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 Post subject: Tone Capacitors are your friend
PostPosted: Sun Jun 07, 2009 8:50 pm 
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Looking for a cheap way to modify your instrument's tone? I have two words for you: tone capacitor.

I've modified a lot of guitars and basses in my spare time. People cite a lot of different variables that contributes to an instrument's tone. However there is one variable that is often overlooked that plays a KEY role in the sound of passive instruments: the tone Capacitor. Understanding this little bugger can mean a CHEAP way to have a GREAT impact on your tone.

Essentially, your tone control is like a volume control for a certain range of frequencies. It is the tone capacitor that selects the frequency. I won't go into the physics of how this works, but the larger the value, the greater the range of frequencies are effected (starting from the highest frequency working its way down).

So a larger tone capacitor means you'll roll off more highs when you turn the tone know down. However, it also effects your tone while the knob is all the way up, because the tone circuit is always leaking some highs. So even if you don't use that tone knob a lot, choosing a different cap can change your instrument's basic tone. Here's a simple guide to choosing the right cap.

.01 uf: This is the cap found in vintage 62 P basses. It will roll off a LOT of highs and give you a very boomy tone. I would NOT use any value above this.

.05: This is the standard cap found on just about all modern fender instruments. Chances are, this is what you have in your axe.

.03: This is the cap found on the bridge pickup for 62 jazz basses. With the tone all the way up it will have SLIGHTLY more treble, and with the tone down it won't roll off quite as much.

.022: This is the cap used in most 70's era jazz basses. It has more of a drastic effect than the .03 cap, and you'll fine a lot more treble in your tone. I would not recommend using a cap value less than this.

Fender uses ceramic disk capacitors. These are VERY cheap and VERY inconsistent. Because of inconsistencies in the materials and manufacturing different ceramic caps with the same value can often have differing values of up to 10 percent. Ever wondered why you pick up 2 of the same instruments and they sound different? Most people cite differences in the body wood as the cause, but chances are it's inconsistencies in cap values.

Drop Orange has very solid caps for very cheap. I recommend choosing those if you want to swap out your cap. I have never seen a cap for more than 2 bucks, so we're talking a VERY cheap mod.
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PostPosted: Tue Jun 16, 2009 8:32 pm 
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Anu Anu! Good rundown of cap values and their uses.

The 0.050 is obsolete and has been for several decades, replaced by the 0.047. Given the tolerance factor in caps which range from 5 in Paper In Oil types to a whopping 20% in Ceramic caps that is essentially no difference at all but people won’t be able to find many 0.050 caps around.

I've been preaching the importance of good caps for years but nobody listens. Notice how nobody else replied to your post?

Isn’t it funny that people will spend $100 for a bridge, $130 to $260 on pickups and $100 for a Magical Bass Cable that is supposed to make them sound better…but will not cough up $2 or 3 or $10 for a cap upgrade! Hilarious! Their loss!

Guitar and bass makers mostly use Poly film caps now and Ceramic caps in the thrilling days of yesteryear because they are much cheaper than the Paper In Oil (PIO) caps I recommend.

YES, the PIO caps are even better than the Poly Orange Drops! Some high end guitars from Gibson, such as the Les Paul, are the exception and came stock with PIO caps.

Fender used Paper In Wax and Paper In Oil capacitors early on. Then realizing they could save a buck on each guitar Fender used ceramic caps almost exclusively in instruments until switching to Poly caps more recently because they had become cheaper than ceramics and they performed a tad better.

Swapping out capacitors is one of the easiest & lowest cost modifications you can make to an instrument, yet one that makes almost any bass or guitar instantly sound smoother. Unfortunately PIO caps are no longer in production in the USA due environmental considerations. You can however still get Sprague USA "Vitamin Q" type PIO caps from some sources and they occasionally popup on eBay. I bought two genuine Vitamin Q Sprague 0.047 caps two weeks ago for $16 on eBay. That was a steal! However once the existing USA made PIO caps are gone there will be no more. As you might expect prices have been escalating lately on USA made PIO caps. So I pick up one or two when I run across them. I keep them for future needs.

A number of brands of PIO caps were all made to the same military specifications for missiles and other military applications so they are essentially identical whether made by Sprague or Philco or Cornell-Dubilier or whoever. These will all be called “Paper In Oil” and try to stick to the 200 volters or less because not only are higher voltage caps larger in size but the large voltages seem to be poorly suited to use in guitar and bass tone circuits. These are often advertised as “Vitamin-Q Type” and they are pretty much the same thing. The real Vitamin-Q’s have a plastic sleeve over the metal casing though and I like that.

The Russian PIO caps that are still in production are actually copies of the Sprague PIO caps and when the USA PIO caps are totally extinct there should continue to be a supply of the Russian ones. The Russian military capacitors are actually preferred by some people, mostly guitarists.

