Taking the Stratocaster to new highs
Vintage Sound without obsolete compromises
last update: Aug 2, 2011

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Guitars have pre-war wiring standards and signal preservation measures
Suggested Reading
Gear Voodoo - Play like your idol by obtaining the same gear?
Maximizing what is there - Removing all tone-killing elements
Adding a Buffer
Changing Pickups
Armstrong Switching
Sound Samples
Adding a Baseplate

Parts of this article were submitted to harmony-central as user review.

Guitars have pre-war wiring standards and signal preservation measures

Good quality guitars are expensive products. Compare this to buying a piece of high quality Hi-Fi equipment. You can expect that the constructors have done their homeworks as far as electrics go. But even if you by a low-priced Mid-Fi piece of equipment, say, a portable CD-player for 30 bucks, you can safely expect that its electrical side follows some sensible rules of immunity against external electrical fields and signal preservation.

Yet exactly most of those high-priced guitars do just the opposite: they are miserably screened, they have pre-war signal and ground layout, and they generally leave a lot of space for improvement as far as signal quality goes.

You may have gotten away with that when Elvis rocked his hips, where everything was low-gain, but times have changed, and many companies have not woken up to this - and indeed - not many customers.

Keeping a "vintage" guitar as stock as possible in this respect is akin to worshiping the strings, that were on the guitar when it was produced 40 years back.

If you are one of those, this is not for you.
If you want to wring the utmost performance out of your Strat (or even other guitar), read on.
If you ever planned to upgrade your pickups to some allegedly better pickup, read on.

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Suggested Reading

Instead of a list of links, which do frequently expire, I recommend you search the web for articles on items I just touch upon.

GuitarNuts: For screening, look up the GuitarNuts site. It´s their instructions that I followed and those are making a lot of sense.
Ray Marston wrote a series on FET buffers. Some pdf´s around. But there is plenty of articles out there. Any of them would do.
GuitarLetters, Helmuth Lemme: On pickups, their behavior and improvement, look up the sites of GuitarLetters and Helmuth Lemme (in German only, they are not affiliated). Those authors provide a sound insight on pickups - and half the truth (see later on).
Dan Armstrongs "Superstrat": If you are interested in trying the Dan Armstrongs "Superstrat" switching, look for this.
There was an article in Guitar player years ago, and pdf copies and other, better depictions are available.

Replacement Pickup manufacturers: Finally, find a site that offers replacement pickups suiting your taste and your purse - if you find you still want some  after becoming a convert.

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Gear Voodoo - Play like your idol by obtaining the same gear?

With the stock guitar sound I was not satisfied. It sounded amateur-like, no matter what technical measures I employed.
In retrospect, fully understandable - if your basics are not right from the start. That´s when I began looking for replacement pickups, reading reviews, reading everything that was written on guitar pickups.

I was trying to invoke that vintage tone, such as Jimi had it. But what is the recipe for that vintage tone?
We musicians like to indulge in  some gear voodoo, failing to see that at least 50 percent of tone is in the hands. We all know that, but we all neglect that. For example, we think Jimi is Stratocaster, Fuzz Face, Marshall or similar. To shatter that myth, Jimi probably could have played any song over a cigar box with strings and still have sounded like Jimi, while we aficionados have to play Jimi´s songs and use his "official" gear to make us vaguely sound like him. Make sure you read "Get That Tone: Are You Experienced era Jimi Hendrix" on the Gibson site. So much for "vintage sound".
But sure a little bit is gear and that typical sound we know (and I like) stems from using single coils as they were made back then.

When I realized, that there is vast space for improvement, I decided that I wanted to remove all possible sources of sound degradation on my guitar before abandoning the stock pickups. Being an electronics head, improving things by doing them technically correct is second nature to me anyways.

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Maximizing what is there - Removing all tone-killing elements

First, I screened the guitar according to the above mentioned instructions. Note, that this alone does shift the tonal characteristics of the pickups (it tightens mid-range and lows) apart from the quietening effect. Although being of non-ferrous nature, the metal "housing" changes the pickup´s behavior. Search the web for "baseplate" articles. I used thin copper foil, a bit thicker than commercial household aluminium foil. Self-adhesive tapes were available, but too expensive. Aluminium foil would work, but cannot be soldered.

