pickups, but visually the guitar may look a little mongrel. Personally, MFD’s respond differently than conventional pickups, and I don’t mix them.

The S-500 is meant to be in some ways a “better” guitar, and depending on what your needs are, it really is.

For guitar offerings at Upfront Guitars:  www.upfrontguitars.com

 

G&L Guitar Sound Clips

February 16th, 2012

We are just getting started with this blog page, but it will include sound clips of the some of the many guitars that we currently have in stock or have carried at UpFrontGuitars. We’re on a steep learning curve recording-wise, so probably the clips will get better as we go!

ASAT Classic Custom Semi Hollow, Maple Neck – Recorded through Dr Z Remedy Head into pine 1×12 cabinet with G12H30 speaker, Shure SM57 microphone. JHS Charlie Brown Pedal used for overdrive tones. Recorded February 14th, 2012

ASAT Clas Cust SH

 

 

Selecting Guitar Pickups – Science or Art?

December 7th, 2011

Without a doubt, if you want to change the sound of your guitar the biggest single difference you can make is to change the pickups. Anything else: Bridge, saddle materials, pots, caps or tuners are refinements and tweaks that may or may not have a noticeable effect. But changing a pickup can have a mild to radical effect on the sound of your guitar. So how do you select a pickup with any level of certainty? After all it is a “blind” purchase, and aside from a demo guitar or sound clips there really is not an effective way to audition a new pickup.

Like music itself, making pickups is a blend of science and art. Furthermore, describing how a pickup sounds practically has it’s own vocabulary. You’ll hear words like “cluck”, “chime”, “hot” and “glassy” among other words to describe how pickups sound. To some degree you just have to immerse yourself into the world of pickups, read a lot of descriptions of various pickups, listen to sound clips or demo videos where available, and  learn to relate what they are saying to what you are hearing. Like wine buffs, “pickup geeks” have their own language. But at the risk of generalizing, there a some basic categories and classifications that most people can agree on.

Conventional Pickups – By this I mean pickups that follow that follow the classic construction and material techniques set forth by industry pioneers at Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker, etc. Within the world of conventional pickup designs there are arguably three typical configurations:

Fender® Style Single Coil – Essentially thousands of turns of fine gauge magnet wire wrapped around a bobbin with six individual magnet pole pieces. Some erroneously call it an electromagnet, but a pickup is actually an inductor. The vibrating strings disturb the pickup’s magnetic field and induce a current (signal) in the coil which goes to your amp and the rest is history, and a lot of it. This type of design is famous for clarity, good string definition, high end response, and the propensity to pick up stray electrical noise (hum).

The P-90 Style – This design was introduced by Gibson® in 1946, although there were earlier similar designs. The p-90 is a single coil pickup but the (6) pole pieces are threaded steel screws that pass through the coil with a bar magnet located beneath the coil. The overall coil resistance of the P-90 is generally higher than the Fender single coil, and the magnetic field is different. P-90’s tend to be higher in output with a thicker midrange and less clarity at the high end. The P-90 has gone in and out of vogue over the years, but a good P-90 is a joy, especially in the bridge.  Some Fender-type pickups are really “imposters’ and actually follow the P-90 design. For example, many Fender MIM (Made in Mexico) and some Godin Stratocaster-type pickups are actually steel pole pieces with bar magnets beneath the coil. Usually this is a cost-driven decision although they can sound pretty good. P-90’s share the same noise issues as the Fender pickup, sometimes worse.

Hum Canceling (Humbucker) – Invented in 1955 by Seth Lover, who worked at Gibson. The humbucker pickup uses two single coils wired in series and out of phase. Using what is call common mode rejection, the two coils cancel most of the hum. Humbuckers are characterized by a fuller, thicker sound than a single coil, a strong midrange, but also with less high frequency response and upper end clarity. Nearly all Humbuckers use a construction similar to the P-90, with a bar magnet underneath the coil, and threaded screws or steel pole pieces that pass through the coil. There are many variation of the humbucking design: The coils can be in line which is the most typical configuration, facing each other with the pole pieces in between the two coils, or stacked which gives the appearance of a single coil pickup. The Precision Bass and G&L Z-Coil pickup have two coils side-by-side with each coil covering just half the strings. This provides hum canceling benefits while retaining a more single coil tone.

Variations on a Theme – For many, the best pickups were invented nearly sixty years ago, and that’s that. But there is always somebody our there trying to improve the breed and there are some notable examples. Lace Sensor has been producing uniquely designed hum cancelling pickups for many years, aimed primarily at Stratocaster players. Their Lace Alumitone pickup is a real departure — in both looks and sound — from a normal pickup and combines both noiseless operation and a very broad frequency range. The G&L MFD (magnetic field design) pickup in terms of construction is really very much like a P-90. However, the MFD has a fairly low coil resistance and larger magnetic field. The result is high signal output and a broad, flat frequency response. The term “hi-fi” is often associated with MFD pickups because they don’t over accentuate any particular frequency. Guitar players in general are conservative bunch, and many shy away from anything seen as deviating from past classics. But the Lace, MFD, and noiseless pickup designs from Lindy Fralin and others offer some real alternatives to the classic limitations of pickup design.

