ToneQuest report - Wolfetone Pickups

ToneQuest report - Wolfetone Pickups
notes: We
replaced the
stock, linear
taper CTS
pots in our ‘06 Les Paul Junior with a ‘Les Paul Jr./Melody
Maker’ pot kit from RS Guitarworks consisting of an audio
taper 500K volume, 250K tone, and a .022 mf Jensen paperin-oil tone cap. All of these upgrades were relatively easy,
and a big step up from the stock parts. The 250K tone pot and
Jensen cap added a rounder, deeper tone without rolling off or
dulling treble. Recommended.
If you’re
with a relatively new
guitar made
within the
past several years, be prepared to confront ROHS compliant
solder on the pots. Unlike older rosin core solder containing lead, this stuff will not melt quickly by merely applying
the tip of your soldering iron to it, and you can easily ruin a
good pot by overheating the case. To avoid this, melt a small
quantity of your own rosin core solder on the existing stuff
and it will immediately soften, enabling you to get all the
wires off the pots, or remove existing caps for replacement
without burning anything up. We also use a strip of painter’s
tape to hold the large insulated wire from the input jack to the
opposite side of the control cavity we’re working on. Paying
someone to swap pots and caps seems unnecessary, but we
also understand that you don’t want to leave the wiring harness in your guitar looking as if a 6 year-old had got ahold of
it… That’s embarrassing. But if you want to fully explore the
benefits of upgrading your electronics – including pickups, we
urge you to learn how to do your own work. Yes, you can.
If you’re stumped on sourcing vintage tone caps, they can
be found at places like eBay and Angela Instruments, but
you need to become educated first… NOS vintage caps that
have been measured are your best bet, and they will cost the
most. We recommend CornellDublier ‘greenies’ over vintage
Sprague Black Beauties and
Bumble Bees, which sound
colder and edgier to us, while
the C-Ds possess a smoother,
warmer tone. For Fender style
guitars requiring a .047 mf cap,
you might experiment with the
large, tan ceramic disc caps
that were widely used in Supro
amps and some guitar brands
in the ‘60s. If you are
tempted to buy cheaper ‘pulls’ – used caps
originally installed in
an old piece of vintage
gear, do so only if the
seller states the actual,
measured value of the
cap to spec, or invest
in a capacitance meter (around $30). Buying old caps that have
drifted way out of spec is just stupid. The Luxe caps are an
excellent alternative to vintage caps. They typically produce a
rounder tone with more depth than modern polypropylene caps,
and secondarily, they are cosmetically true to the originals.
The RS Guitarworks
nickel silver pickup
covers we installed
on the Wolfetone
MarshallHead set are
excellent – visibly
thinner than typical
covers, and like Tom
Holmes’ covers, we
like the ‘aged’ look of
unplated nickel silver.
These thinner, lighter covers can make a big difference in the
sound of your humbucking pickups… Expect more presence and overall clarity. Tip: When removing old covers and
installing new ones, carefully use a sharp box cutter or other
type of thin blade with a sturdy handle to cut the existing
solder sealing the baseplate to the cover. Place the pickup on
a sturdy tabletop, and standing over it, apply pressure with
the blade, rocking it back and forth, cutting the solder rather
than trying to melt it and create a clean break between the
baseplate and cover before the solder hardens again. When
applying solder to the baseplate and new cover, simply place
a short length of solder along the seam between the baseplate
and inside edge of the cover and run the tip of your soldering
iron along the solder. Over-heating the baseplate and internal
coils is a no-no, and this method will enable you to create a
quick and neat seal in seconds.TQ, 859-737-5300
Primal Scream
There are lots of ways to create burning, singing sustain and
distortion with an electric guitar… but most of us are no
longer in the position to do so merely by setting the volume on
a big, powerful amp on ‘10.’ It really wasn’t so long ago that
50 watt Marshalls, Twins, Super Reverbs and AC30s could be
TONEQUEST REPORT V.11 N.11 September 2010
found on club stages being righteously cranked, but even on
big stages today, bands have become more intent on achieving a degree of separation essential to producing a live sound
equal to the quality of a studio mix. The very idea of Jeff Beck
playing an isolated 15 watt amp on ‘3’ says it all…
We like to mentally categorize the different routes that can
be taken to reach a specific destination in the Quest for tone,
and in nearly every instance we begin with pickups. Yeah, the
guitar itself is important, but the pickup is the sole electronic
source from which everything in the signal chain is fed — the
primary tone source in your rig. Thinking about classic Nuge
got us thinking about classic rock tones, and when you’ve
entered that realm, ‘bashful’ just won’t cut it. The subtleties of
tone we so often discuss in these pages are replaced by a different priority — the primal scream of a well-throttled guitar
moving air by the grace of a great tube amp and speakers that
can gracefully tote the note. Happily for us and for you, we
just received pickups for review from Wolfe, founder and sole
proprietor of Wolfetone pickups in Seattle, and he sent precisely what was required for this edition of the Quest – rockers!
