Copyright 2001, 20th Century Guitar Magazine
I’ve always wondered how electric guitars with similar construction and identical pickups compare tonally. No better time than the present to find out! This month’s article will make an attempt to answer the question: What factor makes the biggest contribution to the tonal equation, pickups or construction? I selected the following three pairs of guitars for analysis: 1999 Gibson ’59 reissue ES-335 and 1999 Gibson ’59 reissue Les Paul, 1991 G&L S-500 Signature and 1990 G&L ASAT III, and 2000 Rickenbacker 360CW Carl Wilson Signature and 2001 Rickenbacker 381V69. Each pair of guitars utilize the same pickups. I used two different amps (4x10 Bassman, Vox AC-30) at a variety of volumes and settings. Since TCG’s state-of-the-art, super duper high tech GBASA (Guitar and Bass Audio Spectrum Analyzer) unit was unavailable at the time of my review, I had to rely on my ears. Editor Acunto was disqualified from this review due his known bias for ’59 Les Pauls (including reissues).
At first glance, a player would expect the Gibson pair to sound completely different. Sure, they both are loaded with Gibson’s ’57 Classic PAF reissue pickups, but the Les Paul is a solid mahogany guitar with maple cap while the ES-335’s body is semi-hollow, laminated maple. Surprisingly, the ES isn't much lighter in weight than the Paul! But they both have super chunky 1-piece mahogany necks, tune-a-matic bridges with stop tails, and that big honking center block that runs stem to stern on the ES-335 makes it, for all intents and purposes, a solid body guitar, right? Well, yes and no. While the ES acts like a solid body guitar in that it isn’t prone to feedback, it most definitely sounds different than the Les Paul.
No matter which amp I used, and no matter what the volume, the results were the same. There is a very noticeable difference in tone between the two guitars. Enough of a difference to justify having both models in your arsenal (I'll write a permission note if you need one). The ES has less lower midrange, the Paul has a top end with sting. The scooped mids work really well for blues (which explains why a lot blues players like ES-335s) and the warmer sounding neck pickup has the jazz sound over the Paul. The ES has plenty of high end, but it doesn't have the bite of the Les Paul. The Les Paul excels at rock which, obviously, explains why a lot of rock players like LPs. It has more clarity and has better note separation than the ES. The Paul’s strong mid-range sent the Vox into quintessential to-die-for British overdrive. The ES overdrive tone through the Vox was a little more loose. The bottom end of the Les Paul is more tightly focused which probably contributes to the more aggressive tone both clean and overdriven.
The Rickenbackers are much more similar than the Gibsons in terms of construction. Both are semi-hollow, constructed of solid, carved maple with a 3-piece maple-walnut-maple neck replete with rosewood fingerboards, and both are fitted with single coil “toaster” pickups. These pickups have been recently redesigned to more closely imitate the original “toasters” of the mid and late 1960s (scatterwound to 7.4K ohm). Whereas the neck profiles of the Gibsons were nearly identical, the Carl Wilson model has a very slim oval profile compared to the larger U-shape of the 381V69. The 360 Carl Wilson is based on Carl’s second style (round top) ’65 Model 360. It has a thinner top than most 360s making it more resonant and acoustically much louder than most semi-hollow Rics. The 381V69 is a reissue of the late ‘60s model made most famous by John Kay of Steppenwolf fame. The body is deeper than the 360 and utilizes a double “German carve” top and back (thank you Roger Rossmeisl!).
Both guitars have that distinctive Rickenbacker tone often described as “chime” and “jangle”. Yet, played side-by-side, the 381V69 and 360CW are clearly different. The 360 has more top end chime and brilliance while the 381 has a much more powerful midrange and better sustain. The 360 is more of a specialist and it’s perfect for that Beatley Byrdsy sound. The 381 is better suited for a wide range of rock and its overdriven tone is more meaty than the 360. The 360CW did have one trick up its sleeve that was a complete surprise. Perhaps due to the thinner top or less pronounced midrange, the neck pickup has absolutely killer blues tone rivaling that of a good Stratocaster. The 381, while completely capable of being a decent blues guitar and stunningly good looking to boot, was muddier and didn’t quite have the sweet singing woman tone of the Carl Wilson model. Who’d a thunk it?
Of the guitars tested, the G&Ls are the most similar in terms of construction. Both have solid ash bodies with bolt-on maple necks. The S-500 Signature sports a rosewood fingerboard while the ASAT III makes due with a fretted maple neck. They both use G&L’s ceramic magnet “Magnetic Field Design” pickups. Not surprisingly then, these two guitars sound remarkably similar. Not exactly the same, mind you, but similar enough that difference are very subtle and practically indistinguishable from each other. Both have an organic, woody voice with strong mids and brittle upper end. There is a slight difference in attack and sustain that is likely attributed to the different tailpieces (hardtail on the ASAT III and vibrato tail on the S-500), but all-in-all the guitars sound quite similar.
So what do these comparisons tell us? Basically, the pickup is nothing more than an amplifier. Sure, it can add flavor to the tone of the guitar, but it is not at the heart of the tone. There is an assumption here, namely, the pickups are of similar design. Of course, a humbucker is going to sound completely different from a Tele bridge pickup. So, keep in mind that the primary tone hypothesis assumes you’ll always be using an alnico Strat-style pickup in your Strat, etc.
So, our hypothesis is: the primary tone of the guitar is in its construction. It can most easily be heard by playing the guitar acoustically. The pickup can only amplify the sound the guitar produces. The same pickup will “hear” a different sound from a semi-hollow guitar than it will from a solid body guitar. Same goes for a laminated maple archtop versus a solid spruce top archtop, or two semi-hollow guitar of differing design, or an ash body/maple board Strat versus an alder body/rosewood board Strat, ad infinitum, you get the picture. Since the G&Ls are so similar in construction, the primary tone created by each is nearly the same, hence they sound very similar. Note too, that hardware is an ingredient in primary tone and should be considered part of a guitar’s construction. Case in point – hardtail Strat versus blocked vibrato tail Strat or ash tray bridge Tele versus Bigsby-equipped Tele. They don’t sound the quite the same.
And primary tone is why it’s difficult to make an electric guitar that’s a dud (or lemon) sound better simply by swapping pickups. You might be able to change the flavor of the tone, but it’s still yucky because the guitar is a dog. As the saying goes, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear… or in modern American English, you can’t polish a turd. So think primary tone the next time you play your electric guitars. It’s the core of your guitar’s sound.
Special thanks to G&List Brad Traweek for the use of his G&Ls for this article.
About the author: In addition to pickup changes, Greg Gagliano
has tried alchemy to alter guitar primary tone. Sadly, neither worked.
Mr. Wizard can be contacted c/o TCG.