Vintage or Modern wiring for your G&L ASAT guitar?

Emerson vintage style Tele wiring kit with treble bypass

The Internet and blogosphere is full or articles and how-to’s on the differences of the so-called “vintage” versus “modern” wiring for guitars like the Telecaster® and Les Paul. So briefly, what is it and does it matter?

In short, in a typical two-knob volume and tone arrangement, the major characteristic of “vintage” wiring is that the tone capacitor (low pass filter) is wired between (connects) the volume and tone controls. On a “modern” circuit, the tone capacitor is connected from one lug of the tone control potentiometer to ground (usually the top of the tone pot). There are several variations on this theme, but in general terms this is the biggest distinction between vintage and modern.

Why Modern?

The modern tone control circuit allows for totally independent tone control regardless of where the volume control is set. Essentially, the tone control directly shunts high frequency single to ground, the amount depending on how much the tone knob is turned. In a modern four-knob setup (such as a Les Paul) the volume and tones controls are independent from each other and each pickup. In a true vintage Les Paul circuit, turning down one pickup all the way actually turns off both pickups (this can be remedied without changing how the capacitor is wired).

The characteristic of the modern circuit is that there tends to be a high end roll-off as the volume is turned down. This can be compensated by using a “treble bleed” or tone bypass circuit, which lets through a small amount of high frequencies no matter where the volume control is set. On G&L guitars there is a .001-microfarad bypass capacitor on the volume pot of every guitar. The capacitor acts as a high pass filter, and some treble bleed circuits use a capacitor/resistor combination.

Why Vintage?

In a vintage circuit the capacitor is connecting the volume and tone controls, and the signal going to the tone control passes through the tone capacitor first (in a modern circuit the full signal passes to the tone control before the filter capacitor is applied). As a result, the signal being fed to the tone control pot is dependent on the setting of the volume control.

The characteristic of vintage wiring is that there tends to be less high-end attenuation as the volume is turned down. Even without a bypass circuit, the volume control has little effect on tone. But the and volume controls are now interactive, and the tone control works differently depending on how the volume control is set.

Is One Better Than the Other?

The modern wiring setup provides independent operation, and with the addition of a treble bypass circuit the volume control is quite functional. On some guitars a little high-end reduction via the volume control may be desirable, but on a darker sounding guitar a volume control without a treble bypass may be all but useless.

With vintage wiring the volume control is usable – and possibly better sounding – without a treble bypass. But how the tone control works depends on where the volume control is set. To some this may be annoying, but I like the range of different sounds available via the interactive nature of the two controls. I also think the volume control plain works better too, and I prefer it without the bypass. On a two pickup four-knob guitar like a Les Paul, the vintage wiring setup allows a vast array of tones just not available with the modern wiring scheme.

I’m a vintage wiring proponent, but if you can solder it’s pretty easy to switch back and forth and see what arrangement are most comfortable with. There is no right answer, just options.




Improve your Guitar Tone: Optimize your Volume and Tone Controls

I would wager that if you took an informal survey, you’d find that most guitar players play with their volume and tone controls full up 90+% of the time. More likely than not most players get their tone figured out at the amp and just leave the guitar up at the max.

We don’t we use our guitar knobs?

On many of guitars, turning down the volume control causes an unacceptable loss of high frequencies and dulls the tone of the guitar. This might be desirable in some instances, but not if you like the sound of your guitar but just want less of it. The volume control is a potentiometer – which is really a variable resistor – that is supposed to attenuate all frequencies equally. But the sensation is that more high frequencies are lost first. This is partially the nature of signals and partially that human hearing is not linear, and we hear high frequencies less at lower overall volumes. The tone control is a potentiometer with a capacitor, which is a passive electronic component that filters out specific frequencies. The tone control on most guitars is a “low pass filter” that bleeds off increasing amounts of high frequencies as the control is turned down.

How To Optimize Your Volume And Tone Controls

Step One: Turn your amp up. The gain section of a guitar amplifier is often not linear, and amplifier barely cracked open may far from developing optimal tone. We’re not necessarily talking distortion, just nice harmonically rich sound. If your amplifier volume is at 2 or 3 and your guitar is at maximum, try turning your amp up to 4 or higher and turning your guitar down. On most amps this will start to get them into the sweet spot of their range and you may notice a noticeable improvement in overall tone. You may also notice that even with the guitar turned down the tone is not so muddy. Oftentimes the controls on the guitar appear to work much better once the amp is getting some exercise. Plus now you have some room to play with volume-wise on the guitar, and a whole bunch of new sounds open up. Many amplifiers – especially early tweeds – don’t really get a lot louder past “5” on the dial, they just get dirtier and richer. If you’re amplifier is just too loud anywhere past 2 or 3 on the dial no matter what, go amp shopping. While you’re at it get a smaller one.