By our count, Wolfe
makes 19 models of
essential Strat, Tele,
Humbucking and
P90 pickup models,
and he will vary
some of the stock
winds to taste. He
is best known for
his Doctor Vintage
humbuckers (stay tuned for a future review), designed to
reproduce a baseline PAF that remains within the original spec,
rather than the stronger snarl of the higher-output PAF variants that occasionally (but not as often as most people think)
came off the line in Kalamazoo in the late ‘50s. For the most
part, vintage PAFs are fairly tame compared to most modern
replicas wound today, and they invariably sound cleaner and
clearer. There were exceptions, however, and for that sound,
you typically need Alnico V wire and a few more turns to produce the smoke. Wolfe chose to send us his ‘MarshallHead’ set
– the next step up from the Dr. Vintage replica PAFs – unpotted, wound with Alnico V and more turns on the bobbins for
hotter resistance measurements of 8.2K/neck and 9.0K/bridge.
Most of the Wolfetone humbuckers ship without covers, so this
also gave us the opportunity to install a set of RS Guitarworks
nickel silver covers in our latest tobacco burst ‘58 Les Paul,
and a pair of Luxe replica Grey Tiger .022 tone caps.
As advertised, Wolfe’s pickups hit the amp harder, pushing it
into distortion faster than a cleaner, weaker set. Their output
seems comparable to typical Gibson Burstbuckers found in
Historic Les Pauls, but that is where any similarities end. The
Wolfetone bridge
pickups displays
a much smoother,
musical brightness
without the intense,
grinding edginess
on the top that you
hear with the Burstbucker 2. The tone
is focused in the
upper midrange frequencies with plenty of presence, and excellent definition and clarity on the wound strings. This pickup
is ‘hot’ enough to produce singing sustain without necessarily
relying on a boost pedal (depending on the amp, of course) and
our results are based on tests with our ‘58 tweed Tremolux,
‘59 GA 40, Germino 55LV, ‘66 Pro Reverb, and the 2002 Pro
Junior ‘Blondie’. The MarshallHead neck pickup was also a
nice surprise… Honestly, any time we solder in an unfamiliar
neck humbucker we do so with an underlying feeling of dread.
Why? Because most of them suck! Hey, we’ve heard plenty
of original PAFs that lacked mojo in the neck position, too,
but we want to do more than just fob off mellow jazz tones in
our guitars, and for lack of a better reference point, we always
think of Dickie Betts’ stellar rhythm pickup tone on the early
Allman Brothers records. Ideally, we want to hear presence
and definition on the
treble strings in our
rhythm pickup, and
that reedy, scooped
sax quality on the
wound strings without the woofy mush,
please. Once you’ve
heard an exceptional
neck humbucker,
typical vanilla versions sound utterly useless and uninspiring.
Apparently, Wolfe knows this, too, because his neck pickup
does not wallow in such mediocrity. While not as bright as the
best low-output vintage rhythm PAFs we’ve heard, the treble
strings do possess better definition and responsive dynamic
snap than the average replica PAF set, and played alone or
combined with the bridge pickup, you’ve got some very useful
tones available to contrast with the bridge alone. For those
about to rock in the hotter PAF zone… the Wolfetone MarshallHead set is highly recommended at $260.00.
