Let’s go under the hood of these legendary rockabilly machines and explore different ways to enhance a passive guitar system.
Welcome back to Mod Garage. Before we start, some good news! After finishing the relic’ing series, I was able to raise $650 from our Harley Benton guinea-pig guitar in an auction. The money went to our local animal shelter for cats and dogs, to help pay some vet bills.
This month, we’ll take a closer look at the typical wiring you can find in almost every Gretsch guitar. Since 2002, the Gretsch guitar company has been a division of Fender Musical Instruments Corp. But the company has a long history. It all started in 1883 in Brooklyn, New York, when a German immigrant from the town of Mannheim named Friedrich Gretsch started his own shop to make banjos and drums. Sadly, Gretsch died in 1895 at the untimely age of 39 during a visit in Hamburg, Germany. His 15-year-old son Fred (the Americanized version of “Friedrich”) had to run the company. In the 1930s, Gretsch started making guitars and the company had their first heyday. Like many companies during WWII, Gretsch had to stop production of instruments to help in the armament industry. After the war, the two sons of Fred Gretsch (Fred Jr. and William) took their father’s place and started making instruments again. In 1948, the Gretsch Broadkaster drum set was their best-selling item, and the start of another story with a certain Leo Fender offering an electric guitar with the same name, only spelled slightly different.
With the emergence of rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll in the ’50s, Gretsch guitars became popular in the hands of players like Chet Atkins, Eddie Cochran, Cliff Gallup, Duane Eddy, and even Elvis Presley. Later in the game, George Harrison, Brian Setzer, Malcolm Young, and many more became popular Gretsch players.
Sidenote: In 1999, Gretsch took over the Bigsby company, which was their exclusive hardware supplier since 1951. Instruments featuring a Bigsby tailpiece, like the White Falcon, Country Gentleman, Nashville, Duo Jet, etc. are real guitar icons today.
The wiring concept of Gretsch guitars is unique and noticeably different from that of most other companies, offering a volume control for each pickup along with a master volume control. This wiring is combined with a pickup-selector switch and a tone control in basically three versions:
“The interesting part is the arrangement of the volume controls—it’s been said that this was a suggestion from Chet Atkins.”
1. Master tone control (with or without no-load pot)
This is what we know from a lot of other guitars sporting a master tone control for all pickups: Sometimes a no-load pot is used to get rid of the pot’s load when it’s fully opened. Gretsch typically uses 500k audio pots and .022 µF tone caps.
2. Two-way tone switch
There is no tone pot, but there’s a switch that activates two different tone caps as a kind of pre-set tone. Gretsch typically uses 500k audio pots, as well as a .012 μF and .0039 μF (3900 pF) tone cap on the tone switch.
3. No tone control at all
It is what it says: There is no tone control at all with 500k audio pots for the volume controls.
Use whatever tone cap you like best. The 500k choice for the tone pot is a good working solution in a passive guitar circuit. On my own Gretsch 6120, I decided to use 3300 pF and 6800 pF caps on the tone switch, and it works fine for me.
The interesting part is the arrangement of the volume controls—it’s been said that this was a suggestion from Chet Atkins. Having a volume control for each pickup is common on other guitars, like on a typical Les Paul. But the combination with a master volume control is rare … and the source of some unwanted effects. Let’s have a look at the typical Gretsch volume wiring scheme (Fig. 1). I decided to use the one without tone control because this is the basic wiring and can be found on the 6122 Country Gentleman. The wirings with a tone control are identical regarding the volume controls.
This arrangement in a passive guitar system will result in a loss of tone because of two reasons:
1. The three volume pots will drain a good portion of high-end to ground when rolling back the volume, which is the nature of the passive beast.
2. Long shielded wire runs are used inside the hollowbody Gretsch guitars, adding capacitance to the system, resulting in even more high-end loss.
Even with the pickup height adjusted correctly, the loss in high-end is clearly noticeable, so let’s see what can be done. For some players, this is no problem at all and part of the tone. If you’re happy with the way your guitar sounds, there’s no reason to change the system. If you want a clearer tone with more high-end definition, you have the following options.
If you don’t want to convert your Gretsch guitar into an active system to get rid of the high-end loss, you’ll need to compromise by adding a treble-bleed network to the volume pots. We talked about this sometime ago in detail [“Mod Garage: Deep Diving into Treble-Bleed Networks”].
