The Lipstick Lab
New Experiments with Old Pickups

Do you ever get an idea that you just know is going to work out brilliantly? And then discover you were totally wrong?

That’s how it was when I finally reassembled my generic Mexican Strat with Duncan lipstick tube pickups. After I recorded a demoing of it here almost two years ago, the guitar lay in pieces alongside my workbench. I’d stare at decapitated body, feeling guilty and dreaming of all the fantastic mods I’d attempt when I finally got around to reanimating it. I had various ideas for the tone control: Maybe a two-band PTB control? Nope—totally underwhelming results. Perhaps a two-in-one TBX? Meh—even less interesting. I drew a blank, and the guitar wound up with a disappointingly normal tone circuit.

But I did discover some cool twists along the way. Details after the video:

My flatwound string addiction is only getting worse, but this is the first time I’ve combined flats and lipstick tubes. (Has anyone done that since the ’50s?) The results were fascinating. As happens when you put flats on an electric 12-string, you encounter a paradoxical increase in highs, despite the darker-toned bass strings. (Maybe it’s because the treble strings ring truer with less phase-canceling interference from roundwound bass strings.) As you can hear, this instrument doesn’t lack for zing.

The opposite, actually — treble notes explode from the instrument, often more than you’d like. I experimented with various action and pickup height adjustments, but no matter how I set things, it was difficult preventing certain notes from shrieking. The only solution was to play the damn guitar for a few hours and grow accustomed to the touch.

(A side note about the Pyramid strings I used: I popped a high E while disassembling the guitar repeatedly. Playing mostly fingerstyle, I only break a string or two per year, and I didn’t have direct replacements for this $25 imported set. I tried a far less expensive nickel string from a US manufacturer, figuring any differences would be subtle. Wrong again! The fundamental pitch was so much stronger on the Pyramids that it sounded as if the high E had its lowest octave EQ’ed out. Lesson learned (and string replaced with a proper Pyramid).

Another surprise: I first modded the guitar with a built-in Rangemaster-derived booster not far removed from this site’s Fiendmaster project. I love how that simple germanium booster sounds inside the Pagey Project Les Paul. But with lipstick tubes, it was a bit harsh and ugly. I redid it with a “secret recipe” two-transistor solid-state fuzz (which I would have assumed would sound even harsher) and it totally worked for me.

Who among us does not love lipstick tube pickups?

Who among us does not love lipstick tubes?

I installed the effect via a push-pull pot, with the knob serving as a master volume. Initially I ran the fuzz output directly to the output jack, but later redid it so the signal returned to the main volume pot first. Without realizing it, I’d stumbled across a cool gain control. With the fuzz engaged, lowering the main volume chokes the signal going into the fuzz. Since this distortion can add a ridiculous amount of boost, it’s no problem making up the volume from the fuzz pot (though it gets a bit noisy when the signal to the fuzz gets too low). I really dug the variations I got from this accidental two-knob fuzz.

Once again, I went for “Nashville-style” Telecaster wiring, using a 3-position Tele pickup selector with an additional control to fade in the middle pickup as desired. The advantage: You get the gorgeous sound of the combined neck and bridge pickup, unobtainable on a standard Strat. (You lose the middle-pickup-only setting, but who cares?) I’d made a big fuss in this demo about how having a pot to fade the middle pickup in and out, Brent Mason-style, unlocks subtle “in between” settings also unavailable from a vintage-style Strat. But after trying the “regular” Nashville wiring on a few gigs, I found that the variations were a little too subtle for me, and that I’d inevitably have the reverse-wound middle pickup fully on or off. That inspired the idea of activating it via a switch rather than a pot, and I’m delighted with the result. I even like the sound of all three pickups engaged. That’s usually a dull, diffuse tone, but for some reason it sounds cool with the lipstick tubes. And of course, using a switch freed up the third pot for fuzz control.

Lipstick tubes aren’t for everyone. They have beautiful lows when played cleanly, but they get “splattery” at high gain—the furthest thing from the tight chunk metal-heads crave. But every time I play pickups of this type, I fall in love with the contrast between their pretty, bell-like clean tones and their swamp-trash distortion character. I’m using Duncans, which sound as good to me as vintage Dano pickups. So do old Chandlers, if you can find them. Either would be a great upgrade for new-school Danelectros, though folks tell me that nowadays the Chinese-made Dano lipstick tubes have improved. I can’t say—I avoid the brand because of the company’s habit of pilfering stompbox ideas from the boutique community and their anti-marriage equality activism.

So do any of you have lipstick tube love stories?

