‘Bees, Beauties and Discs

A couple of bees I pulled from the internet. The one on the left is paper in oil and the one on the right is mylar film.

A couple of bees I pulled from the internet. The one on the left is paper in oil and the one on the right is mylar film.

VINTAGE  TONE!!! TONE FOR DAYS!!! You know all the pimply faced hyperbole by now. If you read ads on Ebay for capacitors (and believe them) you’d think a bumblebee cap is the secret weapon of great sounding guitars. It isn’t. The capacitor comes into play but not in a way that will make a bad sounding guitar into a good one. If you’re one of those players who keeps the tone pot dimed, this doesn’t even concern you. But if you actually use the tone knob on your guitar, it’s worth knowing something about capacitors. There are only two of them in a 335 and they are part of the tone circuit. There are something like 14 of them is an ES-345 but all but two are in the Varitone. It’s the two that are attached to the tone pot that we’re going to look at. You’ve all heard the Les Paul guys going nuts over their bumblebees and how you can’t have “vintage tone” without them. Yes, it’s nice to have vintage parts (or even repro ones) in your reissue guitar but a couple of overpriced ’50’s bumblebees isn’t going to appreciably change the tone of your guitar. They may change the response of your tone control though. The way I understand it, the capacitor really only affects the taper (response) of the tone control. Maybe the bass will come on sooner or the treble will roll off later-you’ll just have to experiment. There are plenty of youtube videos that do this. I don’t really have the qualifications to explain how various caps will affect your tone but I can tell you what’s supposed to be in there if you are so brave as to pull the harness on your 335. Actually, you don’t have to because you can usually see the caps through the f-holes. Gibson, as usual, used a number of suppliers for their components and those suppliers sometimes changed their products or discontinued them forcing their customers to change along with them. We’ll look at 335’s (and mono 355’s) first. Starting in ’58, Gibson used .022 mfd Sprague bumblebee paper in oil (PIO) caps but the technology took a leap forward very shortly after that. By late 58, Bumblebees were mylar film based. ’58 ES-335s and 355’s (which were all mono) are the only semi hollows that used PIO caps. Every 59 I’ve looked at has the later mylar film type and some late 58’s as well. Still bumblebees but not PIO. That goes for ‘bursts too, by the way. That 59 burst you lust after probably has mylar caps.   The conventional geek wisdom is that PIO is better. I’ll stay out of that debate. Look for the little filler cup at one end. No filler cup? Not PIO…simple as that. But the value is the same .022 mfd.

Sprague "Black Beauty" cap out of a 65 ES-335. Seems easier to tell the value when its written in English. The bumblebees do look cooler though.

Sprague “Black Beauty” cap out of a 65 ES-335. Seems easier to tell the value when its written in English. The bumblebees do look cooler though.

By 1961, the bumblebees were gone and the replacement-from the same manufacturer, Sprague, looked a bit different. It was still a .022 mfd mylar film capacitor but it no longer had it’s bumblebee stripes. It was simply black with thevalues in big red letters rather than in coded stripes. Brilliant. These have taken on the moniker of “black beauty” although they get to share their nickname with a certain type of amphetamine that was popular when I was in college back in the Middle Ages. The 335s are pretty consistent up through 64 but then some other types started showing up but that’s for another day. You can experiment with different values and see what happens but I don’t suggest pulling the caps on your all original vintage 335. You’ll have to pull the harness (no fun) and you’ll diminish the vintage value of your guitar –all for a very small result. We’ll leave the later ones alone for now and look at the 345’s and stereo 355’s from 59 through 64. These are different. For some reason, which I’ve never quite been able to fathom, the stereo guitars were built with shielding cans presumably to minimize hum. It makes some sense but it seems that the shielding can intended for the tone control on a 345 or 355 won’t fit because the pot is too close to the rim of the guitar. Oops. So, they leave off the fourth can. Because there are cans, I guess they needed to use a capacitor that would fit inside the cans. That would be the ceramic disc type that we’re all familiar with. Most people will agree that these are inferior but I have no idea why. I’m not sure which types drift more easily or drift more or drift sooner but that could be a factor. The bottom line here is if it ain’t broke…Unless you are experiencing real issues with your tone controls (and you use them a lot) I would leave the caps alone. If your 335 sounds like crap, a cap change isn’t going to fix it. Thanks to Josh L. for suggesting the topic.

This is the harness out of a ’60 ES-355 stereo with the shielding cans removed. You can see the cap on the tone pot is a very compact ceramic disc-used so it will fit into the can. The value is the same as the bees and the beauties. The values are printed on the other side. The others, on the Varitone switch, are the same type.