This is also a good time to mention that several guitar makers have moved to printed circuit board (PCB) volume and tone control assemblies. This clearly optimizes their manufacturing and assembly process, but makes modifications more difficult if not impossible. The subjective tonal quality of a PCB assembly is a hot topic, and there are many players not happy with the notion of a $3000 guitar having board-mounted pots and capacitors. In general, if your guitar has a PCB assembly and you want to tweak it, you’re going to have to take it out and start from scratch. With that said, let’s look at possible control improvements.

Install quality potentiometers – Guitar manufacturers must watch cost, and they’ll sometimes skimp on the quality of the electrical hardware, knowing that most players never look under the hood. But like anything, some stuff is better than others. Many import guitars use the “mini” pots, which due to physical construction limitations, often just don’t work as well. A high quality audio taper pot will make a difference in the ability to control volume and tone. Our Emerson Custom wiring kits use their own special version of CTS pots, and Mojo and others offer high quality replacement parts too.

Change Potentiometer Values – Traditionally, single coil type guitars use a 250K ohm potentiometer, and humbucker guitars most often use 500K. The higher impedance of a 500K pot for the tone control will retain brightness a little better, while a 250K pot will sound warmer. For a very dark guitar, you might want to even try a 1meg pot for the tone control.

Try a treble bleed – While this sounds painful, it’s a small resistor/capacitor network soldered between the input and output lug on the volume pot. The purpose of the treble bleed is to bypass the volume control with a small amount of high frequency signal regardless of where the volume knob is turned. The effect is to retain acceptable high frequency response at lower volumes. It works, and it’s a matter of taste and experimentation whether you like the effect or not. Emerson wiring kits all come with this feature (installation is optional), and you can find lots of information on this little circuit on the Internet and guitar magazine websites.

Vintage versus Modern Wiring – This is another topic that is all over the Internet. The primary difference is that modern wiring has the tone capacitor grounded to the tone pot case (shunting high frequencies directly to ground) while the vintage wiring has the tone capacitor connected between the volume and tone pots (the entire signal is being sent through the capacitor before it is attenuated). Modern wiring allows for independent control of volume and tone, while vintage wiring produces some interaction between the volume and tone controls (the tone control works differently depending on where the volume control is set). Many players feel that vintage wiring retains tone better as the guitar volume is turned down. I would agree, and find that the vintage wiring schematic gives a greater, more musical range of tonal options. If my guitar isn’t wired this way, I change it.

Change Capacitor Values – The general rule of thumb is that for tone controls “Gibson” guitars use .022 mfd (micro-farad) capacitors while “Fender” guitars use .047. Generally speaking, the greater the capacitor value, the more aggressively they roll off high frequencies. With single coil guitars being typically brighter, the .047 value makes sense (although many G&L guitars with the MFD pickups use the .022 value). One trick on neck humbucker pickups is to use a .015 value, which roll off highs even less abruptly and helps to keep the pickup from getting too muddy. If your tone control does not seem to “do anything” try a higher value.

Capacitor Construction – Here we enter the world of Voodoo. A capacitor can be made of many different materials, and for cost purposes guitar companies will often the lowest cost component, typically a ceramic disc capacitor.  These are felt to be the least “musical” sounding, and there are various varieties of “film” capacitors — usually a foil and mylar film construction – that are preferred for audio applications. The Holy Grail capacitor is thought to be a paper-in-oil capacitor, and tone freaks will spend big bucks finding old “PIO” caps from the 50’s and 60’s. The PIO capacitors are expensive because they are expensive to make, and are made in small volumes for special purposes, like high end audio circuits. As with tubes, the mainstream world dropped this style of capacitor years ago due to cost. Capacitors can affect your sound, and also how your tone control reacts. PIO capacitors do tend to have a very smooth tonal effect on the high end. But don’t think you have to spend $50 on a NOS Cornell Dubilier oil filled capacitor to get good sound. The hands down bargain cap is a 715 or 716 “Orange Drop” film capacitor, which is typically under $2.

Optimizing your guitar controls can be a fun and low cost way to improve your sound. You can buy complete drop-in kits, or if you like to solder, it’s a great DIY project. The Internet is full with information and there are countless variations of control schemes. But the most important lesson is to use your amp and guitar controls together as a team – not separate components — and explore the full range of what your rig has to offer.

Alnico magnets and guitar pickups – How to choose?

