Hello, and welcome back to “Mod Garage”
for our last installment on tone caps for
Stratocasters. I’ll also take a moment to finish the story about how our obscure tone
cap turned out.
After receiving the Orange Drop cap back from
the lab, I replaced it with an NOS Sprague
“high-voltage” ceramic cap from the ‘60s to
get the Strat as close as possible to stock ‘60s
specs. Our customer was happy, and he’s still
playing the guitar as his number one axe. I kept
the Orange Drop cap for further testing and as
a souvenir of a lesson learned.
Unfortunately, situations like this—when
something is working, but nobody can tell
you why—really bother me. We had traced a
problem and found a workaround, but that’s an
unpleasant situation. So I decided to dip deeper into the obscure world of film and foil caps.
Let’s resume: we have a 100-volt Orange
Drop film and foil cap, formerly made by
Sprague, today built by SBE with the original
Sprague machines and toolings. These caps
are produced by taking a long narrow strip
of insulating material and placing a strip of
metal foil on both sides of it. The two pieces
of foil become the plates of the capacitor,
and the insulator the dielectric. This long
strip is then wound into a cylindrical shape,
two metal leads are attached to the two foils,
and the entire construction is potted and
sealed in some type of material designed
to keep moisture out of the capacitor and
to keep the capacitor mechanically stable.
Since the capacitor is wound into a cylindrical
shape, one of the foil sides is on the outside
(referred to as the “outside foil” end), and
the other on the inside (“inside foil” end).
Standard film and foil caps don’t have a
certain orientation like electrolytic caps, so,
in theory, the way they are installed inside a
guitar should not make any difference in tone.
So why is this important when it doesn’t make
a difference, tonally? Well, the outer-foil side
can be used as a shield against electric field
coupling into the capacitor—very important
for tube amps. In order to take advantage of
the shielding properties of the outside foil, the
cap must be connected in the circuit in a particular orientation, which is the low impedance
side of the amp circuit.
In a passive guitar circuit, there is no low-impedance side because we use the tone cap
as a bypass cap to ground, so the outside foil
should be connected to the grounded side in
this case. The outside foil will act as a shield
against electric field coupling into the capacitor,
so you want it to have the lowest impedance
return path to ground. With this rule in mind
and all the caps connected this way, a tube amp
will be much less susceptible to interference
from fluorescent lighting and hum, oscillations
or frequency-response peaks due to unwanted
feedback from nearby signals within the amp.
So, I started to reverse the tone caps inside
different guitars, and to my surprise, I discovered the following:
In some guitars, the same cap makes a
noticeable difference if you reverse it, and
in other guitars not—heaven knows why!
Stratocasters seem to be most responsive to
this, followed by Telecasters and Les Pauls.
- Because of their construction, single-layer
caps like ceramic or silver mica caps do not
have an outside foil, so reversing these caps
makes no difference. The same goes with
high-voltage film and foil caps.
So why is he talking about all this, you may ask?
I simply want to encourage you to keep your
ears open! If you have a good-sounding guitar
that has a bad amplified tone, try reversing the
tone cap(s) before you blame the pickups and
spend a lot of hard-earned bucks on a new set.
Unfortunately, identifying the outside foil end
of such caps isn’t always easy. Some caps
have a mark to indicate this side, but because
the procedure takes time, most manufacturers don’t mark their caps. To bust another
internet myth, I spoke with a SBE engineer
who had also worked for Sprague in the past.
He said that neither Sprague nor SBE marked
the outside foil on Orange Drop caps! (He did
say that there are plans to offer that option in
the future for custom production runs).
According to the same engineer, the banded
mark you can find on older Sprague Orange
Drop caps was related to the production process Sprague used at this time, whatever that
means. I crosschecked this with several old
Orange Drops and can confirm the banded
mark is not indicating the outside foil side.
So what if the cap is not marked? To find out
where the outside foil side is connected, you
will need some know-how and a good scope.
I don’t have the space to detail this testing
procedure, but if you are interested, please
send me an email. That said, since there are
only two terminals, you have a 50-50 chance
to get it right from the start.
The moral of this story? If you love to mod
your guitars and your guitar is loaded with
Orange Drops, Mallorys, Roedersteins, WIMAs
or similar caps, listen to the guitar’s amplified
tone, reverse the tone cap(s) and listen again.
Chances are that you will hear a noticeable
difference in tone, as long as you aren’t using
single-layer or high-voltage film and foil caps.
Who knows—maybe you will discover one
of your old guitars again, unplayed for years
because of a less-than-great amplified tone!
Next month we’ll return to Stratocaster
mods, and I will detail a very cool mod called
the “vintage coiled guitar cable simulator.”
Until then, keep on modding!
lives in Germany and has been addicted to
all kinds of guitars since the age of 5. He is fascinated by
anything related to old Fender guitars and amps. He plays
country, rockabilly, surf, and Nashville styles in two bands,
works regularly as a studio musician for a local studio,
and writes for several guitar mags. He is also a hardcore
DIY-er for guitars, amps, and stompboxes, and he runs an
—on the subject.