Lee Roy Parnell has the touch, and we discovered that he has been chasing the sound of those old Gibson guitars for decades. He hooked up with pickup winder Ron Ellis to contrive a new set of Lee Roy’s signature pickups, and Lee Roy describes the process here. Our review follows Lee Roy’s comments. Enjoy…
TQR: What were you shooting for specifically with the LRPs Lee Roy?
What we were going for was a bell-like, almost single coil tone on the neck pickup that seems so hard to get right. So many of my younger friends have never heard a great PAF pickup, and back in the ‘50s when they were first made, nothing was shielded, and that was a big problem on stage for the entire band. That was the point of the PAF, not to get that woofy, overdriven sound that humbuckers eventually became. The only guitar I owned from the time I was 15 to 30 was my ‘56 goldtop. That was the tone I knew, and the hum wasn’t quite as bad if you stood just right, so when I heard the modern pickups that were around when I started my own tone quest years ago, I just avoided them. They didn’t sound like my goldtop, and they sure didn’t sound like the guitars Duane and Dickie played.
Thanks to Bill Hullett, who is the ultimate Tele guy in my opinion, Ron sent me two sets of Tele pickups, I really liked them, and we began talking a lot. He asked me what kind of sound I wanted from humbucking pickups, and I kept saying bell-like in the neck, and something clear for the bridge that wasn’t going to hit the front end of my amp so hard. We struggled to find the right words to describe the sound, and I don’t know exactly how many sets we went through before we finally landed on the right ones. We had the help of several other folks, Phillip Whorton at the Custom Shop, who was very instrumental in the LRP because he and I worked on the guitar itself, and Chad Underwood, a guitar builder in Lexington was there at different times… The big ah, hah! moment came when we were down to two sets – call ‘em A and B. What happened was that we took the neck from set A and the bridge from B and that combination was it. What we heard was the clarity of the notes, very defined and very clear, this slight bit of compression, and the bloom. As I have continued to play some other old Les Pauls, I have learned that’s what they have, and as we were growing up, that was the sound we heard before it was lost.
We used various LRP guitars for these tests, and Phillip Whorton was behind the development of the guitars at Gibson. I told him that we had to make sure that whenever someone picks up one of the LRPs they have to be consistent to the extent that you can accomplish that, and I believe the piece of mahogany sitting on the back side of that pickup makes all the difference. I have put LRPs in my other guitars like a 336 and 335, and the LRPs still do it for me, but they also sound different in those guitars. Ron is so meticulous and he is so good about communicating the language of sound. Someone said that “talking about music is like dancing about architecture,” and it’s true. Those first two sets of Ron’s Tele pickups had the same mojo as the LRPs. They had the same qualities — the clarity, the initial attack, and the bloom. In that sense the language is the same. Another thing we kept coming back to is not just how they sound, but how do they feel? If it doesn’t feel right you’re not gonna keep going back to it. I never even noticed this before but someone pointed out to me that when you get into a solo and it starts to build, you use a different part of your fingers when you dig in. I usually use one of three fingers and my thumb, and my first finger has the most callus on it, so I tend to use my second and ring finger for the tender stuff and dig in with the first. No disrespect to DiMarzio, but if you have a pickup that is kicking out 10K, it don’t matter if you’re using a finger or a hammer. There are cats that works for, and that’s fine, but I guess I’m into the more subtle things.
