During the past 60 years the Telecaster has been modified in countless ways, at first by players who sought to make the Tele more versatile and later by Fender designers tasked with creating a more diverse range of instruments to sell.
We’ve seen many brass nuts on old Telecasters (most since replaced), humbuckers and mini humbuckers in place of original neck pickups, and we’ll never forget the first (and only) time we saw Clarence White in the late ‘70s playing with Roger McGuinn at a local club in Atlanta with his B-bender Tele. As soon as the band took a break we ran into the dressing room and asked Clarence to explain how he was getting pedal steel sounds out of his guitar. To his credit, Clarence patiently explained the whole rig to us in great detail, and we walked back to our table dumbstruck by his patience and ingenuity. Peter Stroud has often used a palm pedal on his Teles with great effect, and one of the most popular old-school Tele mods seems to have simply involved stripping off the original finish. We’ve seen a ton of old blackguards stripped down to bare wood over the years.
The most radical and earliest departures introduced by Fender were the Thinline Telecasters introduced in 1968, followed by the Thinline II with dual Fender humbuckers designed by the father of the Gibson PAF, Seth Lover, and the Telecaster Deluxe with dual humbuckers, Strat-style tremolo tailpiece and big-ass headstock. We fell for a used Thinline II in the early ‘80s while driving back from an unsuccessful trolling expedition in Nashville, when we habitually stopped at Charlie Chambers Music & Golf on South Rossville Boulevard in Chattanooga. The site of the natural ash blonde Tele with white pearloid pickguard and those two big Fender humbuckers was too enticing to pass up, the price was right, and the rippin’ sound of the Thinline was so uniquely penetrating and pissed off that we just could not let it go – especially since we were working in a post-punk-new-wave thrash & groove tearing off original songs like “Disco Twinkie” at Atlanta’s infamous 688 club, and bigger concert venues like the Agora Ballroom where it helped to get noticed. If you played a Thinline II through a 135 watt Twin, you got noticed. A good sonic reference would be Kink’s guitarist Dave Davies’ 1980 solo album AFL1-3603. The Thinline was eventually stolen in Toronto, but not before we had laid more than a few tracks with the nuanced subtlety of a chainsaw, and we thoroughly relished every moment spent throttling up the Thinline II live and on tape. Color it as ‘unforgettable’ as a case of herpes.
When the new Lollar Regal pickups dropped in our midst (thanks, Stephanie), we were more than a little surprised, as our thoughts turned with fond memories to our old Thinline. Lollar bit off an accurate reproduction of the Fender humbucker? That’s a tall order, to say the least. Intrigued, we asked Jason to explain, and he did.
TQR: Developing a new pickup is not a minor undertaking. What inspired you to resurrect the original Seth Lover Fender humbucker? Did you have an old Tele Deluxe back in the day?
I didn’t. When I was about thirteen I wanted a Les Paul Custom and my guitar teacher told me not to buy a Les Paul, and that I should buy a Tele Deluxe with two humbuckers and two volume and tone controls with a 3-way switch. The only band I had ever seen play them was Slade, and I just thought they were the ugliest mofos I had ever seen – big old platform shoes and plaid pants playing a Tele Deluxe. That guitar was just too butt-ugly. But about 7-8 years ago people started asking for that pickup. I was getting a lot of them in for repair because people would take them apart and they don’t understand that the polepieces are magnets. They would screw the polepieces back in the wrong direction and some strings would be dead. That is very common when people try to take those old pickups apart.
TQR: All you need to do is look at the back and know not to take them apart…
And the internal parts are just horrible. They have these really thin nylon bobbins that are extremely heat sensitive. They heat-pressed in a little metal stud that they attached the coil wire to, and it melts very easily and will break the coil. There are just so many things that can go wrong with them and they are a bitch to re-build.
TQR: They originally used cunife magnets because it could be machined and threaded, correct?
Yeah, it was a new magnetic material in the ‘70s that could be machined, but it never caught on. The only way you can get that stuff today is as surplus. It’s rare. There is a guy who found enough cunife to make something like 30 pickups that he was trying to sell for $450, and you have to provide a donor reissue pickup for the cover, but you won’t hear much about that.
TQR: So you must have bought a few old pickups…
I bought several sets on eBay, and they were expensive – something like $500 each. A friend of mine also has an original Thinline Deluxe. At first I thought I wouldn’t be able to make them without that cunife material until I figured out that Alnico V of a certain length sounded really close, but I could only get rods, and not anything that was threaded. So I put the idea on the shelf for awhile.
Fender makes their ‘reissue’ version, and the baseplate and cover are the correct dimension, but inside they are just a standard dual coil humbucker set in wax because the covers are so much bigger. The original pickup covers want to howl sometimes and Buddy Guy sent me some old Tele Deluxe pickups that he wanted potted because of that. More recently I found this magnet material called ferco that is very similar to the Alnico V that was so close to the cunife, and I started doing more testing. I bought more old pickups and I bought a Tele Deluxe reissue for testing. Fender has said that they have revoiced their humbuckers, but I haven’t seen or heard any difference.
