A Guide to Lipstick Pickups

As guitar players, we're a tribal bunch. Many fundamental design choices polarize us. There's the 6L6 camp and the EL34 camp. The set neck camp and the bolt-on camp. Single coil pickups and humbuckers.

But passions seem to cool once you start talking about nuanced differences between offerings in each camp. Take single coil pickups, for example. The standard six-pole design native to Stratocasters is not the only way to design a pickup around a single coil of wire. Just think of P-90s, gold foils, Franz pickups, Burns Tri-Sonics, Melody Maker pickups, Jaguar pickups, Jazzmaster pickups, Charlie Christian-type pickups and toaster-style singe coils, to name a few.

Unless you're talking to a true connoisseur, most players will shrug or stumble along trying to articulate the differences in EQ, timbre and engineering when asked to compare any of them. This is especially true when it comes to lipstick pickups like those found in Danelectros, Corals, Charvel Surfcasters and the more recent Vintage Modified Surf Strat.

If you count yourself among that crowd, you're not alone. Here's a primer to help.

Nathan Daniel - Father of the Lipstick Pickup

1960 Danelectro Short Horn with a lipstick pickup

1960 Danelectro Short Horn with a lipstick pickup

The lipstick pickup was the brainchild of electric guitar innovator Nathan Daniel. He founded his own company, Danelectro, in 1947, manufacturing musical instrument amplifiers of his own innovative design. Two of his largest customers were Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, for whom he produced amps that were cosmetically distinct from his own Danelectro amps. These were sold under those retailers' own brand names, Silvertone and Airline, respectively.

In 1954, he began manufacturing guitars under both the Danelectro and Silvertone labels (he never made guitars for Montgomery Ward). Daniel continued to innovate throughout his career with baritone guitars and models such as the Coral (electric) Sitar, which, unlike the classic Indian sitar, could be easily played by any guitarist.

Daniel could be likened to Henry Ford in that he was constantly developing new ways to keep production cost down and output maximized. Many of the key elements that contributed to that particular Danelectro style were originally conceived to simplify production – Masonite top/backs, stacked knobs, tape binding, metal nuts, and the simply constructed pickup.

Yes, They Were Actually Real Lipstick Tubes

Always looking for a deal, Daniel procured a large surplus of women’s lipstick tubes from a manufacturer. Inside, Daniel placed the most simple pickup to date – a bar magnet wrapped directly in copper wire without any bobbin at all. These were occasionally sealed in wax or lacquer.

For context, traditional Strat-style single coils have individual magnets as pole pieces held in a bobbin that is then wrapped in copper wire. The bar magnet changes the magnetic field of the pickup, giving it the unique window of the string vibration that it translates into sound.

The original lipstick models are longer than traditional single coils, as the lipstick case only came in one size. Today, many aftermarket pickup makers manufacture lipsticks in traditional and humbucker sized for easy swapping.

Lipstick Pickup Tone

Blake Mills with a lipstick-equipped Danelectro.

Many people refer to the neck pickup of a Telecaster as a lipstick, but it is actually a traditional single coil with a bobbin and a metal cover. Due to the larger bar magnet, lipsticks have much more note smear and a less-precise clean sound. This becomes more apparent when distorted, as the distortion highlights even more sound artifacts.

Lipstick pickups are at their best when you’re looking for a slightly dirtied clean sound or a ragged over-driven sound. They generally produce a tone with scooped-mids and a very trebly top end, with a looser bass overall when compared to other single coil pickups. This also makes them great for rhythm guitar, as their looseness accentuates the complete chord sound rather than just the individual notes as some single coils tend to do.

When a pickup is installed in an instrument, the materials the instrument is made out of inevitably affect the pickup’s overall sound. Lipsticks are generally found in Danelectro branded instruments, which are often hollowed and made of plywood. Installing a lipstick pickup into a solid bodied guitar will tighten up the pickup’s response, and it will lose some of its ragged tone.

Adjusting Lipstick Pickups

For physical adjustment, lipstick pickups are dead simple because the bar magnet has no staggered or adjustable pole pieces to deal with. This simplicity also makes the pickup less forgiving.

On many Danelectro-style instruments, the adjustment screws are located on the back of the instrument. This makes it difficult to make changes in the playing position or to see the rise and fall of the pickup during adjustment. Patience is key when adjusting lipsticks, as it can be easy to move the pickup too much and miss your ear’s sweet spot.

When adjusting your pickups, keep in mind output and height.

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Output

Output is the power of the pickup, or the strength of the magnet. Generally, the more output, the easier it is for the pickup to overdrive the amp to distort. Output correlates with DC resistance (DCR), where a higher number means higher output.

For example, a Seymour Duncan JB Humbucker has an DCR of 16k (fairly high). Fender Stratocaster “Fat '50s” pickups have a DRC of about 6k (medium low). Lipstick pickups are generally very low output of around 3-4k, meaning they will not drive an amp without some help from a boost or overdrive pedal. This low output is not a drawback, though. Because – as mentioned earlier – lipstick pickups can suffer from note smear, the extra headroom can actually help mitigate that.

Height

Setting the right height on a lipstick pickup can be a challenge. Too high and much of the character of the pickups is lost with extra noise added to the signal. The pickups can also become very woody and dull quickly, making them sound lost and distant when too low.

I have two lipstick-equipped guitars: a Danelectro Hodad and a Convertible. On the Hodad, I keep the neck pickup 0.10” from the strings and the bridge pickup 0.030” from the strings. These are lipstick humbuckers with a higher output than the vintage models (but not by much). They each split into a traditional single coil lipstick, as well.

I find that the neck being lower helps keep out some of the boominess that these semi-hollow guitars often fall victim to. The bridge pickup is close but balances with the volume of the neck. This gives me both depth and cutting power when playing in a mix.

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The Convertible’s single pickup is at 0.070” from the strings, which makes sense because it is very close to a middle position pickup on a Strat. I find that keeping these pickups just the right distance from the strings balances potential shrillness while maintaining the pleasing sound artifacts these pickups produce.

Remember that pickup adjustment will depend your guitar, amp, pedals, and most importantly, your ear and music. Alway use measurements as a place to start, but don’t fear adjusting and tweaking until everything sounds good to you.

Lipstick pickups are unlike any other single coil. When you're considering that next swap opportunity or parts-guitar build, ask yourself what levels of clarity, EQ and output you really want for the sound you're after. Nathan Daniel's scrappy design might be just what you're looking for.

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