I also changed the wiring layout to star-earthing as recommended. This is totally sane for low-signal circuitry. The same applies to creating a separate ground-potential for the screening via capacitor. The guitar really is very quiet now.

I have, by the way, done the same treatment to a Les Paul type guitar, with mixed results. The already a bit bass-heavy guitar (as typical for humbuckers) has become more dense in the bass, which further increased my dislike of such guitars. If you plan to modify a humbucker guitar, I suggest you exclude the pickup cavities when screening. Those pickups themselves are inherently very little prone to pick up noise. All other cavities, such as toggle switch, electronics compartment and plug hole can be covered no problem. Also, all signal routing and grounding measures do apply.

Since the stock pickup selector switch allows only for a fraction of all possible pickup combinations, it got eliminated mercilessly in favor of the Dan Armstrong "SuperStrat" switching with 3 toggle switches, which allows ultimate (and in my eyes, very useful) control over the pickups. You may lose the stock vintage look, but who cares. I want to play a versatile and good-sounding guitar, not a treasured but horrible sounding relic. But this is a matter of taste, other readers might prefer other options if at all.

The 250k log volume pot got replaced by a 500k log pot, which means less loading of the pickup(s).

In line with those measures, I dropped the stock (and useless) tone pots in favor of two rotary switches. One selects between 5 different small capacitors in the magnitude of a long cable´s capacitance to go in parallel to the pickup(s).
This, together with an output buffer, creates humps on the frequency spectrum of the pickups, sounding not dissimilar to a wah-wah pedal set halfway back. Very interesting tone, and due to the smallness of the caps not necessarily noticed as treble cut. Look up Lemme and GuitarLetters on this subject.

The second rotary switch puts several small caps in the same range in series with the signal, providing an effective bass-cut together with a given output impedance.  This is very useful on some pickup combinations, especially when you want your fuzz less buzzy. Note, this does not work (well) with stock fuzz faces due to the wrong impedance it sees. You almost hear no signal when your guitar goes directly into the FF without the buffer. (In my 3rd generation fuzz face implementation, the Poker Face, this has been cured.)

All the above measures (apart from the pickup selector changes) are non-invasive, meaning your guitar still looks stock, although it surely does not sound stock any longer. The changes are phenomenal, yet hard to describe. The guitar sounds fuller, more precise, and - indeed - very quiet.

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Adding a Buffer

To make things perfect, I added a buffer to the output. The impedance mismatch on the output is responsible for the muffled sound when you turn your volume back. When the cable capacity comes gradually into play, tone loses in clarity and treble response gets diminished. Even a few meters of quality cables make a noticeable detriment.

diagram frequency over rotation
Fig. 1: Frequency [Hz] over rotational angle [%]. (click to enlarge)

The increasing source resistance (see chapter Anamnesis of environmental facts in my Poker Face article) forms a low-pass in conjunction with the cable capacitance (200 pF/m measured). Frequency is immediately dropping after the first few degrees of rotation, which is audible.

A top cut frequency of  5 kHz at 30% volume down may seem insignificant in the lights of a typical 12" speaker, which drops at the same frequency, but it is audible. Signal loses its sparkle und starts to sound dull and somewhat boomy.

Please consult the sound files.

A widespread hard and fast "solution" to that is a treble bleed capacitor over the volume pot. This works to an extent, but certainly interferes with any resonance we want to create by switching small capacitors in parallel with the pickup(s).

This has been explained at length on the abovementioned sources.

I decided not to put the buffer inside the guitar, which would be too clumsy. The buffer resides in a small box outside the guitar but close to the guitar jack and is attached to the guitar strap. Now this measure alone makes an improvement you would not believe. Friends have attested me that tone becomes more focussed, hard to describe verbally. This has been tried on all sorts of passive guitars. Listening to the sound files will make you sure.

And the best: the cost of a buffer is neglectible compared to the gain in sound quality.
Any buffer of reasonable input impedance of say, 1MOhm, would work well. The buffer type used in the Poker Face would do perfectly.

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Changing Pickups

To exclude any misunderstanding: my Strat´s tone was very pleasing by now. Full credit goes to the  GuitarLetter´s author and to Mr. Lemme for their explanations on pickup behavior within different environments.
I do not agree, nevertheless, with both of them on the impression they leave that any pickup can be made sounding to your likes. Agreed, a pickup may be made sounding pleasant with small measures, but it may not exactly fit a certain style.

