You’d think as technology has progressed, guitarists would leave the old ways behind and be happy with our modern electronic marvels. But, as many musicians will attest, there’s something irreplaceably special about the equipment produced in the early days of each musical epoch. So it is that today there is a growing interest in vintage-styled gold foil pickups.
There are several companies offering their own versions of these unique-looking pups—some sticking to vintage specs and others presenting contemporary twists.
Though gold foil pickups were initially issued in low-cost student guitars, they’re seeing a resurgence in popularity as more and more guitarists are looking to the days of yore to get the most from their tone.
Like with most things, opinions are split—with a pretty big margin—on whether or not gold foils are any good. But, love ‘em or hate ‘em, everyone tends to agree that they offer a sound much different than your typical single-coil or humbucker.
So, out of all the types of electric guitar pickups available, could gold foil pickups be the secret to your long-sought sound? Let’s take a look…
Getting a Grasp on Gold Foil Pickups
History of Gold Foil Pickups
After their introduction in the 1930s, guitar pickups began pouring onto the market in a huge array of designs issued forth by a great number of inventors.
Of these innovators was the great Harry DeArmond, who was among the first to develop an attachable pickup capable of electrifying any acoustic. Beginning in the early 1940s, DeArmond and his company Rowe Industries started creating many different styles of pickups.
They would eventually become the primary electronics supplier for the Harmony Company, one of the most prolific, if not necessarily the highest quality, instrument manufacturers of the 20th century.
Around the same time, Atswo Kaneko and Doryu Matsuda were kickstarting their own musical instrument and electronics company in Japan. In their early years, the duo, under the brand name Teisco, focused on crafting lapsteel guitars, microphones, and amplifiers.
You might be wondering where gold foil pickups fit into all this. Well, following the release of the Fender Esquire in 1950, pickup design went full-blast. There were countless models being produced during a period of immense experimentation. It seemed that everyone was obsessed with trying as many things as they could to pull the most sound out of the newly developed solid body electric.
That’s why it’s hard to say who was the first to develop the foil-covered pickup. There’s a gap in the timeline in the mid-1950s where we seem to have lost their exact creation date.
Whoever it was, two names became known for this new design—DeArmond and Teisco.
The earliest guitar I can find that featured gold foil pickups is the Teisco J-1 which premiered in 1954. I can’t find a DeArmond gold foil pickup any earlier than 1959, so it’s likely that Teisco was the first to pull this off. At any rate, these two companies were the leading name in gold foil pickups and remain synonymous with the style to this day.
Despite their aesthetic attraction and unconventional voice, gold foil pickups never found much appeal among serious musicians. In the hands of guitarists like Hound Dog Taylor, James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, and even Richie Valens, Teisco and Harmony brand guitars have had their share of the spotlight. However, almost every model ever played with prominence has been furnished with more standard electronics.
Why is this? My guess is that to most guitarists throughout history, vintage-style gold foil pickups were simply not powerful enough to hold much of a flame to the more-popular Gibson humbuckers and Fender single-coils. And, though they sound interesting, their tone is overall unlike what people are accustomed to hearing.
That’s not to say they don’t have their niche. In fact, gold foil pickups are a favorite of the eclectic Ry Cooder, so much so that they are the cornerstone of his signature “Coodercaster’s” tone.
Though they’ve never had the same prestige as the prevailing pups, gold foil pickups are having somewhat of a renaissance today, with several companies issuing vintage-true reproductions to give modern musicians a taste of electric guitar’s exotic history.
What Gives Gold Foil Pickups Their Unique Tone?
While gold foil pickups operate on the same electromagnetic principles as your typical single-coil, they often do so with a largely different configuration.
The first thing you should know is that the world of gold foil pickups has a lot of variation. Though most are single-coil, some are double-coil, and that’s just the tip of the dissimilarity iceberg. The only things that really unite all the different editions are their metallic covers and base plates, and of course, gold foil. That aside, the magnet type, the gauge and coiling of the wire, the presence or absence of polepieces, the mounting style, and the size all vary widely from pickup to pickup. It’s been that way since they were first developed and remains the same now.
Modern gold foil pickups commonly follow vintage specs and use a rubberized ferrite magnet like was standard in the first Teiscos and DeArmonds. These magnets are basically what you’d find on a fridge. They have much lower gauss ratings than the Alnicos usually used in modern pickups, which is why gold foil pickups are often described as “weak.”
The type of magnet used varies from company to company and from model to model, but it’s usually these ferrite strips or else one or two Alnico bars, although there are a few companies using ceramic magnets). Since the magnet is a long bar, much more of your strings’ magnetic flux is detected by the coil. As such, the sound between each string is more balanced, and a much fuller range of harmonics is picked up than in, for instance, a Telecaster’s individual slug set up.
Unlike the quintessential Fender- and Gibson-style pickups we all know and love, the magnets of gold foil pickups usually sit outside of the wire coil. To direct the magnetic energy into the wire, manufacturers will generally use either a bent steel bar that contacts the magnet and goes up through the center of the coil. Otherwise, they’ll use polepieces positioned either inside or outside the wire. Each of these design choices results in a different sound, which is why it’s hard to say exactly what a gold foil pickup sounds like—there’s a lot of variance from model to model.
So, we have the magnets, and these sit on top of a steel base plate. Onto this goes a bobbin wrapped with several thousand strands of copper wire. Like every other design aspect, the gauge, tautness, and number of wraps of this wire vary greatly among the different takes on gold foils. Depending on the maker, these coils may or may not be potted, which affects both the tone and the durability of the pup. Potted pickups—those dipped in wax or a similar sealer—will be less microphonic but have far less of an overtone saturation than their unpotted kin.
