Way back when… and I mean way back when, I was working in a guitar shop and it was right about the time that the concept of the Superstrat REALLY took off. It was the early 90’s and affordable guitars that allegedly bridged the gap between a Strat and a Les Paul were just about everywhere.
Every month I opened up Guitarist magazine be treated to the latest advert from companies like Washburn, Jackson, Ibanez, Charvel and countless others stating that the perfect gigging guitar was available to you. People wanted the power and the balls of a Les Paul (remember, this was before high gain amps were readily available, so you had to push a tube amp to get it to clip in that perfect way) and they also wanted the option to get that bitey, cutting through tone of a Strat/Tele.
Every advert contained the words of either “Coil Tap” or “Split Coil” Humbuckers to give you the best of both worlds. The trouble is, none of them were ever convincing, they always did the HB sounds well, but the SC tones were always kinda meh.
One of the things that became evident to me is that those two features became a solid marketing point for guitars, and guitarists appeared to buy into it without ever really knowing what makes a Humbucker sound the way it does, or why a single coil sounds the way it does, and why it’s virtually impossible for any player to get the sound of both convincingly from their guitars. In fact, there are SO many issues involved in this that I think I can safely say it’s not virtually impossible, it is impossible.
Let’s look at what makes these things react the way they do.
This is not a one size fits all description and all the names associated with them are used interchangeably. I won’t go into that, but instead we shall concentrate on the pickup developed by Seth Lover, for Gibson, called the PAF. PAF means “patent applied for” and now appears to be one of the generic names for a HB pickup, the irony of that is delicious! Now, a PAF style pickup has two magnets (sitting with opposite polarity) that are wound individually. As the magnets were of opposite polarity it cancelled out the hum, it bucked it completely, therefor giving the name we enjoy today. The generic Humbucker.
This is probably the most common of all the switching types, using a four wire system from the pickup, the switch completely turns off one of the coils therefor giving you a ‘single coil’. This, in theory, appears to be a ‘pick yourself up and dust yourself down Son, job done” moment but as we all know, the first thing that happens is that you get a drastic drop in level (as well as the return of the hum) and it always sounds kinda disappointing.
This does not just apply to HB style pickups, it can apply to single coil as well. Basically, what this does is offer an alternate ‘out’ point from the winding, cutting out some of the coil therefor reducing the power coming out of the pickup – because the more winds a pickup has, the higher the output it has. This, in practice, and rather obviously, only serves to reduce the output of the pickup and doesn’t offer any effective change tonally.
The best way to distinguish these two is like this.
Coil Split - Removing 'one half' of a double pickup.
Coil Tap – Reducing the output of a pickup.
The real issue when thinking about these, for me, is that I was completely hooked by the concept of “Yay, I can have a strat and a Les Paul, all I have to do is flick a switch” and all I was left with each time was a feeling of disappointment. Even today, my main gig guitar is a PRS Brent Mason signature that has the ability to tap each HB independently. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to a really convincing SC sound out of a HB sized pickup, amazingly, there is no level drop between the two either, the SC is just a ‘loud’ as the HB. I don’t know how they did this, but I like it. However, when I pick up a Strat or a tele that little bit of spank you get from a great SC guitar is just that little bit more prominent, that extra little something that is worth it’s weight in gold.
The most important thing to remember is that tele and Strat pickups are NOT the same. A tele pickup is generally bigger, allow for more winds around a wider coil that a Strat. This increases the output and because the pickup is general mounted on a plate (often brass), giving the whole thing more output, or as I like to call it, balls. This will come from all of the above also gives it a little more high and a little more low end (partly because the pick up is at a slightly more severe angle), so when running into a decent tube amp, it’ll clip quicker giving it the reputation of being a more powerful system. So, any guitar advert that tries to tell you it can do humbucker, and sound like a Strat and a tele is really making an outrageous statement that it probably can’t live up to. Because not only are the pickups are constructed differently enough to cause tonal differences, you then have to take into consider that the neck pickup on a tele is completely different again from the bridge which is then completely different from a neck pickup on a Strat… then you go into the wood within the guitars, the amount of wood, the bridge style and you get more and more distinctions.
Can a guitar ever truly sound like a Les Paul, a Strat and a Telecaster just by flicking a switch?
This week I want to tell you about a piece of gear I first played nearly a year ago. I’ve been sitting on this piece for a while, as I wanted to wait until it was released, and it just has.
The company is called Synergy Amps and I’m a fan. And before you start to think cynically, I’m not employed by them!
As always, there’s a story attached to this for context, so I’ll get that out of the way first. When at NAMM I suffer horrifically from jetlag. As Cali is 8 hours behind the UK my sleep patterns are destroyed and I literally get about 4 hours of sleep per night, I’m not there for long enough to try to force it around with sleeping tablets, so I just live with it. The best thing about this is that I’m up at the crack of doom and generally get to the show each morning LONG before the doors are open. I usually take this time to do a line check on the rig and make sure everything is in place before the people attend the show, start attending.
