6 Offbeat Vintage Guitar Control Systems

Ever felt you’re out of control? Alvino Rey is the man to blame. Story goes, the guitarist and electronics buff helped Gibson develop its E-150 steel of 1935 and suggested a tone control, probably the first time such a thing had appeared on an electric guitar. Since then, makers have added more controls—and, in some cases, many more. Here we look at six cases through the years that track the ebb and flow of knobs, switches, dials, and levers.

Gibson ES-5
If six was three

During the '40s, Gibson had developed its long-held closeness with dance-band and jazz guitarists, listening carefully to what they wanted. Maybe the conversation broke down, however, when it came to the controls offered on a new instrument that the company launched in 1949. The ES-5 was one of the earliest three-pickup guitars. Certainly this was new territory to explore, but it became clear something wasn't quite right.

Players struggled to get the most from its layout of three volume knobs and one master tone. There was no selector, and so balancing the pickups was solely down to wrestling with each volume control. Gibson had jumped dramatically from one-pickup guitars to this three-pickup instrument.

When it introduced the two-pickup Super 400CES and L-5CES in 1951, the classic Gibson layout of a volume and tone per pickup and a three-way selector was born. Four years later, the ES-5 was reconfigured and given a new name that hinted at a new control scheme: the ES-5 Switchmaster.

Mirroring the company's new layout for two-pickup guitars, the revised ES-5 now had a volume and tone control for each pickup, making for six knobs in all, and where the master tone knob had been on the ES-5's cutaway, the Switchmaster had a new four-way selector switch that offered each pickup in turn or all three together. This made for a much more logical control layout, and the model lasted in the line until the early '60s.

Fender Telecaster
The early connections

If you've been lucky enough to play an original early Telecaster, you might have found the controls rather odd. The classic layout of two metal knobs and a three-way selector was there from the start, and the front knob has always controlled master volume. Beyond that, however, early Teles did things rather differently.

At first, they were wired so that the selector in the rear position delivered both pickups, and the rear knob controlled the amount of neck-pickup sound blended into the bridge-pickup sound. With the selector in the other two positions, the guitar delivered neck-pickup only with preset tone—in the middle position with a "natural" tone, and in the front position with a bassier tone—while the rear knob had no function in either setting.

In 1952, Fender changed that system. With the selector in the rear position, you got the bridge pickup alone, and the rear knob acted as a proper tone control. In the middle position, there was neck pickup alone, also with proper tone control. In the front position, the effect was the same as the old system—neck-pickup alone, with a preset bassier tone and a non-functioning rear knob.

It meant that from '52 until the late '60s, there was no both-pickups setting on a Telecaster, although some players soon discovered "secret" settings between the selector switch's official stops.

Danelectro U-2
Television-style controls

Nathan Daniel began his career in the '30s making amplifiers, including some for Epiphone's Electar brand. He started Danelectro in New Jersey in 1946, at first to supply amps to mail-order outlets, but in 1954 he began making Danelectro guitars with cloth- or vinyl-covered bodies. A few years later he introduced the U series, which included the first electric guitars with stacked control knobs.

Daniel cared little for convention in the way he manufactured guitars, so it was no surprise that he should take a different approach when it came to the way his controls worked. He made the bodies of the U-1 and U-2 in line with his fondness for cheap materials and simple production, using a pine frame with a top and back sheet of Masonite (a brand of fiberboard), edged in vinyl. He gave the U models clear plastic pickguards, distinctive headstocks, and pickup cases made from lipstick tubes.

On the two-pickup U-2, his novel "television-style" stacked controls offered a combined volume and tone per pickup. Daniel's contemporary catalogue was a model of promotional hype, saying the company had "eliminated the confusion of four separate control knobs" and instead offered "a concentric double knob for each pickup [that] greatly increases ease and speed of control during play."

The U-2 had a regular pickup selector, but why did the U-1 need one? Daniels had neatly simplified production and proudly explained that the U-1's switch gave "three instant tone changes," a facility available on "no other single-pickup guitar."

Rickenbacker 460
What's that fifth knob?

Rickenbacker introduced its model 460 in 1961, the first with a modified control layout that the company would apply to nearly all its models over the coming years. A smaller blend control was added just behind the four regular knobs.

With the three-way selector in neck-pickup-only or bridge-pickup-only positions, the fifth knob provided the opportunity to blend in some tone from the unselected pickup. So, with just the bassier neck pickup selected, the fifth knob could blend in a little of the bridge pickup's more trebly tone. And vice versa. With the selector in the mid position, giving both pickups, the fifth knob varied the precise balance between the two, for increased tonal emphasis.

On Rickenbackers fitted with the company's Rick-O-Sound stereo feature, the fifth knob functions more as a balance control between left and right—neck pickup and bridge pickup—because to achieve stereo, the selector was lodged in the centre position so that both pickups were "on." However, some guitarists still find Rick's blend control baffling and decide to forget their guitar has a fifth knob.

Godwin Super Professional Guitar-Organ
The world record holder

When I was working on The Ultimate Guitar Book back in the mists of time, one of my favorites from the wilder side of guitar history was a magnificent example from Paul Day's collection, the Godwin Super Professional Guitar-Organ. I think I might be in safe territory to say that this is the guitar with the most controls ever crammed onto one pickguard.

It was produced around 1976 in Italy by Sisme, who were used to making Godwin-brand organs. Like Vox before them, they decided—during what I suspect must have been a rather boozy evening after work—to shove most of an organ inside the guitar and hook up the frets to its tone generators. Yes, the result was very heavy. Yes, it was big. And yes, it had 32 controls. Sadly, very few people voted with their wallets to have what amounts to an Italian church organ slung around their necks.

B.C. Rich Bich
Just the 12 controls

Active electronics, the system powered by an onboard preamp, made a big impact in the '70s following its popularization by Alembic. The idea was to put a battery-powered preamp into a guitar, boosting its signal and widening its tonal range, and in the process offering more of a techy sheen among the newly popular keyboard synthesizers that were invading rock stages and studios.

Bernardo Rico at B.C. Rich leapt on the idea, notably with the Bich of the late '70s. Once you'd got past the dangerous looking body, the shrieking DiMarzios, and the two preamps inside, there was a spectacular array of six knobs and six switches to deal with. OK, that knob near the bridge pickup ought to be a master volume. That's the easy one. Now what?

The other four regular-looking knobs controlled master tone, neck-pickup volume, and one each for the volume of the two preamps. A chicken-head knob was Rich's take on Gibson's six-position Varitone, as on the ES-345 of 1959. There was a group of four switches: a regular pickup selector, plus three smaller ones that turned the preamps on and off and put the pickups in or out of phase. A further two switches put the pickups into parallel or series.

For some, this was a fiddler's paradise to help achieve the perfect sound that had always seemed just a missing flickswitch away. For others, well… where's that Kramer Baretta of mine?


More Guitars With Offbeat Control Systems


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Ultimate Guitar Book, Fuzz & Feedback, and Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

comments powered by Disqus