Ultimate Lipstick-Tube Guitar (with experimental tone control & onboard overdrive)

Okay, it’s not the ultimate lipstick-tube guitar for everybody, but it probably is for me. It’s my third lipstick-tube pickup experiment — and definitely my favorite.

You may have heard some of these parts before: I used the neck for all my Mongrel Strat projects, and the Strat-sized Seymour Duncan pickups appeared in my previous lipstick-tube experiments. (I love Duncan’s lipstick-tubes. To my ear, they sound way better than the ones in new-school Danelectros.) The new body is Warmoth’s Hybrid Tele model, in purple with butterfly stickers. It’s très macho. (Better not use if for gigs in Indiana and Arkansas.)

My previous lipstick tube experiments used a MIM Strat body, but I wanted something a little more distinctive, and with a built-in battery compartment (because nothing is a bigger pain than changing batteries in a traditional Strat control cavity). Also, I like how the design evokes both Strat and Tele, since the guitar has three-Strat sized pickups and a whammy, but is wired more like a Tele.

About that wiring: The 3-way pickup selector chooses neck, bridge or both pickups, like on a Tele. Meanwhile, a SPDT switch toggles the middle pickup on and off regardless of the pickup selector, so you get six settings: neck, bridge, neck + bridge, neck + middle, bridge + middle, and all at once. It’s a pragmatic variation on “Nashville Tele” wiring with a switch rather than a pot. That means you can’t dial in varying amounts of middle pickup—it’s all or nothing. But on the plus side, I can jump instantly to an out-of-phase sound from any pickup-selector setting, and it freed up space for the other weird crap I put in this guitar. (Yo, electrical engineers: Don’t bother telling me that combined-pickup settings aren’t really out-of-phase True, they’re not out-of-phase electronically, but they are acoustically, and the distinctive “hollow” sound of combined settings is precisely the result of phase cancellation from two pickups at different positions.)

The weirdest detail is what I call a “cap-fade” tone control. It’s an idea I speculated about back in January, and to which many of you contributed cool perspectives. I pretty much followed the scheme in the original diagram:

cap-fade tone control

The idea again: Instead of sending varying amounts of signal to ground via a tone cap, the pot here fades between a small-value cap (which defines the minimum cut when the control is engaged) and a larger one (defining the frequency of the maximum cut). In other words, instead of sending varying amounts of signal to ground, this circuit always sends everything above the cutoff frequency to ground, with the pot determining the frequency.

I used a .0022µF for the small cap and a .068µF for the large one. The tone pot is push-pull. Disengaged, you get the loudest, brightest possible tone from the pickups (one you can’t technically get with a conventional tone control, because the tone pot always introduces at least some resistance). When activated, the control’s minimum setting takes off a bit of high-end “glass” — basically, I chose the value to match the lightest tone-control cut I’d ever be likely to use. Rolled all the way back, the tone is a bit darker than from standard tone-cut circuits with an .022µF or .047µF cap. But you could also approach this in other ways, such as:

  • Skip the push-pull pot so the circuit is always engaged, but choose a lower value for the small cap, so the tone control has little or no audible cut at its minimum setting.
  • Use a lower-value large cap, so the maximum cut isn’t any deeper than on a conventional control.
  • Experiment with various pot types. I used an A250K, which feels nice to me. Using a B250K or a C250K would provide the same range of tones, but distributed differently across the pot’s range. (The numerical value doesn’t make much difference — you could use a 100k or 500k pot just as easily.)

But why bother?

Because to my ear, the treble-cut tones sound meatier and less anemic than in a conventional tone control. The idea is similar to a Stellartone ToneStyler, a switch that selects from a dozen or so caps of ascending value. As here, you don’t vary the amount of cut, but the frequency of the cuts. This system achieves a similar sound with just two caps (and a lot less expense). Also, the maximum cut on ToneStylers isn’t as extreme as I like, though the ToneStyler may be a better match for players who seldom use ultra-dark tones. Another ToneStyler advantage: The pot is detented, so you can “click” into an exact setting. Here, with the pot continuously variable, it can be hard to replicate an exact setting in a hurry.

