A BIT ABOUT FIREBIRD PICKUPS AND A DEMO OF 1976 BICENTENNIAL GIBSON BIRD TONES ON A METROPOULOS JTM 45 CLONE
To keep this whole thing in perspective I'm going to start off by saying that the differences between firebird pickups are NOT that much. Not as big a difference as say between a humbucker and a strat pup, or a p90 vs a high output EMG pup. That said once comparing 3 or 4 Firebird pickups side by side ones world view (or pickup view) definitely narrows and there does seem to be a tremendous difference between todays modern 15-20k ceramic pups versus a 1976 bird pup or any of the modern winds like Curtis Novak or Jason Lollars built to "vintage" specs. Out of my interest and addiction to FB pups one could easily talk to me and think that the difference between the 76 and the Lollar is the difference between Asia and Arabia, but truth is they are really very close.
I'm not going to go into detail about the differences between a Firebird pup and a mini humbucker with pole pieces, and a Johnny Smith, or get into the argument about the Firebird being or not being a mini humbucker (it is, but with a unique design), there are a ton of threads about all the differences. Just going to talk a little about my experiences with the ones I've been fortunate enough to try out.
I am probably part of the vast majority of Firebird fans who unfortunately have not had the priviledge (or the money) to own or play a vintage Firebird with the original 1963 pickups. The most vintage one I have played is my 76. My experience with firebird pup is that they sit somewhere between a tele pup and a p90, fatter than a strat but not as much as a full sized humbucker. I love p90s and prefer them to strat single coils and humbuckers by a long shot but found in general preferred the FB over them because the FB in general are more articulate and defined, the bass never overpowers the mids or trebles and muddies up the balance like on a p90 (particularly so with a P90 neck) and you can hear the notes in a chord even when driving them gainy.
I look like there are two directions you can take with FB pups, make no mistake they are their own unique interesting thing but depending on your amp and how you tweak the settings, and utilizing the volume and tone knobs on your guitar you can move more towards the thin, twangy and biting like a tele side of them, or the rolling off the trebles and mids and using the tone knobs on your guitar you can get a slightly fatter and darker more p90ish sound out of them. Lately I have been opting for the latter, going more for a Cream era Clapton tone, using quite dark settings on the amp, no pedals, just the nice tube overdrive of either a dimed 50 watt 1987x marshall or a JTM 45, usually plugged into the bass channel with a y cable jumpering the two channels with both dimed. Either one of these amps then through a oversize 2x12 loaded with a pair of JBL K120s. This is the setup I used when comparing the Lollars, Novaks, the 76, the modern ceramics and even a mystery pair of patent number pups which I'll talk about in a bit.
It seems most people prefer the neck pup on Firebirds, most Johnny winter videos I see he is always on the neck, other vid of a guy named Cal? I'd have to look again but he also appears to be all neck pup. It is a great sound but I find myself for leads gravitating towards the bridge overdriven, with the tone knob rolled back considerably, depending on the volume sometimes more sometimes less.
Describing sound gets ridiculous, I think I read somebody describe a FB pup as "chewy" sounding once, I have NO idea what a chewy sound would be. I remember too hearing sellers describe their flamenco guitars as having "snarl" and "burn", like that nylon string guitar was a wild animal or to strum it was like firing a machine gun. Funny but ridiculous too like I said, the way I look at it is if you pick up a guitar and the music starts to flow that is a good sign, and if you pick up the guitar and start to play and then you realize that 10-15 minutes or more have passed by (like when I plugged in the 76 to the JTM 45 after getting it fixed, see video below) and you didn't realize it, then that is a really good sign. On the other hand if you find you can't relax, and you find you are reaching for your amps knobs over again, adjusting this and that, moving your speaker cabinet around that is not so good. Some adjustments are important, pickup height, having your guitar set up adequately so that it is not a bitch to play, speakers are screwed in tight and not vibrating or rattling when you hit low notes, naturally all that you want to take care of.
I think we are lucky these days to have such options available and people like Curtis and Jason digging deep into the science of what made the vintage pickups sound like they did and recreating them to the best of their abilities. The fact that players like me and probably others reading this can nitpick over minute details is really a novelty which we ought to be thankful for. Ultimately for guitarists using these pups it is all about making great music, and no doubt many people will be making great music on both Jasons' and Curtis' pickups thanks to their contribution. I have a set of Curtis Novaks pups in a 2009 Firebird which I have really been enjoying, they have a very different sound than the Bicentennial firebird. I also installed for a few days a set of Jason Lollars firebird pickups in the guitar which now has the Novaks in it and both sets sounded great. Similar in sound as they are the same design. I found the Lollars to be a bit more aggresive, brighter and defined (listen to the demos on his website if you haven't already to hear his pickups) where the Novaks were a little fatter, smoother and with a certain "hollow" sound for lack of a better word. I'll see if I can't record some clips of these at some point.
The 76 bird is a lighter weight guitar than the 2009, not sure if it is a different wood or what that would make it so much lighter. The neck on the 76 is chunkier too which I like. It has a darker and bluesier tone than the 09. The 09 in general is brighter with the Novaks and the Lollars. It makes me wonder if the differences in sound of the 76 had more to do with the wood or the guitar or if it was the slightly different design of the pup. Probaby both I'm guessing but mostly the pickups making for the difference. Speaking of the different design, I read that in the evolution (or de-evolution as some might suggest) of firebird pickups the design changed slightly over the years. Here is some info I found by a real knowledgeable guy who has contributed to a lot of Firebird pickup related posts.