32 comments to The Lipstick Lab
New Experiments with Old Pickups

  • Oinkus

    That has a ton of great sounds ! Only lipstick I have is the custom made one in my Tele and it kicks ass. Sounds good in every setting I have tried (more gainish stuff too). Really like the Fuzz , that is one of those I have to work the controls a lot guitars , makes playing it more complicated and difficult but I think the end result is worth it. Way to go Joe ! :stupid:

  • Jomac

    Hi Joe. Lipstick and flatwounds sound amazing. Really loving your tonefiend site. Tried your bad ass fuzz project and its…..well,
    bad ass. Cheers.

  • The HIGH e sounded different ????? I’m confused

    Do you mean a plain steel top e string or a wound bottom e string? I wouldn’t expect there to be much difference between plain steel. They are all usually tin or nickel plated steel wire after all (as far as I know string makers never indicate if the plain strings are tin or nickel plated and I’m not sure you can assume that the plain strings in a ‘nickel wound’ set are nickel plated), no matter if they come from a set with flat wound basses or with nickel round wound basses.

    I do know there are a lot of opinions about plain strings. Logic tries to tell me that these days it can’t be that hard to make and plate good quality steel wire and there aren’t that many wire mills that make music wire (as far as I know very few string companies make their own raw materials) so most well known string makers must be using pretty much the same wire. All you have to do to make plain strings is cut the wire to length and than twist on a ball end (plus maybe do a quality check on the wire before you start).

    So a plain steel 0.009 from one manufacturer must be pretty much like a 0.009 from another, yes?

    On the other hand there are a lot of claims that is not the case. I guess a tin plated plain could sound different to a nickel plated plain on an electric guitar because nickel is ‘ferromagentic’ while tin is not. I suppose also that since Pyramids are European they perhaps used wire from a European mill with perhaps a different alloy steel or with a diffent temper than the steel in music wire from a US wire mill. And then there is plating thickness …

    • joe

      I just re-checked the package. It was a “nickel-steel” string, Maybe it was a case of stingy nickel content? Now I wish I’d documented it with a recording. It wasn’t terribly subtle—you could really hear the difference.

      There’s much bunk in the string industry—starting with the fact that there are far fewer winding facilities than you might imagine, and a number of them produce multiple brands on the same machines with the same materials. Though some companies, such as Dunlop, have invested heavily in string-making machinery in recent years.

      My main observation here is that sadly, the obscenely expensive flatwounds from Austia’s Thomastik-Infeld and Germany’s Pyramid sound and feel much better to me than the more reasonably priced American brands. (Pearse flatwounds are an exception—but they’re made by Thomastik!) I really wish I didn’t feel that way!

      I love the feel of the Thomastiks best, but the Pyramids sound brighter—not quite so far removed from the sound of roundwounds. So they’re my first choice these days for most of my guitars. I’m not an endorser, though it’s not for lack of trying. Pyramid ignores my email.

      Also, quality roundwounds last forever—well, for months and months. I’ve had the same set on the MIDI guitar strat for six months or so, and they still feel great. I just wipe ’em down with Fast Fret or something once in a while. And I don’t have especially clean hands or anything. My roundwound sets start feeling gross after a few days.

      However, I do keep my Strat and Les Paul strung with roundwounds, because a) I often need to cop a roundwound sound for jingle work and such, and b) I prefer to use them when recording demos for Premier Guitar and other consumer publications, because roundwounds are a more meaningful reference point for most players.

      • Joe, have you ever tried LaBella flats? I have not used the guitar strings, but the Deep Talkin’ Bass stainless steel flats are great, sound almost as bright as round wounds, without the ringing over tones, and one set lasted me over 4 years, until I broke one.

        I like D’Addario round wounds for both guitar and bass, but I dislike their Chromes flat wounds on bass. Too stiff. I tried the Thomastiks once, and they sounded nice but were a little too floppy feeling for me (this on bass again).

        Also, shocked to hear about Dan-Os parent company and Proposition 8! I will make sure to avoid them like the plague!

        • joe

          No, and I should check them out. I have some sentiment here — my late mom used LaBellas on the nylon string she taught me on. I was fascinated with the little envelopes and the fuzzy (yes, fuzzy) ball ends on the strings.

          Though I DO use LaBella Black Nylon Tape Wound on my Guild Starfire bass, and LOVE them. I don’t think I’ve ever featured that on the site. I should.

          I should mention, for anyone who doesn’t realize, that I’m speaking only of political actions of the Evets Corporation, which now owns Danelectro. Evets has no ties to Nathan Daniels’ original Danelectro brand, which ran from 1947 to 1969.

