Part III: the pickups
As I mentioned in previous features, to build a Ry Cooder inspired guitar, set up for bottleneck playing, with a lap steel pickup in the bridge and a “goldfoil” in the neck, it is no longer necessary to turn to the vintage market to get the pickups : today you can easily buy both new clones of the originals and alternative models promising the same sounds with standard shapes and sizes, making it easier to mount them on any instrument.
String through or not?
Alongside the reproductions of the old Valco string through pickups there are standard shaped models, equipped with magnetised poles under the strings and with magnets under the base of the pickup, as in a classic P90, but the choice and position of the magnets is designed to create a large and enveloping magnetic field, similar to that of the original, and a skilful calibration of the coils aims to obtain the same response as the reference pickup.
It is interesting to note that in order to imitate the sound of the reference model, completely different materials, structures and construction features are used (for example ceramic magnets and single coils instead of the alnico and double coil of the originals).
Of course, the standard construction has obvious practical advantages over the complex and cumbersome string through structure, both in terms of setup and picking hand technique (a string through pickup is cumbersome, makes palm muting complicated if not impossible and considerably reduces the space for the picking hand) and in terms of electronics (it does not create phase problems), but a true string through pickup can claim the ingenuity and extravagant charm of a unique object; in addition it is not sensitive to hum and interference, being humbucking.
As for the authenticity of the sound, I own two vintage lap steels with original Valco pickups in excellent condition and other instruments with standard shaped models (by Lollar and Gemini Pickups): the differences (apart from what has already been said about the hum) seem minimal to me, and in my opinion partly due to the difference between the instruments, rather than to pickups. Later we will see in detail the individual features of various models.
For some years now there seems to be a boom in Goldfoil pickups, some manufacturers have put the typical metal foil or mesh on humbuckers, P90s and single coils and the result is generally described as Goldfoil even if, beyond the aesthetics, those products have nothing to do with the object of our interest (even Fender and Music Man mount “gold foil” on some models, but they are “disguised” mini humbuckers, as those mounted on the Eastman Romeo LA are in fact P90s).
Then there are manufacturers who offer faithful replicas of Goldfoils from the 60s, but which ones? The generic term “goldfoil” indicates a purely aesthetic feature (a knurled plate or a golden metallic mesh visible from holes and cutouts on the chrome pickup cover) common to many pickups installed on cheap guitars sold by mail order and in department stores in America in the 1960s: Guitars were both American and Japanese built, and so were the pickups.
Pickups on American guitars were mostly made by the historic De Armond brand (one of the pioneers in the amplification of stringed instruments), characterized by direct mounting on the body of the instrument (like those on Rickenbackers) using a frame integral to the chromed cover, which had different cutouts on the surface of the “gold foil“, according to the brand of the instrument; this feature had them to be renamed by enthusiasts with nicknames: thus we have single diamonds (“diamond”) or repeated ones (“argyle”), shapes similar to letters of the alphabet (“S” and “N”), and even curls similar to a handlebar moustache (“moustache”).
In reality, beyond the more or less pronounced aesthetic differences, it is the same pickup, a single coil with an alnico magnet, with a sound character similar to a P90.
The most sought after and reproduced Japanese goldfoils were produced by Teisco and Guyatone, even if they were sometimes installed on instruments sold under the American or European private label (Antoria and others): they are similar in construction, featuring screws that simulate the pole pieces of the humbuckers but only have an aesthetic function, bar magnets and a rather low output level, different in materials and aesthetics:
- the Teiscos use a “rubber” magnet, like the cheap ones used for fridge gadgets, and have a flat shape that makes them suitable for surface mounting even in very narrow spaces, the Guyatones have an alnico magnet, more usual for pickups, and a shape more similar to a traditional humbucker.
- The goldfoil on the original Coodercaster is a Teisco, but nothing prevents you from experimenting with a Guyatone-inspired pickup, even more dynamic and with a slightly warmer tone (it’s one of the most versatile single coils I’ve ever tried).
The De Armond-style goldfoil in my opinion is less suitable for Coodercaster building since it’s too powerful and rich in mids compared to the one used by Cooder.
The first to build and market a replica of the Valco string trough pickup was Jason Lollar, who originally also used the name Supro (the previous owner of Supro trademark, amp guru Bruce Zinky, didn’t mind, but after the acquisition of the Supro brand by Bond Audio Lollar had to desist).
The pickup incorporates all the features of the originals (including the annoying sharp edges on the upper plate), except for the wide lower plate serving as tailpiece, bridge and support for the tone and volume potentiometers on original lap steels (Cooder had it cut to make room for the tremolo bridge of his Stratocaster): it is replaced by a small base that just allows the space for the four mounting screws.
The Lollar string through has the dynamics and the powerful and brilliant tone, the fast response to the touch and the remarkable sustain of an original. I tried it on lap steel and Coodercaster type instruments and I appreciated its quality and fidelity to the original.
For those looking for the Coodercaster sound in a traditional type pickup, Lollar offers the Chicago model: it is a singlecoil, similar to a P90 in shape and size but to be mounted suspended on a Fender-style pickguard.
I installed one in a lap steel, and I also tried one on a friend’s guitar: the timbre and dynamics are very close to that of a real string through, maybe with an even greater openness on the treble, and obviously, being a pure single coil, there is a little more buzz; in conclusion, an excellent pickup with that “depth” and complexity typical of almost all Lollars.
