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Wired Differently (Varitone, Again)

The early 345s, and this is the earliest one I've owned in the late A30XXX range, have a hand wired Varitone switch with about 20 different components soldered to the switch. This 59 is the earliest known red one, which I had the pleasure of owning for awhile. The Varitone on this one did not suck the tone out of this guitar. This guitar would hold its own with any guitar including a 59 Les Paul.

I’m always awed by people who are wired differently than normal folks like me. That includes musicians who are so talented it makes me want to throw away my guitar and shout from the rooftops how badly I suck at playing after 45 years. It also includes tech geniuses who not only possess the vast amount of knowledge required to be a tech genius but actually understand how these things work. Knowledge is one thing-everybody can get that but understanding is something else. I learned calculus but I never understood it. Therefore I can’t use it. I consider Chris W. from New Jersey to be my personal tech genius and he is the one who answers my arcane tech questions and has worked tirelessly to try to dispel all the bad press the Varitone gets. That is until we both happened on the same conclusion about Varitones. I had owned a lot of 59-61 ES-345s and never once believed that the Varitone was the “evil tone sucker” it was reputed to be. I had, up until I started being a dealer, never owned a 62 or later 345 simply because I like the early ones and they were always relatively cheap (until the bubble). As I started buying up 62-64 ES-345s, I started noticing something distressing. They sounded nasal. yes, something evil WAS sucking the tone out of them and  suddenly the people I had been dismissing as raving lunatics didn’t seem so raving (or lunaticky). So, I did what any inquisitive red blooded American boy would do. I took it apart. What I noticed is that the Varitone in the 62 I was dismantling was different than the ones I had seen in my 59 through 61s. The 59 to 61 Varitone switch has about 20 c0mponents hand soldered to the 6 way switch. The 62 had two big orange square things with lots of little solder “legs” solder to the switch. They were, I found out, multivalue chips that had “printed” capacitors and resistors instead of individual components. I don’t remember if I suggested to Chris that this was somethingto look into or he suggested it to me but we both had the same thought. Maybe there is the original Varitone and then, there is its EVIL TWIN. It would appear, from Chris’ extensive and oh so geeky tests, that the later Varitone and the original Varitone are not the same. I can’t translate his tests into laymans terms any better than to say the original Varitone has what is, for all intents and purposes, a “true” bypass. The difference in tone between position one and taking the VT out of the circuit is imperceptible. That is not the case with at least some of the later “chip” Varitones. Here is a link to Chris’ Varitone paper called “The Variable Varitone”. I might add that they changed the Varitone again during the 60’s. They used a multivalue chip but it was a newer design. And it was blue. I can’t say much about it because I’ve never owned a 345 later than a 65. Perhaps they improved it. perhaps it was cheaper still. Care to make a wager?

Chris also does a video that illustrates “our” point which you can find here. I am currently in possession of his very cool Varitone pedal and I can vouch for the results. Not that I have the credentials to do so-I supplied some of the components so I get to vouch. Vouch, vouch, vouch. OK, I’m done.  This doesn’t mean folks will stop removing the Varitones from their vintage 345s but I hope that it will make them at least give a listen before they do. When I play a 345, I use the bypass position 95% of the time. If it sounds good to you, leave it alone. If it sounds nasal or thin (and its a 62 or later-although I don’t know exactly when the transition began) then perhaps a change is advised. My advice? Take out the entire harness and put in a new 335 harness or just have the choke (the big silver box) disconnected. According to Chris, that will bypass the Varitone but leave your guitar stereo. If you don’t use the Varitone and you really just want a cheaper vintage 335, then take out the harness and put it in the case pocket. The next owner will appreciate that. The good news is that your 345 will be close to half a pound lighter. Or you could just buy a vintage 335…which will leave your wallet around half a pound lighter.

This is what Chris built to test the Varitones from the early and "later" era. I'm not certain of the exact beginning and end of the transition from discreet components to the big "chip" type. I supplied the earlier switch which came out of a late 59. I also supplied the "half" choke (it's a mono circuit in the pedal) which came from a different 59. Chris bought the later switch off of Ebay.

Here are the guts. You can see the one on the right is just a jumble of components and the one on the left-the newer one-is a big orange square thing. I'm sure it was a lot cheaper to make the later one. Is it any wonder that cheaper isn't better?

One Response to “Wired Differently (Varitone, Again)”

  1. Dan says:

    Hi Charlie – your site is a constant source of fun and knowledge — I get a kick out of it every time I visit.

    Very cool to learn more about the varitone-effect – I have a great 67 345 with varitone intact (guitar wired to mono at some point before I owned it). I think it sounds GREAT and don’t plan on changing anything, but when I start playing around with the varitone settings and go back to position 1, that’s when I suddenly detect a hint of that nasal quality that you mentioned.

    After reading article 1 in this series, I had figured I was hearing something that wasn’t there – now with article 2, clearly something is going on. Does it matter enough to do anything? Not yet (but curiosity does occasionally get the better of me).

    What’s interesting is that the varitone effect in bypass seems to impart a “twanginess” that I don’t hear in other Gibson guitars, which is something I think is pretty neat (desirable?). But I guess one person’s pleasure is another’s poison…

    Thanks for the article – keep them coming… 😉

    – Dan

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