        • mwseniff

          I like the D’Addario Chromes on bass and guitar and haven’t found the stiffness to be a problem especially after break in. I use the bass Chromes on a short scale bass and also on an extra long scale Washburn fretless from the late 70’s (36.5 in scale with brass nut and brass saddles on the tailpiece). I’ve never tried them on a regular 34″ scale bass so they may be stiffer there. I use Chromes on my Switch guitars that are basically Les Paul analogues with 24 3/4″ scale. I’ve never tried the Chromes on my Jaguars (23″ scale) because I dig the GHS Burnished strings on them (round wounds that are run thru a die to burnish the surface) they feel very close to flatwounds but have a bit more upper midrange but less highs. The burnishing also seems to make them more resistant to corrosion and they definitely don’t clog up with dirt and oils like round wounds do. Burnishing is supposed to harden the surface of the metal it is used on the scrapers that wood workers use to finish and shape wood with. Louie (my Grandad) taught my brother and I to burnish scrapers at his work bench. They’re great for woodworking and also for stripping finishes off old tables etc.without using water which can raise the grain and warp veneers.

  • tdbajus

    Joe- Have you tried blocking off the trem in your strat when using the pickups?

    I have to say, I miss my old lipstick equipped Talman.

    • joe

      Hiya! Hope,I haven’t — but I keep the trem cranked real tight, with next to no up-pull. I probably should block it, but I keep thinking that someday I might actually use the thing. 🙂

  • Are the Pyramid strings expensive in the US because they are imported?

    Taking a quick look at prices here in the UK –
    Pyramid Gold Chrome Nickel Flatwound 13-52 £15.99
    D’Addario Flatwound Chrome 13-56 £13.55

    So yes the German made Pyramid strings are a bit more expensive than D’Addario even here. What tends to happen to US imported products in the UK is that the $ sign just gets changed to £, so a $12 item becomes £12 ($19.45 at current rates). If a similar mark up applies in the other direction the Pyramids would be, what $44 ?

    Nice tones from those lipsticks by the way. I have a strat I built with Kent Armstrong lipsticks and they seem a little underpowered.

    • joe

      Hi Terry! Yeah, I’ve spent enough time in the UK to know all about the $ to £ conversion. 🙁

      Not to slight the D’Addarios, but here in the States you can buy 2.63 sets of D’Adarrio Chromes for the price of one Pyramid set.

      • mwseniff

        Is that an original Guild Starfire bass or the reissue? San Francisco probably had a more Starfires per sq in back in the psychedelic era as they were very popular for that. I always used to covet Guild Starfires because of Jack Casady being one of my heroes they sounded so great when they got some feedback going.

        • joe

          It’s an old one. But know what? I think the new ones sound better! Or at least the one Justin Meldal-Johnsen has does. And not just ’cause he’s such a badass.

  • mwseniff

    I use a set of the 90’s Dano Lipstick tube pickups on my Electric cello. I took those lipsticks off a reissue Dano Guitarlin that is now fretless. The guitarlin has a set of Duncan quarter-pounder jaguar pickups that I briefly had on my 1968 Fender Jaguar (the original Jaguar pickups just sound better to my ear for that guitar). The lipstick tube pickups are oriented in line with the strings one pickup under the 2 lower strings and the other under the 2 higher strings. They are wired in series and set up to humbuck and they pickup every nuance of the bow (arco). They are not great for the pizzicato (plucking with a 10 day old piece of thin crust pizza) so I have a piezo cello pickup with two piezos under the bridge. Both sets of pickups go into a box with a couple of quad ICs to amplify mix and EQ the sound. The pizzicato and arco are well balanced and work great into my pedal board.

    I also 3 Armstrong lipstick pickups mounted on the upper edge of the button housing of my autoharp that gives a very balanced sound. The pickups sound a bit better than the earlier Dano reissues IMHO. They are wired in series so they have a lot of oomph to the autoharp sound. I like my lipstick tube pickups in series mainly tho’ I appreciate the delicate tone you get from them in series.

    I have 2 Silvertone Dano’s the 2 pickup with Vibro champ style amp in the case and the single pickup with 16 fret neck and AC line filament amp in the case. The pickups in these guitars are the quintessential Dano tone with a gorgeous bell like highs and firm bass tone.

    I have a U2 reissue that I picked from dozens that came thru the local shop it had the best tone with ringing bell like highs and fat but firm lows. There was tremendous variation between the over 60 guitars I compared it was also in the heavier end weight wise. I also have a Dano 12 string with 3 lipsticks and a 5 way rotary switch that sounds good if a bit heavy on the headstock with all those tuners it really growls and screams with all three pickups in series.