TQR: So you assembled a collection of old Fender humbuckers, and once the ferro magnets were available you were off and running…
Yeah, once I got that it was just a matter of building the right set of bobbins and doing some winding tests to figure out what the right specs were. Those original pickups measure at over 10K. I also had to draw up all the specs for the baseplates and covers and have those made.
TQR: And how do you do that?
You get out an original pickup and use a set of calipers to get the dimensions that you enter into a CAD program. You have to make sure that you get the tapered curve on the side of the covers right so the stamped part will come out of the die. Fender got the overall dimensions for the baseplate and cover right in the reissues, but there are lots of way you can screw it up. You can draw it wrong, or your machine shop can misinterpret your measurements, or guitar companies can change the dimensions of their pickup routs. You have to check all of that.
TQR: How long did it take you to get the Regal into production? Sounds like four years.
Yeah, about that – deciding to do it, coming up with the money, doing the drawings, and even after the drawings are submitted they have to make the tooling, then they do an initial press that we have to verify, changes may be made, we get another sample to verify, and then once you get the parts stamped they have to be sent out to plating, and that takes months.
TQR: Did you view this as a moderate risk? It’s not like the Tele Thinline and Deluxe are iconic designs…
Right, but I could tell that they were getting popular and a lot of younger bands were using them. I wanted to be the first one to come out with a complete pickup and not just be rebuilding the reissues. If you sell the guitar keep the Lollars and put the originals back in.
TQR: Well, you already make an incredible range of chocolate, so to speak. Once you got all the specs together for the Regal, it wasn’t like you were going to go down the same road as Teles and Strats with brighter and darker versions, right?
No, although I do have a neck version of the Regal with lower output. There are always people that want a less powerful neck pickup with not as much woof in it, and the typical bitch I hear about the Thinline Customs is that the neck pickup always overpowers the single coil in the bridge.
TQR: Alright, so the Classic Player Tele Thinline Deluxe we bought comes with 250K pots, and we ordered a pair of 500K from Angela Instruments and one of them burned up last night. Works full on, but craps in and out when you turn it down, so… I ordered a pair of 1 meg audio taper today. We’re going balls to the wall now. Guess it was meant to be.
You really need to use 500K pots with these pickups minimum, but if you were to compare my pickups with an original ‘70s Telecaster it isn’t going to sound the same without 1 meg pots. Plus, the ‘70s Teles were so f’ing heavy. Everybody thought heavier was better back then. We’ve sold about three hundred of these now, and once in a while someone will say that the bridge pickup buzzes. So I tell them to send the pickup back and I don’t hear anything, but I’ve had five or six people say that the bridge pickup buzzes. Finally I took the guitar outside the shop where it’s really quiet and just cranked the amp, and what they’re talking about is when you’re not playing it and you switch to the bridge pickup with a cranked amp you can hear a tiny little buzz. I never heard it until I had to find it and it’s really minor, but it’s because there is this metal plate inside that is an original detail that gives the bridge pickup a fatter, thicker sound. After I heard the noise I grabbed an original wide range to compare my pickup to and the original had the same buzz. I guess if you have your amp cranked and you’re not playing you can barely hear it, but I don’t know why you would be sitting there not playing with your amp on ten (laughing).
TQR: The first time we ever talked was easily ten years ago, and there are so many ‘custom’ pickup winders now. It’s become a little bizarre, which is a nice way of saying there is a lot of bullshit clouding the pickup bizz… You must laugh sometimes.
I do, but it isn’t too funny when someone calls me up with a set of very specific requests for a pickup that they read about online, and I know that if I do what they want they aren’t going to like it. There is a lot of dogma out there.
TQR: What’s new and hot?
We did the Thunderbird bass pickup recently, and there’s the El Rayo… It’s a humbucker made with Alnico VIII and 40 gauge wire, so it only reads at about 4.4K. It has a really punchy attack almost like a single coil. It’s kind of a lap steel idea with a real strong magnet and a bigger coil with less turns. It’s funny, I was talking to Steve Miller – Les Paul was his godfather, and he was telling me that he had all these pickups that Les made. He sent them to me, and about half of them are almost exactly what we designed for the El Rayo, except that he used ceramic magnets and 38 gauge wire. But it was funny that a week after we announced the El Rayo we got all these pickups that Les had made that were so similar. And then we are just about to launch the Lollar’tron, which is a Filtertron that fits in a standard humbucking rout. These sound closer to what is in my early ‘60s Gretsch than most of the modern Filtertrons I’ve heard. We’re about to do a video on them and we want to have at least fifty sets available before we officially introduce them. I’ll make you a set next week so you can check them out. What do you want, nickel?
TQR: Nickel is good! TQ