HOW MUCH OF A DIFFERENCE IS THERE? In my experience the difference is very subtle between PIO and the Mylar film capacitors like Sprague 225P Orange Drops, but much more obvious between PIO and any ceramic or Poly Film caps including the Poly Orange Drops!

If you are not going to use PIO caps for your electric bass project, I would bypass the far more commonly used Sprague 715P and 716P Polyester film caps and instead use the 225P MYLAR film caps. You'll get a much warmer and more natural sound that is closer to the PIO caps. I hear only a subtle difference between a $15 Vitamin-Q and a $2 Sprague 225P! The less desirable Sprague 715P & 716P caps are rounder while the warmer and far better sounding Sprague 225P caps are boxy and square looking.


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PostPosted: Wed Jun 17, 2009 7:46 pm 
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Thank you both for a very interesting read! My 97 California Precision Special has been sounding a little harsh in the high end to me lately. I was considering swapping out the bridge pickup for a Custom Shop, but maybe I should try switching the cap first.


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PostPosted: Thu Jun 18, 2009 9:49 am 
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steamthief wrote:
Thank you both for a very interesting read! My 97 California Precision Special has been sounding a little harsh in the high end to me lately. I was considering swapping out the bridge pickup for a Custom Shop, but maybe I should try switching the cap first.


Steamy, If you are hearing a brittleness in the upper tones it won't hurt to try replacing the cap. After listening to the harshness for so long it might take a little getting used to! Use the same value cap (or caps) currently in your set up. It is a simple swap-out. Even if it does turn out to be a pickup issue, you will still have the upgraded cap to go with the replacement or rewound pickup!


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PostPosted: Thu Jun 18, 2009 10:33 am 
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Question for you BrotherDave. Where can I find the Mylar drop orange caps? I've only found the regular kind. Also, don't PIO caps degrade over time?

I've been preaching about experimenting with caps for a while, but guitarists and bassists just don't seem to wanna think about electronics, even though getting new pots and caps are the cheapest way to uprade or experiment wtih tone.

It's interesting that Fender still uses caps with huge tolerances. It's my theory that it's the biggest reason two fender instruments that are the same model can sound so different, far more so than other makes. My guess is fender knows about it and embraces the idea of all the instruments being different. Personally, I like consistency, but luckily it's an easy change.


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PostPosted: Thu Jun 18, 2009 12:21 pm 
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anubis16 wrote:
Where can I find the Mylar drop orange caps? I've only found the regular kind.


I know what you mean. The 225 P's are HARD to find. But are currently still in production as far as I know. My source is Axegrinders. They sell them for $2.50 each postage paid in the USA. I link to their site from my bass site. Click on the link in my forum signature below, then click on the red link labeled REPLACEMENT/UPGRADE BASS PARTS. Axegrinders link is then on that page. I call them Mylar, but technically Mylar is solid film polyester. So you could also call them Polyester Caps. The other Orange Drops, the 715's and 716's, are Polypropylene. Two different poly types with different properties.

anubis16 wrote:
Also, don't PIO caps degrade over time?


The Vitamin-Q type, which I recommend, do not deteriorate much at all. World peace depended on that for over 40 years and still does. They are vacuum sealed foil, oil and paper inside a glass capsule which is then sealed again in aluminum. I've never seen one leak or fail in a tone circuit, however if you hit it with a hammer I suppose it could. Most of the Vitamin-Q's from the early 1960's still check within tolerance! The reason that the Vitamin-Q type caps hold up so well is they were Military Spec for ICBM's and other military/aerospace uses. The voltage from guitar pickups is so small there is no fatiguing like in a power amp application so they will last indefinitely and be quite stable.

You are correct that a regular paper & oil capacitor, such as is used in amp circuits is not as stable, although some oil & paper sealed in wax caps were used in early Fender guitars. The CERAMIC caps Leo Fender settled on were the most economic option at the time. I don't think Mylar Caps existed yet.

The Russian/Soviet PIO Vitamin-Q type caps are close copies of the Sprague Vitamin-Q because they wanted their ICBM's & spacecraft to work reliably too. Some say the Soviet/Russian ones are even smoother, but I've never tried a Russian one. So again, the brand isn't all that important and they don't have to be Sprague brand since they are pretty much all made to the same specs. Just make sure you get the glass sealed ones which are usually described as "Vitamin-Q Type" or "Vitamin-Q Style."


