As we guitarists search further and farther for a unique tonal identity, we often find ourselves looking beyond the classic designs of the single-coil or humbucker in the never ending quest for glorious guitar tone. But far from pushing the experimental boundaries of technology, it’s often the earlier designs of the golden age of guitar design that draw our attention.
As we discussed in a previous article, the P90 Pickup is rapidly becoming a favourite amongst the modern guitarist, so does that mean it’s time for another older design to shine? Gold Foil Pickups are a vintage design from the earliest days of guitar pickup innovation, yet we’re seeing them on more and more guitars with Fender, Gretsch, and Supro all offering new guitars with these unique sounding pickups.
So are we really on the cusp of a tone revolution? Or are Gold Foil Pickups another fad that will pass like so many others? Let’s take a deeper look…
The history of Gold Foil Pickups is not the most well documented, as with many goings on in the early days of guitar design. There is no concrete evidence on who was the first to pioneer this pickup design, but what we do know is that two forerunners of the design emerged in the 50s, DeArmond and Teisco.
Harry DeArmond was one of the first inventors to develop an Acoustic Guitar Pickup that was attachable, allowing acoustic guitars to be retrofitted and electrified. His first designs of solid body electric guitar pickups appeared on budget-level Harmony Guitars, before being quickly picked up by Gretsch, Fender, Guild, Epiphone, and many other early guitar brands. He is also credited with pioneering a two handed tapping technique to help demonstrate the sensitivity of his pickups, and would sometimes play two guitar simultaneously, utilising tapping, hammer-ons, and pull-offs.
Meanwhile in Japan, Atswo Kaneko, a renowned Hawaiian and Spanish guitarist and Doryo Matsuda, an electrical engineer, were also experimenting with pickup and guitar designs, eventually leading to the formation of the Teisco company. They quickly became known for their unique body shapes, an insane amount of controls with individual switches for each pickup, and phase inversion switches to boot. Tesco guitars would often come with up to five volume and tone knobs and their own variation of the Gold Foil Pickup design, showcasing a tonal variety at the heart of the design ethos. Despite these wild conceptions seeming far-fetched even in the modern world, they were incredibly popular and worked well, their complexity notwithstanding.
There’s much debate about who was the first to use Gold Foil Pickup design, but it's irrefutable that these two companies form the basis for which the majority of modern manufacturers are basing their pickup design upon, holding a place in guitar engineering history regardless of who came first.
Gold Foil Pickup Construction
The construction of Gold Foil pickups can be quite difficult to pin down, as there were many different designs that were being tried out at the time. Generally they come as single coils, although you will find double-coil designs knocking around, and the DeArmond and Teisco designs both used a rubberised ferrite magnet. These have a much lower gauss rating than the Alnico-based magnet of modern pickups, which is what gives them their unique tonal quality.
Because they use a long bar magnet, they offer a much more balanced sound than the individual slug setup of Telecaster or Strat pickups but unusually, the magnets sit outside of the wire coil. In some variations of the pickup you’ll have a steel bar that makes contact with the magnet, going up through the coil, whereas others will have traditional pole-pieces positioned inside, or outside of the wire coil. This is why vintage Gold Foil pickups vary so much in sound from model to model.
The last part of the Gold Foil Pickup construction is the Gold Foil itself. Considering the price tag of some of these pickups you’d be forgiven for thinking that these are actual Gold, but unfortunately that’s not the case. The Gold Foil is really just an aesthetic, it prevents you getting bits of dust and other detritus in amongst the inner workings of the pickup, but for the most part is there to make your guitar look awesome!
How do Gold Foil Pickups sound?
If you thought the way these pickups are made was convoluted then you’re in for a treat! Due to the aforementioned variety of pickup construction styles, Gold Foil pickups can differ vastly from manufacturer to manufacturer dependent upon their design. They've been described as treble-heavy, bluesier than a single coil, bassier than Jazzmaster pickups, and less hot than a P90. So for simplicity’s sake, we’re basing our descriptions on our Lollar Novel Gold Foil pickups, drawing from what we believe is one of the best reincarnations of this classic design.
The Lollar Gold Foil is based on the Teisco Pickup design and it delivers an almost resonator-like tone, very metallic and open sounding, making it great for Blues-based styles of music. They’re bright and articulate, giving you plenty of top-end harmonics whilst being less punchy than a single-coil or humbucker. If you’ve only played ‘traditional’ pickup designs, then Gold Foil Pickups may well sound radically different to your ear.
Rather helpfully, Lollar have put together some demos of their Gold Foil Pickups which you can take a listen to here:
Are Gold Foil Pickups right for me?
If you’re bored of your single-coil or humbucker sound and seek a guitar tone that’s beyond the usual, then Gold Foil Pickups may well be for you. For styles of music where less output is required these pickups really offer a unique sound and they're great for slide aficionados, just watch any video of Ry Cooder playing. Ry put one in the neck position of his guitar because he was unhappy with the stock pickup performance and he's never looked back.
We’d definitely recommend these if you’re a blues-lover who wants to rock some slide guitar, or you're one of those sonic explorers looking to find inspiration in something different, but if you’re playing in a hard rock or metal band we can’t see these having enough output for you. That said, who’s to say what works well in a particular style of music? As with all things guitar tone related, trying it yourself is the best way to ascertain what works for you and experimentation is the real mother of creation.
Gold Foil Pickups certainly offer a unique take on pickup design, but whether or not they are the holy grail of guitar tone remains to be seen. If the rise of the P90 is anything to go by however, you're sure to be seeing more and more of these unique pickups on the market, as well as coming as stock in brand new guitars.
Check out another vintage pickup design with our ultimate guide to P90 Pickups.
Seymour Duncan make some more modern pickup designs if you want higher output.
These excellent value for money Tonerider Pickups will get your guitar sounding immense for less.