    The oldest lipsticks from the Silvertones have the lowest output but the sweetest tone. I hate the metal bridges with the wood on it and replaced them with Schaller bridge that mounts flat on the body which sounds good and increases sustain dramatically (and you can intonate it properly). The Schaller bridge has height,length and side to side adjustments so you can really make the Dano play like a dream.

  • As with the last lipstick demo, love it. The all-on report is encouraging for the Dan Armstrong wiring that I was thinking on doing with a set of import lipsticks.

    Haven’t gone flats on guitar, but I do have D’addario’s nylon tape wounds on an Epi Rumblekat shortscale bass, a lot like the Starfire setup you’re running. Much better than the round wounds it came with for sounding like a bass. First thing I tried since I found them cheap.

  • eesk

    I love you so much for that last comment about marriage equality that I won’t ask you to turn down the volume all weekend.

  • Jon

    So… You sold a set of lipstick pickups earlier this week with this post (did you get the check?). I put them in a generic strat body I picked up for $45 that was in good shape, with a straight, smooth nice neck and pure junk for stock pickups. I used the straight strat wiring and all I can say is WOW! I cannot put this guitar down. The tone is amazing. Thanks a 1 X 10^6 for inspiring me to do this. The only ones unhappy about it are the rest of my guitars that are now sitting, unplayed and pouting.

  • I was reading your comments about treble with flatwounds and it occured to me it might be something to do with individual string output. The pickups respond to the strings depending on their magnetic ‘mass’. The string that often affects the pickups most is a solid 3rd because it has the largest amount of solid steel. The steel cores of the wound strings are often thinner than the plain second and their magnetic mass is increased by the nickel or nickel plated steel wrap wire.

    I don’t know how this works out for flatwound strings, but maybe the wound strings are just magnetically quieter than the plain strings. And of course with lipstick pickups having no pole screws you cannot adjust individual string balance.

  • Peter

    I had no idea about the Danelectro company and prop 8. Good grief.

  • Dan

    Wouldn’t be shocked if Tom Verlaine has a guitar or two with lipsticks and flats on. I know he used flats on at least some of the “Warm & Cool” record and he’s put lipsticks in many, many guitars.

    • joe

      LOL — maybe I’ll find out next week when I accompany spoken-word artist Dennis Driscoll, opening for Television here in San Francisco. I think I’m going to take this guitar. 🙂

      • joe

        Okay, as promised: Here’s a crappy guerilla photo I snapped of Verlaine’s lipstick tube Strat. It was lying on the floor behind his AC-30. He doesn’t use a stand. Or a tuner. Or anything else beside a Tube Screamer.

        When no one was looking, I touched it. Definitely roundwounds, not flats. Though he sure makes them sound like flats at times.

  • Paul

    For a great strat-plus-lipstick tone, let me point you towards David Soler Pina….

    (it’s a great album, btw)

  • did some one say lipstick pickups? well, back in 1991 i moved from orange county ca. ( not the o.c., never the o.c.-yuck) to san francisco. i was in a band w/ my old mate from punk high school band 'care unit'. we had new fresh ideas, but i still had my ibanez guitar. a nice inst., but no vibe. i had purchased a hiwattt 100 half stack, and went to subway guitars in emeryville/berkley. there it was. a 1963/4 silvertone w/ amp in case. the thing was this was parts together from a box of 3 guitars taken apart and never reassembled. found in a sears warehouse in iowa. so i have a 1964 silvertone, brand new in 1991. and the thing took to the hiwatt like laural and hardy. old, vibey funny and precious. yes guitars can be funny. just look at captain sensible from the damned. though he never had a brand new silvertone. one bummer, i was promised the case as soon as one came in. never called so i returned to see if one was in, and i got blank stares, like are you kiddin', kid. get outta here. take the good, you take the bad.

  • Joe

    Hey Joe,
    I was just curious as to how you power the fuzz circuit?
    Is it battery powered, or does it just run off the output of the pickups?


  • hello, im interested in a onboard booster 15db, you know were i can find one?

    Thanks a lot!

  • Hello Joe. I have a guitar that has a huge 'swimming pool' routed out in the body under the strings. The guitar has two stock humbuckers on it currently, but I'd like to add some extra pickups – I'm considering Danelectro lipstick pickups for this purpose. What do you reckon? Also, if the lipsticks are hidden beneath the scratchplate with their upper side directly under the scratchplate, would they still work fine? Thanks.

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