The Evil Tone Sucker

Here's the schematic of the stereo version that's in the ES 345 and 355. If you can't read it, don't give me a technical argument as to why the Varitone sucks. It's pretty easy to learn how to read them. Take some time and learn. You'll be glad you did.

One of my regular readers has tackled one of my pet subjects. The Varitone. Or, more accurately the “evil tone sucking Varitone”, at least to a good percentage of players. Interestingly, there are a good number of nay sayers out there who have probably never played a guitar that has one. The internet is, unfortunately full of “experts” and posers. Unfortunately, they are often the same. Let me say this up front: I like the Varitone. When used properly-that is with a stereo amp or a stereo cable a 2 amps or a stereo cable with a 2 channel amp, it is a wonderful device that gives you a load of useful and not so useful tones. The tone sucking part comes from 2 sources, I believe. One source is the folks who get a “mixer” cable that takes the two outputs and mixes them down to mono. The others have never experienced one-they are bandwagon jumpers. We’ll ignore the latter. Let me make this clear-I’m not an engineer. I can read a schematic and I know a capacitor from a resistor but I’m no expert. A gentleman and regular reader named Chris Wargo is an engineer and he knows his stuff. The reason most of the players who have actually had some experience with the Varitone equipped guitars find the Varitone to be a detriment are using them with a mixdown cable. This will suck the tone out of your guitar when both pickups are being used. I can’t explain this in completely layman’s terms. The pickups on a 345 are out of magnetic phase. When out of phase pickups are used together, you get the difference between them, not the sum of them. Or, to simplify, they cancel each other out since they are essentially the same. Instead of editing Chris’ work, I’m going to upload it and give you a link so you can read the entire thing. he also devised a “true” bypass and supplies a video that clearly illustrates the difference between the built in “bypass” which is position 1 and a true bypass which removes all components to the circuits. I’ll link to that as well. For those who have never experienced the Varitone, it is a notch filter that removes certain frequencies from the output of the pickups of the guitar. In a 345, it is a stereo filter that handles each pickup separately. You cannot, however use different settings on the two pickups. You must notch out the same frequency on both pickups. I suppose you could make it so that you could but that isn’t how it’s designed. The Varitone is used by quite a number of well known players. BB King, Freddie King, Chuck Berry, Alex Lifeson, Bill Nelson, Elvin Bishop, Chris Isaak and probably a load of others I’ve left out. I would note that Keith Richards plays one but his is mono so no Varitone. I don’t know if any of the players mentioned have disconnected their Varitones. I can tell you that there are some big names who love it in that list.  Here’s the link to the paper.  And the Video. And here’s a big tip of the hat and a thank you to Chris for all his hard work and research. His full Varitone Demo follows because I just learned how to embed video. Who says you can’t teach an old dog…

5 Responses to “The Evil Tone Sucker”

  1. swisskit says:

    I read the paper Chris wrote and recommend it to any 345/355 owners – especially his views on options available for getting the best amplified sound out of these guitars – all the way from using a mono cable plugged half way in thru to build a stereo guitar interface box … which Chris notes is potentially the most elegant solution for those of use unable to carry around two amps or a true stereo amp.

    Being a complete novice when it comes to electronics, the prospect of building the stereo guitar interface box, I was wondering if one of these ABY boxes would work ( ? – as it can be used in reverse to sum the signals to mono for a single input amplifier, and it has the important phase (polarity) reversal switch.

    Does anyone have any experience of other recommendations ?

  2. OK Guitars says:

    I’m not certain that it would work-something to do with the polarity issue being magnetic rather than electronic but I’m no engineer, so I couldn’t say with any conviction that it would or would not work. I find the easiest thing (by far) is to use a stereo Y-cable. Then all you need is a 2 channel amp. I believe the channels have to be in phase, though (again-not an engineer). Apparently Fender BF amps are out of phase between the channels but tweeds are not. Anybody want to comment.

  3. swisskit says:

    I took a chance and bought the Bigshot ABY box with isolator circuit and 180 degree phase reversal – it seems to work (to my ears at least). I use it with a headphone amp and you can definitely here the difference when you switch phase.

  4. JDH says:

    Fender blackface amps with REVERB have the two channels out of phase, bandmasters, tremoluxes, bassman, showman, and Dual showman not the case. I played my 345 with a mono cable for years and came to prefer humbuckers magnetically out of phase. (Peter Green) If you roll the volume back a little on one or the other PU when in middle position the tone fattens back up. Only used the first two notches on the varitone now and then.

  5. Dr. Howard says:

    So, I have a completely stock ’71 ES-345. I just got my hands on an Xotic X-Blender, which allows me to blend both pickups accordingly (from Stereo to Mono), and flip the pickup phase! The results are staggering! It’s like I’m hearing this guitar for the first time! Oh, and the varitone is very useable! Several very cool tones to be had! So, keep those 345s STOCK!
    You’ll be pleased you did – And, you’ll blow those 335s away! hehe
    PEACE, Howard

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