The heart of any electric guitar is the pickup, and pickups play a huge role in the overall sound of any guitar. So it only makes sense that when players look to improve their sound, the pickup is the most common modification. There are dozens of reputable pickup makers to choose from; from large volume producers like Seymour Duncan – who virtually invented the aftermarket pickup market – to boutique winders making vintage style pickups with OCD-like fervor. And to a great degree they are all working with the same basic materials: Wire, magnets, screws, and various methods to hold it all together.

Arcane Strat Special Pickup

For an item of such critical sonic importance, there are not many ways to quantify their design. Besides the typical specification of DC resistance, which is a function of wire gauge and number of turns of wire, magnet type is the other most commonly specified feature of a pickup. The choices are typically a ceramic magnet or some type of Alnico, which stands for Aluminum, Nickel and Cobalt. Alnico magnet materials have been around for decades, and are the material of choice for the majority of high quality pickups. The benefits of Alnico material is that it’s efficient (think in terms of power-to-weight ratio) and it’s also very stable and holds its power well over time.

There are several different grades of Alnico, and the different grades are based on their metallurgical makeup. The most popular for guitar pickups are Alnico 2, 3, and 5; oftentimes referred to as II, III and V. Generally speaking the grades are not in order of “goodness” and the numbers simply denote a particular material composition. Besides what magnet grade is being used, the pickup maker can also vary the amount of magnetic charge (Gauss) the magnet has. Magnets bought in bulk are usually shipped un-charged, and the pickup maker energizes the magnet as part of the build process.

There has been a lot written on the qualities of the various Alnico grades, and the how a magnet material affects the sound of a pickup. So while I’m not blazing any new trails, here are my general opinions on the impact of Alnico grades, gained from my own personal experience and experimentation.

Disclaimer: There are so many other factors in making a pickup – wire gauge, winding tension, winding pattern, potting – that attributing the tonal characteristics solely to magnet material is somewhat folly. Also, some magnet grades are closely tied to pickup style, so you’re unlikely to see a high output metal pickup using Alnico 2 material.

Alnico 2 – Alnico 2 is used most often as a bar magnet material in humbucking pickups. This was the grade used in the early “PAF” pickups, and as a result is commonly employed in vintage-flavored designs. Examples of pickups using Alnico 2 material are the Seymour Duncan Seth Lover, Alnico II Pro, and the Arcane ’57 Experience. Pickups using Alnico 2 material tend to have a slightly soft attack, generally warm tonal characteristics and a slightly loose, bouncy feel. Wound strings have a somewhat woody tone and for some may lack enough definition. While pickups of this sort are generally not wound for high output, when pushed they develop a nice singing quality and make a pretty nice pickup for leads. Players who like to work their amps hard versus using pedals will dig Alnico 2.

Alnico 3 – Alnico 3 magnet material is used in both Gibson humbucker type designs and Fender Telecaster style pickups. Common in early Telecaster bridge pickups, Alnico 3 has good attack qualities, and a clear high end that some would describe as “grainy” and complex. In humbucker pickups, they create a nice balance of warmth, bite and clarity. This is the material used in the Arcane Triple Clone, which is modeled after the 1960 Gibson PAF. Tighter sounding than Alnico 2 pickups, lead tones are crunchy and pleasantly tight, and don’t get overly mushy in the neck position. A nice pick for both rich complex cleans and medium gain rock.

Alnico 4 – Not as common as the other more traditional materials, Alnico 4 is used by few pickup winders such as David Allen, Bare Knuckles, and Mojotone. The opinion is that Alnico 4 combines the warm feel of  Alnico 2 but with better attack and note definition. We really like the tone and pick response of the David Allen P-51 humbucker, which is an Alnico 4 pickup.

Alnico 5 – Likely the most popular magnet material, Alnico 5 shows up in both humbucking and single coils designs; Strats, Teles, and P-90’s. Alnico 5 pickups are characterized by strong output, clear tone, and punchy attack. This all sounds pretty good, and just about every conventionally constructed Stratocaster pickup uses Alnico 5. Some of most popular humbuckers use Alnico 5 including many Seymour Duncan models including the SH-1, JB,  and just about every Rio Grande pickup. Compared to Alnico 3 they may lack a little sonic complexity, but for those about to rock, Alnico 5 is a very good choice.

The Wrap – As they like to say in commercials, “your results may vary.” Your own experience with your own guitar will be the best teacher. Fortunately, pickups are neither very expensive, or hard to install. So do a little testing of your own and see you what you think. You can always drop me a line at


Checking out the Arcane Special “42” Tele Neck Pickup

A long time ago my brother Gordon had a Telecaster. It was his first really good guitar. It was blond and had a rosewood fingerboard ($270 at the Music Machine in Norwalk CT in 1977 – Gordon).   For Christmas one year I bought him a pickup to replace the stock neck pickup. I wasn’t really up on what was current then gear wise and the aftermarket pickup business was in its infancy. This was the ‘70s and even Seymour Duncan mailed a Xerox copy of something he had typed when you called and asked for a catalogue.