A Meaner P90
Wolfe also sent a single P90 at our request, destined for the
luscious 2006 Historic Les Paul Junior. You’ll recall that this
was the last new Gibson to be sold at Midtown Music, where
it had languished in the case in storage for nearly three years
as other Historic stock was rotated. In other words, it got
lost in the day-to-day shuffle. When we spied it on the wall
in the nearly empty store that had been such a deep resource
TONEQUEST REPORT V.11 N.11 September 2010
for over ten years, the Junior
proudly revealed itself to be a
mystical mahogany gong that
had also developed a huge
swoop in the neck after sitting
in the case so long under full
string tension. Dave Tiller
knocked another $250 off the
clearance price, and we have
described how we gradually brought the neck back
straight over several months
of truss rod tweaking, initially
removing and lubing the truss
rod nut, and repeatedly making adjustments under zero string tension with back pressure
exerted on the neck. We have alternately installed Lollar and
Lindy Fralin P90s in the Junior, as well as the original Gibson,
and two different vintage Gibson P90s from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
A word about vintage P90s – they are by no means all stunners, sometimes sounding super-bright, clean and weak, with
none of the growl so many players expect, and the chances are
good that if you plan to play them through a cranked amp, or
God forbid – a boost pedal, they will scream bloody murder
with shrieking, squealing feedback. As Jim Rolph said about
vintage P90s, “If they don’t squeal, they ain’t real.”
Speaking of Rolph, we had installed both of our vintage
Gibson P90s before with disappointing results. They sounded
shrill, thin and weak, squealing at the least bit of prodding to
perform as they were intended. Did the ‘P’ stand for ‘pig’?
After sitting in a drawer for months, we sent them to Rolph
with a request to verify their origins, since the leads on the
‘60s model hinted at a possible rewound coil. Jim confirmed
our presumed timeline for each, agreed that the ‘60s P90
might have been re-wound, and we got them back a week
later. It wasn’t until we began the process of reviewing and
comparing Wolfe’s P90 that we broke out the vintage ‘50s
pickup again, more or less just to re-confirm our initial perception of how lackluster it had been.
Imagine our
shock when we
soldered in the
‘50s P90 and
WHAM – the
Junior spewed a
mighty gusher
of gorgeously
rude P90 gold
through the
Tremolux with
the first chord. Forty minutes later we came to our senses, put
the Junior down and called Rolph… “Jim, I just installed that
‘50s P90 I sent to you in a Les Paul Junior… Did you like the
way it sounds? It sounds unbelievable – huge and powerful
with tremendous low end, fat mids and sweet, biting treble
tones. What did you do? Well, those old magnets were just
about gone – they only measured 6-7 gauss on my meter so
I charged them back up to where they should be – 20 gauss,
and I have a little trick I do to keep them from squealing…
Out of respect, we didn’t ask what that trick might be, but we
thanked Jim profusely for resurrecting those tired pickups, and
he explained, “The magnets in P90s are sitting right next to
one another, and they weaken over time because of that. The
design makes them doomed to weaken. That doesn’t happen in
a humbucking pickup because there is only one magnet.”
P90s are one
of our alltime favorites,
and the sound
of a great
one played
through a vintage Fender
amplifier is
mesmerizing, so we felt a special twinge of anticipation when we read
Wolfe’s comments about P90s on his web site: “I’ve always
felt that a good P-90 should be mean, raunchy, and nasty, but
still able to clean up and become sweet when needed. P90s
have always been my favorite pickups to make as well as play,
as they seem to offer the best of both worlds.”
Indeed, they do. Wolfe’s P90s come in three flavors – ‘Mean,’
‘Meaner,’ and ‘Meanest’ with gradually increased output, midrange and growl. We received the ‘Meaner’ variant measuring
9K, and constructed with Alnico II magnets. As Wolfe put it,
“Well suited for the bridge position, it’s meaner and raunchier
than the ‘mean’ P90 with a thicker midrange and more low
end grunt.”
Do you know how a truly exceptional vintage P90 sounds?