In the Lollar catalog you also can find Teisco-inspired Goldfoils, available in both in the original shape and in Humbucker size (anyway, these are single coils), and in various mounting options and positions (bridge, centre, neck, and even to the pickguard of an acoustic archtop).
These are excellent and incredibly versatile pickups, highlighting the character of an instrument while maintaining a strong original character.
The Canadian manufacturer is the owner of the Valco brand, and produces a string through pickup (probably of Korean origin) similar to the vintage Valco, featured on their own “inspired by the Coodercaster” guitar and also available (in small batches) for separate purchase.
Physically similar to the original, it differs for the slightly rounded upper plate corners , rounded head poles and reduced, Lollar-style, base plate.
I’ve never had the opportunity to try it and being very recent at the moment there are no reviews on the net.
Eastman also makes a generic goldfoil pickup, with an alnico magnet and a mix of features from classic Guyatone and De Armond pickups.
Eastwood Pickup Valco
It is the brand of an English artisan specialized in niche pickups and evidently a staunch Cooderian: in addition to the classic Valco-style pickup, he produces other Cooder inspired models. He also sells a specialized selector that allows you to overcome phase problems when combining a string through pickup with a traditional one.
In the catalog there are many versions of the string through inspired by Valco, both with a small Lollar style base plate, and with the large mounting plate of the originals, there are versions with a cutaway for the Stratocaster vibrato or with a built-in hardtail bridges in Strat and Tele style. An interesting feature is the top plate with rounded corners.
Mojo recently introduced a non string through humbucker version, which to my knowledge is the only one on the market (competitors mostly offer single coils in humbucker format).
His catalog also sports the widest range ever of goldfoil pickups: from faithful replicas of the original Teisco and Dearmond to versions of both in all possible formats (even Filtertron), to the Guyatone, in addition to the mighty Dual Foil, which combines two goldfoils in a very particular (and huge) humbucker.
I’ve never had the opportunity to try Mojo pickups, but they have excellent reviews on the net and have almost completely replaced the Lollars on Waterslide instruments.
Teisco Mojo Gold Foil
Humbucker Mojo Pickups Gold Foil
The latest arrival, but definitely worthy of attention. Here too, as in the case of Mojo, it is the brand of a single artisan, Rob Banta, who from his workshop in a small town in the State of New York makes excellent handmade pickups. As Mojo, he seems to have a soft spot for the more niche models .
His clients include Jim Campilongo, Mark Knopfler and Jackson Browne, as well as some of the best American guitar makers (including Rudy Pensa and Waterslide guitars), and also yours truly, who is as enthusiastic about the products as about Rob’s willingness to dispense advice and to experiment with new models.
The build quality and tonal complexity are on par with Lollar and the value for money is incredible; unfortunately, since these pickups are built one by one by a single person, delivery time is long (about 45 days) and destined to lengthen as requests increase.
Two models from the Gemini catalog stand out for Ry Cooder’s fans: the Suprocaster and the goldfoil in its variations.
The Suprocaster is similar to the Lollar Chicago, but being handmade it can be ordered in any standard shape (from Tele to Rickenbacker top mount) and in many finishes (even in tortoiseshell Italian celluloid, beautiful but with a 50 dollar upcharge).
Excellent also for non-slide use (Knopfler uses it in Tele and Strat format as a bridge pickup in his Pensa custom guitars), it allows you to add a Coodercaster touch even to instruments that structurally would not lend themselves to real string through pickup installation (I use it also on a semi-acoustic and on a copy of a Vox Mandoguitar). Even more sonically similar to the originals than the Chicago, it shares with it the (slightly noisier) nature of a true single coil.
Gemini Gold foils, like those by Mojo, are available in all shapes, in three “flavors” (Teisco, Guyatone and DeArmond), and for the three positions.
The Gemini Guyatone spec is one of the most versatile single coils ever, in any position and on any instrument (great on mandolin family instrument and twelve strings), while the Teisco spec has more character and sounds typically Cooder.
Gemini also makes both humbucker versions of the various goldfoil options (Goldbucker and Dualbucker with goldfoil specs, refer to Gemini website for details) and standard gold foils in humbucker size.
Gemini Pickup Suprocaster (Tele sized)
Another high-end American manufacturer, it has in its catalog numerous gold foils both in De Armond and Guyatone style (alas, the Teiscos of strict Cooderian observance are missing) in many formats and also in humbucker version. I’ve never tried them but they fare enthusiastic reviews.
Curtis Novak Goldfoil Pickup, Guyatone style
Boutique builder who, unlike Novak, produces only one Goldfoil model, a Teisco replica identical to the originals in terms of appearance and technical characteristics.
Other goldfoils, inspired by De Armond (at least in terms of aesthetics) and probably of Korean origin, can be found at an extremely affordable price in the Allparts catalog, but judging by the meager description on the site, they are generic “powerful” single coils with a similar construction to the P90s and ceramic magnet.
This article is based on my experience and my research on the net. I apologize in advance to any pickup manufacturers not included in the list, inviting them to intervene and offer their products in Supro or Goldfoil style.
Mojotone Gold Foil Pickup, Teisco style
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