By Greg Gagliano

Copyright 1999, 20th Century Guitar Magazine.
We have explored how pickup changes can sometimes make reissue guitars sound more authentically vintage. In addition to pickup changes I must note that circuit changes are sometimes needed as well. Taking our guinea pig Rickenbacker 360V64 6-string and 12-string models as examples, we see that these vintage reissues are lacking the original's high-pass capacitor in the tone circuit. This is easy enough to fix as it simply requires soldering in a small value capacitor (0.0047 to be exact). The schematics are available on Rickenbacker's web site. Interestingly, the schematics show this capacitor, but indicate that it is not installed in the reissue. Stuff like this makes vintage fanatics crazy. Why bother calling the guitar a reissue if it is not a true replica of the original? 

Let's not forget the aging factor either. I compared a new US-made vintage reissue '62 Jazz Bass to an original. The new reissue doesn't sound like the original. Then I compared the original to a 15 year old reissue and to my surprise I found that it sounds very similar to the original. There's something to be said for buying an older example of a reissue guitar or bass!

Depending on the type of vintage tone you are searching for, you may have to use vintage style strings as well. Up until the late 1960s (the changeover started around 1966), most electric guitars were fitted with flatwound strings. Have you ever tried to cop the Ventures' early tone using roundwound strings? You'll never get it right until you string your Jazzmaster with flatwounds. And not just any flatwound string will do.

I sampled six different brands of flatwound strings, including GHS, D'Addario, Fender, D'Aquisto, Thomastik-Infeld, and Pyramid. To evaluate each string set's tone, I used two authentic vintage guitars -- a Gretsch 6122 (thinline archtop, humbuckers) and a Fender Jaguar (solidbody, single coils) --played through a blackface Fender Deluxe Reverb and a blonde Fender Bassman with Reverb Unit. I also plugged each guitar directly into a 4-track recorder with flat EQ to hear the pure sound of the strings. For the record, I played the guitars with nickel plated round wound strings (.012 -.052 on the Gretsch and .010 -.048 on the Jag) to get a "baseline" of sorts.

I decided not to go into the technical details of each string set's construction because, frankly, it doesn't matter. All we care about is tone and performance, not hex core versus round core, nickel vs. stainless, hand made vs. machine made, who makes what strings for who, country of origin, etc. The testing results follow.

D'Addario Chromes ECG23 (.010, .014, .020, .028, .038, .048), stainless steel. These strings had good balance from low to high, and overall, were bright sounding for flatwounds. The strings felt slick and behaved like roundwounds when bending notes. Sustain was excellent. While they don't have vintage tone, the D'Addario Chromes are well suited for rock, surf and blues. They would be a good choice for someone looking to try a flatwound that doesn't stray too far from roundwound performance. The wound strings have pretty good life to them and the plain strings die first.

GHS Precision Flatwound #800 (.011, .014, .022, .028, .036, .046), stainless steel. Out of the package, the GHS strings were noticeably stiff and there were kinks in the low E and A strings. This set felt a bit coarse (not as rough as a roundwound) and were the most muffled sounding of the bunch though they have strong lows and mids. Sustain was fairly short-lived. The high E string produced a lot of buzz on the Jaguar. The Precision Flatwounds don't have vintage tone, but are good choice for jazz. The tone of the wound strings stayed relatively constant over time (dull is dull) and the plain strings lost their sizzle first.

D'Aquisto Jazz Signature Series #110 (.011, .015, .020, .028, .038, .048), stainless steel. These strings felt a little rough and were a bit stiff. They have strong mids and highs with a diffuse, but not muddy, bottom end that produces a really nice woody tone, especially on the Gretsch. The Jazz Signatures have very little sustain. Played unamplified, these strings were the most "acoustic" sounding of the group. In fact, acoustically they kind of made a string bass (plucked) or tic-tac bass (picked) type of tone. These strings don't have the vintage tone we seek, but they sound great for all types of music from jazz and rockabilly to surf and blues. The wound rounds strings remained lively over time and the plain strings are the indicators for when it's time for a string change.

Fender Flats 50XL (.011, .014, .022, .030, .040, .050), stainless steel. These strings were very soft and limber with a slick feel, except for the .022 wound string which felt exactly like a roundwound. Despite their initial limber feel, they aren't as easy to bend as some of the other string sets. The Fender Flats were even brighter than the D'Addarios and are the least "flatwound-sounding" of the bunch. Like the D'Addarios, these strings would be a good choice for a player looking for a smooth, but roundwoundish type of sound. A quick check of Fender's website showed that the Flats are listed only in 12 and 13 gauge sets so I'm not sure if the 11s are still available. These strings lost their chime quicker than the other sets, but still remained relatively bright.

Thomastik-Infeld JS111 (.011, .015, .019, .025, .035, .047), nickel. These are classy strings --both ends are chenilled. The wound strings have a nickel wrap (not nickel plated steel) and the plain strings are brass plated. According to the manufacturer the brass inhibits corrosion, yet my metallurgical senses say that brass oxidizes_ that's why we have brass polish. Perhaps the brass sacrifices itself to finger oils so that the underlying steel may live on. Regardless, these Austrian-made strings feel soft, but slightly rough. They are easy to bend and have good sustain. They sound smooth, but not dull, and have lots of chime and presence. Most importantly, the T-I's have the vintage tone we seek and work great for all musical genres. Ironically, the string package says "For archtop guitars" yet they performed wonderfully on the Jaguar. These strings are made for the long haul and last a long time (yes, even the funky brass plated plain strings).

Pyramid Gold (.011, .015, .020, .030, .035, .048), nickel. Yet another classy set of strings with chenilled ball ends. Like the T-I's the wound strings have a pure nickel wrap, but the plain strings are silver plated (a metal which also oxidizes_ go figure). These strings feel soft, but are not as slick as some of the other flatwounds tested. And really, the flatwounds with some texture and "tackiness" to them afford some grip without finger squeaks, which is not a bad thing. The Pyramids have smooth tone, good balance from top to bottom, and good top end chime. The low end isn't quite as tight as the T-I's, but it's not muddy either. Sustain is good. These harmonically rich strings also have vintage tone in spades and work well for all types of music. The Pyramids don't die readily and remain toneful for a good long time (even the silver plated ones).

Clearly, nickel flatwound strings are the ticket to ride (pun intended) for vintage tone. And this isn't a big surprise since the Thomastik-Infeld and Pyramid nickel flatwounds are pretty much made the same way flatwounds were made in the '50s and '60s. What was a surprise was how much chime these two string sets have. They won't deaden the snap and bite of a Jaguar, no sir. The only factor that may discourage some players is the cost of these strings. The Pyramids list for $28 and the T-I's list for $22, though both can be purchased at a lower "street" price ($20 for Pyramid and $11 for T-I). The other flats have a list price around $14 per set but typically sell in the $5 to $7 range. Of course, the nickel strings last a good long time which means less frequent string changes.

So, you've got your original vintage guitar (or well-aged, modified-if-needed reissue) strung with nickel flatwound strings and it's plugged into an honest-to-goodness vintage amp. Yet you still don't get "that" sound whether it's The Beatles or The Belairs or Duane Eddy. And the reason, dear readers, is that a very large percentage of vintage tone comes from the player's fingers. Original type equipment is only one ingredient in the tonal equation. The rest comes from your hands, ears, and soul and these are factors I can't help you with except to suggest that you listen and play. Then listen and play some more until you start to cop "that" sound.

About the author: Even when playing his vintage Gretsch 6122 with nickel flatwound strings, Greg Gagliano does not sound like George Harrison circa 1965 (though he comes close).


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