Cap-ital gains…

10 12 2012

Recently, we purchased a Lefty Carparelli S3 LP Clone “Celebrity Axe” in a charity auction.

The guys here have been adopted and then conscripted by a group of reprobates… um… er… Vets that buy and then rehab guitars and amplifiers to donate to American Soldiers serving in the field. They called it the “Secret Strat Project“.

It’s a “paycheck by paycheck” gig…

We bought this axe because (a) we’d had this Korean US Marine on our list for a while and (b) because  it was signed by a really popular South Korean Rock Band and we thought he’d get a kick out of it.

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We spent more than we usually would, but all the proceeds from the auction were going to help families in Japan who are still trying to recover after the Tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear Reactor failure. So, it was all good. We don’t mind eating Mac and Cheese for a few more days to help pay for it. 

But that’s when things took a turn.

We learned that this Marine’s family lives on the East Coast and his little girl, who is a guitar prodigy (according to her “ex-Julliard schooled” guitar teacher, no less) lost her guitar and amp in the floods and heavy weather. We learned that his tear-filled desire was that somehow he was going to replace his daughter’s musical gear so she would stop crying.

Yes, Virginia. Big, Bad Fire-breathing Marines, cry. In fact, where our children are concerned, we’ve all shed rivers of tears.

Wanna make something of it?

I didn’t think so.

So, this time, we’re doing something a little bit different.

We’re going to replace HER gear, by Christmas. Her family lost everything.  She needs “normal”. She needs a neck to hang off of and pour her love into. She needs to channel that love and start healing her heartbreak. Daddy will find out about it the same time she does, probably (hopefully) over a family SKYPE call, on Christmas morning.

At least that’s our hope. All she’ll know is that Santa didn’t forget about her. The card will read simply;

“Merry Christmas! Daddy loves you.”

We already knew that Carparelli’s are REALLY NICE in the furniture department, but we’d heard that because they were built for a specific  price point (they are a GREAT value), they could use a little tweaking to make them even better.

Are they playable, out of the box?

Absolutely. Nice pups, locking tuners, nice bridge and tailpiece, and decent controls. If you’re looking for an “above entry level – Les Paul” type axe, you owe it to yourself to check these babies out…

I will say this;

The money you save buying a nice Carparelli over buying  an entry level Gibson Les Paul will pay for a really nice amp. 🙂

These are really nice guitars for the money, folks. In fact, we’re pretty impressed. This Carparelli S3 is one beautiful axe.

Don’t get me wrong, this axe won’t leave you wanting- box stock.

In fact, we think that it’d  be the perfect “learning axe” (like…  your “second guitar”), one that you could easily and affordably upgrade as your skills increased.

This axe really does have that WOW factor. It’s finish level is much better than MANY axes we see daily and extremely rare at this price point.

The guys in Canada (where these axes hail from) are really paying attention to detail. With it’s nice body and neck quality to build off of,  I guarantee that you’ll have this axe a LONG time… and you’ll look and sound good playing it.

 

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But, with just a little massaging, a Carparelli makes a really NICE “Les Paulish” player, rivaling most “real” Les Pauls you find in the marketplace, for FAR less money.

If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you know that we tell you to “ignore the brand  names” and look at “fit and finish”. 

Based on that, this axe gets pushed up high on that list of “must sees” when looking for a Les Paul type guitar.

So, the plan is to carefully gut the axe and get a nice pair of gold P-90s (or maybe even a set of ’57 Classics), along with a handful of high end gold plated components (CTS 500k Reverse pots, Switchcraft switch and jack, etc…) to finish out what is a really well built and quite striking guitar.

And while we started discussing the repairs and mods for this guitar (before we give it to Santa to deliver on Christmas Eve)…

All hell broke loose.

The topic switched to pots, the good switch and jack… and a new wiring harness.

That meant that we got to revisit “Cap Hell”…

Here’s where the argument commences;

The whole issue of capacitors is fraught with peril. Some people swear by Bumblebees (and give away their paychecks to obtain them). Some players  like Sprague Black Beauties.

Um… if you ask me… SoZo’s are cool and quite affordable.

And, they  ALL sound GOOD. But there are as many opinions about capacitors as there are grains of sand on the beach.

Blondes or… Brunettes?

Fender or… Gibson?

Dodge… or Ford?

Big ones or… small ones?

(Hey!  I was talking about guitar neck profiles. What were YOU thinking about? Get your mind out of the gutter, huh?) LOL!