Selecting the right treble-bleed network is a matter of choice. What works for me might not work for you. Maybe you like some more high-end when rolling back the volume than others or vice versa. With the typical Gretsch Filter’Tron pickups, I like a 470 pF cap with a 150k resistor in parallel. Try this as a starting point and see if you like it. In theory, you’ll need a treble-bleed network on all three volume controls, which gives you a wide control regarding sound. In my own 6120, I use different treble-bleed networks because I want more high end from the neck pickup compared to the bridge pickup. I’ve also seen configurations with a treble-bleed network on the two volume controls for the pickups and without one on the master volume control. Personally, I don’t like this configuration. Using one on the master volume and not on the two controls for the pickups will have a better result.
You see, it’s a wide field of experimentation, but it’s worth the effort. While you’re in there, I recommend changing the 500k audio volume pots for 250k audio pots to benefit from the much better taper in a passive system. The difference in high end is minimal (if audible at all), and you can compensate easily with the treble-bleed network by choosing slightly higher values. I did this in my 6120 and the difference was huge.
“Don’t underestimate the time you’ll need to get the electronics of a hollowbody guitar out and back in. Even on a good and clear day, you can’t do this within 30 minutes, so don’t hurry.”
Don’t underestimate the time you’ll need to get the electronics of a hollowbody guitar out and back in. Even on a good and clear day, you can’t do this within 30 minutes, so don’t hurry. If you’ve ever changed the electronics inside such a guitar, you know what I mean.
Gretsch uses shielded wires inside, but sadly, the quality is only average. The wire has a high capacitance, and, especially inside big hollowbodies, you can find up to 2.5 meters (about 8.2 feet) of it, which is a real sound killer on its own. The shorter the wire, the less capacitance it will add to the circuit, so you should optimize the length of the wire wherever possible. If you want to stick with shielded wire, you should use a high-quality one with a low capacitance. I like to use the .155-diameter George L’s high-end wire for this. It’s very thin, with a capacitance of only 19 pF per foot, which is unbeatable ... but still affordable.
In comparison, I measured 46 pF per foot with the original wire from the factory. The before/after effect will be like lifting a blanket from the amp. But you can also use non-shielded wire if you’re not concerned about shielding. I replaced all wires in my 6120 with the George L’s .155-diameter cable and was able to reduce the original length of the wires to 50 percent, which means reducing additional capacitance to the circuit noticeably.
As you can see, tone is not set in stone, and there are ways to enhance your Gretsch wiring. Next month, we’ll dissect the Scott Henderson Stratocaster wiring, so stay tuned.
As you can see, tone is not set in stone, and there are ways to enhance your Gretsch wiring. Next month, we’ll dissect the Scott Henderson Stratocaster wiring, so stay tuned.
Until then ... keep on modding!
While on tour to support his new album View with a Room, Julian Lage invited PG’s John Bohlinger to his soundcheck at Brooklyn Bowl Nashville to share his insights into why he likes a straightforward rig and “honest” tone.
When it comes to jazz virtuoso Julian Lage, you’d be hard-pressed to find an electric guitarist who uses less gear. “Any time I’ve [used too much equipment], there’s an awkwardness where I’m still grappling with the fact that I play here,” he says, gesturing to his guitar, then gesturing to his amp, “but the sound comes out there.” He continues, “It sounds like a joke, but it’s been a struggle for me. Any time there’s layers or filters or anything, I feel dissociated.” Of course, Lage’s rig, which buoys his clean, no-frills tone, makes sense for a musician like himself—whose playing often comes across fluidly, and as gently as his personality.
For Lage, that fluidity stems from his conception of music as a language. “I think that the way people speak is often more unfettered,” Lage told Premier Guitar in 2021. “There might not be an obvious correlation between the way people speak in a lecture and the notes on the guitar. But it's just a little stretch of the imagination to see that those are pitches, those are rhythms, those are phrases."
On View with a Room, Lage’s second release on the hallowed Blue Note Records, he’s offering a fresh, bold continuation of the conversation he’s created over the years. The album features his latest ensemble, made up of himself, bassist Jorge Roeder, and drummer Dave King—but this time, he’s added the legendary Bill Frisell. Together, the musicians help to expand Lage’s body of work with performances of 10 of his original compositions.