If you do, let’s compare notes, and if you don’t, you will
now… In preparation for this review, we installed a new set
of Pyramid .010-.048s on the Junior and ran through all the
P90s we have on hand – the original Gibson, a Fralin, Lollar,
our ‘50s P90
gifted by
for another
birthday we
won’t count,
and Wolfe’s
Sounds like a
fun after-continued-
TONEQUEST REPORT V.11 N.11 September 2010
noon, dun’t it? Wait a minute… Remember the smartest guy
in the room from last month? He’s baaaack. “So you listened
to five different pickups in the same guitar, taking what –
twenty minutes to swap the pickup out each time? That’s
not right. How can you remember what they each sound like
compared to the others?” Of course we can – it’s just hard
to imagine for people that have never done it. And when in
doubt, we’ll always reload to verify our initial impressions.
One of the singular characteristics of a great vintage P90 is
the massive low end that gushes from E and A strings. Playing an aggressive, hard-charging rhythm, you may actually
have to lay off the wound strings a bit, and especially the big
E to avoid overwhelming the treble strings on full, 6-string
chords. For rock & roll, the vintage P90 is a beastly pickup
with a huge low and midrange voice that is audibly rolled
off on the very top. However, when you move into solos, the
treble strings sing with a sweet, overdriven tone like no other
pickup on earth. You simply need to learn to work with it,
rather than indiscriminately bashing on the strings. At lower
volume levels, the superior vintage P90 becomes jangly and
clear as only a single coil can, with beautiful harmonic textures and chime, yet it remains direct and focused, responding to pick attack with a percussive clarity and power that
you’ll otherwise only find in a great Tele bridge – but still,
the P90 is fatter. Work with it, and you’ll be amazed by what
a great P90 can deliver.
Unfortunately, for those
who have not
the sound
of a stellar vintage P90 in hand, all of this might seem as useful as
stepping outside, looking up and wishing on a star… unless
you were to order a Wolfetone. Assuming that Wolfe has
his act together to the extent that he can produce a consistent and repeatable outcome, you can expect to hear all the
qualities we’ve just described in Wolfe’s P90 with just a bit
more sparkle, presence and snap than a typical 50 year-old
P90. Indeed, if we were tasked with cutting the ultimate rock
guitar track endowed with an unforgettable tone that would
stop conversation among guitarists cold, we’d ram the Junior
through our ‘58 Tremolux goosed with the Bob Burt Clean
Boost and call it a day, confident in the knowledge that for
this style of music, we had arrived at the end of the road
in the Quest for tone. We were in fact so impressed with
Wolfe’s P90 that we switched it back and forth with our ‘50s
Gibson again the following day to insure that we can say
without qualification… Quest forth.TQ, 206-417-3548
T185 MX Ltd.
If you think you may be above owning and playing an instrument crafted in Beijing, think again. Of course we appreciate the lusty and seductive curves of instruments built in
Fullerton and Kalamazoo, but in many important repects,
Eastman Guitars seems to have nimbly caught up with
American manufacturing in 2010, offering extraordinary
value with features that are rarely seen in more affordable
instruments built overseas. You can read the entire story on
the Eastman web site, but the short version is that founder
Qian Ni established a master violin workshop in China after
traveling to the USA to study music in 1992. His vision of
training skilled woodworkers to handcraft professionalquality, classic instruments has since grown to include an
impressive variety of archtop and acoustic dreadnought guitars, mandolins and mandolas. We happened to meet Mark
Herring, Eastman Product Specialist for fretted instruments
in California and a ToneQuest subscriber, through an e-mail
exchange earlier this year, and we asked him to provide some
background on the company. Our review of the Eastman T185
MX model follows Mark’s comments…
Can you elaborate on the company’s philosophy
in building stringed instruments and just how ‘old
world’ your building practices are today as they
apply to guitars?
Our slogan is Modern Instruments – Old
Fashioned Quality, and I think that is a
great description of what we are trying
to do. Our philosophy has always been
to look at the best instruments made and
use those as a goal for what we are trying
to achieve. We are from China, however, unlike many of the stereotypes that
people have when they hear about Chinese
manufacturing, our philosophy has always
been to use the strengths of China
(for us it is our team of skilled
luthiers) to allow us to take the
time necessary to build instruments
of very high quality. When we
can use technology to improve
the quality of our instruments
we do, however, we try not to
have to compromise in order
to get an instrument finished in a
set amount of time in order to meet a
price point. This is an advantage that we have.
We look at the pre-war Martins that are coveted today and
TONEQUEST REPORT V.11 N.11 September 2010
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