If you ask me… this whole “MY cap is better than your Cap” thing is getting pretty ridiculous.

We took one look at this gorgeous axe and decided that we’re taking it back toward 1959 and Kalamazoo. We LOVE that “Classic Les Paul sound and vibe”. LOVE it.

Gibson_Historic_Bumble_Bee_Capacitors_PCAP-059_aAnyone familiar with most vintage Les Pauls knows that the harnesses commonly bear the .022 BumbleBee’s red, red, orange stripes. Do they sound good? Yes.

But, it’s an expensive proposition.

You too can have authentic ’59 Bumblebee Capacitors contributing to that  lovingly pursued tone of your beautiful axe…

… for the low, low price of $112 a pair.

Let me repeat that… for $112 a PAIR.

Is it really necessary?

THAT’S the question.

And thus, the first stone in the rockfight is thrown;

Any discussion about guitar  capacitors has to start with two components;

The TYPE of  capacitor that you are using, and…

The VALUE of the capacitor itself. (There’s actually a third component – call it a “subset” – it’s the TOLERANCES that the capacitors are spec’d at.)

In my view, it’s the  VALUE and Tolerance percentage of the cap that is of  primary importance. There are 3 different TYPES of caps commonly used in guitars;

1. Electrolytic caps: good
2. Mylar caps: better
3. Polypropylene caps: best

Once you’ve figured that out, you get to choose “values”. If the three types of caps are like “regular, unleaded and premium” fuel in your car, “Value” is HOW MUCH fuel you add.

Generally, most players want to balance guitar pickups  by removing a bit of the harshness/over brightness of the treble pickup, so it’s common to increase the value of the cap in that pup circuit to enhance the effect.

When you consult an electrical engineer, it gets confusing… They’ll tell you;

“When the 300k/500k tone controls on a Les Paul type guitar are “dimed” (set at full treble), the capacitor is effectively doing nothing; it’s value/make/type makes little or no difference, because it has that 300/500k potentiometer in the way.”

And when you start rolling the tone control back to remove treble, there is by definition a ‘loss of tone’.

So even if, even if, different makes/types of cap made a difference, then you’re trying to hear this under conditions where you are effectively making the guitar’s tone more restricted and ‘woolly’, and less responsive in the highs.

“They’ll tell you that it’s like boasting; “Now that I’ve restricted the treble response of my guitar… I can hear that this capacitor has great tone”.”

Then, they’ll tell you that guitar controls are too primitive to allow humans to actually hear the difference in caps based on the (a) bandwidth of the guitar and (b) that distinguishing between the TYPE of capacitors in this process isn’t possible.

It’s just too crude a process…

“They’ll tell you that we’re influenced by all those articles we read, written by electrical engineers building amp circuits or Hi-Fi Equipment, products with a “higher” threshold of operation that allows differentiation of tones, audibly.”

They’ll state categorically that in a guitar’s passive tone control circuits, a lot of the “concern” about this brand or that brand… is just nonsense unless you have the hearing of a canine.

The illustration will be that unscrupulous dealers spend pennies building caps and then label and market them by selling guitarists fairy stories about quality and tone voodoo…  and then they make millions of dollars doing it.

Okay, is there any truth to this?

Let’s look at the other side of the horizon. Let’s call this land; “Hand’s On-ville”.

For years I spewed the electronic engineer’s commonly held point of view that the type of caps in a guitar make little  difference. It’s what  I was taught as we looked at schematics and electrical theory.

As a player… well, I thought that my ears were just playing tricks on me.

But then… it happened. Years ago, while working on my guitars and many other player’s axes as well, I ended up getting sucked into the lab in our basement as an assistant to my electrical engineer girlfriend, a Russian import who was a pretty well-known amplifier designer/builder/repair tech in the Las Vegas area.

This girl, Anna,  was more than just well put together “Exotic Brains and great looks”… she was the Russian equivalent of a NASA electrical engineer. She looked like a Caesar’s Palace Showgirl and she soldered like a rocket scientist. And, she was a stickler for detail, so she “forced me to learn” as I helped her. Ever try to learn electrical theory in Russian, one syllable at a time? My head still hurts. As I applied myself to these new tasks (because it was better than arguing and then sleeping on the couch) I “learned” that many of our clients could actually hear the difference in the type of capacitors used in both passive and active guitar circuits.

My interest piqued, we started using our clients as guinea pigs, performing blind tests on them (without their consent) and the results were amazing… and replicable.