So tone now was versatile, full and round, but maybe not exactly vintage. I looked around and quickly eliminated some of the big names who seem vastly overpriced. Some competitors remained in scope, namely Leosounds and David Barfuss Pickups. They have comparable price ranges and seem comparable in the product. I am sure there are others that fall into this category as well. Naturally, if those guys use the same materials and similar technique, the products can´t differ too much from each other. It is just a few ingredients they have to cook with, magnet type, orientation, staggering, wire length vs. diameter, maybe coating material, winding patterns, and the variations therein.
When it comes to mounting plate materials, it stresses my credulity whether this contributes to vintage sound or not.

I chose Leosounds, because David Barfuss did not make a set that seemed quite fitting my taste, although he offered to take the pickups back if I did not like them. I am convinced they would have done their thing equally well.

During installation, I cursed the cloth-covered stiff wire Mike Pantleon uses. I do not know if this material was used in the original, but it´s kind of cumbersome to work with and I attribute the selection thereof to vintage optics rather than vintage tone. But this is not detrimental to the product by any means of course. 

Having all the before mentioned provisions, I was not surprised that the first superficial sound tests did not yield too much new. During a few days of playing and going away again, of fiddling with the cap settings and pickup selection switches, of listening to Hendrix´ guitar tone, I find, that there is indeed a certain difference to the original pickups I would definitely call vintage tone. The original bar-magnet type pickups are more universally suited to guitar work, whereas the VP-66s are definitely inclined towards a certain tone usually associated with  Jimi Hendrix. They have a  portion of "growl", especially when you gradually increase parallel capacity by means of turning the rotary switch. Although this effectively creates a low-pass filter, the effect is vastly different to a standard tone-control, because

a) the capacity is much, much  smaller than the ones used in standard tone controls and
b) it forms a high-Q filter (resonance circuit) sounding  not dissimilar to a wah-wah pedal set half way back. Listen to the sound files on the bottom.

Also, the VP-66s have what everybody seems to call "the twang", which the originals did not have so pronounced.
Balance is good, you don´t notice loudness steps when switching between pickups.

I did in my strive for Jimi tone not go as far as some do, namely emulating a right handed guitar played left hand, i.e. with reversed pole piece setting. I am convinced, that this would be a step back in string balance. Hendrix reportedly used stock guitars and if pole piece staggering would have been a major ingredient of his signature sound we would know about it. I am not even sure, if the vintage staggering I have chosen on the the VP-66s (you can specify non-staggered as an option), contributes much to tone or rather throws the string´s volume balance to my dislike. Some strings seem to jump out in volume, but they did that before too.

As far as the benefit of upgrading pickups goes, it is hard to tell afterwards since the tonal changes to the upgrades were so sublte. Memory fades. What was needed was an A/B switch, but this is not possible. I am, nevertheless, totally satisfied with the VP-66s and for that price there is nothing lost. I doubt if anybody elses product would perform any different at a multiple of the price sometimes.

All in all, none of that will stop you from evoking your personal Jimi, but none of that (on its own) will probably evoke him either.

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Armstrong Switching

With the Dan Armstrong setting of course there are pickup combinations possible, which no manufacturer of single coils ever dreamt of. You can dial in parallel combinations that are not possible with the standard 5-way switch and also serial combinations, that are in effect serial humbuckers. Some settings allow for interesting serial / parallel combinations. Those combinations do profit very much of the bass-cut rotary switch. The VP-66 set perform very well in those positions, too.

Some people claim that this type of switching is too complicated for live situations. No it is not. There is some logic behind it and full credit goes to Mr. Armstrong for the sleepless nights he spent over developing it.
Any of the traditional settings are possible with the exception that you may have to toggle two switches rather than one to activate combinations of adjacent pickups, plus it enables combinations like "neck+bridge" (my favorite) or "neck+middle+bridge". There is no provision made for out-of-phase, if you are into that, but I bedoubt the usefulness thereof in the presence of a RWRP pickup (in which case the hum-cancellation effect would be defeated), letting alone the hollow sound that produces.

