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Friday, 11 January 2013

Gertcha! (you cowson!)

I don’t really know why, but the great sound of Gretsch pickups seems to have passed me by. I remember sitting and listening to the electronics expert Ron Fairweather at the music shop where I worked in the seventies. He had some big Gretsch semi acoustic and it sounded wonderful. But then I went out and bought a Telecaster and the die was cast! 
Well, till now that is. A customer asked me if I could come up with a classic Gretsch FilterTron sort of sound, in a standard humbucker package. Well could I?
The FilterTron sound comes from firstly it’s very low power, for a humbucker at least. With a fifties Gibson PAF humbucker the DC resistance was anywhere between 7k and 9k. With a fifties Filtertron the resistance barely crept up to 5k … less than the majority of single coil pickups!
The FilterTron was a design cooperation between   Ray Butts and Chet Atkins, largely because Atkins didn’t like Gretsch’s  single coil pickups at the time. In fact Butts may well have been the inventor of the humbucker rather than Seth Lover of Gibson … it’s just that Lover got to the patent office first! Anyhow, tiny, low wound coils with a huge alnico 5 magnets give the FilterTron its trademark open twangy growl.
My first step was to measure up a FilterTron and see how I was going to fit the essentials of a tall narrow pickup into a case designed for a PAF … a wide, squat one! The Gretsch pickup is around ¾ of an inch tall … whereas a vintage nickel PAF cover is  only 7/8! One bit of good news was that though much narrower, the Gretsch bobbins were around the same length as standard F spaced Gibson style bobbin, and near enough the same height. This coupled with the fact that though the Gretsch pickup was much narrower than the Gibson, the bobbins were no more than 1.6mm closer together. This would mean that I could use standard Gibbo style bobbins without cutting them down and not really change the sound to an appreciable degree.
My next problem was the magnet. The fifties magnets were huge tombstones ¼ of an inch thick … compared with the 1/8th inch thick PAF magnets! Their power helped to compensate for the coils low output … and the alnico 5 helped to add snap and bite. Recent re-issues have used ceramic magnets, but I’m not a fan of the grainy top you can get with that, so I devised a special ‘Siamese’ magnet assembly that utilises two alnico 5 magnets to take the place of the one in the original. These pickups will (shortly) go into full production … so I have persuaded my magnet suppliers to make vintage sized magnet for future editions of this pickup!
With two low output bobbins wound (both screw coils like the original Gretsch) and a magnet assembly sorted I then found I didn’t have long enough baseplate screws to hold it all together! Oh well, masking tape, double sided tape and cardboard packing got a rough prototype sitting in the guts of the ‘pink terror’ Strat.

Here are a couple of rough and ready MP3s to show what we have (direct into Reaper with just a little slap back echo on the second one
MP3 2
Result!  The sound was pretty close to what I’d expected: bright, woody with brilliant string definition and an almost single coil character. Twangy and thinner than a conventional humbucker it has lots of attack and a particular ‘stringy’ quality that with overdrive (my trusty TS808 clone) turned into quite a roar.
What’s to do now? Well the pole pieces need changed for some nice nickel plated ones instead of the trashy gold plated ones I have in there as place holders.  Some longer screws need to be sourced to hold the whole shooting match together … oh and some chunky maple spacers will need to be made, pretty much double the size of normal humbucker ones.
I’ve trial fitted a nickel cover and luckily the ‘lip’ of the baseplate gives just enough height for a cover to be fitted … phew! Not sure if the pickup will be potted that’ll be up to the customer, but unspotted this pickup has a lovely delicate tone … it almost seems a shame …
Oh I should point out that my products are in no way associated with Gretsch or the FilterTron trademarks.
Stay tuned for part two!