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Mod Garage: Dig Out-of-Phase Tone? Then Make It Variable!

Mod Garage: Dig Out-of-Phase Tone? Then Make It Variable!
Mod Garage: Dig Out-of-Phase Tone? Then Make It Variable!
Fig. 1 — Schematic courtesy

Let PG’s mod guru show you how to wring more sounds from your dual-pickup guitar.

Recently, a customer brought a 1967 Epiphone Sheraton to the shop for some structural repair and touch-up work on the finish. These guitars are extremely rare over here in Germany. It was only the second one I've ever seen. The new Sheraton II Epiphone models are common, but not the vintage ones.

It's essentially a Gibson ES-335—some even say it's “the better 335." This one was the model with two mini-humbucker pickups and the Frequensator tailpiece. I won't dig deeper into the history of Epiphone and this specific model, but it's well documented and you'll be able to research it on the internet. (If, like me, you own John Lee Hooker's Mr. Lucky, you can see him posing with his Sheraton on the album cover.)

When the work was done, I plugged in the Sheraton to play for a while. As a rockabilly guitarist, such beauties are a “must play" for me. It sounded excellent and within a minute I found myself in the middle of the “Stray Cat Strut" solo. After playing both pickups alone, I switched to the middle position with all controls wide open and .... what the heck is this? The full, raunchy sound suddenly disappeared, replaced by a narrow-chested, boxy, snarly, crisp tone. Kind of out-of-phase, but still excellent—not shrill and nasty.

I was all of a dither thinking maybe I'd somehow messed things up. So I reviewed: The pickup height was adjusted perfectly and, using a polarity tester, I could tell that the pickups had no magnetic out-of-phase configuration. From the readings I could also conclude there was no additional RC network acting as a kind of tone filter. That said, after connecting the guitar to the scope I could clearly see that it was electrically out-of-phase. Concerned, I talked to the owner who explained that all vintage Sheratons had this tone in the middle position—the same as triple-pickup Gibson Les Pauls. After doing some research, I verified this. Interestingly, new Sheratons don't have this tone in the middle position.

Now my curiosity was piqued, and I had to know what was going on inside this axe. So I hauled out my endoscope and made a movie inside of this guitar. Because I hadn't done any work on the electronics and all the soldering joints appeared untouched, I realized it must have come from the factory with this “misconfiguration."

But then I found the answer: As expected for this year, it had the “modern" Gibson-style wiring inside, but the neck pickup was reversed wired, exchanging the hot and the ground wires. When you play through a single pickup that's connected out-of-phase, it doesn't alter the sound. In other words, using one pickup alone, in-phase and out-of-phase sounds the same. The fun starts when you combine it with a second in-phase pickup. Now you get the phase cancellations and the well-known corresponding tone.

One caveat: When switching the hot and ground wires on a pickup with a metal cover that's connected to ground, the cover gets kind of “touch sensitive." That's why, in this configuration, it's always a good idea to separate the metal cover from ground, if possible.

After playing both pickups alone, I switched to the middle position with all controls wide open and .... what the heck is this?

Playing and experimenting with this new tone, I was surprised how good it sounds and how versatile it is. In fact, I fell in love with it after only a few minutes. Depending on the musical context, playing with less prominent bass frequencies can be a pleasure. And it can work well in both clean and overdriven amp and effects settings.

While noodling, I discovered another cool feature: The out-of-phase colors became more or less prominent depending on how the two volume controls were set relative to each other. So the effect is controllable and adjustable, which I think is perfect. For a full-on out-of-phase sound, both volumes must have the same setting. If you set them differently, e.g., the bridge pickup volume at 8 and the neck pickup volume at 5, the out-of-phase effect gets less pronounced. This means you can dial in a lot of different tonal shades this way.

This vintage Sheraton configuration works with the modern wiring scheme, but also with the '50s and '60s versions. If the terms modern, '50s, and '60s wiring are unfamiliar, check out “Three Ways to Wire a Tone Pot.") As far as impedance, the modern wiring is superior to the '50s and '60s wiring, especially when you also use the tone pots for shaping your sound, but in general, the schematic I'm about to show you works for all three wiring configurations.

A Gibson guitar with out-of-phase tone? Is this the “Peter Green" mod? No, it isn't, but it can mimic that tone. For the Peter Green mod, the pickups are magnetically out-of-phase, not electrically out-of-phase, as in this case. To achieve that Peter Green tone, you'll have to open one of the humbuckers and flip the magnets, as in his legendary Les Paul. The story goes that this was a happy accident that occurred while a tech was repairing one of his LP's pickups and slipped the magnets back in the wrong way, causing Green's humbuckers to be out-of-phase in the middle position. Green liked this tone and a legend was born. Magnetic out-of-phase sounds different from electrical out-of-phase: It's not the same tone. Another difference is that the magnetic out-of-phase is not controllable, it's always 100 percent when you engage both pickups in the middle position, no matter what you do with the volume controls.

So here we go with the wiring (Fig. 1). Basically it's a standard Gibson modern wiring with one of the pickups connected in reverse. It doesn't matter which one of the pickups is connected this way. The results will sound the same. You can do this with a PAF-style humbucker, a mini-humbucker, or even a single-coil. It's also possible to make this feature switchable by using an additional mini-toggle switch or a push-pull/push-push pot. You'll find more about this option here.

So that's it. Next month we'll finish our series on working with different types of wire—this time it will be vintage braided wire—so stay tuned. Until then ... keep on modding!