One morning I was there so early the only people on the booth complex we are part of, the wider Boutique Amp Distribution booth, were myself, Bruce Egnator, Groover Jackson and my buddy Steve Elowe. Now, Bruce and Groover being there isn’t integral to this, but I just wanted to make you all sound the name drop horn in your heads – it still freaks me out that these guys are just milling around to talk too, a real pinch yourself moment! The Wampler rig was fine so I wandered off to see Steve who was sat at a computer, with guitar in hand, rocking hard. He was also gently cussing under his breath about latency issues, so I offered to help. He got me to play while he did something to the computer.
I was playing through the new Synergy Amps rig.
At first I just played enjoying the tones, then he started to press buttons and all these different sounds were appearing, so I was playing different stuff on the fly as the sounds were so radically different. He then stood up and said “That’s better”. The computer was now behaving how it should so we had some time to play with the Synergy rig.
Let me fill you in on what this thing is. Basically, Synergy is a modular system that has ports which allows you to add various modules that sound and behave like the amps they are based upon. You buy the dock, a single or double module unit, and then load the amp module in. The docks are 12AX7 driven with a ton of different out options. There is a straight “preamp out” and an emulated out to go into your PA/desk/DAW - I was initially playing through the preamp out to a power amp, but once Steve had sorted the latency on the computer he pushed it over to the emulated out. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, I had an incredibly authentic Soldano SLO100 tone coming straight from the studio monitors that sounded EXACTLY the same as the preamp out, and from what I can remember about playing an SLO (which I have played through a lot) exactly the same as the amp – not only tonally, but in respect of response. The way it responded to my picking dynamics, the volume pot and the gain… man… the gain...
At that point he started to show me the differing modules, which could be changed in a matter of seconds. One minute I was ripping through the SLO, and then quickly through a Friedman BE which was just roaring, then back into a TDLX which had the kind of clean tones you’d expect from a blackfaced, or tweed finished amp, then a Morgan AC that was SO glassy… and then… and then…. and then...
After I’d played it for seemed like 5 seconds, which in reality was almost ¾ of an hour, I was left thinking about the practical uses of this system and where it sits in the market place. The first thing that got me, other than the tone that was coming from it, was the ease of use and how practical it can be in any set up. In a way, it was like having a modelling system but without the endless sub menu’s and degree in computer science to work it, or let’s face it, if you are anything like me, tons and tons of stuff that you would just never, ever use. This I think is where this product is going to sit, right in the place where people want a ton of options, but only the specific ones they require, and something that has real tubes, real knobs and real tone. You can literally have a mountain of boutique amps available, at a fraction of the cost and using a fraction of the room, just ‘there’.
The trouble I’ve always had with the modelling stuff, apart from ‘that’ reaction (which let’s face it, that gap is being bridged all the time), is that you generally have to get rid of your original amp set up and get a full range amp/speaker to go with it. You don’t get the best results from those things going into your amp, they still sound great, but they work best when everything is modelled and you are going direct. Then, they sound incredible. The beauty of the Synergy system is that it can be run direct within the loop of your favourite amp, giving you multiple new channels to play with. For many players, those that don’t want the computery stuff and love their rig already, this HAS to be the best thing, well - as we say over here, since sliced bread. Also it works flawlessly direct into your DAW, or PA, it has a great FX loop (so you can run your favourite effects in there, the ones that were originally in the loop of your amp if you used it that way)… I’m not sure who is behind this system, but I doff my cap in their general direction.
From looking at the website, I can see that the docks are $499 for the single and $799 for the double, there is also all tube heads available and a power amp. The modules are $399. So, let’s look at a boutique level amp, which I’m guessing you will all agree tends to be around $2k to buy and generally only give you the sound associated with that amp, you get what you get and nothing else. So, consider this, If you have a great amp you can buy the dock and 2 modules for ¾ of the price of a new and different sounding head, and then keep adding to it for $399, you will start to build up an amp collection that is worthy of Joe Bonamassa. Then think that these modules are small enough to get two into a single 19” rack unit. Even if you have 8 modules and the Syn2 (double port dock) it comes to less than 2 full boutique level amps. That’s 8 amps for the price of two. Once you have the dock, the modules are so cheap GAS will be screaming for new ones all the time.
I don’t get excited about new technology products very often mainly because I like tubes, knobs and instantly available tone and most of the time these days, all those things appear to be missing in new innovative technology. New gear concepts these days usually consists of “sitting down with a manual the size of a novel and 3 hours just to get the amp tone you want that’s hidden in the middle of other stuff that appears to have no practical musical use to anyone”.
I want one.