The past and future of hexaphonic pickups.
But back to those six strings. The normal output signal of our standard pickups is a combined signal of any or all of the six strings. Six pole pieces, six strings. Wouldn’t it seem like a logical next step to separate the output signal of each string? In the long and varied history of guitar pickups it seems as if nearly every combination of materials has been tried and every shape and configuration explored. So how about this six-signal concept? It has been done, for various reasons and with varying levels of success. The beast in question is called the hexaphonic pickup.
The prefix hexa means six. Phonic means of, or relating to, sound. Six sounds. Just as a standard pickup does, the hexaphonic pickup captures the individual vibrations of each of a guitar’s six strings. The difference is, rather than having a single output signal, the hexaphonic pickup has six. So who did it first, and what’s it good for? And why aren’t we all playing with hexaphonics?
In questions of firsts, I have two go-to sources: the US Patent Office and my friend and pre war-era guitar historian Lynn Wheelwright. An immediate problem in researching hexaphonics is that the word itself is a bit of a red herring in that it has not been the industry standard term. So in this particular case, I called Lynn first just to see if he remembered anything like it. He told me that the earliest pickup he had seen with anything similar to hexaphonic construction was on a Regal guitar from circa 1935–36. This particular axe had a pickup unit with six individual coils, one for each string. It was not actually hexaphonic, though, because even with the six poles the pickup produced just a single output signal. On to the Patent Office where the earliest patent I could find using the specific terms “hexaphonic pickup system” was awarded to Gibson in 1990 ... which seemed pretty late. We know that Bartolini Pickups founder Bill Bartolini was producing hexaphonics for public sale as early as 1973. Additionally, experimentation with polyphonic pickups for the purpose of hooking up guitars to synthesizers began in the early days of synthesizer development in the 1960s.
A hexaphonic pickup can have a number of uses. The most obvious is to send separate signals to separate places. In the analog realm, this might take the form of sending the bass strings to one amp, the treble to another. That effect was achieved in the mid-1950s by Ray Butts, who designed a split-coil pickup for Chet Atkins. Theoretically, separate signals for each string could be sent to individual inputs in the same amp where each input had its own volume control, compression, etc. It’s easy to see how rapidly the complexity quotient snowballs and how a standard amplification system might not be able to handle such an increased amount of information.
The first Roland synthesizer guitar, the GS-500, was introduced in 1977. It was with the Roland series of synth guitars, which continues to this day, that the hexaphonic pickup found its most widespread use. As a transducer for analog-to-digital sound, the hexaphonic pickup is the only way to go. For a guitar to control a synthesizer module (thereby allowing it to make sounds far beyond the normal guitar or guitar effects palette) each string’s signal needs to be isolated. An analog-to-digital converter requires that sounds be isolated, from string to string, in terms of pitch, and note start and stop. Converted to a digital signal, the Roland systems take the information from the guitar and turn it into sounds such as percussion, keys, saxophone, etc. The latest synth pickups on the market, such as the Roland GK-3 and the Axon PU100 designed in conjunction with Seymour Duncan, represent the latest technology in the field.
Some purists may balk, but my opinion is that synth guitar and its tonal possibilities would have been very popular with the players of yesterday. Alvino Rey used to have a sight gag in his act where he would “deliver” a baby lap steel. I’d bet he would have loved to hook his lap steels up to a unit that could make each note sound exactly like a crying baby. Taking it in another direction, I think of hexaphonic pickups and wonder what it would have been like if one of the gods of guitar like Hendrix had had a separate Marshall stack for each string of his Strat. Perhaps cacophony; maybe brilliance. Either way, hexaphonic pickups and their ultimate utilization may be one of the last frontiers in the quest for the ultimate electric guitar tone.
Wallace Marx Jr.
Wallace Marx Jr. is the author of Gibson Amplifiers, 1933–2008: 75 Years of the Gold Tone
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Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
LegendaryTones, LLC today announced production availability of its new Mr. Scary Mod, a 100% pure tube module designed to instantly and easily expand the capabilities of many classic amplifiers with additional gain and tone shaping. Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
Originally released as the Lynch Mod in February 2021, the updated Mr. Scary Mod features the same core circuit as the Lynch Mod but is now equipped with a revised tube mix combo per George’s preference as well as a facelift in a newly redesigned electro-galvanized steel enclosure. As with the Lynch Mod, each run will be limited and the first run in Pumpkin Orange with Black hardware is limited to just 150 pieces worldwide.
The Mr. Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage on top of the cathode follower position, keeping note definition and articulation while further increasing sustain. Each Mr. Scary mod is meticulously built by hand in the USA, one at a time, and tuned using high-grade components. Equipped with a single ECC81 (12AT7) in the first position and ECC83 (12AX7) in the second, the Mr. Scary Mod can clean up beautifully when rolling down your guitar’s volume, and still adds scorching gain when you roll it back up. This is a gain stage that’s been tuned and approved by the ears of the maestro George Lynch himself.
“The Mr. Scary Mod excels with dynamics and is incredibly touch-responsive, allowing me to shift from playing clear, lightly compressed cleans to full-out aggressive sustain and distortion –and control it all simply by varying my guitar’s volume control and picking,” said GeorgeLynch. “In many ways, it’s an old-school approach, but it’s also so much more natural and expressive in addition to being musically fulfilling when you can play both the guitar and amp dynamically together this way.”
The Mr. Scary Mod installs in minutes, is safe and effective to use, and requires no special tools or re-biasing of the amplifier. Simply insert the module into the cathode follower preamp position of compatible amplifiers (includes Marshall 2203/2204/1959/1987 circuits) and
immediately get the benefit of enjoying a hot-rodded amp that delivers all the pure harmonic character that comes with an added pure tube gain stage. The handmade in the USA Mr. Scary Mod is now available to order for $319.
For more information, please visit legendarytones.com.
October Audio has miniaturized their NVMBR Gain pedal to create two mini versions of this beautifully organic-sounding circuit – including an always-on gain device.
The NVMBR Gain is a nonlinear amp that transitions gracefully from clean boost to overdriven tones. Volume increases from just over unity to about 10db before soft-clipping drive appears for another 5db of boost. Its extraordinary ease of use is matched by outstanding versatility: you can use it as a clean boost, push a stubborn amp into overdrive or create a just-breaking-up sound at any amp volume.
October Audio’s new family of mini NVMBR Gain pedals includes a switchable version that allows you to bypass the effect: one option features brand logo pedal graphics, while the other sports a fun “Witch Finger” graphic with a Davies knob as the“fingernail”.
The second version in the new lineup is an always-on device featuring the Witch Finger graphic and Davies knob, with the same NVMBR Gain circuit that lies at the core of the switchable version.
- Knob controls gain and clipping simultaneously
- Stunning silver hammertone finish
- Switchable versions are true-bypass, available with classic or witch finger graphics
- Authentic Davies knobs, including the “fingernail”
- 9V center negative power supply required
- Dimensions: 3.63 x 1.50 x 1.88 in
Witch Finger (always on NVMBR Gain) demo
All October Audio pedals are assembled in Richmond, VA, and available for purchase directly through the online shop. Street price is $109 for NVMBR Gain footswitch versions and $89 for the always-on device.
For more information, please visit octoberaudio.com.