(I’ve been meaning to make some measurements to quantify how, exactly, multi-capacitance tone controls sound different from traditional ones. I suspect it has something to do with resonance at the cutoff frequencies. But for now, I’ll just be touchy-feely and say that it feels like there’s more energy in the treble-cut settings. Dark tones are dark, but they don’t seem as “smothered.”)

The Cult Overdrive: available soon from vintageking.com.

The Cult Overdrive: available soon from vintage king.com.

And then there’s the onboard booster, based here on my soon-to-be-released Cult pedal. It’s a simple overdrive with a single germanium transistor, conceptually descended from the Dallas Rangemaster, though it doesn’t sound much like one. (It’s not really a treble booster, no component values are the same, the tonal range is shifted dramatically, at the gain control works in an entirely different way.) I’m not sharing the schematic just yet, though I eventually will. But you’ll get in the ballpark if you follow the ideas in our Fiendmaster project.)

A push-pull volume pot also activates the booster. This position makes it easy to leap instantly from clean to dirty and points between, though as the video shows, dive-bombing the whammy bar can inadvertently bonk the switch and turn off the overdrive. You can locate the switch anywhere and  use a small SPDT switch rather than a push-pull pot.

Also coming soon, Cult's big  brother, the Cult Germanium channel, adds additional tone-shaping controls plus an active EQ section.

Also coming soon, Cult’s big brother, the Cult Germanium channel, adds additional tone-shaping controls plus an active EQ section.

The two small black knobs are gain and bass-cut controls for the booster. The bass cut occurs at the front end of the boost circuit, where it fades between two input caps of different values, much like the cap-fade tone control does. Again, you can tune this to taste by choosing your own cap values. (I used a .068µF for a beefy high gain sound, and a .0047µF for the shrill, maximum-bright tone.) Remember, lows drive your amp disproportionately, so the small-cap tones are both brighter and cleaner.

I’m pretty stoked about this guitar, because it does all the classic lipstick-tube tones plus tons of variations.

30 comments to Ultimate Lipstick-Tube Guitar (with experimental tone control & onboard overdrive)

  • Oinkus

    Pretty interesting! Some great sounds in that guitar Joe , early am here so I didn’t get to listen at volume but such a broad range of sounds will always appeal to me. Completely get what,where ,why and how on this one!

  • Shizmab Abaye

    Have you seen this “guitar pickup response simulator” that some electrical engineer put together?


    What I like about this is the idea that not only does the position of the pickup along the string affect the tone, but every time you fret a note, the tone changes. Plus it seems to imply that putting your pickups on the far side of the bridge will work too! Hmmmm.

    Plus you can put 4 pickups on it! Now you’re really into Sears-Roebuck territory. More must be betterrer right?

  • Flürk

    Very nice !
    Juste one question, does the bass cut pot have be part of an onboard effect, I mean would it be impossible to have a similar sound in the guitar’s passive wiring ? I love that sound, and it would be very useful on my 8-string for some “strangled” sounds.

  • el reclusa

    Woah…this sounds effing RAD. I dunno that I’ve heard so many actually, y’know, actually useful tonal variations in a single guitar. What’s remarkable isn’t so much that you’ve devised so much variation, but that whatcha have there is distinct and realistically useable. I’m sold!
    My experience has been that often as not, adding switches and whatnot gets you lots of extra tones…but many of the extras are ‘meh’. This sounds cool all the way ’round. Hats off to you!

    Is that little bit of reverb from the Skylark? Nice.

    • joe

      Wow, thanks! (Funny thing: I almost didn’t post this one, ’cause I was embarrassed by how out-of-tune I am in places.) Yeah, it’s Skylark reverb. That little amp is just amazing — maybe the nicest Fender-style amp I’ve owned, and that group includes some nice vintage ones. (Plus I think I added a hint of plate reverb when I mixed it.)

  • That looks like a riot! So many shades at the fingertips with really nuance-sensitive pickups and od circuit… Neat.

    • joe

      Hi Dave! How’s it going? 🙂

      Yeah, I love the responsiveness of those single-transistor germanium drives! They’re like Fuzz Faces in that regard, only more so.

