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Gear Review – ESP LTD TE-202 with Creamery Pickups (’71 Wide Range and Vintage Nocaster)

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Background

The story goes that I needed a backup guitar urgently and I popped in to a local guitar shop to have a play with a few I had my eye on. I ended up buying the ESP for a variety of reasons, not the least of which included, the wonderful neck and the tall frets, the nice neck joint and the pickup configuration of the classic bridge single coil and the neck humbucker that appealed to me. The pickups themselves sounded a bit so-so, but basically I saw enough potential in the guitar to go for it, as I really liked the basic ‘feel’ of the instrument better than the others I tried. Oh, and I always wanted an ESP- they are unique among the sea of Fender’s and the small matter of the ESP’s headstock much more palatable to me than the standard Fender Tele headstock (sacrilege! Burn him! et cetera…).

The Problem

After a trip to the folks at Feline Guitars for a full setup, the guitar felt even better to play, however the pickups and electronics were still a weak point. The problem I had was the drastic volume difference between the neck and bridge positions- the apparent volume of the bridge pickup is considerably less than the neck pickup (Relative pickup/pole piece height adjustment never solved this- it only made the neck pickup more muddy). This was most unpleasant and unwelcome when playing live as  I’d be playing rhythm clean during softer passages and engage the bridge pickup for a bit of cut and add in some drive and I’d be lost in the mix! This was also proving to give the sound guy an inexpressible form of headache…(is that a good thing?!). These issues were apart from the fact that the bridge pickup sounded uncontrollably bright and thin, so I had to resort to doing all sorts of fiddly stuff with the EQ and drive settings to make it sound passable. I say uncontrollable, as the the volume and tone pots were for all practical purposes, useless at doing their job. The volume control, in addition to doing a terrible job at reducing the perceived volume, also takes a load of the ‘highs’ with it, whilst the tone control was successful at putting a blanket over the bridge pickup, it also turned the humbucker in to a mud bath, resulting in me perennially fiddling with the tone control whenever I change pickup position during a song trying to find that ever-elusive sweet spot…

The Search

I went on a pickup hunt trying to research the best possible combo for me-from the usual aftermarket manufacturers (Seymour Duncan, diMarzio) to well known ’boutique’ winders (Fralin, Lollar, Bareknuckle). I also considered TV Jones pickups for the neck position, thinking of perhaps pairing it with a suitable Bareknuckle black-guard series pickup. My requirements were:

  1. Good volume balance between pickups.
  2. Bright and clear humbucker for neck.
  3. Thick and punchy single coil for bridge.

Point 1) was top priority. I was at a massive disadvantage because I had no idea how the published specs of the multitude of pickups from the various manufacturers relate to what I wanted i.e. no volume jump when going through the pickup selector switch. I tried to use the DC resistance figure as a guide as no standardised measures are available. As I read more about pickups and the way they are constructed, I realised this was a futile exercise. I learned that a pickup wound to the classic Broadcaster specs will have a similar volume output to a ‘Nocaster’ pickup even though they often have very disparate DC resistances owing to the different wire used in the respective winds. This problem was complicated further due to the fact that I have to match up a humbucker and a single coil. A quick look around forums suggests that this is a problem faced by many a telecaster guitarist wishing to have a fatter humbucker sound in the neck position with a traditional single coil in the bridge. If it was two single coils, it would have been as easy as ordering a ‘calibrated’ set of whatever description, readily available from any of the above mentioned companies.

Re: Point 2), the monolithic proportions of muddyness exhibited by the stock ESP humbucker really emphasised this need for me. I would actually like to use the neck pickup for some clean rhythm work, y’know! I would not like to get buried deep under a live mix and not under any circumstances play an open chord for fear of that mud monster. The pickup had to have a humbucker vibe though, as to me, it sounds more interesting than a traditional tele single coil.

Re: 3) Although I wanted a thicker sounding pickup I also wanted to have a good dose of the twang/spank that tele’s are known for. After all, I got a guitar that looks (a bit) like a tele and I don’t want to lose the ‘character’ of a tele in the pursuit of a ‘hot’ pickup.

