“Vintage” Les Paul Wiring: BS or BFD?

Which sounds better: modern or vintage wiring? The experts disagree!

There’s a wealth of information online about the relative merits of “vintage” vs. “modern” wiring in Les Pauls. And after reading page after page on the topic, I was more confused than when I started. So here’s an attempt to pinpoint the sonic differences in a meaningful and relatively “scientific” fashion.

For those new to the debate, here are the basics: Nowadays tone pots in electric guitars usually connect to lug 3 of the volume pot, the same junction as the input from the pickup or pickup selector. Wired this way, the tone control siphons off highs before the volume control siphons off level. But in ’50s Les Pauls, the tone control often connects to lug 2, so treble is nixed after the volume pot does its thing. (I say “often,” because, as in so many other regards, vintage Gibson aren’t 100% consistent.) Here are some comparative schematics.

Most online sources manage to pinpoint the most basic difference: with vintage-style wiring, your tone retains more brightness as you lower the volume. But beyond that, there’s a buttload of b.s., including the frequent claim that vintage tone capacitors sound better or different from new ones. (They don’t.)

Anyway, I’ve made some comparative recording and measurements. After digesting all this geeky goodness, you’ll probably know whether ’50s wiring is an attractive option for you.

I made test recordings using the same ’80s Les Paul I victimized during the Pagey Project. The pickups are Seymour Duncan Seth Lovers, extremely accurate reproductions of vintage PAFs. I started with modern-style wiring, and made three sets of recording of the neck pickup:

  1. Playing the same phrase with the tone knob at 10, but with the volume decreasing from 10 to 6.6 to 3.3.
  2. Keeping the volume at 10, but lowering the tone from 10 to 6.6 to 3.3 to 0.
  3. Lowering the volume to 5, and then lowering the tone from 10 to 6.6 to 3.3 to 0.
Next, I rewired the guitar and repeated the same performances at the same settings.

Here’s what I found:

  1. As expected, with vintage-style wiring, you retain far more highs as you lower the volume knob, but there’s more to it than that: Modern also generated a pronounced low-mid bump. The brighter sound of vintage wiring has at least much to do with clearer low-mids as with stronger highs.
  2. With the volume control stationary, the “curve” of the tone control varies radically between the two wiring methods. With modern wiring, the tone rolls off much more quickly. To generalize, you need to lower a vintage-wired tone control about two-thirds of the way down to get a tone similar to a modern-wired tone control about one-third of the way down.
  3. You get about the same amount of treble loss with the tone control at 0 with both vintage and modern wiring — but modern wiring produces a stronger low-midrange bump, which probably makes the results seem darker.
  4. The tone-control properties described in #2 and #3 are similar whether the volume knob is all the way up or partially lowered.

Hear for yourself. For the test recordings, I recorded the Les Paul direct to disc via a Universal Audio Apollo interface. There’s no amp simulation or other EQ — you hear the harsh, unfiltered sound. (Plus some sketchy intonation, because I used garden-fresh strings for both recordings.) Without amps, tubes, and speakers (or virtual amps, tubes, and speakers) to filter highs, this is brightest sound you can get from a Paul, so take that into account when considering the results. Your amped tone will probably never be as bright as what you hear in this demo! Your results will also vary, depending to your pickups, amp, touch, and so forth. Contrasts will probably seem less extreme that they are here with the raw, direct sound. But you will almost certainly notice meaningful differences between the two wiring schemes.

Pretty dramatic, ain’t it?

Here are some readings I made using the Match EQ function in Apple’s Logic Pro. First I measured the sound of modern wiring with the volume at 10 and the tone at 6.6, and then measured vintage wiring at the same settings. Match EQ compares the two, and creates an EQ curve describing their differences. In other words, this is the EQ you’d have to apply to the modern sound to bring it in line with the vintage sound:

With the tone control lowered to 6.6, vintage wiring yields stronger highs and weaker low-mids.

Now let’s flip the equation: Here’s the EQ you need to apply to the vintage wiring with the tone at 6.6 to make it as dark as modern wiring:

With tone at 6.6, modern wiring displays strong treble roll off and thick, wooly low mids.

So which approach is better? It depends on your taste and gear, but allow me to offer a few recommendations:

  1. If you like your Les Pauls on the bright side, go vintage. (I love bright Pauls, so I’m sold already!)
  2. If you avoid using your volume control because of treble loss, go vintage. If you like exploiting the darker sound of a lowered volume knob, stick with modern.
  3. If you tend not to use your tone control much because you don’t like its dark, wooly-sounding effect, a switch to vintage might inspire you to use it more.
  4. If you’ve ever been tempted to replace a standard .047uF tone capacitor with something smaller for  a more subtle treble roll-off (a .033uF or a .022uF, say), definitely try vintage! If you’ve ever contemplated a larger tone cap, go with modern.