Review: LRP Humbuckers
Sometimes in life true stories are so compelling that further elaboration seems pointless. So when you read the background story on Ron Ellis’ LRP pickups and his factual description of how the prototypes were tested and evaluated, culminating in an A/B test against a celebrated ‘59 Les Paul, well, point made. Aside from the test Ellis described at the Gibson Custom Shop, you should know that other comparisons were made in Texas… we just can’t name all the participants for reasons related to endorsement agreements, but the results were essentially the same, and these guys were deeply familiar with the sound of vintage guitars because they own them. You can find more than a few contemporary pickup winders who may claim to have captured the sound of a true PAF… we will simply point to the facts as described here and leave it to you to decide how compelling those facts may be. Our job is to describe how the LRPs actually sound…
Let’s start by addressing an important bit of reality that you won’t see addressed in any other published review of pickups, that being, your personal experience as it relates to the tone of classic vintage pickups. When the term ‘PAF’ is thrown around in a review, the reviewer can’t possibly know what that might mean to the reader. Have you ever played a guitar with vintage PAF, ‘50s Strat or Telecaster pickups? How long ago? For how long — five minutes or years? Do you know what a great set of pickups in these classic guitars sounds like? Kinda sorta, absolutely, or not at all? “Sounds like a great PAF” is an inherently vague and potentially meaningless statement, since we have already stressed that there is no single ‘PAF’ tone, and if you haven’t heard a “great PAF humbucker” you’re still left clueless. Consequently, in our description of the Ron Ellis’ LRP set, we aren’t going to lean too hard on the term ‘PAF’ as a substitute for a more thoughtful and detailed description…
For most of us, the bridge pickup seals the deal. It’s the one we use the most, and if it’s too sharp, dull or otherwise forgettable, that’s it. In describing the sound of the bridge LRP, it is essential to reference Ron Ellis’ comments about how so many modern pickups only seem to produce the fundamental, meaning a pickup void of 2nd and 3rd order harmonic complexity, that elusive dancing shimmer on the top, and a response to pick attack in which the notes seem to compress and expand — what we refer to as ‘bloom.’ Another quality not necessarily embodied in the fundamental pertains to a sense of space — space and separation between notes, and a spatial quality in which chords sound bigger, deeper, and ring and sustain longer. The 7.49K bridge LRP is adequately bright and trebly, but not as sharp and stinging on the top as some other absolutely stunning early Gibson humbuckers we have played. The plain strings sound a bit rounder and more complex in the LRPs — a beautiful sound, but one that is less penetrating with less bite than our early ‘60s patent number Gibson pickups, and other authentic PAFs we have heard. This isn’t a matter of which is ‘better,’ but more about what you prefer. We really like the LRP bridge, and suspect it might wear very well with a lot of players over an extended period of time, where brighter, sharper pickups might leave them eventually craving more girth. On reflection, the sharper version of a PAF seems to be a little more old-school to us — a more stripped down, bluesy tone. Examples? Freddie King, even when he played a goldtop with P90s, and the Bloomfield tracks on Super Session. The LRPs present a bigger soundstage in the style of… well, Duane Allman. Both are great sounds, just different.
It is generally easier to find more similarities than extreme differences among various neck humbuckers, and this relates to the physical location of the pickup and its distance from the saddles more than anything else. A neck or rhythm pickup naturally sounds warmer given its location, and analyzing subtle differences in these softer, warmer tones can be challenging. We pay a lot of attention to definition versus indistinct, muddier tones on the wound strings, and the degree to which the plain strings retain their treble character and attack. You have probably played guitars with humbucking neck pickups that were virtually useless for the styles of music you play, and the LRP neck humbucker measuring just 6.92K does a nice job of avoiding the stereotypical shortcomings described here. It impresses us as being a powerful and animated choice for blues, clear enough for smooth rhythms, and like the LRP bridge, it possesses lots of character and depth. We have heard vintage PAFs and patent number Gibson humbuckers with slightly more treble presence on the plain strings than the LRP neck, but among contemporary humbuckers the clarity and character of the LRP really stand out as exceptional. We also noted that additional treble can be squeezed out of the LRP by simply moving your pick attack closer to the front edge of the bridge pickup. Where you choose to pick or strum notes relative to the bridge may seem obvious, but having watched Robert Cray use the location of his right hand and pick as an effective tone control all night left a lasting impression. Consider that a hint, and if you’re willing to wait, consider the Ellis LRP set to be a tantalizing choice to be savored among current PAF-style humbuckers.
If you’d like to listen to classic Gibson PAF guitar tones we suggest you dive deep into the sounds of Michael Bloomfield during his ’59 Les Paul phase. Bloomfield played a lot of different guitars during his short career — a Telecaster and P90 equipped ’54 goldtop prior to the burst, but the ’59 brilliantly revealed his true brilliance and artistry like no other. He acquired the burst 1966 in a deal with Dan Erlewine. Erlewine got Bloomfield’s gold top plus $100 cash and Bloomfield got the ’59 Les Paul. TQ