Lust for Lipstick Tubes

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?

38 comments to Lust for Lipstick Tubes

  • Steven

    When I try to run the video it show the message “This video is a duplicate of a previously uploaded video”

    • joe

      YouTube was down much of yesterday for system upgrades. Something must have gotten screwed up. Would you be so kind as to try again and let me know whether it’s working properly?

      Thanks!

      Joe

  • DohminSemper

    I always love the look of these pickups. But what do you mean “they can be noisy under lights?”. Could you please a in-the-mix clip of them?

    • joe

      I can’t do another clip right now, because I’ve already disassembled the guitar for another post!

      But as an example of the noise, listen to the beginning of the second example, where I loop that phrase (right when the text mentions the noise). If you listen carefully, you’ll here a little buzz. Nothing freakishly loud, about what you’d expect for a vintage-style single-coil. But if could be an issue is you were, say, playing them through a high-gain setting with sketchy stage lights.

      • DohminSemper

        Ah cool, but how can lights affect the sound and cause buzz?

        • joe

          LOL — you’ll need someone who actually understands physics to explain it properly! But often, when powerful lights are turned on somewhere where there’s an electric guitar, it amplifies the noise and buzz in the pickups. Anyone who’s ever had no noise problems at a soundcheck, but finds their guitar buzzing like mad at the show after the stage lights are on knows what I’m talking about. And sadly, my little studio has that problem sometimes when I turn on the extra lights to shoot videos.

          Just to be clear: The noise of the lipstick tubes isn’t extreme — pretty much comparable to, say, a vintage-style Strat pickup. But the sort of player who is very concerned with noise problems might look towards a humbucker or noise-cancelling single-coil instead.

          Hope that helps!  :beer:

          • Jerry Dunaway

            Joe:

            First off, I just discovered your page tonight, and it’s driving me nuts! I can’t believe the plethora of great information you have on here!

            Second, to back up your lights causing sound issue, I used to have (sigh… it got stolen) a seventies strat, all original including the 3-bolt neck and fat headstock. Anyway, my dad had set up a decent area in the basement where I could play and do the high school “garage band” thing. BUT, he had installed fluorescent tubes right above where I tended to stand, and it took a little while, but I figured it out. When I got within a certain proximity of those lights, my guitar would hum like a MF! Funny thing is, that was (god, I’m getting old) almost thirty years ago, and as I was typing this I could still hear that static/hum in my head…

          • Chris

            As Robert Fripp once said, “Never trust any lighting person who says his/her lights don’t, won’t, or can’t cause buzzes on the sound equipment”. (or words to that effect, I forget the exact quote).

          • joe

            Sorry, Chris — I can’t hear you over the sound of my buzzing pickups.

  • WB

    They do combine nicely with other single coils, and are expecially nice as a neck pickup if you have something hotter like a P90 in the bridge slot.   I have a baritone tele-partscaster with a hot-ish tele pickup in the bridge and a full sized lipstick in the neck slot, works great.
     
    Hey, what’s that Guild behind you?  Custom order, or did you put that DeArmond pickup in it yourself?

    • joe

      That’s exactly the sort of thing I’m curious about. You don’t have any clips, by any chance, do you?

      Funny you should ask about the DeArmond, which I wrote about here. It replaced the original Guild pickup. Way cooler.

  • WB

    Thanks!   Of course it’s way cooler! 😉   I could never make any kind of humbucker work, especially not on a big guitar like that – if you get the bass dialed in, the treble’s all thin, and if you get the plain strings to sound nice and fat, the bass strings are way too bassy and woolly.  For my musical tastes/playing anyway.
     
    DeArmond 200 in a humbucker housing eh?  Now thàt makes a LOT of dual dumb-bucker archtops a whole lot more interesting, all of a sudden!  That’s great!
    I’m a Guild guy myself – have an old Starfire with two of those DeArmonds (you should have gotten a white topped one for a Guild btw!), and my main guitar has those white Guild P90-oids, which are killer, killer pickups too.
    Forgive me for the topic derail – but the strings to use with those DeArmond pickups are nickel-wound roundwounds.   They’re notoriously hard to dial in, polepiece height, string-to-string balance, etc.., and a set of Fender 150’s, pure nickel wrap rounds solved all that, and they sound great – slightly less bright, and with a hint of that flatwound “plunk” to them, and they twang like nobody’s business.   Got that tip from Billy Zoom over on the Gretsch discussion forum, and the way he said it made sense : when those pickups were designed, pure nickel rounds were the norm, and a steel wrap is just too much iron for those huge magnets, and the bass strings want to be too loud.
    I have a clip of the baritone tele – kind of semi-embarrassing – it’s a session I did, and it’s a TV show clip of the guy and gal singing miming the tune – but that’s the baritone tele you hear.   I think it’s neck pickup only though IIRC, so not that much use to you.. :
    http://youtu.be/9md8zv1xaA8
     

  • Single coil pickups (including single coil lipsticks) suffer from the evil 60 cycle hum. It’s not the light that actually causes the hum. It’s the electrical current. More accurately, it’s the transformer that controls the electrical current. 