I bought him a Velvet Hammer Strat neck pickup. I was probably told by the shop that sold it to me that it would fit with a little work. Of course it did and I’m sure that by Christmas day afternoon were were hacking away to make it fit. While memory isn’t always spot-on, I do remember how good it sounded.

It had that glassy clear liquid Fender sound. We had no Black or Silverface amps, not even a Fender but the sound, that sound was there. The Tele sure didn’t sound like before we installed the Velvet Hammer. Years later I had a Strat and I also installed a Velvet Hammer into the neck position of that.   That sound has stuck with me.   I love a good neck pickup more than any other position on a Strat or a Tele.

The Rio Tallboy has a taller bobbin and uses longer magnets.
The Rio Tallboy has a taller bobbin and uses longer magnets.

Travel ahead 30+ years and now I have a Tele I built up from parts.   I used UpfrontGuitars to source the Emerson pots/caps, the Rio Grande Vintage Tall pickup set and a few other items.

At first figured I’d be swapping pickups after I got the guitar sorted but in fact the Rio Grande’s are very, very good and have held steady for nearly two years now.   I don’t know why I should have been surprised how good they are. They aren’t a “big name” brand and unknown to me at the time.   The bridge is nice and thick with no Cowboy twang that dominates the tone. I can make it bright but I can also make it grind.   Through my 5E3 clone I can get a great clang and clear tone with that great Tweed grizzle on top.

I also like the neck pickup very much. Not a muddy Tele tone as I’ve found on some Fender Tele’s. It has a good true Fender tone.   But I had to change it.   Why?   Because Gordon told me about this Arcane “42” Tele neck pickup that brought that clear glassy Strat feel to a Tele. So I had to try it right?

Well I’m pretty sure this pickup will stay in my “Swan-o-caster”.   Wow. The note separation even within that Tweed gritty envelope is superb. All those adjectives, piano like on the wound strings, clarity, brilliance etc., apply here.   This is classic Fender Strat tone. David Gilmour comes to mind; Mark Knofler and John Mayer to name a few. With chords or single notes there is that honest true Strat sound, the Fender sound.

Where the Rio would get a little blocked up when turned full up the “42” doesn’t. The “42” stays more articulate. Either pickup sounds fantastic turned down as honestly most pickups do.   The “42” can get a me a great scooped almost cocked wah tone when I dial the guitar tone done to maybe 7 and then play up around the 12-16th frets. There is also a kind of Robin Trower sound played this way. The solo from the Stones “Can’t You Hear me Knockin” comes to mind. Just all those iconic Strat tones leaping from my Tele has me very pleased.   I got just the sound I wanted while jamming along in my head to “Like a Rolling Stone” as in Hendrixs’ version from Monterey Pop.   Even without any Blackface kind of amp I can get that “clang”, the percussive strike of a Strat.

The ‘42” gets its tone from being a 5.75k wind vs. the 7.17k wind of the Rio. The Rio has longer magnets that protrude beyond the baseplate. So really once again it shows that outright turns of wire “X” and magnet strength and length make a real world difference. That 5.75k wind of the “42” is pretty low these days. Fine by me. I’d rather hear a pickup amplify the sound of a guitar than just sound like pickup.

So there you go, just another view of one piece of gear vs. another. I’m pretty sure I’ll try an Arcane in the bridge at some point. Toss up between the ’50 and the ’51 Experience.   Stay tuned.

– Neil Swanson

Sounds Clips of Andrews A-22 Amp using our Dan Neafsey DGN Tele

Here are some quick sound clips of the Andrews A-22 20 watt EL-34 amplifier. We demo’d this amp using our DGN (Dan Neafsey) Tele. Dan’s Tele has his own hand-wound P-90 and a Rio Grande 60’s Tallboy bridge pickup. Both the amp and Tele are really nice pieces.

Recording details. Nothing real fancy here:

  • Apple Pro Logic
  • Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 firewire interface
  • Andrews A-22 amplifier
  • DGN Tele
  • Shure SM-57
  • Evidence Audio guitar cable
  • Apple plug-in for a little reverb
  • Waves V-Comp plug-in for compression and EQ

DGN Clean Neck

DGN Dirty Neck

DGN Clean Bridge

DGN Dirty Bridge

For more sound options from Upfront Guitars: