A Modern Vari-Tone Alternative…

Looks like a pot — but it's not!

In the comments on my post on the Mongrel Strat with the Obsessive-Compulsive Tone Control, reader Dave mentioned a related product: The Stellartone ToneStyler. I ordered one and popped in into my dual-humbucker Hamer 20th Anniversary guitar (which still boasts the Seymour Duncan Joe Bonamassa pickup set I demoed here.)

(Quick memory refresher: The Vari-Tone appeared in several historic Gibson guitars, notably the ES-345. It uses a half-dozen different-sized capacitors to alter the voicing of the tone pot. It also adds an inductor, which preserves lows while the capacitors remove highs. Result: the rolled-off settings have a somewhat piercing, nasal character, as opposed to the usual dark, wooly sound of a rolled-off tone pot.)

Like some cool DIY versions of the project, the ToneStyler omits the inductor. And while it looks like a conventional tone pot,it’s actually a 16-position switch that selects between stepped capacitors, all of them smaller than in a conventional tone control. Result: rolled-off tones that maintain more volume and impact than in a conventional tone control.

Have a listen:

First, a short repeated phrase, with the tone control lowered a few notches between each repetition:

ToneStyler (Gradual Application)

Next, a comparison of the wide-open, half-way-down, and all-the-way-down settings with a clean tone:

Hamer Clean, Original Pot

Hamer Clean, ToneStyler

And finally, a comparison of the wide-open, half-way down, and all-the-way down settings with a crunch tone:

Hamer Crunch, Original Pot

Hamer Crunch, ToneStyler

You can make a similar control with a rotary pot and a bunch of caps. It's ugly but effective.

Some thoughts: I really dig the ToneStyler. US$109 may be a steep for a tone control, but for many players — especially ones who tend not to use their tone controls much — it will unlock enough new tones to justify the price. It doesn’t sound any better than the DIY versions, but if you don’t feel up to a messy soldering project, or don’t want to try to cram a big, messy rotary pot inside your guitar, it’s a great solution. The construction seems bullet-proof, and installation was a snap.

I tried the ToneStyler in both my tele-inspired Trussart Steelcaster and in the Hamer, and definitely preferred it with the Hamer’s Bonamassa humbuckers. I ordered the STD version, which maxes out with a .022uF cap, so the all-the-way-down position is significantly brighter than the same setting on a regular tone circuit with the standard .047uF cap. Since I often use that dark sound for EBow playing, next time I’d order Stellartone’s Jazz Model, whose maximum setting is .047uF. I’d also consider the model without a notch for each cap position. (These detentes are great for recalling a specific sound, but they make it more awkward to sweep quickly from minimum to maximum settings.)

Regarding the inductor, and lack thereof: After much experimentation with DIY Vari-Tones with and without inductors, my personal take is that a) the inductor is cool, but b) it’s not all that. (In Mongrel Strat #3, I even added a switchable inductor.) The inductor heightens the nasal, notched-wah quality of the effect, but I’d say you get about 80% of the action without one.

If you’re the sort of player who avoids using tone controls because everything other than wide-open sounds dull to you, you should definitely investigate this gizmo (or its DIY variants). Chances are you’ll develop a whole new attitude about that under-exploited control.

FYI, you can learn the basics of capacitors and tone controls from this post.

20 comments to A Modern Vari-Tone Alternative…

  • Oinkus

    Would be way easier to put that into a semi hollowbody ! Kind of pricey but sounds pretty dern good to me !

  • Matt Seniff

    I have been using the ToneStylers for a couple of years. I bought several when they were closing out a particular model at a very good price from the factory (I wish I bought more). I have one in my Fender Modern Player Jaguar that works really well with the stock P90s. I also have one in a P90 subbed Switch guitar that is sort of like a Les Paul Jr. In both cases I like the fact that they really do a good job on the high end without sucking out all the upper mids. The cool thing about them is that rather than  a cap and a variable resistor they are a separate cap and resistor for each switch position which tailors the response better. They also used to make them without the detents for those guitarist that were freaked out by the switch instead of a pot. They definitely are a nice change from a tone pot. They  are not in the circuit in  the full up position like the no-load type tone controls on Strats (great for cutting thru for a lead in a band situation). The ToneStyler also works really well with distortion and fuzz pedals. They are also now available as a pedal that can go on a pedal board they might be cool at the output end as well as the input side. I however was not crazy about them in a dual tone control guitar as it just seems  like you lost all those interactive settings you get by adjusting the pots individually with both pickups on. I also installed ToneStylers in a couple of basses for my buddy and they were absolutely amazing for bass, when you switched them back to lower the highs you still had all the punch of the bass. My buddy is  100% sold on them now and is ordering more for his other basses.

    • Aceman

      I have really been jonesing for a tone styler for the neck of my LP Studio w/ Duncan Vintage P-90.  I just think that would be the cat’s meow for getting my Jazz on.  I have just always liked the idea of them since I read about them.

      Great post Mike!  

      I bet one would really kick up a Gibson ES-137 Custom…


  • Peter

    I have a tonestyler in a ranaldo style jazzmaster (fender humbuckers). I like it a lot. That said, I have a notched version and sort of wish I’d gotten the smooth rotation version, kind of hard to set quickly on the fly. And wish I had room for a third knob so I could toss in a conventional tone pot in series.
    One thing I’ve noticed is that in some settings through certain pedals the perceived volume actually seems to increase even though it is passive. I’m going to assume that this is because of the way the upper mids interact with distortion without the highs interfering.
    Some favorite settings are about 3/4 of the way down, not demo’d in the demos here. Maybe gets more towards a cocked wah sound.

  • The Tonestyler is actually a “decade switch” and not a varitone, which has the inductor to remove mids. The old Les Paul Recording guitar had a decade switch, very similar to the Tonestyler.

  • joe

    Yup. See paragraph 2 above. 🙂

  • JH

    A few points to make here if I may.  I still don’t understand the inductor part of the classic varitone. I have to say I tried it and doesn’t seem to make a difference to me. (although idiot me might have wired it wrong).     Some say it causes a mid scoop, which is what I was looking for. ????
    It is also possible to piggyback a pot to a varitone to control the amount of signal being sent to ground. So the pot would control the level just like a normal tone pot, and the varitone would select the frequency range(capacitor).
    G&L has in some of there legacy models, what they call the PTB (passive treble bass) wiring. The controls on a strat, for example, Master volume, Master Treble cut (normal Tone pot), and Master Bass cut.  The master bass cut employs a 1meg pot with a higher cap value say .0033, or .0047. Instead of the cap bleeding the signal to ground the pot works as a blender, blending the clean signal with the altered signal.  This was also used in some classic Rickenbackers. If you look and see the small knob along with the other 4 (kind of like the small knob on j bass’s) that has that type of wiring I believe. I don’t remember but I think the small knob was some kind of blender?
    O and by the way thanks DAVID, I’m gonna have to look in to this decade switch. Its always great to learn something new.
    And Joe, love the website. I’ve seen all types of websites with guitar mod discussions out there, but none of them seem to have a RING LEADER. Thats what make this one better. You actually have someone guiding the mod psychos.  Thanks!

    • joe

      Hey JH!

      The inductor causes more of a mid peak than a scoop. (It nixes lows while the cap nixes highs, creating a bandpass effect similar to that of a stationary wah pedal.) But yes — it IS fairly subtle, though it gets less subtle when you start overdriving an amp. I’d say you get 85% percent of the effect without the inductor. On the latest mongrel strat I made the inductor switchable via a push/poll pot, I do tend to find myself using the inductor-on setting most of the time. But I’d wager that if the non-inductor version doesn’t do much for you, the inductor one won’t convert you to the circuit either.

      I’m not familiar with the G&L circuit you mention — has anyone tried one? Your impressions?

      I’m the ring leader?! As my dear friend and former Guitar Player colleague Jas Obrecht used to say, “That’s like giving a loaded gun to a monkey.” 😉

