Nothing says “low budget cool” like a lipstick tube pickup.
Maybe it’s their humble but sweet sound. Maybe it’s the quirky housing. Or maybe just the fact that, for countless Baby Boomers, the lipstick tube pickups of the ’60s provided the formative electric guitar experience.
Whatever the reasons, it’s been a loooooong time since lipstick tube pickups were only appreciated by budget-bound beginners. Just consider the stupendous list of celebrity users.
Anyone who’s ever played a lipstick tube knows they have a unique sound. Several sounds, actually. Despite the extreme simplicity of the design — no pole pieces, no bobbin, just a wire wrap around a bar magnet, stuffed into a metal tube — the old ones really do sound different than most of the modern, Asian-made ones, at least to my ears. The old ones seem more open and sparkly, while the new ones sound thicker and more midrangy, with less of that defining “hollow” quality. Popping replacement lipstick tubes into a new lipstick-tube guitar is usually a significant sonic upgrade.
Check out this revealing lipstick tube demo:
But there’s more to that hollow quality than pickup’s character — the guitars that housed them were themselves hollow: porous, Masonite sheets attached to a simple wooden frame. Which means that when you install lipstick tubes into a solidbody guitar, the tone will almost inevitably be drier and tighter relative to the original context.
Back when I played with PJ Harvey, I often used an inexpensive Strat fitted with Chandler lipstick tubes, tuned low for baritone work. This guitar exhibited the usual pros and cons of this formula: I got a cool, vibey tone with pretty high end, but the guitar was always a little more restrained than I wanted it to be. But nowadays I tend to play more often through preamps and boosters, and I wondered whether these would open up the sound. So I recently revisited the formula with a trio of Seymour Duncan Lipstick Tube for Strat® pickups.
Unlike my old Chandler pickups, which required a custom-made pickguard, the Duncans are designed to fit Strat pickguards. (They also make Danoelectro-sized replacements.) My original plan was swap out the pickups in the Liberator-equipped Everything Axe pickguard that I wrote about here. But I liked that particular configuration so much that I didn’t want to disassemble it! So instead I snagged a non-Liberator YJM pickguard and took it from there. The installation was insanely easy, even without a Liberator: Just solder the three hot wires to the 5-way switch, then bundle all the other wires together and solder them to ground. It took about five minutes.
The pickups sound great to me — perfectly authentic, with the open, shimmering sound of original lipstick tubes. As expected, the tone was a bit tight for my taste, but once I added a dose of clean boost pedal — using the one we made in DIY club — the sound opened in a satisfying way. The booster is on for the duration of the clip above. I also added a homebrew fuzz pedal for the distortion segment.
Now I’m curious about mixing lipstick tube pickups with conventional pickups. Anyone have any experience in that realm? Or just any interesting thoughts and observations about these cool, quirky pickups?