People will tell you that humans can indeed hear the differences between capacitor types and even capacitor values.

We watched it closely (both audibly and by using a scope to look at waveforms). You can SEE the differences. If you can see them, it’s possible, under the right circumstances to hear them, right? “Possible” and “probable” are two different things, however.

Now, I’m not talking about “Golden Ear – freaky stuff” like “Eric Johnson and his alleged ability to hear the differences between the brands of batteries in his pedals” kinda hearing.

(In fact, that’s a myth  – he never actually said that. I personally asked him about it once. He denied it and said simply that he found a brand of batteries that he liked and then… he stuck with them.)

But I digress;

We watched guys and gals choose caps audibly. We didn’t switch “TYPES” as much as switched “VALUES”. We SAW the differences on the scope as they made their decisions. Were they always right? THEY thought that they were. In the end, that was what was important.

(I still think it was one of those 50/50 crapshoots, to be honest. Like when you go to the eye doctor and he’s checking your eyes in that lens box and he says; “This one… or THIS one… after a while, it’s hard to tell. )

I believe it is the variation in capacitor VALUE that accounts for any sound difference. The capacitor construction isn’t as discernible. Where it gets tricky is when you’re  comparing closely toleranced capacitors (that are spec’d to within a few percentage points of each other) and when you’re using cheaper, “wider spec” (up to 30% different) capacitors.

There’s not a ton of difference between .022uf and .024uf. There’s a HUGE difference between .012uf and .050uf.

The REASON that there are so many different types of capacitors is that the caps themselves behave differently. 

Things like operating temperature, frequency and the applied voltages will affect them. But we’re not talking about rocket engines or a space satellite, we’re talking about a guitar. Everything we do with them is on the low end of the spectrum; low audio frequencies, low AC voltages, and zero DC voltages.  The only difference for the capacitor is it’s dissipation measured in Equivalent Series Resistance (ESR). The original capacitors may have a higher ESR but since the cap is soldered in series with the 500K potentiometer, an extra ohm of ESR is negligible to the point of being meaningless.

In the end, it’s about YOUR ears.

Spend what you need to spend and then… solder away. It’s a really insignificant cost as far as mods goes, when you think about  the costs involved in guitar evolution.

If you change cap VALUES (buy closely spec’d/toleranced caps to insure that you’re getting what you paid for)  and TYPES and it makes a difference that you appreciate, it’s money well spent. But forget the “brand mojo” hype – If it’s done because you read it in a trade mag, or because your backline boys insist it’s a necessary mod, then, by all means… try it, but you’re probably just spending your girlfriend’s beer money for nothing.

The only reason we can justify buying those high priced caps around here is when we’re putting a vintage axe back together into it’s original configuration to maintain it’s historical significance. So, if you’re  doing to to attain or restore vintage authenticity, we’ll defend your choices to the end.

In the final analysis;

I really can’t say if your audience has ears that can hear the subtle changes you’ll make in your control cavity. But YOU will, and it’ll give you a little “boost” as you play.

A tone capacitor  in an electric guitar is simply a passive bleed-to-ground.

Remember that by design, it’s not even in the signal path. What you are hearing coming out of your amp is the signal that the capacitor rejected;

In other words, that “capacitor enhanced sound” you’re sometimes paying big bucks for isn’t colored by the capacitor AT ALL.

Combine this with the fact that the current flowing through a passive electric guitar is extremely weak – and I mean much, much  less than what any of these capacitors are rated for – and you get a circuit where the type of capacitor that you used is nearly irrelevant.

If the current were flowing THROUGH the capacitor and then into the amplifier – or if you somehow plugged a preamp in there before the tone circuit – then we’d have something to talk about.

But, IN the end, you’re probably the only one that is gonna know what capacitor you’ve plugged into the circuits cradled in that mahogany hole.

That means if you ain’t got clear covers on the back of your axe, nobody else is gonna see them. And, they probably aren’t going to HEAR them, either.

Bumblebees

Me? I gotta clear set of backplates on this ’59 Gibson Les Paul sitting right here. Why? Well… I suppose that it’s just to cater to a voyeuristic nature… Sometimes it’s fun to look at  “pretty girls without their clothes on”… or maybe it’s just a Neanderthal desire to look at “Gibson guts”. 🙂

Plus, it’s a GREAT way to show someone HOW a Les Paul guitar actually works…

We’ll share the mod’s on this Carparelli S3 guitar with you as we go along. Right now, we need to have a talk with the guys in Canada about an axe…

Stay tuned.

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