Forgoing the standard slugs used in most modern pickups in favor of strip magnets means that the bobbin of these pickups can be very thin—some are barely an eighth of an inch tall. Because of this, you’ll probably need to shim the pickup to get it set up at a proper height under your strings.
From the bottom up, we’ve got a steel base plate, a bar magnet or two, a slim bobbin and copper coil, and maybe some pole pieces. Now, we arrive at the aspect shared among all gold foil pickups, and that is…wait for it…the gold foil! This is their most striking characteristic; it’s what unites them all under the same category of boutique guitar electronics. You’re probably wondering what it is about gold foil that makes the tone of these pickups so unique and vintagey. It’s gotta something about the understudied magnetovibrational resonance of gold and the strange paths electrons take when they pass through it, right?
At this point, I have some tough news to break to you. Rarely, if ever, is this foil made of real gold—and I lean far more toward never than occasionally. First, this would be too cost prohibitive. Second, the effect on the tone would be negligible. Third, it’s just all around impractical.
This “gold” foil is more often than not some paper-backed aluminum that’s been stamped to look perforated and given a golden sheen. Sometimes, you’ll find a pickup that’s got a nickel or silver screen painted gold, but these are more a rarity.
The fact is the gold foil is there for two reasons, and neither of them has anything to do with your guitar’s sound. The more functional aim is to keep dust and dirt and skin flakes from griming up the coil in a case that would otherwise be left open and exposed. Totally practical, yes? That leaves the only other purpose of this gold foil, which, quite simply, is to look cool.
Admittedly, these are really sweet looking pickups that immediately draw the eye. This cosmetic glimmer (as well as the low price) is what helped make Harmony electric guitars one of the best selling instruments of the 20th century. Nowadays, when we’ve grown so used to seeing the six silver slugs of Stratocaster single-coils and the black box of EMG humbuckers, shaking things up a little with a gleaming gold shining through a pair of diamond cutouts is a quick way to make guitars look interesting again.
I know it might be a bit of a letdown to know that the gold is true only in appearance, but if you’re going to switch to a new style of pickups it’s better that you’re more sold on their sound than their looks. To that end, let’s go over a quick rundown of their tone so you make up your mind one way or the other.
And Just What is That Tone Anyway?
Here’s the thing about gold foil pickups—if you’re gonna be playing with a random vintage edition, there’s no telling what it will sound like till you plug it in. They were just too varied back in the day to provide a consistent sound from design to design. Truth is, many of these old pickups straight up don’t sound good. Considering they were made designed for quick, cheap manufacture to be sold in budget beginner axes, this really isn’t much of a surprise.
And here is where the modern makers shine. Knowing that there must be something to the tone of these original gold foil pups, many of the people who craft them today have tried out many of the different classic lines to find out which ones are worth the prestige. After looking at the guts of these better breeds, they studied everything about their makes—their magnets, cover materials, wire gauge, number of wraps, DC resistance, and so on—and have done their best to bring the best of mid-century gold foil tone to contemporary times.
We’ve now got a pretty pleasing lineup of gold foil pickup designs to choose from. Aside from the replicated DeArmond and Teisco types, there are humbuckers, soapbars, wide range, strat-sized and more. They can be made to order or found as exact reproductions of the models that kicked off this craze in the first place.
Though there’s a lot of sonic differentiation from company to company, overall, these quality gold foil pickups have a tone much unlike what you’re probably used to. Their sound is described in many different ways—some say they’re like scaled-back P90s while others say they’re like a bluesier take on the original Jazzmasters. I’ve heard them described as wet, as dry, as hot, as cool, as flat, as treble-heavy, yadda yadda.
The best I can do for you in describing the general tone of what might be considered a standard gold foil pickup is to say that they are much more open and metallic sounding—that is, less focused and punchy—than most of the more popular pickups. I do think they’re a bit bluesier than a Strat coil, and they’re certainly not as hot as a humbucker. Those with the weak ferrite strip magnets make for low output, no matter their winding style. But these long magnets magnetize the whole case and give you a much broader string response, so you do wind up with a relatively flat yet harmonic-filled voice. I would tend to describe them as rather wet while still being bright and articulate. To me, they lean toward the tone of a resonator and sound somewhat like they’re singing from the bayou.
Of course, with so many different types of gold foil pickups, it’s altogether impossible to say “gold foil pickups sound like X.” If you’re fascinated by them, I say give em a go! You can find some fairly low-cost gold foil pickups to dip your toe in, and if you like those, there are many more to explore as you look to explore your tonal territory.
Watch some videos. Listen to Ry Cooder’s slide work. Be open-minded yet maintain a healthy amount of skepticism, and don’t be sold on the gold foil alone. If this is the right pickup for you, I think you’ll know it pretty fast.
Summing it Up
Well, to sum it up, I’d say the hype around gold foil pickups is both well-deserved but is oftentimes misinformed. The term encompasses such a broad range of different pickups and build techniques that it’s hardly fair to generalize them.
Undoubtedly, there are some poor-sounding pups in this category that were put together without much care or attention to finding out how to make a guitar sing with classic clarity. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, we have pickups given to us by masters of their trade and designers who really care about crafting the highest quality electronics they can provide. The gold foil pickups of these companies are splendid sound machines that have a truly mystical, somewhat alien vibe.
If you can break away from whatever preconceptions you might have about gold foil pickups and listen with a discerning ear, I’m sure you’ll find what sets the best apart from the rest.