1963-1964 Firebird Pickups:
Two mini hum sized (nylon?) bobbins, both with rectangular mold holding what appears to be the bar magnets in slots of the bobbin so the windings are surrounding the magnet itself. No external bar magnets like a regular humbucker or Deluxe mini-hum. Black bobbin wires, enameled dark windings, thin metal plate covering both bobbins on the bottom side held with black, tar like glue. Two maple spacers between bobbins and bottom plate. No cutout for braided lead. It simply exits the pickup through the thin gap between the cover and bottom plate. PAT number sticker.
1965-1969 Firebird pickups (possibly up to 1972, not completely sure about that as of now):
Two mini hum sized (nylon?) bobbins, both with rectangular mold holding what appears to be the magnets inside of the bobbin itself so the windings are surrounding the magnet itself. No external magnets like a regular humbucker or Deluxe mini-hum. White bobbin wires, Polyurethane coated bright orange windings, thin metal plate covering both bobbins on the bottom side held with black, tar like glue. Notched cutout in base plate corner for braided lead wires. PAT number sticker.
1970's Firebird pickup ('76 Bicentennial and after?):
Two mini hum size bobbins positioned 90 degrees from original angle. Windings face upward to top of pickup. Bar magnet slipped between bobbins also 90 degrees from normal bar magnet position. Bottom plate is stamped with pat number.
"The completely different configuration of the 70's Firebird pickup along with a single bar magnet turned sideways is more than likely responsible for the atypical sound of these 70's guitars. Nothing like original Firebirds IMO. I'm sure exceptions exist just like in any other Gibson guitar. We find pickup variations overlapping as many as two years in just about any model at some point in time. This is all just a starting point until I can get more info. Any corrections or additional details are welcome."
Compared to the 09 Bird with both the Lollars and the Novaks, I found the 76 has richer and deeper basses and a more uniquely aggressive top end. I almost want to say a more 3 dimensional sound overall (especially through the JTM45) and there are some quite raunchy (good raunchy) overtones that come out of single note high E string lead lines using the bridge pup with the Marshalls dimed and the guit volume cranked. These overtones occur particularly when playing single note overdriven leads on the high E string, I think rising from any unmuted open strings vibrating at the frequency of the notes that you are hitting that makes the hair on your neck rise. The p90s could also do this at times I remember but in a different way. The birds bridge bite in particular can really be nasty if you are playing through a thin sounding amp, or your settings are excessively trebly (although ironically I've heard that Johnny Winter played his birds during his music man amp periods with the trebles dimed, the bass on zero and the volume on 10 through a 4x10 speaker cab, which has to about the brightest setting ever, if that is true than no wonder he never or very rarely used the bridge pickup!). Birds can also sound pretty anaemic at low volumes I have to say, but with the right amp and speaker combo, and the right settings these things are the absolute best.
1976 Gibson Bicentennial Firebird through a Metropoulos JTM45 Plexi Clone.
Hopefully you've gained something from all of this, maybe you are even eager to plug and in play. I will say, playing this demo and switching out the pickups numerous times already on the 09 bird has been a real joy but was also a lot of work and without a doubt I've lost some hearing due to the extreme volume levels I played it at solely to benefit the good publics firebird pickup knowledge, keep that in mind when buying my CDs. Click here to buy Heliotricity CDs.
In conclusion, for me when you plug in and start playing and don't realize it but 20 minutes have passed by that proof is right there, when you lose yourself in the music and stop obsessing over the amp settings, the 42 plain enamel and the formvar, the A5 and the A2, the JTM 45 vs the 87x, the pole pieces or the Johnny freaking smith that you've found something. I'll just leave it at that.
Mystery Patent Number Firebird pickups, both read 16k. The guy who I got them from claims they were from the 80's. From everything I've read the high output Gibson patent number ceramic pickups were not being made until the 90's. So were these 80's pups rewound to hotter specs? Are they Alnico or really early ceramics? They are much hotter but still sound much closer to the 1976 Bicentennial pickups than the newer almost entirely unusable ceramic current Gibson pickups. A mystery.
JBL K120 speakers, 16 ohms each.
Reissue Gold Lion KT66 Tubes in a Metropoulos JTM 45 Plexi clone. Shortly after making the recording one of these tubes redplated and died, not uncommon with KT66 tubes I've read. Uses Mercury magnetic transformers and Sozo caps. The 1976 Bird sounds incredible through this amp but the 2006 with both the Lollars and the Novaks sound weak particularly on the high E string for leads, not sure why, whether it is the slightly different design of the 76 pickups or the wood of the 2006 bird...
Update: I changed out the preamp tubes on this and found it made all the difference and though the Novaks and Lollars in general are a little thinner sounding than the 76 they all sound really good through it now. Lesson, just because the preamp tubes are old Mullards doesn't mean they will sound better than current build new tubes, maybe the Mullards were just too worn out...
Tung Sol Reissue EL34 tubes in a Metropoulos 50 Watt Marshall 1987x plexi clone, uses Heyboer made transformers and Sozo caps. Every guitar I plug in to this sounds great, the only thing that trumps it is the 76 through the JTM 45.
Novak Neck DCR = 6.22, I had him wind these lower than standard because most DCR readings from vintage Firebirds are usually around here. My 1976 reads 5.4k for the Neck and 5.6k for the bridge. I bet though that if I unsoldered them from the volume pots they would read probably .2 or .3k higher but I'm not going to break the original solder to find out.
Novak Bridge DCR = 6.27, most people like their bridge hotter than the neck but I wanted them equal, Curtis wound them exactly where I wanted them.
The famous Lollar Neck, DCR = 6.6k
Lollar Bridge DCR = 7.2k
Novak Firebird pickup inside. I asked Curtis to snap a photo of the pups before he put the covers on because I knew once they were on they would probably never come off again. Apparently Firebird pickups are very easily damaged if you try to take them apart and don't know what you are doing.
Novak Firebird pickup inside.
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