    Single coil guitars produce 60 cycle hum. It’s that static you get when you face your amplifier a certain way. When you add lights into the mix, such as neon or incandescent lights, it amplifies the static. If you have a properly grounded building, you can minimize this. You can also plug you amp into a power cleaner often used for computers. 

    Every time my kids turn on my kitchen light my amp starts buzzing. It’s due to the rheostat that controls it. It’s old but I’m too lazy to change it.

  • I have a Silvertone (DanElectro) with the amp in the case (the good one with tremolo and a power transformer) that I bought out of a guys attic in 1977 for $75, it was my first electric guitar. It is a good one with a nice straight neck (courtesy of two flat bars in the neck but no truss rod adjustment). Not knowing what a sweet guitar it was I did a lot of mods (almost but not quite butchered) I added a Gibson PAF in the center and originally a Leo Quan Bad Ass bridge ( later replaced with a Schaller 3D-6 later which my reissues Danos all have now it increases sustain and allows good intonation and spacing adjustments) and mini-Grover tuners. The PAF works well with the lipstick pickups in series, it adds some air to the PAF tone and gets really gnarly with fuzz. The pickups singly with the PAF sort of get drowned out but do add some sparkle.
    I also use a pair of lipstick pickups on my electric cello positioned in line with the strings (rather than across like normally in a guitar) I wired them in series and humbucking. These pickups then go into a small box and are mixed with a set of cello contact pickups mounted under the bridge which have a preamp to boost them up to match the lipsticks. This gives me near identical levels for both arco (bowed) and pizzicato (plucked) sounds which is impossible for either set of pickups alone. I run the out put of the box thru my guitar pedal board via a 5 input switcher which also has a lap steel, electric banjo and my regular guitar hooked up to it. The cello was made by my friend out of a very nice cello fingerboard, a cut down string bass bridge and the main body/neck is a steel sign post painted blue (with all the holes in them like a stop sign post but smaller around 1″ square). Sounds starnge I know but it plays great particularly if you are an untrained cellist like me. There are some sounds that can’t be made with anything but a cello (sort of like cats being turned inside out and of course the Jaws them song). I mainly use this instrument with The Dits a European style free improv trio which is kind of like some of Eno’s recent live bands but with no one directing things like Eno does we go from actual tunes to psychedelic ambient soundscapes occasionally veering into hilarity. I am currently doing some work on the instrument to add some fine tuners and a head stock it was built with guitar tuners below the bridge and no Scroll head.

  • “Every time my kids turn on my kitchen light my amp starts buzzing. It’s due to the rheostat that controls it. It’s old but I’m too lazy to change it.” Actually it is most likely a poorly designed dimmer switch where the solid state switch (usually a triac) is not being turned off and on at the zero crossing point of the AC line, it could also be malfunctioning. A rheostat is a big wire wound variable resistor that is too expensive and large for most modern dimmer applications but used to be used commercially a great deal before solid state switches had all the bugs worked out of them. When the solid state switch turns off at the wrong time it creates hash which radiated much like a radio station thru the electrical wiring. This is the same thing that creates noise on stage in bars from the lighting systems that have problems. It is possible to reduce this problem on single coils by using copper tape to line the single coil cavities or even wrap the sides and bottom of the coil pickup. Lining the control cavity and pickguard on a Strat type guitar can help reduce hum and noise pickup this will stop electrical fields but not magnetic fields which is good since that would impede string pickup but bad if the noise was coming from a magnetic source it could still be a problem.There also issues with grounding the controls and pickups I have found that establishing one ground centrally in the control cavity and keeping the ground wires short and all near the same length can drastically reduce hum in a guitar this called a star ground system. Seymour Duncan P90 Phat Kats are single coils inside steel shells like old Gibson PAFs it makes them very quiet for P90s but does make them a tad more controlled sounding (I like my p90s to be as mean and snarly as possible but I do still like the Phat Kats even if they are a bit too “polite” sounding. There is also a material called mu-metal that is a alloy of nickel, copper, iron and molybdenum which is even better than copper but it also stops magnetic fields so it can’t be used at the working side of the pickup or it would kill the string signal, if you can find the stuff it will work wonders. We used to use it on car stereo installs where there was a lot of engine noise in the dash wiring and nothing else worked. Pickups work like a generator, a changing magnetic field around a coil produces current in the coil of wire. A coil of wire can also act like an antenna for electrical fields like those produced by poorly designed dimmer switches and lighting controllers which work by having solid state switches that turn on and off during the AC cycle. When the switches are designed properly the solid state switch turns on and off at the zero crossing of the AC wave creating very little noise but when they are poorly designed or defective they turn on and off while there is a voltage present and that causes spikes to radiate out of the electrical wiring. My Dad had a dimmer like this in his house for many years that I finally replaced with a new $15 dimmer which solved the noise on all the AM radios, my guitars and stereos in the house. Florescent lights used to be a big problem as well since the ballasts (which are essentially half a transformer) could produce a lot of electrical noise. Modern fluorescent lights use electronic ballasts that eliminate virtually all noise from them. Neon lights sometimes have very crappy supplies that can produce a lot of noise as well. Finally there is the problem of RF radiation causing problems usually thru audio rectification of the RF by some electronic components. I won’t try to explain that one since it would just give you a headache but like you say above a good ground and an AC power conditioner with RF suppression built in will usually handle it.