      • Going good, brother. Working five nights a week on average, but the money’s TERRIBLE. Got a mid-life crisis rock band rolling, so hoping for some fun on that front. Possible TV work on the horizon. And a nasty case of tennis elbow. Life, y’know…

      • Oh yeah, and the Wizard Vintage Classic is nutty awesome! Would love to try a Cult out front of it!

  • Placing a cap directly across the pickup does cause a resonant peak.

    In practice there is always a peak because the pickups (in a traditional passive setup anyway) have self capacitance across the coil as well as lead capacitance when the volume control is at max. Once the volume is turned down the effect of the lead capacitance is decoupled from the pickup and the resonance diminished. This is probably why some guitar lead manufacturers claim their leads have a 'sound'. Higher capacitance cables (a 'Jazz" cable) produce a lower peak and roll off than low capacitance cables. A pickups self capacitance is usually relatively small, so the resonant peak is quite high, but I think this self resonance is where a lot of a pickups character comes from.

    Adding an extra cap moves the resonant peak down and usually tends to increase its height. Below the peak, electronically the response is flat and above the peak it drops off at 12dB per octave. This is how the ToneStyler works – it switches a range of capacitors directly across the pickups. A traditional tone control doesn't produce a moving peak because most of the time at least, some of the tone pot resistance is in circuit and damps any resonance.

    • joe

      Thank you for confirming what I THOUGHT I was hearing! That’s a way better explanation than “I dunno — it just sound a little less wimpy, man.”

      • Just read my own post and felt the need to re-write the last bit –

        “This is how the ToneStyler works – it switches a range of capacitors directly across the pickups to produce a peak and roll off over a range of different frequencies. A traditional tone control doesn’t produce a peak because most of the time at least, some of the tone pot resistance is in circuit and damps any resonance. And rather rather than produce a shifting peak it just folds down the treble at a gradually increasing slope”

        And yes a resonant peak will certainly sound less wimpy than just rolling off the treble. Depending on the pickup – its inductance and self resistance and capacitance – the peak can be quite noticeable – perhaps 12dB above the bass response.

        A ToneStyler probably seems an abomination to the vintage oil and paper freaks. 😎 It uses SMD caps, which I suspect are mostly ceramic.

  • Shizmab Abaye

    I’m somewhat befuddled by the “phase” of the middle pickup. I have a 3-pickup SSS type geetar with toggles for each so I can enable any combo. I thought I’d be real cool and put a phase flip switch on the middle pickup.

    The only useful setting with phase flipped is with all 3 on. If you do neck + middle or bridge + middle like this, almost all bass is cut and the resulting tone is like an ice pick thru the forehead! With all 3 you retain the low end but get a scooped mids kinda sound.

    Your demo shows neck + middle and bridge + middle and I figure these are equivalent to the typical strat “quack” settings. They are not lick the ice pick. So my sense is that all of these pickups are in phase.

    Then in the video you throw a wrench into my cranial gears by saying that the middle pickup is “reverse wound”. Mr. Wizard! Help!

    • joe

      You say “icepick through the forehead” like it’s a BAD thing! 😉

      I don’t think I’ve ever set up a S-style guitar with extended pickup settings AND a non-RWRP middle pickup, nor have I tried one with reversible middle-pickup phase (though a guy who commented an the YouTube thread for this video is in the process of trying exactly that). Again, what I THINK I hear is a little more quacky cancellation from a RWRP. But I don’t think it’s a very big deal, and I don’t necessarily prefer the sound over, say, the equivalent sound in my old Strat, which is presumably not RWRP. But anyway, there’s a difference between a reverse-wound pickup and one that’s ELECTRONICALLY out of phase. The latter yields that no-bass, super-thin sound you’re talking about. (You can hear it in all the Pagey Project videos, since those wiring have an out-of-phase option.) I’m talking here about a pickup that comes from the manufacturer RWRP. Duncan, for example, offers that option for many of their Strat sets.

      The language here is messy. I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about people who insist the combined sound isn’t actually out of phase, because it SOUNDS phasey due to phase cancellation. But the EE geeks are technically correct: This setup isn’t electronically out-of-phase.

