A Brief History of Underrated Pickups

Thanks for reading the Guitar Sun, Sunfield Music Store’s weekly take on gear, music history, tone tips, and more.

At Sunfield, we take pride in producing instruments that keep the spirit of the electric guitar alive. For us, that means making high-quality instruments at prices accessible to gigging musicians and garage band virtuosos

In recent weeks, we’ve taken a look at some early history, exploring how the electric guitar emerged as a working man’s instrument with unprecedented versatility (check out Parts One and Two here). We’ve explored how different guitars became home to different musical personalities for Eric Clapton. We’ve also discussed how guitar-type doesn’t have to pigeonhole your sound. Last week, we examined some old-school pedal users.

Tales from the Isle of Lost Pickups

This week, we take a look at another angle of the “working man’s guitar:” pickups. Nothing is more fundamental to an electric guitar’s tone. Bridge, wood, string-gauge—all of those factors can matter, but they’re simply altering the margins of a tonal foundation that the pickups themselves dictate.

As such, we take pride in putting high-quality, style-correct pickups in our guitars. But we’re also keenly aware that our customers love to tinker. Part of the appeal of a guitar that’s priced based on supplies and labor (and not headstock prestige) is freedom to tinker. With hundreds of pickup manufacturers floating around, new players can pick out a beginner’s electric guitar these days with the knowledge that they’ll be able to tweak it to their heart’s content.

Today, we take a look at the history and tonal characteristics of some “underrated” pickups from guitar history. Everyone knows about chimey Strats, ballsy Teles, and throaty Gibson PAF’s and P-90’s. We’re taking a tour of some slightly lesser known classics.

Tone-o-Tron

The “Filtertron” pickups—synonymous with the prototypical Gretsch sound—may not count as underrated for fans of certain genres. This design is ubiquitous in rockabilly music, and AC/DC obsessives are well aware of the ‘Tron’s role in many classic Young tones.

In the late 50’s, Chet Atkins—a major technical innovator as well as all-time player—worked closely with his friend, inventor Ray Butts to come up with a solution for the 60-cycle hum that bedevils single-coil players to this day (Seth Lover of Gibson famously introduced the PAF around the same time; the PAF and ‘Tron were invented independently).

The design works on the same principle as the PAF: two reverse polarity magnets placed next to each other cancel out each other’s hum. But these magnet bars are placed far closer together than in Gibson style humbuckers (which most modern passive humbuckers are relatively similar to). This leaves Filtertrons with some chime that traditional humbucker lose, though at the expense of some low-mid girth.

Filtertron Pickup

Final trivia: on the original Gretsch version of this design, the pickup wires weren't even soldered to the pickup—simply clipped on.

If pressed, we’d describe the Filtertron’s tone as somewhere between Telecaster and humbucker. You can hear their famous chime on thousands of recordings, including early Beatles tracks like “Act Naturally:”

 

Golden-Tone?

Two early, 1950’s era manufacturers (Tesico and DeArmond) are associated with this style. The foil is not made of the metal gold, that’s simply the color. In fact, the namesake foil covers rubber bar magents—a thick version of what you’d find on your refrigerator.

While single-coil, gold foils use far fewer winds than, say, a Stratocaster pickup. Additionally, the pole-pieces are placed just offset from the magnet itself, allowing them to pick up more of the subtleties of string vibration, while losing some of the treble character of traditional single coils.

While it was originally employed in the “budget” guitars of its own era, the unique sound really works in a lot of musical contexts, and derivatives of this design are seeing a substantial comeback in recent years. They can be noisy, and have a reputation for microphonics, but provide low-fi, organic tone with a real vintage flavor. If I had to analogize their sound to a more well-known pickup, it might be traditional neck pickup of a Telecaster.

 

Super Supro’s?

Supro was a major name in guitar equipment back in the day, making popular guitars and amplifiers. Famous, among other things, for providing the drive tone on the album version of many Led Zeppelin classics, Supro amps are making a comeback today.

Vintage Supro-style pickups haven’t caught on quite as much.

The Valco Company made all sorts of budget guitar equipment in the mid-20th century, under many different brand names like “Airline” and “Supro.” The Duo-Tone was their flagship Supro model:

Supro Guitar

Those pickups look like humbuckers, but they’re not. They’re called Vista-Tones. Like gold-foils, the pole pieces are offset from the magnet, attempting to catch a broader section of the string’s vibrations. Early versions were certainly built on a budget—even utilizing cardboard bobbins. Pumping out a tone somewhere in between a P-90 and Fender-style single coil, the Supro pickup occupies a unique place on the tonal spectrum.

 

Keep checking the Sunfield Sun as we keep working to keep the spirit of the electric guitar alive. Let us know if there some other rare or unknown pickup styles that deserve greater recognition!