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 22, 2009 7:15 am 
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Brother Dave, do you have any experience wtih AllParts Vitamin-Q paper in oil reissue? They're like 15 bucks. Here's a link

http://www.allparts.com/store/electroni ... roduct.asp


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 22, 2009 12:10 pm 
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anubis16 wrote:
Brother Dave, do you have any experience wtih AllParts Vitamin-Q paper in oil reissue? They're like 15 bucks. Here's a link

http://www.allparts.com/store/electroni ... roduct.asp


I do not have experience with those. However it looks very much like the Soviet ones with an Allparts sticker wrapped over the original markings. I'm not saying it is Soviet, just that it looks Soviet. Most of the USA made ones have an unpainted aluminum surface since that was the specification by the military. The Soviet ones are black or green usually. Also the only two Allparts labeled PIO caps are 400 volt capacity, which means they are also physically larger than the 200 volt ones. The larger size makes it harder to fit them in the control cavity. I've noticed Allparts charges $3.50 for ceramic caps that you can buy about anywhere else for a dollar or less AND they ask $8 for an Orange Drop poly cap you can buy about anywhere else for $3 and I would expect there is a similar markup on their PIO caps. The Soviet caps are $4 from other sources.

The best source I've found for USA made PIO caps is Axegrinderz. I link to them from my website on the REPLACEMENT/UPGRADE BASS PARTS page. Just click the link in my forum signature below to get there. I've also found real Sprague Vitamin-Q 0.047 MF 200 volt caps on eBay from time to time and in fact some are on there right now.

Another good source for tone capacitors is ANGELA which my site also links to. They carry their own rebranded Denark import which are Jensen tone caps. They offer these in both aluminum and copper foil versions. The aluminum variety are affordable. I've never tried a copper foil cap but they are said to be superior even to the Sprague Vitamin-Q, which may or may not be true, but I might buy one just to find out someday. The copper foil ones are very expensive in guitar tone values at about $23 each. I'm not sure any tone capacitor is worth $23 plus shipping.

The difference you'll notice with a PIO cap is a smoothness in the lows and less brittle highs. Some people might have been playing ceramic caps for so long that they will actually prefer the edgy & slightly distorted sound of ceramic caps! The type of cap you use seems to make the most difference to me when you crank the treble wide open to full treble. However there all subtle differences all across the tonal range of the instrument.


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 Post subject: Tone Capacitors are your friend
PostPosted: Sat Jun 27, 2009 8:14 pm 
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Thanks for the extremely informative post! I have a related question about tone circuits. I have a Highway One Jazz bass that incorporates two capacitors and a resistor in the tone circuit. After looking at other Jazz Bass wiring diagrams, it appears that this configuration is unique to the Highway One. Why the odd configuration and would there be any benefit to re-wiring? Thanks again!


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PostPosted: Sun Jun 28, 2009 12:55 am 
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That Highway One tone circuit is the Fender "GREASEBUCKET" tone circuit. It "lets you roll off treble without boosting the bass." So the lows you have are all you get no matter what you do with the tone control. It is a feature of both Highway One series guitars and basses. I’m not partial to any tone circuit with a resistor in it personally because I feel anytime you put a resistor in a tone circuit something is getting reduced and I want ALL the juice!

Most Jazz circuits only have one cap. The GreaseBucket circuits on all the Highway One model is one exception. The other exception is coming up.

If you want a stock one-cap Jazz Bass type Neck Volume/Bridge Volume/Tone circuit the JACO circuit works with one cap here:
http://www.fender.com/support/diagrams/pdf_temp1/basses/0196200A/SD0196200APg2.pdf

You can do that one.

Personally, on two pickup basses I like a MASTER VOLUME with PICKUP BLEND and one MASTER TONE. I want to be able to turn up one volume and be ready to go or kill that one pot and be dead quiet. You can't do that with a typical J-bass circuit which was always a major stock J-Bass gripe for me and one of several reasons I prefer P-basses.

If you replace the BRIDGE pickup pot with a stacked blend pot you can use the schematic at the following link and have a Vol/Blend/Tone setup with one cap.

http://www.seymourduncan.com/support/wiring-diagrams/schematics.php?schematic=jazz_bass_blend

You can get the blend pot required in that setup from about any online guitar parts source. You can use your existing pickups, upgrade to a PIO cap and get out of the mod for under $30.

The other exception to the "One-Cap J-Bass Circuit" is the Bill Lawrence circuit for his revolutionary 3 lead J-pickups which call for a treble bleed cap on the BLEND pot in addition to the tone pot cap. Bill Lawrence will make you a custom 3 lead J-bass pickup set that uses your existing single pole pots to get a Master Volume/Pickup Blend/Master Tone setup if you ask him for them. The guy is a GENIUS when it comes to passive pickups and tone circuits….among other things. His pickups and control circuit use two caps also, but no resistor and would be a similar circuit to his 3-lead P/J setup I’m running in a P/J bass which is illustrated here:
http://brotherdave.com/images/billlawrence_pj_wiring.jpg

In this circuit I settled on a 0.0.18 PIO Sprague Vitamin-Q type cap in the variable position to get the most treble out of it. I used a 0.047 PIO Sprague Vitamin-Q type cap where he called for a 0.050. I should point out that while this circuit is drawn Blend/Volume/Tone, you can move the Volume pot to the top position and the circuit works perfectly, which is precisely what I did.

