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January 15
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Cult Coils: Lesser-Known Vintage Pickups

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Photo courtesy of Curtis Novak

Gretsch Hilo’Tron

If you love twangy surf and rockabilly, Gretsch’s Hilo’Tron may be the pickup of your dreams.

Gretsch introduced their iconic Filter’Tron “Electronic Guitar Head” (as in tape recorder head) at the 1957 summer NAMM show in Chicago. Gretsch migrated from the DeArmond single-coil they’d been using to their own version of the Chet Atkins-inspired, Ray Butts-designed Filter’Tron. Like Gibson’s newfangled humbucker, it derived its name from the fact that it filtered out electronic hum, and like Gibson’s pickup, it relied on a double-coil design. The Filter’Tron put Gretsch in the pickup-making business, at least for use in their own guitars, and to this day, the Filter’Tron is Gretsch’s best-known pickup.

But the company also developed their own single-coil pickup, the Hilo’Tron, which appeared in less expensive Gretsch models such as the Tennessean and Anniversary.The Hilo’Tron was designed to make efficient use of parts that Gretsch already had in stock. Essentially, it’s half of a Filter’Tron, with one coil instead of two. The magnet that lies beneath the dual coils in the Filter’Tron is instead mounted to an angled steel plate that houses the coil and six pole piece screws. On the other side of the bar magnet is a vertical steel blade (or magnet keeper).

“Properly adjusted and running through a Marshall with a gain pedal, Hilo’Trons are amazing.”
—Tom “TV” Jones

The Hilo’Tron is wound with thinner magnet wire than the Filter’Tron. Hilo’Trons from the 1960s typically have DC resistance from 2.9k to 3.4k. The pickup also has a lower profile relative to the Filter’Tron because of its side-mounted magnet. This permitted surface mounting on Gretsch’s archtops.

Hilo’Trons have a reputation for sounding thin, and many guitarists have dismissed them as less desirable second cousins of the Filter’Tron. But hold on there, cowboy—when did twang go out of style? In fact, Gretsch pickup guru Tom “TV” Jones cites the Hilo’Tron as one of his favorite pickups. He suggests that if you’ve had a bad experience with one, it probably wasn’t properly adjusted. Jones’s advice is to not raise the individual pole pieces too high, but keep them just above the level of the pickup’s plastic top, arranged in a slight arch that mirrors the fretboard’s radius. The poles pieces beneath the wound strings should be slightly higher than those beneath the plain strings. Once those adjustments are made, jack up the pickup with rubber or foam underneath, bringing the entire assembly closer to the strings. (Jones recommends the same technique for Filter’Trons.)

Curtis Novak compares the Hilo’Tron’s underlying plate to an earthquake on rocky ground: “The whole earth just shakes.” With the coil sitting on a big steel plate, it gets excited from multiple directions. Also, as Seymour Duncan notes, Gretsch players have a tendency to use relatively heavy-gauge strings, adding to this electromagnetic excitement.


Photo courtesy of Tim Mullally of Dave's Guitar Shop.

Hilo’Trons have always had fans, and they are regularly “rediscovered” as great-sounding single-coils. They have a strong Beatles association thanks to George Harrison’s Gretsch Tennessean, but they’re also nice for now. As Tom “TV” Jones notes, “Properly adjusted and running through a Marshall with a gain pedal, Hilo’Trons are amazing.”

Comparing a Hilo’Tron to a Strat single-coil reveals many differences. The Strat’s cylindrical magnets create a clear, defined tone. Hilo'Trons, with their thinner magnet wire, bar magnet, internal steel, and steel set screws, are softer in the highs, with a wonderfully clanky ’60s-style resonance.

The Hilo’Tron is popular enough for TV Jones to make reproductions. His bridge version has wider pole-to-pole spacing to accommodate the slightly wider string spacing near the bridge. Neck pickups are wound to stock vintage specs, with 3.4k DC resistance, while bridge pickups are wound to a hotter 4.3k for better balance. Multiple mounting options are available.

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