It’s a well-known fact that Les Paul (the man) was a big fan of
low-impedance pickups, and that he wasn’t shy about expressing his
concerns with the sound of the high-impedance humbucking pickups
that came in his namesake guitar. In short, he didn’t care for them,
and found them muddy and lacking articulation and string separation.
In the final years of his life, Les went back to the workbench to
design a humbucker pickup that could offer the clarity and presence
of the low-impedance pickups he preferred.
While Les passed away prior to completing this final invention, his
long-time sideman and confidant, Tom Doyle was able to see the
project to completion. Tom and his business partner Max Stavron
poured over Les’ notes and prototypes, and over the course of about
two years, developed a high-end humbucker pickup that would make Les
I recently spoke with Max about the process for developing the Doyle
Coil TRU-CLONES. The following is an excerpt of our conversation.
Phillip Dodge: Can you give me a little background on the
Doyle Coils and on Tom Doyle’s relationship with Les Paul?
Max Stavron: Tom Doyle worked with Les from the early 1960s
on. Tom met Les when he was still a kid (a teenager) and then later
in his 20s before he went into the service. Then they met again
after Tom got out of the service. Les came to see Tom perform Les’
songs live, and Les was very impressed. Les recognized right away
that Tom had a great ear and that he had the ability to play
multitrack recordings on stage just like Les could, and he was also
very impressed with Tom’s luthier skills. Les immediately recognized
that he wanted Tom around him and he brought Tom into the fold. Tom
has been Les Paul’s right hand man, guitar tech, luthier, and
co-experimenter, sound man, and all around confidant for 45 years,
all the way up until the time of Les’ passing.
PD: So Tom and Les were working together in the weekly NYC
MS: Yes, absolutely. Tom had already been working with Les
for 15–20 years before Les decided to come out of retirement. And
the first gigs they did were the Fat Tuesday’s gigs that became so
famous. Believe it or not, they did some very small gigs in little
New Jersey fish houses prior to the New York gigs. In fact, that’s
when I first met Les…back in 1981 or 1982 at those Fat Tuesday’s
shows, and Tom used to take me to Les’ house and let me hang around
when Les came to Tom’s shop.
PD: Getting more technical, it seemed like Les abandoned the
humbucker and made the switch to low-impedance pickups pretty early.
Did he still have an interest in traditional high-impedance pickups
MS: Les’ interest in low-impedance pickups started right at
the very beginning as the Les Paul guitar was being developed. As
they were being made, he would get the Les Paul guitars from Gibson
and immediately begin going to town and ripping them apart,
installing his own low-impedance pickups so he could plug directly
into the board. So that started in the very early 1950’s. But he
still (and always) maintained an interest in the humbucker. It’s
widely misconstrued—thank you internet guitar forums and guys that
think they know about these things. Les played low-impedance pickups
for a reason. He wanted clarity. He wanted low-noise. And he wanted
the ability to record direct. He wanted that low-impedance, clean
and clear tone that he was known for. But he also knew that 99% of
the guitars that bore his name carried the humbucker pickups. And he
didn’t care for their lack of clarity, their muddiness, or lack of
string articulation, and it really drove him crazy and was a thorn
in his side.
Les was always working on it, but more specifically, in the last
four or five years of his life he really sat down and started to
work through prototypes and revisions and decided he was going to
make this his last project. He wanted a clean, clear, crisp,
articulate humbucker. Basically everything great about a good
humbucker with none of the drawbacks. He wanted a humbucker that he
could be proud of and that Gibson could install in the guitar that
bore his name.
PD: Since we’re talking about the differences of
high-impedance versus low-impedance pickups, how would you describe
the sonic differences for guitarists who haven’t had the opportunity
to play low-impedance pickups?
MS: The nature of low-impedance is that they impede very
little so you are getting a very clear signal. I always make a joke
about humbuckers. People say “oh, what does that mean?” And I say
well, it means it bucks the hum. It bucks that 60-cycle hum
associated with single coil pickups. You’d be surprised how many
people haven’t made that connection. People are blown away. And just
like low-impedance, it means it impedes the signal flow less. The
difference between a matched set of low-impedance pickups that goes
right into the board is that it gives you a really clear and hot
signal. And of course, high-impedance pickups have a tendency to
sound muddled or muffled by comparison. And if you play a chord with
six notes, you don’t really hear all six notes. You hear more of a
blend or a mélange of notes that doesn’t really represent the full
chord structure. Does that make sense?
PD: It does. But at the same time, that traditional PAF
(Patent Applied For, and you’d be surprised how many people don’t
know what PAF stands for) humbucker sound has been used for years in
early rock and roll and all of these great classic records. And
let’s be honest, guitarists aren’t typically the type to embrace
technology. While the rest of the world has moved onto
nanotechnology, we’re clinging to vacuum tubes.
MS: (laughs) I understand where you’re coming from. We say
that on our website about PAF’s. PAF’s aren’t really “a thing,”
they’re more of an ideal. You can take ten or fifteen PAF’s, and
they all sound different. It’s funny, so many people who care so
much about the letters PAF, don’t even know what it means. It simply
means that Gibson applied for a patent for their humbucking pickup.
And since they didn’t yet have a patent number, they labeled the
pickups as “Patent Applied For.”
PD: Exactly. Ray Butts was doing this at the same time,
working with Chet Atkins and Gretsch.