    • joe

      Hey Matthew — thanks SO much for all the info. In fact, I believe you’ve explained/diagnosed the main problem I’ve had in my studio. I think I’m going to have to advance this info to the front page…

  • Edward Sousa

    I had a nice USA Washburn WM200 [set maple neck and see-thru red swamp ash body] that I installed Duncan vintage lipsticks in the middle/neck positions,with a Duncan Antiquity humbucker at the bridge [fresh chrome cover added].Not only was it a real looker,but the pickups matched very well,in output and vintage flavored tones.It made for a killer blues/classic rock axe.Unfortunately,I never recorded any videos or sound clips.

  • Larry Antinozzi

    I have an early Reverend Spy w/ lipstick tubes that sounds GREAT. Most of the lipsticks I’ve played seem to be low output, which I prefer because they seem to have more tonal character and seem easier to control the amount of overdrive. I love ’em!

  • Bear

    Are any aftermarket lipsticks besides Duncans worth speaking of?

    • Jerry Dunaway

      Check these out:
      http://www.guitarfetish.com/GFS-Pro-Tube-Lipstick-Fits-Strat-CHROME-_c_188.html
      I can’t attest to these particular pickups’ sound, but I have three guitars with other models from the same place and I have been HIGHLY impressed. Bought a set of overwound (with a reverse middle for hum-canceling when “in between”) for my first “custom” guitar, for the simple fact that they were only 15 bucks! Turned out to be a great investment, and again I now have theirs on three of my guitars (and I’ll probably be getting a set of lipsticks for my next strat project)…

    • I am just wiring my old Hagstrøm 3 together again and will put a lipstick I got from Stew Mac in there. It might be a Kent Armstrong.

  • joe

    The only ones I’ve played beside old Danos, modern Danos, and Duncans are Chandlers, which seem to be out of production, though I know there are other brands. I saw this interesting conversation at The Gear Page:

    http://www.thegearpage.net/board/showthread.php?t=216621

    I agree with the commentator about the pickup sounding better without “improved” output. But I haven’t tried the pickups in question.

    I have old Chandlers in another inexpensive Strat, and I prefer the sound of the  guitar with Duncans. But I think that’s at least partly because the guitar sounds so much nicer — I’m seriously blown away by how cool that generic Mexi-Strat sounds and feels.

  • WB

    Curtis Novak offers lipsticks too, I’m dying to try them out as soon as funds allow.

  • Do you remember if you had the hotter bridge pickup in there?

  • Ben

    I have a 50’s Fender Custom Shop Player Strat, that I replaced the pickups with; Tex Mex in the neck, SD lipstick in the center, and SD SSL-5 Custom in the bridge. With the lipstick in the center, it seems to have made the Tex Mex pickup a little more “chimey” and gives the SSL-5 more warmth. I also have the tone controls setup for only the neck and bridge pickups (some tone controls seem to muddy the lipsticks sometimes). My other guitar with a lipstick pickup is a 61 Silvertone, so I really like the tones of the lipstick pickups. 🙂 

  • Alex

    Quick question: If you ran two lipsticks in series, sorta like a regular humbucker coils, wouldn’t that remove the hum problem and also make the pickups more usable in a high gain metal situation? 

