I Won! I Won! I Won! These are words that I rarely get to say. Over a lifetime. The exception, and it was a good one, was when I opened an email and low and behold the first words were "Congratulations! You have been selected as our first weeks winner to receive..." Isn't the suspense just killing you?
What I won was a new set of Humbucking Electric Guitar Pickups manufactured by the "Lust Pickup Company". I enter many contests for guitar related products because I have a little software program that fills them out quickly and easily. I give out my name, email and address. So what? If that's all it takes to swipe my identity then we are all in for big trouble and my email server is very good at separating the junk from the goods. To see one of them pay off makes me all the more eager. More importantly was the prize and the company behind it. It could have been the grand prize of a hand full of picks and a new guitar cord. (That's Ok. Pull my name for that one too. A blessing is a blessing.)
Now we enter into one of my favorite subjects. Guitar TONE. First we need to grasp some sort of perspective here. What is tone? What is good tone? What is bad tone? How can you tell the difference?
Tone is sound. What you hear. It is as simple as that. Tone is not limited to music. Whatever you do there is tone involved. Driving your car? Listen to it. Drive another car. Listen to it. What's different sonically? There may be more tones to hear. There may be some that make you happy like a big healthy V-8. There may be some that upset you like the fan belt squealing whenever you place your foot on the gas. When driving cars you have tones, both good and bad.
Now let's say you build cars for a living. Your ears are going to be more sensitive to what's good or what's bad in a car. Ears are more finely tuned due to your exposure of whatever tones you experience on a daily basis. Your computer or possibly your loved one. In my case it is guitar tone. Does this make me an expert? Nope. My opinion is worth no more or less then anyone else's. It is just that I have more experience hearing guitars and can most likely be able to describe what I am hearing a little better and better able to find a tone that I might be searching for.
What about guitar tone? Hmmm…that's one big box of rocks you just opened up there. For this blog entry we will stick with electric guitar tone. That is still a very big box. Then again our questions listed above simplify things nicely. What is guitar tone? The answer is what you, and ONLY you, hear when a guitar is played. It doesn't matter how much or how little there is in your signal chain. All that matters is the end result. What is good and what is bad tone? It is what you, and ONLY you, FEEL when you hear it. Are you happy with lot's of little endorphins buzzing about merrily inside of your noggin or do you feel like someone is dragging their nails across a blackboard? That's it. I don't care how complicated you wish to make it but the answer is a simple one and it relies on the individuals feelings and emotions when sound waves move their eardrums and send electrical impulses to their brain.
So why is it such a complicated issue and a huge multi-billion dollar industry feeding millions of people products to find "their" tone with a guitar? Because we are "HUMANS". We can't agree on anything. If a few of us do agree on any subject on this planet then we make efforts to go out and convince others that we know and they don't. Add in all of the recorded music we have. Everybody likes certain recordings or acts and then many folks want to emulate their favorite tones that they experienced. Then we are ripe for products that could show us the "way" to our personal tone nirvana.
Does that explain "tone" for you from the philosophical side of things? Good 'cause that's the best your gonna get from me. I AM one of those folks who feel that good guitar tone is necessary and that bad guitar tone should be avoided but I do understand that this is purely a personal experience and that I have been influenced from recordings I have heard, forums I have read, sales propaganda I have experienced and the "I am up one on you today" mentality. I am a human.
With that said I was overjoyed when a set of prized humbuckers were being whizzed to me for free! Gratis. Gifted. Here ya go. Free. Yep, that is a good feeling. What is that you say? Would I know what to do with them? Do I have a spot to use them? Do I have any experience with things like this? Yes to all of the above questions. I am fortunate. I like guitars and their assorted associated parts and pieces big and small. Amps to cables to cases to springs and screws. Let me at 'em.
Now we come to a juncture within this particular blog entry because I felt that this forum would be as good as any to provide you, my dear readers, with some type of personal experience with tone. Plus I felt that it would be a nice thing to do for the nice people who were sending me their wares. To provide them a fair forum to exhibit their pickups visually and sonically. From here on we will be using a scientific method that will include photos, recordings and observations. With all of that said, and that was a lot, let's get down to the business of Lust.
First impressions are lasting impressions or so I have been told. "Lust" makes a GREAT first impression. Hey, they could have tossed these things into a old greasy brown bag stapled together and I would have still been very grateful. These guys pull out all of the stops to provide the owner a Christmas like experience. In fact I cannot remember opening anything that was presented in such an extraordinary fashion. Let the gallery below offer the proof.
Some nice photos indeed. Now we need a volunteer subject guitar so that we can operate and modify. Any takers out there?
Here is our subject. This is a 2003 Gibson Les Paul Custom " '57 Reissue Black Beauty". This as one great guitar. A little history. When I purchased this instrument and plugged it into any amplifier that I could find the combination of this instrument and the original Gibson "Burstbucker" pickups were so "Icepick" bright that the guitar was unplayable. (So why did I buy it? That's for another blog.)
So in search of tone I purchased a set of "WCR 'Crossroads'" pickups. I did like them and they did tame some of the "ice-pickiness" and gave it a better overall tone. Satisfied? Me? Well, yes I was actually. Soon there came to be a great cry and universal applause for new pickups that were being hand wound by a very nice gentleman named "Tim White". His pickups became known as "Timbuckers" and they are excellent pickups. So I decided that I better buy a set. Another group of humans convinced me that I should join in their experience and wisdom. When I received the set that I had been on a waiting list for I figured that this guitar could only benefit from a set of pickups acclaimed to be of superior quality. Out came the "WCR's" and in went the "Tim's".