This experiment also reinforces something I’ve learned over the course of our various experiments with Vari-Tones and other multi-capacitor tone controls, both homemade and commercial: Until recently, I failed to appreciate the extent to which standard passive tone controls not only filter out highs, but introduce resonant peaks surrounding the cutoff frequency. They don’t just cut highs — they emphasize mids. Even if you’re happy with standard controls (they’re standard for a reason, after all!), a little experimentation might uncover things uniquely suited to your style.

Has anyone else explored this territory? I’m especially eager to hear from anyone who’s applied this approach to any pickups other than a vintage-style PAF. Do tell!

Oh, one more thing: This is a super-easy soldering job. If you’re looking for a nice, n00b-friendly guitar mod, this one is a great choice!

32 comments to “Vintage” Les Paul Wiring: BS or BFD?

  • I had an ’81 Les Paul Standard. I rewired it for independent controls, and one tone control wired vintage style. The other tone control hole was for a 6-position Varitone with choke, for midrange notching. Then I had series parallel switches for each pickup. I could get ton of tones from that guitar; everything from a thick jazzy tone to tele twang.

    I also love bright Les Pauls, and if you look at how many great LP players back in the day used RangeMasters, I guess they did too!  I also like bright humbuckers. I guess that makes up for not having a RangeMaster. 

    Makes me wish I still had my Paul! 

  • Bill Burgess

    I own a real ’59 Les Paul and a real ’61 SG Les Paul as well as 3 Historic RI’s ( I just sold my real ’57 Les Paul Custom) and I’ve tried both ways many different times. I prefer the “modern” method because I use the volume control to roll off a little high end backing it off from 10 to 9. It’s definitely different than using a tone control. I also always use a drop out pot for the neck tone control.
     

  • Bill Burgess

    By the way, the dis-information that Eric Clapton used a pedal on the John Mayall album is not true – he DID NOT use any pedal. This b. s. was probably started by somebody building Range Masters.
     

    • joe

      That is indeed what E.C. claims. I’m just not sure I believe it. A couple of Beano tracks really, really, really sound like Rangemaster, and I’ve never heard quite that tone from an early Marshall combo alone. I’m just sayin’… 

       

  • Matt N.

    Not to open a can of worms, but I would love to see those Match EQ functions run against the “modern” wiring with treble bleed circuits consisting of 0.001uf caps and 150k resistors in parallel across the volume pots.  Supposedly very similar to “vintage” in sound and behavior, but I’ve never seen it analyzed.  –Matt  

  • David Fung

    I’m liking the sound of clips – it’s definitely “direct” sounding, but not anywhere near as harsh as your write-up prepared me for.  Are you not liking the Apollo?

    • joe

      Oh, those comments were to prep listeners who might not be used to hearing direct-recorded guitar, and were maybe expecting a Duane Allman tone or something. :)

      I love the Apollo. Really delighted so far!

  • Oinkus

    Makes me wonder what Jim does in his wiring scheme now that made my Les Paul so bright ? Is it more then just how he made and wrapped the pup ? He also runs a solid  wire to all 4 pots for a more “secure?” grounding. I have always set my tone knob at 9 on both pups and of course do the “woman” tone thing just for texture or a specific song. Back to why I changed where I set tone knob, I was told when I was a kid that  until you turned down the tone a touch your pickups weren’t actually “humbucking” weird things can improve your sound even when they have no reasoning or make any sense. Then again the same guy used to call me “Porkus Non-Gratus” and thats the last partial slice of bacon that no one will eat go figure? Once again great work Joe you have made me think !

  • el bjorch

    Works great with strat and .033uF caps.

  • Lew "Guitar" Collins

    Thanks for this Joe.  I’ve been pushing the benefits of 50′s wiring for many years as well as claiming there was no difference that I can hear between tone caps of the same value but made from different compositions in a guitar tone circuit.  I’m very glad that your research bears this out.  I have a ’54 Telecaster with Joe Barden pickups that I wired 50′s style as well as a Stratocaster with Seymour Duncan Antiquitys that I wired 50′s style.  I also have a ’63 Stratocaster is wired bone stock, right down to the original 3 way switch.  What I hear is the same thing you hear: when I lower the volume of the guitar with the 50′s style wiring the sound stays bright enough to sound clearer than with standard wiring.  There is a certain overall warmth that my ’63 Strat has with the standard wiring that I like – but it also gets dark and a little muddy when I turn the volume way down.  I think the reason some guys don’t like the 50′s wiring is that they feel it makes the overall tone of the guitar to bright for their tastes.  I suspect these guys also rarely play clean or play music with more advanced harmony in the chords.  Since most of the time we guitarists are playing rhythm with the guitar volume turned down, and since the 50′s mod makes our guitars clearer and brighter than “normal” when the volume is turned down, the sense is that the 50′s mod made the guitar to bright.  Personally, I prefer the 50′s mod.  Only reason my ’63 Strat isn’t wired that way is because it’s worth more $$$ stock.

