CoffeeAndKlon #17: Fretboards And Tonewood

This conversation was originally posted to my Twitter feed.

Good morning! Hope you’re having a great weekend. And, if you’re that way inclined, that you’re starting your Sunday with a great cup of coffee.

This week has been all about pickups for me. Because the new pickups for the Vintage Lemon Drop arrived 🙂 I dropped everything off at my local guitar shop on Thursday, and I imagine it won’t be too long before I get the guitar back to play with.

I have a theory as to how it might go. I’m excited to see whether or not it holds up to the test. To explain the theory, I need to provide a bit of context …

Low Output Pickups Bring Out The Guitar’s Character

With Les Pauls and equivalent, I have a strong preference for vintage-voiced, low output pickups. These are often described as PAF or PAF-like pickups on forums – the legendary pickups found in original 58/59/60s Les Pauls.

I also don’t use much gain. Why? Go and really listen to the guitars on Appetite For Destruction – the greatest rock album ever made. There’s a LOT less gain on those rhythm guitars than you might have realised.

Why’s that important? Throw hot pickups on a guitar, and throw enough gain in the signal chain, and the individual character of the guitar can completely disappear. As Pete Cottrell shows in this video:

So, low output, vintage-voiced pickups into a low-gain signal chain … that’s the situation where the interaction between guitar and electronics is the most noticeable. Electronics. That means the pots and caps too, not just the pickups alone. I’ll come back to that 🙂

Given all that, my theory is that a pickup swap cannot radically change a guitar’s tone. Better pickups simply bring out more of the guitar’s character. They can tame aspects, and emphasise aspects, but fundamentally they’re amplifying, not creating.

They also do very important things like affect compression, string separation, pick dynamics, feedback characteristics, and more. For today, I want to stick with tone characteristics.

Does It … Bark?

In particular, I’m interested in finding out what the mid-range will be like after the pickup swap. That’s where the stock Vintage Lemon Drop differs from a Gibson Les Paul, tone-wise. Am I going to get that Les Paul bark at last?

My suspicion is that I won’t.

That fretboard? It might look like rosewood, but I’m not 100% sure that it is. I’ve checked the Vintage Guitars website this morning. They don’t say what it is at all.

Any Les Paul Custom owner who’s rocking PAF-like pickups in it knows that you get a great sound, just not the classic bark of a Les Paul Standard or 59 RI. The only meaningful difference? The fretboard wood.

Of course, this experiment may be inconclusive. PAF-like pickups can be amazing in one guitar, and sound dreadful in the next. All because of that interaction I mentioned earlier. And, as Joe Bonamassa once pointed out, the pots are a big part of that.

I don’t plan on changing the pots in the Lemon Drop. Once I’ve finished this experiment, I am going to put the guitar back to being 100% stock. It’s going to become the baseline that I compare all the other #PlayAlternative guitars against.

How Good Are The Wilkinson Pickups?

But before I do … anyone interested in what happens if we put the pickups from the Lemon Drop into a Gibson Les Paul 1959 Historic Reissue?

Seems a great way to hear these pickups at their very best 🙂

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