While on tour for the album, Lage invited PG’s John Bohlinger to the soundcheck before his show at Brooklyn Bowl inn Nashville to share his insights into why he likes a straightforward rig and “honest” tone. In the interview, Lage elaborates on his three main guitars (his Nachocaster, Collings signature, and ’55 Les Paul), explains why he prefers low volume on his amps, and offers a remarkably brief tour of his pedalboard.
Brought to you by D’Addario XS Strings.
Not Your Caster
As a bit of an anomaly in the world of jazz guitarists, Lage prefers Telecasters. His number one T-style is his Nachoguitars 1657 “Nachocaster”—a saffron-colored guitar equipped with an Ellisonic P-90-size neck pickup and Fatpups Blackguard bridge pickup, built by Spanish luthier Nacho Baños. However, Lage states that he never changes from the neck position. The Ellisonic pickup, which was created by Ron Ellis for Lage’s other primary instrument, the Collings Julian Lage 470 JL, captures the clarity and acoustic-like feel of vintage single-coils. The guitar is strung with D’Addario Flatwound Electric ECG24 Chromes (.011-.050) with a .020 unwound G string. Lage also uses Tortex .88 mm picks.
The Collings 470 JL signature was built as a collaboration between Lage and Collings. It features a solid Honduran mahogany body with a laminated maple top, Ellisonic pickups, and a Bigsby B3 tailpiece. He shares that the Bigsby was added mainly for weight, as the guitar was 5 lbs. before its addition and 6 lbs. after. “That gets you right to this place where the fundamental is still there, and you have this brilliant overtone,” says Lage, who adds that much like the bridge pickup on the Nachocaster, he doesn’t touch the Bigsby. He strings this guitar with .011-.049 D’Addario flatwounds. “Honestly, I think it’s more of a rock machine than anything,” he adds.
Lage’s 1955 Les Paul goldtop was a gift from Spinal Tap’s Christopher Guest, and sports the actor/guitarist’s signature. “I feel very much like a steward of it,” Lage says of the guitar. “I’m learning how to play it constantly. It’s so luxurious. Anything’s possible, so it really comes down to what do you hear, what do you want to play, what’s the voice of the music … and this guitar will be 8,000 percent there for you.”
Les Paul's handwritten message to Christopher Guest.
Lage is a longtime fan of low-watt, vintage Fender amps, in the past having remained ardently loyal to his Fender Tweed Champ, until it became impractical to bring it everywhere. On this tour, he’s playing a Magic Amps Vibro Deluxe, reminiscent of a 1964 Fender Deluxe Reverb. He plugs into the normal channel and sets his volume to 3, treble to 2, and bass to 2. As he describes, “This one has this miraculous thing where it feels like it’s being pushed at a lower volume. It’s not terribly interesting, but it is what I do.”
Julian Lage’s Pedalboard
Lage’s stripped-down pedalboard includes a Strymon Flint Tremolo & Reverb (just for reverb), a Shin-ei B1G 1 Preamp Gain Boost, and a Sonic Research ST-300 Mini Stomp Box Strobe Tuner.
The silky smooth slide man may raise a few eyebrows with his gear—a hollow, steel-bodied baritone and .017s on a Jazzmaster—but every note and tone he plays sounds just right.
KingTone’s The Duellist is currently Ariel Posen’s most-used pedal. One side of the dual drive (the Bluesbreaker voicing) is always on. But there’s another duality at play when Posen plugs in—the balance between songwriter and guitarist.
“These days, I like listening to songs and the story and the total package,” Posen told PG back in 2019, when talking about his solo debut, How Long, after departing from his sideman slot for the Bros. Landreth. “Obviously, I’m known as a guitar player, but my music and the music I write is not guitar music. It’s songs, and it goes back to the Beatles. I love songs, and I love story and melody and singing, and there was a lot of detail and attention put into the guitar sound and the playing and the parts—almost more than I’ve ever done.”
And in 2021, he found himself equally expressing his yin-and-yang artistry by releasing two albums that represented both sides of his musicality. First, Headway continued the sultry sizzle of songwriting featured on How Long. Then he surprised everyone, especially guitarists, by dropping Mile End, which is a 6-string buffet of solo dishes with nothing but Ariel and his instrument of choice.