  • JH

       Its all a matter of taste!  I like the treble bleed mod! But it can make the guitar too bright at lower volumes depending on what values you use. It can also in some cases change the taper of the pot!
    Glad to see your enjoying the new interface Joe!

  • zyon

    Joe, let me ask you a question about caps. I use Drop Orange caps and change the caps in every humbucker guitar I purchase. It instantly changes the tonal characteristics of the guitar even though I use the same cap value. The Drop orange gives you a cry baby type tone set approximately half way. It gives a more nasal tone. I’m interested in why you say vintage caps don’t sound any different than modern, when different brands of modern caps sound so different. 

    • joe

      Despite the fact that any electronics expert will tell you there’s no difference, I used to insist that there was — until I made actual before-and-after recordings and measurements, and had to admit it was all in my imagination. By all means, prove me wrong — next time, make recordings before and after you sap the caps. :) 

  • zyon

    I currently have zero way to record. These are the ones i use in a Les Paul conversion with PAF style humbucjers. http://www.ebay.com/itm/Sprague-715-Orange-Drop-Capacitor-0047-F-600V-2-pack-/310405933045?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item4845a2a7f5#ht_500wt_922

  • This was very interesting, thanks for the run through… I may use this as a starting point when I work up the courage to mod my Paul..

    The difference is so distinct it makes me wonder why they switched from vintage to modern in the first place? Was it to accommodate a change in consumer taste towards the darker tone or some unrelated change in the process at the factory.?

  • joe

    Oh, just go for it! What could go wrong, aside from injuring yourself, voiding your warranty, and burning down you house? 

    Seriously, though — it’s a pretty easy mod.

    I don’t know why they changed it — maybe because players wanted more predictability from the tone control? I know there were a LOT more players back then dialing in darker tones in the ’50s, as opposed to the balls-out, wide-open tones that have prevailed since the ’60s 

  • greg

    Wow, never thought about the order in the signal path of the volume pot and tone pot before, very cool. I guess why my vintage wired guitar and bass don’t suffer much treble loss with the volume knob turned down. Anyway, I do have some experience with something mentioned near the end of the article so here’s what I’ve learned:

     All pickups have a resonant peak. Capacitance (tone cap, cables) change the frequency of the peak. Resistance (volume pot, input jack of amp or pedal) reduces the amplitude of the peak. I think the main difference between the way a humbucker and single coil pickup sounds is due to the the fact that humbuckers generally have more of a mid-frequency emphasis due to the extra windings, as well as a less severe (and lower pitch) resonant peak. I find I can get a strat to have a very similar tonal balance to a humbucker-equipped guitar by placing a 100k resistor across the outer lugs of the volume pot (same as using a lower value pot) and using a higher value tone cap. This along with a wide-q mid boost before a clipping stage can give a very crunchy distortion tone to a strat bridge pickup which is a sound that most people would generally not associate with a strat. 

    Hope that’s not to off-topic but it took me along time to realize that and I hope it helps someone.  

    • joe

      Hey Greg — thanks for the GRET comments! That’s a terrific explanation of an often confusing principle.

      Hmmm — now I want to cook up a Strat mod that switches between standard bridge sound and the pseudo-humbucker tone you describe. :)

      • greg

        Cool! Make it a “global” mod and get more of a jazz tone from the neck pup. Thanks for all the great articles. I just discovered this site. Keep up the great work!

  • greg

    Well, I like about 12db gain centered at 1k with about a 3 octave wide Q prior to distortion. I found this out by using eq and distortion plugins in my recording program. Out in the real world I don’t yet have a good way to implement this. Since I have duckbucker pickups I suppose I could add a switch to run *individual* pickups in series mode for a boost in mids and gain, but I don’t think it would be enough (maybe it would, I should try). I would prefer as few pieces of gear as possible (and a guitar with as few switches as possible) so an overdrive pedal with the ability to do this sort of midrange pre-emphasis would probably be ideal for me.  

  • This is the best mod I have tried yet. I don’t why I didn’t try this sooner, over all of the other more esoteric mods, of questionable use.

    • joe

      I hear you, man! I think I expected it to be a fairly modest difference, but sheesh — it’s huge! I too am muttering, “Vintage wiring, where have you been all my life?” ;)

  • Will

    Must check all my guitars now…my hollowbody has P-rails, Les Paul copy with Lace Sensor Duallys and Samick Flying V with Dimarzio PAF Pro (Peter Green mod) and Super Distorition.

  • Diogo

    Greetings from Portugal!

    I was wondering. What are the differences between the vintage wiring and the modern wiring with treble bleed mod? From what I have read, they achieve the same result, however vintage wiring seems more simple and requires less work.

    Could the vintage wiring be applied to Teles, Strats,guitars with p90, etc?

    Last question. Is it possible to combine a treble bleed mod with the vintage wiring? If so, what would it sound like?

    Thank you for your time!

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