  • Shizmab Abaye

    Well, there’s phase, and then there’s phase! Long as you keep it sorted we should all be fine. So I’m wondering if that means that the magnet is also flipped, which would give you (approximate) humbucking in those (neck OR bridge) and middle combinations. Since my guitar’s pickups aren’t reverse anything, when I get the icepick tone, it’s also relatively humbucking, which makes me want to turn it up and level civilization. But it’s nasty!

  • So Joe, how much different is the Cult compared to the Fiendmaster (which I got built by a friend)? By the way, I first built it without a volume control but ended up putting one in!

    • joe

      They’re different, but they definitely reside in the same quadrant of the tone galaxy. Cult’s gain control operates differently, and the cap and resistor values are different. I also managed to source some especially cool and consistent NOS germ transistors, at least for the first few hundred units. I like both pedals, though, and I would totally gig with a Fiendmaster.

      • I definitely want one then! Please let us know the minute they are available (or email me if you can).

        By the way, my new Gryphon got a lot of use in the album that we’re finishing this month. So, thanks a lot for the post/review! I’m pretty sure I have the only one in Spain (maybe in Europe?). Nice!

  • Have you thought about replacing the treble control with this cap-fade mod on a PTB wiring scheme?

    • joe

      Absolutely! In fact, I tried it on this guitar. But the bass-cut results weren’t nearly so dramatic as on humbucker guitars, so I canned the idea and used something else. But yeah — the obvious next step is exactly what you say. Or ever using two cap-fade controls. My personal starting point for a bass cap-fade control would be a .0015µF and a .0033µF. Gonna try that soon …

  • smgear

    hmmm. I’ve hitherto never even considered lipstick pups, but I love the tones you got out of this. Great build! I’ll definitely pick up a couple for one of my beater builds.

    Speaking of latent pickup biases… I don’t recall you ever mentioning or playing active pickups on the site, but I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts/experiments with them in a post sometime. I ruled them out for years because I associated them solely with hi-gain metal playing which has zero appeal for me. I was recently given a nice ESP with a set of EMG’s in it which I intended to immediately swap out for p90’s and some onboard effects since it already had a battery compartment. But after playing with it a bit, I gotta admit that I really dig the pickups. They’ve got a great clean and warm tone for jazz (often preferable to the p90’s or mini buckers in my jazz boxes). With a little drive, the bridge bites as well as my tele, and the mix of the pickups drive my older amps into really cool territories. I think one of the reasons that I had avoided them was their intrinsic lack of distinctive coloration (aka. nice balance), but that precise nature really showcases the coloration of the effects and amps – which is something I hadn’t realized I had been searching for. So when paired with your recent eq mods and pedals, I think they might provide some surprising versatility – at least they have with my own setups. With a lot of other pickups, I sometimes feel like I’m fighting the rest of the chain, but with the actives, the interactions are more predictable and the drives/distorton/amps are free to be themselves. Of course each approach has it’s tonal advantages, yada yada….

    Anywho, I don’t mean to project my own prior bias onto you, but since you’ve demo’d or experimented with just about every other main category of pickup here, I’d love to hear you run actives through some of your favorite mod/effects/amp chains.


    • joe

      Thanks for those observations. I’ve never owned an active-pickup guitar, probably for the same reasons that made you reluctant, and I confess I haven’t really enjoyed the ones I have tried. (I also have a bug up my ass about active pickups in metal, not that I have any right to say what metal players should do. But after interviewing countless heavy guitarists over the years who cite Iommi as the definitive power sound, I always wonder why so few players explore low-output pickups for heavy sounds.)

      But you comment piques my curiosity, and makes me wonder if I’ve been too close-minded. I’m particularly curious about how actives would work in a digital context, running straight into an audio interface on their way to software models and effects. Gonna have to explore this. Thanks!