  • JH

         The G&l circuit is to me one of the best mods I have ever done to my beloved stratocaster. On researching the Les Paul Recording that David has mentioned, I uncovered a whole plethora of new information. That guitar, and others produced around  the same time used the same bass cut circuit as the one in the G&L’s.
          I always always love the clearness that you get from using ceramic magnet pickups. Although they just dont seem to have the same character as alnicos. It makes a lot of sense where pickup manufacturers tend to lean when it comes to choice of magnets. Alnicos are used for lower output pickups and ceramics tend to be used for higher output pickups. At higher windings, and consequently higher outputs alnicos tend to become muddy. To me unless your under say 6.5k they seem muddy, especially with weaker magnet types like a2’s. With the G&l circuit you can cure this muddiness, and bring back clarity to you sound.
          Ok now on to the problems with it!  If you use a linear taper pot, it is hard to control the amount of bass being cut, a little cut,  ends up being a lot. Now if you use an audio taper pot it works great, but it ends up being backwards, witch is ok if you don’t mind rolling the knob in the opposite direction. As of right now this is how I have my Strat wired. The cure is using a 1meg reverse audio taper pot (not exactly the easiest to find). After doing this mod to my strat, I said to myself “no more screwing with the wiring in it”. The controls and cavity have been molested more than a hooker in Saigon in the late 60’s. But small bear has them and I am going to replace it with the right one.
          The decade switch is a great idea. At quick glance it should give you the tone notch, that a varitone with an inductor does but with much more noticeable effect. But, and I’m not positive, the way that it is wired and the use of the very low impedance pickups would not have the same effect with high (or normal output) pickups. I believe it may also depend on the input impedance of the amplifier being used with it.  OK enough rambling, and going into complicated areas.
          As far as the G&L bass cut goes I’ll find a link, drawing or schematic if I can. I shet you not, out of all the molestations I’ve done to that poor guitar, this one is the best.

  • JH

    If you notice it can actually be wired outside of your guitar! ( to test out ),  All it basically is is the hot lead out from the volume pot fed thru the “bass cut pot”, and then out to the jack!
    Try it thru your amp, and thru your computer. You will notice a big difference because of the difference in input impedance from the amp to the computer.

    • joe

      Hey JH — thanks for hipping me to this super-cool wiring scheme. I’ve been playing with it all week, and I’ll be doing a post on it next week. It’s AMAZING on a three-knob/dual-humbucker guitar. And it sounds killer with three 500K pots (i.e., the pots most players already have in their humbucker guitars). 

  • JH

    No problem Joe.  Thanks for the Jimmy Page wiring w/ the triple shots.
    Here is a vid I found on youtube that shows a g&l demoing the bass cut.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtH6Jz3IjPA;feature=relmfu
     I never used it other than in a stratocaster. Guess Ill try it in the LP! I got the 1meg c (reverse audio taper) pots from small bear yesterday. Now from what i see, when I originally tried this bass cut I did it with a 250k linear (b) pot. I saw basically very little response, it cut the bass but barely noticeable. More or less a switch from 0-10 with very little bass cut. Then I tried it with a 500k (b) pot, then I saw a much increased bass cut. Now here is the problem, It almost seems like a big volume drop at first though. Now if you use an audio taper pot (a) , it basically is backwards. You can wire the pot backwards, but to cut bass you would have to turn it opposite your normal tone knob. Kind of confusing if your used to the way the knobs roll!   This is where the reverse audio taper comes in, it gives you the most control, and the knob rolls in the right direction.
    The original scheme that G&L uses is in order vol250k, tone500k, bass cut 1meg c.

    • joe

      Thanks for the link! Yeah, to my ears, the circuit is WAY more useful with humbuckers,  since sculpting the bass on those loud, fat pickups makes a much more dramatic difference than with single-coils.

      I tried out the circuit using the exact values you mention — and liked it LESS than with three 500Ks. Regarding your experience with the bass cut with the 250K pot: Excuse me for asking, but you didn’t, by chance, make the same mistake I did the first time I tried it? Namely, using a .022uF cap for both the treble and bass pots, when the schematic calls for a .022uF treble cap and a .002uF bass cap? I missed that extra zero the first time around, with the result that there was no perceptible bass cut. But with .002uF and an A500k, it works superbly. Seriously.

      Anyway, thanks for inspiring what I hope is a cool video and post — and I’m definitely leaving the circuit in an least one of my guitars! 

  • JH

    No I am definitely sure I didn’t mix up the values. I have the same thoughts as you when it comes to capacitors, it doesn’t make too much of a difference what brand you use, only the value matters.  So with that one I actually bought an orange drop .0033 and have pretty much used that with everything, and couldn’t mix it up with the others I had.   It actually helped, saying to myself (its the orange one dummy!).

  • JH

       O and I forgot to mention, its makes a difference whether you use low gain input, or high gain input.
    It seems the low gain input makes it less responsive too!

  • dave

    I don’t know how I missed this, but this is very cool Joe!  And thanks for the mention!

  • Grey Gardener

    I have a question.. Would the Tonestyler still be a viable option if the guitar is using a 500k concentric Vol/Tone with a single P-Rail pickup? Thank you.

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