But what should fans expect when they see him perform live? “I just trust my gut. I can reach more people by playing songs, and I get moved more by a story and lyrics and harmony, so that’s where I naturally go. The live show is a lot more guitar centric. If you want to hear me stretch out on some solos, come see a show. I want the record and the live show to be two separate things.”
The afternoon ahead of Posen’s headlining performance at Nashville’s Basement East, the guitar-playing musical force invited PG’s Chris Kies on stage for a robust chat about gear. The 30-minute conversation covers Posen’s potent pair of moody blue bombshells—a hollow, metal-bodied Mule Resophonic and a Fender Custom Shop Jazzmaster—and why any Two-Rock is his go-to amp. He also shares his reasoning behind avoiding effects loops and volume pedals.
Brought to you by D’Addario XPND Pedalboard.
Blue the Mule III
If you’ve spent any time with Ariel Posen’s first solo record, How Long, you know that the ripping, raunchy slide solo packed within “Get You Back” is an aural high mark. As explained in a 2019 PG interview, Posen’s pairing for that song were two cheapos: a $50 Teisco Del Rey into a Kay combo. However, when he took the pawnshop prize onstage, the magic was gone. “It wouldn’t stay in tune and wouldn’t stop feeding back—it was unbearable [laughs].”
Posen was familiar with Matt Eich of Mule Resophonic—who specializes in building metal-body resonators—so he approached the luthier to construct him a steel-bodied, Strat-style baritone. Eich was reluctant at first (he typically builds roundneck resos and T-style baritones), but after seeing a clip of Posen playing live, the partnership was started.
The above steel-bodied Strat-style guitar is Posen’s third custom 25"-scale baritone. (On Mule Resophonic’s website, it’s affectionately named the “Posencaster.”) The gold-foil-looking pickups are handwound by Eich, and are actually mini humbuckers. He employs a custom Stringjoy set (.017–.064 with a wound G) and typically tunes to B standard. The massive strings allow the shorter-scale baritone to maintain a regular-tension feel. And when he gigs, he tours light (usually with two guitars), so he’ll use a capo to morph into D or E standard.
Another one that saw recording time for Headway and Mile End was the above Fender Custom Shop Masterbuilt ’60s Jazzmaster, made by Carlos Lopez. To make it work better for him, he had the treble-bleed circuit removed, so that when the guitar’s volume is lowered it actually gets warmer.
"Clean and Loud"
Last time we spoke with Posen, he plugged into a Two-Rock Classic Reverb Signature. It’s typically his live amp. However, since this winter’s U.S. run was a batch of fly dates, he packed light and rented backlines. Being in Music City, he didn’t need to go too deep into his phone’s contacts to find a guitar-playing friend that owned a Two-Rock. This Bloomfield Drive was loaned to Ariel by occasional PG contributor Corey Congilio. On the brand’s consistent tone monsters, Posen said, “To be honest, put a blindfold on me and make one of Two-Rock’s amps clean and loud—I don’t care what one it is.”
The loaner vertical 2x12 cab was stocked with a pair of Two-Rock 12-65B speakers made by Warehouse Guitar Speakers.
Ariel Posen’s Pedalboard
There are a handful of carryovers from Ariel’s previous pedalboard that was featured in our 2021 tone talk: a TC Electronic PolyTune 3 Noir, a Morningstar MC3 MIDI Controller, an Eventide H9, a Mythos Pedals Argonaut Mini Octave Up, and a KingTone miniFUZZ Ge. His additions include a custom edition Keeley Hydra Stereo Reverb & Tremolo (featuring Headway artwork), an Old Blood Noise Endeavors Black Fountain oil can delay, Chase Bliss Audio Thermae Analog Delay and Pitch Shifter, and a KingTone The Duellist overdrive.
Another big piece of the tonal pie for Posen is his signature brass Rock Slide. He worked alongside Rock Slide’s Danny Songhurst to develop his namesake slide that features a round-tip end that helps Posen avoid dead spots or unwanted scratching. While he prefers polished brass, you can see above that it’s also available in a nickel-plated finish and an aged brass.