So if I was going to overhaul the tone circuit on a Highway One, I’d go all the way to a Master Volume/Pickup Blend/Master Tone arrangement of some sort and toss the GreaseBucket circuit. But, that is JUST ME. I had a Highway One Jazz for a couple of months. It had a neck issue and I eBayed it as broken before I had a chance to mod it. I planned to mod it because having two separate volumes was just not me. However I didn't get the chance.

Highway One basses will never be truly collectible, so modding them is perfectly okey dokey. If you've got a stock 1965 or previous J-Bass do not even think of any control mods please. Leave it stock.


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PostPosted: Sun Jun 28, 2009 9:22 am 
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Not to derail this thread away from Jazz talk, but I'm seriously considering putting a stacked tone pot, a la '62 Jazz RI, in my California Series P/J. I greatly prefer the P wide open and the bridge Jazz completely rolled off. I assume I'd need to get a second cap, correct?

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 28, 2009 12:23 pm 
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Steamy, that is correct. According to Fender's schematic POT 1 (furtherest from jack) gets a 0.05 or equivalent. POT 2 (closest to jack) gets a 0.03 or equivalent.

Here's the drawing:
http://www.fender.com/support/diagrams/pdf_temp1/basses/0190209C/SD0190209CPg2.pdf

In the POT 1 position I'd solder in a Sprague PIO Vitamin-Q type 0.047 200 volter which is the closest you'll find to a 0.05. This is your master tone pot.

For the cap in the POT 2 position, just for fun I'd try other values alligator clipped into the circuit before settling on one and soldering it in. I'd try about anything lower than a 0.1 all the way down to a 0.01. Then once you know the value that yields the tonal effect you like best then get a PIO Vitamin-Q in that value to permanently install. I like the 0.02 equivalent Sprague Vitamin-Q Type 0.018 in 200 volt size here myself. But see which one you like best. Everybody is different and likes different things and here is a chance to give your bass a special flavor. Also your amp's character can make a difference here so be sure to see how your gig head likes each value before deciding. One of the values will be just the one for you. I think the 0.03 was a compromise to hit a happy medium.


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PostPosted: Sun Jun 28, 2009 12:50 pm 
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Yeah, .047 is a good cap for the neck pickup. I'd suggest something small for the bridge pickup, considering you want the tone rolled off. I'd go .03 or .022. Anything higher will roll too much off and not effect the tone enough.

Also, to the person who had the highway one jazz. A lot of people don't like the greasebucket tone circuit. I haven't tried one out, so I don't know. It's an interesting idea though. Normal tone controls are simple low-pass filters and are rather crude yet effective. Fender is trying to have a more refined tone control without going all out into active preamp territory.
It's worth trying to mod the existing electronics. As far as I can tell, the cap between terminal 1 and 2 is the value for the first half of the control with the pot mostly open. When you close the pot it starts to go into series with the second cap and resister, until it finally lands on the final resister. Controling the start and end caps could do a lot of interesting things to the tone, but it might be more trouble than its worth.

I can't tell from the wiring, but it looks like it might also be creating a High pass filter as well as a typical low pass filter. After all, it is advertised as "bleading off the highs will not adding bass."

For those of you who don't know, resister before cap = low pass filter (typical tone control) and cap before resister = high pass filter. It looks like the circuit uses a combination of the two, but to be honest this is a tad over my head.

Some might frown upon this circuit, and maybe Fender didn't do a fantastic job designing it, but I think it's worth exploring more complex tone circuits. After all, its one of the cheapest and easiest ways to mod an instrument. I give credit to fender for trying this circuit out.


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 Post subject: Tone Capacitors are your friend
PostPosted: Mon Jun 29, 2009 7:09 pm 
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I suspected the greasebucket circuit was supposed to be a refinement, but I was having trouble figuring out why this change didn't migrate into other Jazz Bass models. I was also wondering why my Highway One seemed to lack the wide tone range other Jazz Basses seemed to have. Thanks again for all of the great info!


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PostPosted: Tue Jul 07, 2009 11:54 pm 
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I have a stock '71 Jazz bass. I am wondering if I change the capacitors what can I expect? If I do change them which of the forementioned capacitors would be appropriate? I prefer my Dean Markleys flats and use a Mark Bass rig.


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