As with all systems, some favorite settings emerge naturally. I have seen suggestions of performance-oriented two-position switching systems, one combination for rhythm and one for lead, not dissimilar to what Les Paul type guitars have. The Armstrong switching method has something similar built into it. The bridge switch is (mechanically) different from the others in that it is an on-on-on switch with a middle position. Throwing it back towards "serial" will, independent of the other pickups selected, bring in the bridge in serial mode, which inevitably produces a volume step and a fatter (humbucker-like) tone. Vóila, there you have your lead-switch. Be sure to check the sound samples.

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Sound Samples

Like with all recordings, I hope you can hear the difference between the settings. I can clearly hear them when I play the guitar. I strongly suggest you listen with headphones. Recording volume has been kept constant to expose level changes during pickup switching (except maybe overdrive recordings).

The subsequent recordings have been done using the following setup:
  • Strat modified to abovementioned specifications
  • J-FET buffer directly after the guitar except where noted
  • Poker Face where indicated
  • Marshall JTM-45 emulation (Digitech RP-500) with EMT Plate reverb and 4x12 cab simulation
  • PC hard disk recording over a Turtle Beach Santa Cruz sound card.
(Names may be copyrighted by the associated copyright holder)

Clean Sounds - parallel (Stock strat sounds except pos. 6+7)

Note:  on the following recordings with pickups in parallel I start playing with all tone controls (resp. treble and bass cut controls) disabled. After a few strums you hear me dialling in some parallel capacity. This may not be perceived as treble cut, but rather as some nasal tone. Towards the end I add some bass cut.

Clean Sounds - series (Superstrat only)

Note:  on the following recordings with pickups in series I start off with a single pickup as above. Later I add a series pickup by flipping the on-on-on switch to series position. Towards the end I add bass cut.
No treble cut capacitor is engaged, since a series pickup combination yields a diminished treble response anyway (exactly what a humbucker does). The resulting sound is hotter and in the positions, where the middle is engaged, truly hum-cancelling. There is a small but noticeable volume step when changing to series, which is hard to capture on clips like that and probably gets swamped in the recording process.

Overdrive Sounds

The subsequent recordings have a treble cut capacitor engaged.

Buffer A/B comparison

The buffer´s tonal influence can clearly be heared in the following files. Note how tone loses its sparkle and transparency and generally gets duller and less defined. This is the neck pickup alone into a 6m cable. Volume is rolled back somewhat to make the effect noticeable (increasingly noticeable the more volume is rolled back). The device following has a 500k input impedance.
Also note a barely perceivable volume increase without the buffer. While it is true, that a simple buffer like that  has about 2% signal drop due to practical reasons, that loss will be swamped by the ear´s logarithmic characteristic. I attribute this volume step to intonation only.

More sound samples evaluating the Poker Face in the Pokerface article.
More sound samples on buffers in my article dedictated to buffers.

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Summarizing I must say, the endeavour was worth every hour. It took about half a day to quieten the guitar (the biggest chunk of work), and that is probably the reason why this is not done on a manufacturer´s base - too labour expensive. A shame for a product that is so high priced. The good news, you can do it yourself. The three-toggle mod consumed a few hours too. But be warned - once you play over such equipment, you are spoilt permanently and you never want to go back.

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Adding a Baseplate

Time goes by and so does the fixation to a certain music style. Country music is hot! But alas, the bridge pickup is too shrill. Buying a tele was not an option, getting a baseplate was. Since the guitar was already screened with copper foil (which had changed the tone to the better by the way), any more copper was of no use. I had plenty of transformer sheet material, the kind of stamped steel sheets that are used in building transformers, laying around the workshop which I cut down to size. Since this is only 0.5 mm thick, I glued three pieces together for a 1.5 mm base plate. I drilled two holes through this where the mounting screws go, glued a thin strip of duct tape over the magnets (to eliminate mechanical contact that could cause microphonics) and glued this in place. (Note that the iron base plate would hold in place by itself purely by the magnets, but would be microphonic as hell).

I was not disappointed. The bridge pickup has lost its ear piercing quality and gained some body and bottom - and loudness.
Sounds good even in combination with the other pickups, far better than before. Dig out those chicken pickin´ licks and get funkin´!

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Update History
  • Aug 2, 2011: baseplate
  • Nov 2, 2010: added flash mp3 player
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