    • Hey Alex. My Dano’ ’63 reissue has two lipsticks in series in the middle position of it’s three-way switch.  Definitely thickens things up and cancels hum, but I do tend to find it excessively wooly and lacking in sparkle- not something you would expect from lipsticks!  I see a use for it, but I would like to install series/parallel wiring for the sweet boing inherent with lipsticks.  If you want a good pickup for metal, I don’t think the lipstick is your answer, although it would blend beautifully with other higher output guitars.

    • joe

      I meant to reply earlier, but got sidetracked. In the meantime, Double D said pretty much what I would add. Yes, it would cancel the hum. But you lose the cool “hollowness” of the lipstick tubes. Even in series, lipstick tubes don’t really do “chunk.” I like the idea of trying it for metal because it’s so perverse, but realistically, most “normal” metal players would hate the sound.

  • T9

    Are you using the hotter Duncan bridge pickup? And rwrp middle? Or just a standard set of Duncan lipsticks?

    Thanks

    • joe

      RWRP yes, hotter bridge, no. I’ve really stopped believing in the entire notion of using a hotter bridge pickup. When I reviewed a half-dozen vintage-style start replacement pickup sets last year for Premier Guitar, my favorite sets had LOWER-output bridge pickups. (I also think that RWRP is vastly overrated, but that IS what I had in that guitar.) I still love the Duncan lipstick tubes, though!

  • gray gray

    i run a setup with lipstick, a hot single coil, and a humbucker. i’m about to put in a “gilmour switch” so i can try all 3 at once. i’ve really gotten to love the instant switch from one extreme to the other, the lipstick to humbucker switch just sounds like a completely different guitar. its great! and i’m using a totally cheap piece of crap tube with a seymour duncan custom custom humbucker.

    • joe

      Wow, sounds like a cool setup! It’s weird — I’ve sort of gone in the opposite direction for no particular reason I can think of. I’m tending to use “like” pickups on everything these days, and less mix-and-match. But your setup sounds super cool, and it makes me question some of my decision. Let me know if you record any video or audio with that setup and feel like sharing!

      • Hi Joe,
        I have a couple of Yamaha Pacifica Tele style guitars. They were old stock items a store wanted to get rid of, so I paid very little for them. I bought them for experimentation. Originally I bought them because they were identical except one had a rosewood fret board the other (glued on) maple and I wanted to see if I could hear a difference. I couldn’t, they sounded the same to me.

        They came with Yamaha’s own cheaply made full humbucker in the neck and a Yamaha thin double blade bucker in the bridge. I ripped those out (I mean I carefully removed them) and fitted a Q Tuner neck humbucker with a Seymour Duncan stacked Tele bridge in one and a genuine Bill Lawrence (as in Wilde Bill) L500 and Lawrence Tele in the other.

        I have 4 way switches in them so I get all the usual Tele selections plus the two pickups in series and I have a phase reverse switch on a pull pot. I find I get some really interesting tones with the combination of the two pickups and using the phase reverse to flip the phase of one of them.

  • Chris

    I wonder if you put the lipstick pickups in a guitar with a chambered body or semi-hollow body, if that wouldn’t bring it closer to the original Danelectro sound. I’ve often thought it would be interesting to make a guitar that takes the silhouette and quality of a Strat or a Tele, but with the vibe of a pawnshop prize type guitar (remember the old GP column Off The Wall? Those sort of guitars). I always thought if you put something like lipstick tube or gold foil pickups together with something like a Mustang or Jazzmaster style bridge/tremolo, that might get close to the Danelectro/Kent/Hagstrom/Teisco/Goya/Burns/whatever aesthetic.

    • joe

      Hi Chris!

      Wow, that’s a trickier question than you might expect! Before I started putting lipstick tube pickups in solidbody guitars, I believed that the zingy, “acoustic-sounding” tones of old lipstick-tube guitars was a combination of the pickup design and the hollow composite body construction. But a lipstick tube pickup in a Strat sounds … well, an awful lot like a lipstick tube in an old guitar. I don’t believe that chambering the body would make much difference!

      On the other hand, other things might. For example, I suspect the relative sounds of the short-scale Mustang and long-scale Jazzmaster you mention might mean more than solid vs. hollow. And much of the tone of the funky old guitars you cite comes from cheap and/or eccentric hardware, and inconsistent production, not just from the pickups.

      So while I’m all for experimenting with unusual pickups in unusual guitars, it can be awfully hard to predict results! Sorry, though, if that isn’t terribly helpful.

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