Do you ever get an idea that you just know is going to work out brilliantly? And then discover you were totally wrong?
That’s how it was when I finally reassembled my generic Mexican Strat with Duncan lipstick tube pickups. After I recorded a demoing of it here almost two years ago, the guitar lay in pieces alongside my workbench. I’d stare at decapitated body, feeling guilty and dreaming of all the fantastic mods I’d attempt when I finally got around to reanimating it. I had various ideas for the tone control: Maybe a two-band PTB control? Nope—totally underwhelming results. Perhaps a two-in-one TBX? Meh—even less interesting. I drew a blank, and the guitar wound up with a disappointingly normal tone circuit.
But I did discover some cool twists along the way. Details after the video:
My flatwound string addiction is only getting worse, but this is the first time I’ve combined flats and lipstick tubes. (Has anyone done that since the ’50s?) The results were fascinating. As happens when you put flats on an electric 12-string, you encounter a paradoxical increase in highs, despite the darker-toned bass strings. (Maybe it’s because the treble strings ring truer with less phase-canceling interference from roundwound bass strings.) As you can hear, this instrument doesn’t lack for zing.
The opposite, actually — treble notes explode from the instrument, often more than you’d like. I experimented with various action and pickup height adjustments, but no matter how I set things, it was difficult preventing certain notes from shrieking. The only solution was to play the damn guitar for a few hours and grow accustomed to the touch.
(A side note about the Pyramid strings I used: I popped a high E while disassembling the guitar repeatedly. Playing mostly fingerstyle, I only break a string or two per year, and I didn’t have direct replacements for this $25 imported set. I tried a far less expensive nickel string from a US manufacturer, figuring any differences would be subtle. Wrong again! The fundamental pitch was so much stronger on the Pyramids that it sounded as if the high E had its lowest octave EQ’ed out. Lesson learned (and string replaced with a proper Pyramid).
Another surprise: I first modded the guitar with a built-in Rangemaster-derived booster not far removed from this site’s Fiendmaster project. I love how that simple germanium booster sounds inside the Pagey Project Les Paul. But with lipstick tubes, it was a bit harsh and ugly. I redid it with a “secret recipe” two-transistor solid-state fuzz (which I would have assumed would sound even harsher) and it totally worked for me.
I installed the effect via a push-pull pot, with the knob serving as a master volume. Initially I ran the fuzz output directly to the output jack, but later redid it so the signal returned to the main volume pot first. Without realizing it, I’d stumbled across a cool gain control. With the fuzz engaged, lowering the main volume chokes the signal going into the fuzz. Since this distortion can add a ridiculous amount of boost, it’s no problem making up the volume from the fuzz pot (though it gets a bit noisy when the signal to the fuzz gets too low). I really dug the variations I got from this accidental two-knob fuzz.
Once again, I went for “Nashville-style” Telecaster wiring, using a 3-position Tele pickup selector with an additional control to fade in the middle pickup as desired. The advantage: You get the gorgeous sound of the combined neck and bridge pickup, unobtainable on a standard Strat. (You lose the middle-pickup-only setting, but who cares?) I’d made a big fuss in this demo about how having a pot to fade the middle pickup in and out, Brent Mason-style, unlocks subtle “in between” settings also unavailable from a vintage-style Strat. But after trying the “regular” Nashville wiring on a few gigs, I found that the variations were a little too subtle for me, and that I’d inevitably have the reverse-wound middle pickup fully on or off. That inspired the idea of activating it via a switch rather than a pot, and I’m delighted with the result. I even like the sound of all three pickups engaged. That’s usually a dull, diffuse tone, but for some reason it sounds cool with the lipstick tubes. And of course, using a switch freed up the third pot for fuzz control.
Lipstick tubes aren’t for everyone. They have beautiful lows when played cleanly, but they get “splattery” at high gain—the furthest thing from the tight chunk metal-heads crave. But every time I play pickups of this type, I fall in love with the contrast between their pretty, bell-like clean tones and their swamp-trash distortion character. I’m using Duncans, which sound as good to me as vintage Dano pickups. So do old Chandlers, if you can find them. Either would be a great upgrade for new-school Danelectros, though folks tell me that nowadays the Chinese-made Dano lipstick tubes have improved. I can’t say—I avoid the brand because of the company’s habit of pilfering stompbox ideas from the boutique community and their anti-marriage equality activism.
So do any of you have lipstick tube love stories?