MS: Those guys at Gibson didn’t invent those pickups, they
strictly patented them. But they wanted to make sure no one copied
them. And so there was the birth of the PAF as we know it. Getting
back to PAF as an ideal, it’s important to remember that these
pickups were being made by hand by hourly workers. I’m sure they
wanted to do a good job, but they didn’t know that they were making
something that was going to be revered, dissected and recreated for
years and years to come. So here they were winding pickups for a
guitar, and not even one that was that popular. I’m sure you know
this, but the Les Paul guitar was not an instant success. In fact,
it was somewhat of a failure at first. They didn’t say “wow, we’re
taking over the world with the Les Paul guitar!” And you know the
guys (and girls) that were making these things didn’t know the
science of magnetic resonance, DC ohms resistance, etc. As a result,
one pickup might get 10 percent more winds than spec, and another
might get 10 percent less winds. Likewise, the magnets for the
pickups sat in large bins. And magnets stacked and stored together
de-gauss each other—they reduce each other’s magnetism. As a result,
a magnet pulled from the top of the bin is going to be more powerful
than one that’s been sitting there for a few days or even weeks. All
this to say that there really isn’t just one “PAF sound.”
PD: And this is why you have great PAF’s, and good ones, and
ones that are not good at all, etc.
MS: Exactly. Let me back up a minute though. We knew what Les
was working on. And Tom was, believe it or not, one of the first
guys to make after-market boutique style pickups. He was doing it
before Duncan and DiMarzio even. It’s funny to look back at these
old issues of Guitar Player and see the ads featuring a young Tom.
So Les and Tom were always working on pickups. To call it an
obsession would be an understatement. They would work constantly.
Tom would work on things, Les would work on things, and then they
would get together to compare notes.
Towards the last three or four years, Les was working hard and he
had prototypes, notes, things that worked, things that didn’t,
things that were close, and things that were far away. But luckily,
Les kept really good notes. He didn’t use journals or even loose
leaf paper, but he always had meticulous notes. They might be on
random pieces of paper or even pizza boxes. It’s funny, but we have
a big stack of these Val-Pak coupons and Les has detailed notes all
over the backside of these things. Les would write on the first
thing that was paper in front of him. So we have Les’ notes on these
pickups on the back of local chiropractors and dentists
advertisements. So while he may have been unorthodox with regard to
stationary, he knew the importance of keeping detailed notes.
Max Stavron: (continued) So while Les was working on these
things, he was sharing it with Tom and discussing what we should do
and how we should proceed. They were even sending things to Gibson
here and there. When Les finally passed away, Tom gathered up all of
the notes. He also gathered up all of the winds, the pickups, the
prototypes, and began to test and sort through them. Back in Tom’s
shop, we began dissecting it all and figuring out what worked and
what didn’t. And it became Tom’s ode to his lost friend and mentor
to see this project through and develop a humbucking pickup that
would make Les proud. And finally, we “cracked the code” of what Les
wanted—a clear, articulate, chimey humbucker that sounds great when
played clean and that roars when pushed! Les Paul took this thing 80
percent of the way, and Tom and I were there to see it through, and
to run it across the finish line. It’s our homage or “love letter”
to our boss, mentor, and friend. We wanted this for Les. Here’s the
man who invented this electric guitar, sound on sound recording,
echo and reverb, and so much more—this was going to be his last
invention. We wanted to finish this last invention for him.
PD: How many months (years) did you and Tom spend going
through the notes and testing prototypes before you landed on a
formula that worked?
MS: It took us about two years and a ton of prototypes to
figure it all out. It was that last 10 percent that was really hard.
Things like changing the winds just a little or changing the magnet
type or strength. Uncouple this from that, bend and break some
rules—I can’t go too deep into the proprietary nature of this stuff,
but it was the littlest details that mattered. We are doing things
with these pickups that no one else is doing. It took us a long time
to figure these things out, but it was worth the effort. Les taught
us these special secrets to make pickups do certain things, and we
were able apply all of these techniques and knowledge.
PD: How would you describe how the Doyle Coils sound when
they are installed in a good Les Paul or other similarly built
MS: First, they are extremely consistent. We’ve gone to great
lengths to make sure that each one is just like the one built before
or after. They all have the same readings and specs and they all
sound the same. The consistency from pickup to pickup is very
important to us.
Describing sound is always hard, but they are very articulate and
the notes really bloom. They have great harmonics, really amazing
definition in the bass notes, and great string to string clarity.
With the Doyle Coils TRU-CLONES, you can really hear every note (and
every harmonic) within a chord. They basically cut through the mix
without being shrill or ice-picky.
Thanks to the added clarity of the pickups, you can really make the
most of the two volume knobs and two tone knobs in a Les Paul. It’s
why we recommend an entirely new wiring harness that includes high
audio taper pots and really high quality paper-in-oil caps to
complement the TRU-CLONES. Whereas with traditional PAF’s, you might
have good tones with the tone and volume full-up, and then another
good tone with them backed off a little, and then another with them
backed off most of the way. The TRU-CLONES offer nuances and so many
useable settings across the spectrum of the controls. With our
Complete ’59 wiring harness upgrade, backing your tone control off
to about an eight gives you the tone you would normally get full up
with lesser pots. It really offers a whole new level of clarity and
PD: You and Tom must be extremely honored to have unleashed
this final invention from Les Paul. Do you want to add anything in
MS: Les Paul is gone but not forgotten…Tom and I have
completed Les Paul’s final dream of a wonderful sounding humbucker
pickup in homage of “The Master.” It’s what Les wanted. Now we want
the world to remember how important Les Paul is to music, to our
culture, and to the sound of the electric guitar that he worked so
tirelessly to develop. We wanted Les Paul’s last project to become a
reality for posterity, and in his honor…and want to remind us that
Les gave so much of himself to his craft. His work, his inventions,
and his genius still affect us all to this day, and always will.