10 Responses to “‘Bees, Beauties and Discs”

  1. RAB says:

    Wow! Too techie for me! Anyway, I leave the tone controls on “10” 95% of the time (except when playing a few jazzier ballads) and leave the volume controls full-up too! Stomp on my overdrive pedal when it’s time for a solo!

  2. cgelber says:

    That’s true of most players, it seems. I actually use the tone control on the neck pickup once in a while but rarely on the bridge. I do use the volume controls though. But, since I don’t gig any more, I don’t get much of a chance to solo any more.

  3. Rod says:

    ‘Tone to die for…’ etc. etc. (Yawn) I am very glad someone else gets fed up with these cliches (like ‘perfectly intonated’ ‘recently professionally set up’) in the adverts. Very little of this actually matters to my mind. With ‘set ups’, very rarely does a shop’s idea of a good set up coincide with mine, we like different things obviously, there is no ‘one size fits all’ set up. Caps are just the latest ‘techy’ fad. Ever noticed that the guys who make great play of the ‘techy’ things usually aren’t very good players?

    I know you are very keen on intonation Charlie, but with respect, some of my favourite guitars have wrapovers and my ear is reasonably good but those guitars don’t play noticeably out of tune. Good strings, fitted properly, are, to my mind, much more important. And, of course, talent, which I don’t have a lot of! A good player will sound good and play well on anything.

  4. Steve Newman says:

    +1 for what Rod posted. Google the differences on tone that capacitor construction (type of material….paper/oil, polyester film, polypropylene, ceramic, etc.) makes and you will find they make absolutely NO difference, even in blind hearing tests, provide that they are EXACTLY the same value. What CAN lead to audible tonal differences are how tightly the tolerances of the values are held (+ or – 20%, 10%, 5%, 1%). Obviously higher quality caps should be built to tighter specs. Also how much the caps “drift” over time from their published rating. The actual tolerance of the potentiometer has an effect on tone, too. Very few pots are even close to the advertised ratings.

  5. cgelber says:

    Give ’em hell, Steve.

  6. Josh says:

    Hey Charlie, fine job as usual! Thanks for the credit but you did not really address the issue I raised which was a dating issue. How do you distinguish Sprague black beauty .022mF 160P 400v caps made in 1965 from those made in 1975, or can you? Same issue for bumblebees. I’m sure you will get to this once you have assembled your data. Excelsior!

  7. cgelber says:

    The truth is I have no idea. I have caps from a lot of guitars around and I can start looking at them more closely to see if anything changes. My guess is that they remained largely the same for a number of years. Bumblebees have the “filler cup” for the oil up until sometime in 58 and no cup after and gone by 61 or so.

  8. Thanks for adding a note of reason related to this component so often credited with more influence than it deserves. At the time you wrote this I was putting together some videos and a public blind survey to demonstrate the lack of effect as you describe. Here’s the original survey –

    And here’s the post-survey review –

    Of course this is just a video demonstration of what I’ve tested in person with many great players over several years, and have yet to find anyone who can identify a difference with any guitar, amp, pickups, settings, etc.

    I love old caps because they’re just another cool bit of mojo, but it’s good to be honest with ourselves regarding what real effect they may (or may not) have.

  9. cgelber says:

    I actually was less adamant about the lack of effect that caps have on tone than I could have been. I don’t mind stirring up a bit of controversy but it does seem to generate a lot of emails when I slaughter a sacred cow. I’ve spent big bucks on original bumblebee caps myself but not because they sound any better. I just wanted my harness to be vintage correct. I’ve had one particular 335 that I’ve changed caps (and pots) on more than a few times with no change at all in tone.

  10. Allan says:

    On a vintage guitar you’d be nuts to change the caps. Would you dump Mamie Van Doren for Jane Mansfield? Older guitars were made with better components than a lot of guitars out there today, and it’s part of the reason they sound better un-modified. ****On a lower end guitar**** upgrading Korean/Chinese to a high quality audio taper pot and a low tolerance cap (Mojo-tone Dijon 2$, or PIO’s 5$) really can make for a much more usable tone control. Modifying or completely replacing the tone circuit makes a huge difference. I prefer the sweep of a .015 to a point .022 if the guitar has a jazzier tone. I own 4 guitars with PAF style pick ups, two are .015 and two are .022.

    Gut an Epi 3×5, install PAF Clones/CTS pots/2$ caps…. and you’d swear it’s a different guitar. I’m not saying it’s in any way equal to a real 3×5… don’t misunderstand that, I’m saying that it’s a huge step closer, and it does make a difference on certain guitars.

Leave a Reply

Optionally add an image (JPEG only)