      • smgear

        cool. Yeah, they’re definitely still a niche purpose pickup and I’ve generally kept the output volume down in my limited experiments, but I’ve been unexpectedly pleased with some of the results. I plan to add a second battery to feed them 18 volts. I think the extra headroom would tame the aspects I dislike and be better suited for itb modeling like you mentioned. I suspect that they would be a bit too bitey at full volume with the standard nine volts. Eighteen volts should give a clean full signal, but that’s just a semi-educated guess at this point. I’m still experimenting with them. 🙂

  • Antoine

    Hello, Joe.
    On the Topic of dual capacitor, a big one and a small one, may we use an absent one (a wire) as the small one ? If so will it be necessary to use two pots, a cap blend and a ‘tone’ one ? If not is the two different value capacitors idea pertinent still ? I guess you thank about it already, and perhaps i miss a point.
    I recently rewire a guitar, a MIJ LP copy from the 70′, nice but with bolt on neck (like the fancied Ibanez LP custom of the same era) and worse with terrible pickups. Fake humbuckers, weak single coils (low DC reading) and weak magnet under nice chrome covers.
    The rest of the electronis was draught from the same barrel so i decided to gut it all out and start from a clean sheet.
    I get from Le Bon Coin (sort of french Craig List) a 490 pair (which turn to be more likely a 496/500 ceramic pair of Gibson humbucker, another story)and other stuff to complete the job.
    Despite viewing one of your vids, i chose some p.i.o. snob baits (but for a beginner, the long leads of those ‘big'(size) caps looked much more easier to solder than the tiny ceramic disc i already got), 2X4 € not that big a deal…
    I Chose .033 for both, as i thought i may mitigate the effect of a lower cut-off frquency with less ‘tone’ knob turning. In fact it works as intend, but without a comparison i can’t say if it was a good idea.
    The Gibson ceramics are very bright and not muddy at all and i don’t regret the more drastic cut capability. And with the help of on line schematics (Seymour Duncan #1, and others…), i managed to sold all the bits in working order, at the first attempt and i’m very PROUD.

    Flatwound now, I bought a 11-50 D’Addario set at my local guitar shop.
    I strung those on a 335 copy (Le Bon Coin …used, very cheap but nice OEM importer branded chinese one) i bought as i couldn’t decide on wich of my other axes to do so.
    I’m very pleased of the result, i can get (nearly) some of the sounds i liked on your vids, and as you ask to another posters on the blog, the sound is quite nice with gain (and some effects). Swampy and psyched with Big Muff (very low ‘sustain’ and/or low volume on the guitar), and Tremolo or Phaser (EHX the Worm, -was- my secret weapon). I prefer amp drive than TubeScreamer-like OD with those strings.
    The big change is the sleek feel, the comfort for the finger tips, and the neat phrasing with no extraneous noises from frets and hand moves. I’m very pleased with the Flat wounds and i consider put some on my Strat.

    Thank you for the inspiration, your playing at first place. Please excuse the prim and weird english, and the LENGTH !!

    • Lido Bender

      I have a similar question to Antoine’s. If I wanted to use a concentric pot, one for frequency and the other for amount of cut, would I just put the cut pot between the large cap and ground? And should I connect the ground leads of both caps to the pot or use a dual pot to control them individually?

      • joe

        You’d simply connect the ground connection from the two caps in to diagram to lug 1 of second, and then send lug 2 to ground. Yes, a concentric pot would absolutely work — great idea! I’m going to try that myself. It’s hard to find concentric pots where the pots don’t share the same value, but that’ son problem here. A dual 250k would probably work great.

  • NotSoFast

    I’ve got a 70s strat that had the really shrill original pickups (the story goes that Leo had lost his upper range hearing at the time.. don’t know if it is true but its a colorful anecdote which suggests I’m of age to appreciate them again…)

    Anyway, I put some used SA EMGs into it back in the 90s I obtained cheap somewhere. Replacing the battery is a pain but it surprisingly long lasting – I picked up an 18 volt replacement to try that and still haven’t gotten around to it.

    The EMGs alone are kind of dull to my ear. But its great when mixed in with a VG99 Strat or Les Paul emulation (coming off of a 13 pin MIDI – this is my B52 guitar that gets the electronic upgrades). Adds a thickness to the mids and a completely unjustified expense.

  • Roland

    In the absence of a pot with an indent, would using a dial disc – see photo – and a larger sized knob, along with a linear pot, be good for figuring out settings on this variable cap tone control pot of yours?

  • joe

    Yeah, that would be cool, and I love the knob. Check out this post (https://tonefiend.com/pickups/ultimate-lipstick-tube/) where I demo the idea discussed here in an actual guitar.

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