Can you buy a pickup on “specs”?

There are a several ways to characterize a pickup by measuring certain properties. However some of those are hard for the typical consumer to relate to. The most common measurement of a pickup is resistance (usually in thousands of ohms, or KΩ). Resistance is essentially the DC resistance of the pickup coil. Resistance can generally describe the approximate output of a pickup, and typically higher resistance pickups are hotter (louder) pickups. Resistance can be increased by either more windings, or changing the gauge of the magnet wire, or a combination of both. While we are talking generalities, higher resistance pickups will often have more midrange and less high frequency response, and a “fatter” sound.  As mentioned earlier, pickups are not actually resistors but inductors, and inductors are measured in Henries. Lace actually lists the inductance of their pickups, but I’m not sure that is of much value to the average guitarist.

Magnet power can be measured too, but measuring the magnetic field of permanent magnets is quite complex, and beyond the realm of most of us. Different magnet materials such as generic ceramic magnets and the revered ALNICO (Aluminum, Nickel, Cobalt) have differing magnetic properties, retain their magnetic properties differently over time. Some pickup makers will actually “age” their pickups, essentially demagnetizing them (degaussing) to replicate how an old pickup might sound now. So magnet efficiency and material (Ceramic, ALNICO 2, ALNICO 5, Samarium Cobalt) do make a difference in pickup sound and efficiency, but most people rely on subjective descriptions rather than hard measurements. You can always subjectively measure the magnetic properties of a pickup by taking a small screwdriver and seeing how strongly it is attracted to a pickup pole piece. Again talking in generalities, stronger magnets will induce a greater signal in the coil and produce more output.

Many months ago I was swapping out some pickups in my son’s “Highway 1” Telecaster. It’s a nice guitar, but I’m a Rio Grande dealer and wanted to road test some of their product. The stock Telecaster bridge pickup sounded pretty good but was maybe a little thin. I measured the resistance, and it was a whopping 11K ohms. But the magnets had almost no “pull” on the screwdriver. The resistance of the Rio Grande Halfbreed Tele bridge pickup was a more normal 8K resistance, but the ANILCO magnets had a much stronger subjective pull. The result? Both pickups had similar volume output but sounded different. If we looked at the Highway 1 pickup solely in terms of resistance we would think, “wow that’s going to be really hot”. But not knowing the magnetic field of the pickup showed how resistance is a incomplete measurement by itself. It’s reasonably safe to say that selecting a pickup by reading the manufacturer’s technical data is not going to accurately describe the tonal qualities of the pickup.

So How Do I Select A Pickup?

Without being a wise guy: It’s a journey. As mentioned earlier it’s important to read pickup reviews, gear pages, and manufacturer’s websites, and experiment a little by trying out some pickups. If you can handle a screwdriver and a soldering iron, the world is your oyster. If you try a pickup and don’t like it very much, chances are somebody on eBay will. Keep in mind that pickups will sound different in different guitars, so it’s most effective to experiment with your own guitar.

There are many other factors that affect the sound of a pickup than just resistance and magnetic force: Winding pattern, winding tension, potting (usually a wax material applied to the coil to help prevent feedback), bobbin size and height, etc. It’s impossible for the consumer to predict the effects of all these potential design considerations. It’s for the manufacturer to do the proper R&D to determine what variables give them the sound they want within their cost targets.

Do not assume that only boutique manufacturers can produce good pickups. There are many small winders devoting tremendous energy into recreating the vintage vibe of early pickups, but reverse engineering a 1957 PAF may not be the solution to everybody’s needs. Larger companies can do a lot of R&D and invest money into building very consistent processes. Just because “Company A” sells thousands of “shred-o-matic” pickups at the local big box does not mean they can’t satisfy the needs of a blues traditionalist. I work with a guitar builder that often uses boutique pickups in his guitars but also really likes the DiMarzio Area 51 pickups and encourages their use. I sell Rio Grande pickups, and they don’t get hung up on creating vintage reproductions. Their focus is to build great sounding pickups for a variety of applications. I wish they would write better descriptions on their website, but I’m OK taking the time to write my own. I also really like the G&L MFD pickups (not all of them equally though) and their large MFD is probably my favorite pickup to play. But it’s not a vintage anything, and especially not a traditional Fender single coil. Leo Fender developed the MFD because he was trying to develop something that was even better. He was looking forward, not backwards.

So while there is science in pickup building, the selection of a pickup is almost totally subjective, and purchasing pickups just based on specifications or snob appeal will not lead to guaranteed satisfaction. Read, listen, test, experiment, and develop your own understanding of what works for you. And don’t forget to practice in between pickup swaps!