Now we must return to the subject of being subjective. Burstbuckers to WCR's to Tim's. Each produced different tones. Burstbuckers - unacceptable. WCR's - Very nice, a good solid rock tone. The "Tim's" - Less gain then the WCR's and a little less aggressive but a sweet tone. One guitar. A singular instrument of all the Les Pauls that have ever been produced. Wood and construction and the sum of it's universally independent parts to make one unique guitar. Like a snowflake. ( I really don't believe this "every snowflake is unique" concept. I want proof but for simplicity's sake we will use this accepted clíche.) This is something to remember. As you travel the internet there are pickup "shootouts" but many install different pickups into different guitars. From a scientific point this allows too many variables in my book. (You do have my "book" don't you? Remember the one that was issued at your birth? Great. Now go to page 1072 for my thoughts on 'variables'.) Here I had used the same instrument and could make a better evaluation of the three. Were there any other changes that could skew the results. Unfortunately, yes. I changed the 'pot's' or potentiometers in the guitar at the same time I changed the pickups. I also changed the 'cap's' or capacitors in the circuit. Could this have thrown the whole tonal evaluation of the 3 pickups out the window? Hmmm...yes. Only in a classical scientific test, where you only change one variable at a time in order to observe the true results, would my ears have been presented a true evaluation. This also serves as an example of what else to ask when you see other pickup 'shootout's'. (This is not a pickup shootout. We are just playing with tone.) In the end I wasn't going to go to the trouble of not changing additional ingredients of tone when I made the changes just for science sake. I have a life and I would always rather play the guitar instead of soldering. Do the work then play the guitar.
The Lust pickup series that I won are their "Custard Pie" set. This set comes with 4 individual wires coming from the humbucker so that you can "split" the pickups and create a huge amount of different tones by using push/pull pot's and selecting single coil tones and everything in between. Wiring the full 4 push/pull pot set took more then I wanted to invest at this particular time. I will leave the reasons secret. Why? Why not. Please understand that pickups with the 4 conductor wire scheme can still be wired the same as a traditional 2 conductor set. I chose to wire this guitar using a traditional 2 conductor "'50's wiring" configuration.
I debated whether to place the "before" sound clips here on the webpage and the "after's" at the bottom but who wants to go up and down. All of the soundclips will be placed with before and after in sets for easier comparison at the bottom of the page. Therefore lets get into some photos of the transformation.
This is the tear down
Now What do I do?
Now we have an empty Les Paul and a box-o-stuff from Lust. What next? If you try to solder everything inside of the cavity of a Les Paul you will find it a little cramped and you have a good possibility of burning up the wire that you just installed by accident. So let's make it easy on me and use a template. An 1/8th piece of plywood laid out so that I can install the new potentiometers, solder away without fear and then just drop it all into the cavity and make the final solder or two easily.
Great! Now let's look at the final installation and the final "put me back together" stage.
The transformation is complete. It's been shined and buffed and tested for noise and for function. Now we get to play with...TONE. (It's about time!) I am going to place audio clips with before and after together for your convenience.
Two different sources were used to record the clips you can hear. The first is a "Kemper Profiler". I felt that this was the best version to make sure that the tone would be recorded with the least amount of variances. The setting was installed into the unit and the clips recorded.
Now is the time that I will insert the the caveat that references the "music" you will hear. I might love the guitar but I am not a professional touring musician for a reason. I cannot play the guitar well enough so "those that can't do teach" applies. Can I hold up my end in a band or a jam. I think so. Can I teach? Damn straight I can. Am I proud of the "music" that you will hear within theses clips? No. There you have it. Now if you bash me on the internet then you will appear as a "bully" and a "bad person". Here we go.
The next source of sound will be routed through a "Carr Rambler". Thank you Steve Carr for producing one of the great tube amps of all time. I used a Shure SM-57 with just a touch of the amp's reverb and all of the controls were photographed so that they could be matched from one session to the next. For distortion I chose a pedal made by "Wampler" called "SLO-Stortion". I like this pedal very much. The controls work very well and the separate "Boost" function works great by itself or with the gain function.
Please note the use of the term "Creamy Distortion" and add additional points to my total.
Well, there you have it. Did you notice any difference? No? Ok. How about you? Yes? Ok. Did you like what you heard? Yes? Then contact the fine people at www.lustfortone.com and they will be glad to assist you.
There comes a time when you have to throw off the "scientific blanket" and just play around with additional amps and settings in an attempt to find the sweet spot that incorporates the guitar, amp and any other additional ingredients to your signal chain. As I began to play at volume I began to notice a "phazer" type of effect with just the guitar, cord and amp. I was able to reproduce this fairly easily. To date I have not experienced this organically before and it becomes a bit addictive. A little finger vibrato or reverb intensifies this and I found it to be a great unexpected byproduct from these pickups.
Final thoughts for a very long blog page. If you have gotten this far then I hope that you enjoyed yourself and that you might have learned something along the way. It has been a true pleasure working with Greg Simpson of the Lust company. We both share a side of humor that is self depreciating but as sharp as a razor and I am glad to be able to call him a friend. It was my idea to produce this page without any incentive or compensation from his company. When I announced my intent his only request was that it would be fair and that there would be no issue if some other pickup faired better. You cannot find honesty and integrity in abundance anymore but it seems like Lust deals it in spades from my personal experience. Thank you Greg and all of the other folks at Lust. I wish you well and thank you for pulling my name out of the fishbowl.