In the first of two instalments, we talk to Marc Ransley of Mojo Pickups about the dawn of gold foil pickups in the land of the rising sun…
The term ‘gold foil’ is one of the most broadly encompassing labels of pickup classification in today’s market and has its roots in both Japan and America. The construction of gold foil pickups varies so much, in fact, that the only common denominator often appears to be the gold-coloured mesh shim located underneath a geometrically enhanced chrome cover. However, for the sake of convenience, the expression also refers to the style of pickups commonly found on relatively inexpensive vintage guitar models from the likes of Harmony, Silvertone, Kay, Teisco, Guyatone and FujiGen Gakki.
In the US, Rowe Industries’ DeArmond pickups had become ubiquitous with the comparatively affordable and hugely popular Harmony guitar brand since the 1950s, and by the early 1960s, design-savvy guitar builders in Japan had begun to take note of their eye-catching aesthetics. The first Japanese gold foil pickup appeared in 1962 when FujiGen Gakki of Matsumoto enlisted the help of one Mr Tezuka – a local sparky who had previously worked on the factory’s lighting. After poring over the construction of US-made guitar electronics, the fruits of Mr Tezuka’s labour bore more than a passing resemblance to a “Golden Tone Indox” DeArmond and appeared to kickstart a trend as the guitar market exploded in Japan.
With countless designs of quirky vintage rarities originating from the likes of Maxon, Shin-ei, Guyatone, Hitachi, Hoshino, Kawai, JVC, Sakai, Teisco, Tokai, Yamaha and Zenon, the niche of Japanese gold foil pickups is as diverse as it is obscure. In recent years, a revived interest in this motley crew of bygone oddities has created an unprecedented surge in demand, prompting some modern pickup builders to step up to the plate and offer inquisitive guitarists a high quality and consistent alternative to the minefield of the vintage Japanese pickup market.
Specialising in a range of high quality recreations, Marc Ransley of Mojo Pickups is one of the UK’s best-known devotees to Japanese-style gold foil pickups and was already a fan when he received his first request for them. “I always liked the Teisco gold foils,” says Marc. “I used to pull them off old Japanese guitars and put them on a Strat or a Tele for a different kind of sound, much like Ry Cooder and Blake Mills. By chance, I had a few people start asking me about them and I thought, ‘there’s not many people doing this,’ so I got some parts made and within a few months it went crazy.
“As far as gold foil pickups go, I tend to specialise in the Japanese end of things; US-made gold foil pickups are a little bit different in terms of design, but both types are low-output pickups in terms of volume. The three styles I’m doing – Teisco, N Foil [Mojo’s original ’62 FujiGen Gakki reissue] and Guyatone – vary in subtle ways. The Guyatone pickups are slightly fuller sounding than the Teisco ones, and the N Foils are brighter. Generally speaking, Japanese gold foils have a lot of midrange, even though they’re fairly quiet and have a characteristically hollow sound to them. I think people like them because they’re quite transparent sounding and they break up really quickly, which is where some of their grittiness can come from.
“The original Japanese gold foils vary in terms of DC resistance from around 4K to 7K ohms and are generally wound with thin 44-gauge wire, but some of them – like the Guyatone – are wound with 43-gauge wire. The early ones are about as basic as you could possibly find. They used really crude bobbins that were sometimes made out of paper, or indeed no bobbin at all – they just wrapped the wire around the magnet! The magnets were often rubberised, although they tended to use what was available at the time. They aren’t usually potted, and can be very microphonic, but retaining some element of that can be quite nice.
“Japanese gold foils aren’t as clean and hi-fi sounding as a typical Fender pickup, but if you have a decent guitar and want to do something different, they can be a really good choice.”
Slide maestro Ry Cooder’s gold foil-equipped Strat has a unique sound