Photo courtesy of Curtis Novak.
Teisco “Gold Foils”There’s a chance that some of you older players haven’t tried a set of gold foil pickups since the Eisenhower administration. It’s well worth giving them another listen.
Two original manufacturers are associated with pickups nicknamed “gold foils”: Teisco and DeArmond. Both types have followings, though the pickups differ in construction and sound. Here we focus on the Teisco version.
Something interesting happens when you start to write an article on lesser known pickups: Ry Cooder’s name comes up a lot, as does his “Coodercaster,” a Stratocaster with an Oahu (Valco) lap steel “string-through” pickup at the bridge and a gold foil at the neck.
Around 1964 young Cooder picked up a Stratocaster from the Fender factory, but after several years he became dissatisfied with the sound of the stock bridge pickup for slide work. His solution was to install a steel guitar pickup. Years later pickup maker David Lindley suggested using a Teisco pickup at the neck. Cooder’s combination of flatwounds and pickups inspired many imitators, and those near-forgotten Teisco pickups acquired new respect.
You don’t have to play like Cooder to get good results from this pickup. According to pickup manufacturer Jason Lollar, gold foils are shockingly versatile. He says that customers had asked about them for years, but that he only got serious about them when Stooges guitarist James Williamson gave him one to check out. Now Lollar makes an excellent reproduction. It wasn’t easy, he says: “There were a lot of parts that needed to be made.” Lollar and his team first auditioned their reproduction in an inexpensive Epiphone Les Paul. (According to Lollar, “Gold foils make cheap guitars sound great.”)
The pickup actually uses cheap rubber magnets—think refrigerator magnets, only fatter. Their wire is 44-gauge, with around 30 percent fewer turns than a Strat pickup. The bobbin is a mere 1/8" tall. But there’s a lot of steel inside, which expands the magnetic field. The pole pieces are adjustable screws to the side of the coil.
A shot of Jason Lollar's current-production Gold Foils.
Viewed from the top, the coil and magnet sit between six big, round holes and two long “racetrack” holes. The screws are “north” of the coil, which means they sense more of the string, providing strong lower overtones. This wide frequency response helps gold foils sound loud and un-muddy.
Gold foils sometimes need shimming to achieve proper height and output, and Lollar’s website, lollarguitars.com, has very useful instructions for doing so. As with Gretsch Hilo’Trons, you shouldn’t simply adjust the pole pieces—it’s better to adjust the height of the entire assembly. Lollar also makes a version that fits in a P-90 housing.
Curtis Novak tends to prefer DeArmond gold foils because their massive steel plates provide a bigger magnetic field that brings in more of what he calls “string wag.” Like the Teisco version, this is a big departure from a Fender-style single-coil, where, notes Novak, “there’s nothing going on outside the rods.”
Want to hear more? Jason Lollar recommends keeping your eyes trained on the guitarists in rowdy rock-band scenes from obscure 1960s biker movies. Apparently they often play guitars with gold foils. Who knew?
Thanks to everyone who helped with this article, including Jason Lollar, Derek and Seymour Duncan, Tom (TV) Jones, Jim DeCola at Gibson Guitars, Barry Gibson at Burns London, Curtis Novak, Frank Meyer, Ken Calvet at Roadhouse Pickups, and Paul Rhoney.