Welcome to the second installment in the Mongrel Strat Series!
If I were a sensible person, I would have split this week’s experiments into several posts. But much like eating pistachios, it’s tough to know when to stop .
Anyway, this project tackles three topics:
1. Several readers dug the sound of the Telecaster-inspired Seymour Duncan Twang Banger pickup used in Mongrel #1, where I paired it with a Duncan Lipstick Tube for Strat neck pickup and a Alnico II Pro middle. But I wanted to hear how the Twang Banger sounded in a more traditional Strat array, so this time I paired it was a couple of vintage-accurate SSL-1s, with a reverse-wound, reverse-polarity model in the middle position.
2. Over in The Secret Room, a participant brought up the subject of the Vari-Tone control used in the Gibson ES-345. I wanted to learn more about this often misunderstood circuit (well, I never understood it, anway) and explore whether it had relevance for Strats.
3. In response to another Secret Room topic, I wanted to resolve whether there’s any sonic benefit in bypassing the tone circuit completely.
And the results? You tell me — here’s the video:
I’m loving the sound of the Twang Banger combined with vintage-style Strat pickups. Obviously, many players have have issues with vintage-style Strat bridge pickups. Some address this by using louder/darker/fatter high-output bridge pickups. But there’s something compelling about going to the opposite extreme. The clangorous Twang Banger with its copper-coated steel backing plate is bright as hell, but definitely not thin-sounding. It you dislike traditional Strat bridge pickups for their thinness rather than their brightness, I heartily recommend this cool alternative.
Now let’s talk Vari-Tone. (If you already know the hows and whys of the circuit, skip this next bit.) In a conventional tone control circuit, the tone control removes highs, with the amount of removal determined by the value of the capacitor (as explained here). The Vari-Tone departs from this scheme in two ways:
- It adds a second rotary pot that selects between multiple capacitor values. In other words, one knob rolls off treble and the other determines the amount of roll-off.
- The circuit also includes an inductor. Unlike a capacitor, which removes treble, the inductor preserves it. Result: twisting the tone knob sculpts the midrange without nixing highs. It’s like a subtle version of a wah effect. Sounds promising! But since it’s a passive circuit, it can’t actually raise the levels of mids, but only lower the surrounding frequencies. Which means that there’s a noticeable (and potentially problematic) volume drop when you engage the circuit.
In the demo, I connected the inductor via a push/pull pot so I could remove it from the circuit. (This is not an original idea — several DIY sites have explored the idea, and I learned a lot from this one in particular.) With the inductor removed, you get only treble cut.
I’m of two minds about the Vari-Tone circuit. No — make that six or seven minds. It definitely adds new colors, but the two-potentiometer layout is a space hog, and the volume drop is a drag.
Next time I want to try a dumbed-down version with no inductor and only three cap values, selected via a mini-switch rather than a cumbersome rotary pot. Expect to see it in a future mongrel project!
Finally, I wired in a tone control bypass to hear whether, as some claim, there is a meaningful improvement in volume and/or brightness when the circuit is bypassed, as some have claimed.
Sheesh — I don’t hear much difference!
As my San Francisco neighbors, the Mythbusters, might summarize:
Tele-style bridge pickup in a vintage-style Strat? Confirmed.
Vari-Tone (or some variant) in a Strat? Plausible.
Does it sound better to bypass a guitar’s tone circuit? This myth is BUSTED.