Creamery Pickups

I came across Creamery Pickups some time back as their name came up in a forum thread regarding copies of the original Fender Wide Range pickups and after seeing good reviews and hearing some clips, I shot Jaime @ the creamery an email detailing my travails with the stock pickups. I gave Jaime at Creamery a try as there was a promise of calibrating/balancing pickups and also the fact that a custom set, wound according to my own requirements would cost (in the UK) pretty much the same as a set from more mass produced aftermarket pickups (SD, diMarzio) and less than the ’boutique’ winders like Fralin, Lollar or Bareknuckle. If I had unlimited finances, I would love to have tried some interesting humbuckers such as the Lollar El-Rayo or the TV Jones Magnatron. Alas, time and finances are limited. Creamery have a lot of possible options for bright pickups in humbucker sized package (Swing-O, Wide-O, Wide Range and Humbucker). Each category has its own style with varying levels of vintage and hot winds depending on the individual’s requirements.

In the end I ordered the ‘Baby ’71’ and the ‘Nocaster’ bridge pickup with my requirements above mentioned to Jaime in the email conversation. So, the pickups are supposed to be styled with the classic Fender pickups in mind, just wound to my requirements. I must admit, a leap of faith was involved, as you and I know, tone can be a very subjective matter. One man’s ‘bright and clear’ is another man’s ‘shrill and ice pick’ and what I may describe as ‘thick and punchy’ may be ‘hot and muddy’ to you. Anyways, the pickups arrived after 2 and a bit weeks and I took them to Feline Guitars for fitting. They recommended 50s wiring to get the best out of these pickups, in addition to a complete upgrade of the electronics including the pots to Bareknuckle CTS 280K pots. I got showed all these impressive looking Paper-in-oil capacitors made by Jensen, Vitamin Q etc in the Feline Guitars workshop and I decided to stick with the less expensive Orange drop cap. I couldn’t wait to try them through my rig.

The Baby ’71 WRHB and the Nocaster nestling in the pickguard of my ESP TE-202. Nice smoothed out edges. Looks cool.

The Test

So how did they sound? Immediate impression was, “Jaime is a psychic! He’s produced a pickup set that sounds exactly like the sound I had in my head!”. I really didn’t have any words for the first few minutes I played the guitar at the Feline Guitars workshop except a mumbled “WOW”. I took it home and played the guitar through my rig for a whole day and my initial impressions got stronger. I did not notice any volume jump from bridge to neck and vice versa both clean and overdriven. What was interesting for me when playing overdriven was that the neck humbucker was ‘cleaner’ (owing to less output maybe?) while the Nocaster bridge was a lot more ‘dirty’ sounding under the same gain settings but with no obvious jump in volume. I couldn’t believe it first as all my previous experience with ‘hotter’ pickups always involve a jump in perceived volume to get that raunch.

My amp is a Vox AC15 Combo (Heritage Handwired/H1TVL) and it is very sensitive to unbalanced pickups. It is one of those amps that as a player you cannot hide behind-it tends to bare everything including unbalanced pickups. My other guitar is a case in point: it is a Crafter strat with the (infamous) GFS lil killers unbalanced ‘calibrated’ set in it. You can really hear the difference and what a huge jump in output the lil killers have, when going from neck to bridge. The bridge lil killer particularly has all the grace of a sledgehammer.

The ‘Baby ’71’ in the neck position can only be described as ‘bright’ and ‘clear’. It sounds exactly how you’d expect a bright humbucker to sound. It doesn’t sound like a single coil or a P90 or even a filtertron. It sounds like a bright PAF having a very acoustic-like quality with the scooped-mids, but still having that distinctive humbucker-voice. The 50s wiring works amazingly well with this pickup. It develops a bit of ‘hair’ when you put a lot of gain on it (as expected of lower output pickups) but the hair can be dialled back by rolling off the tone or the volume a little bit to give a great bluesy tone. This pickup reminded me a lot of the neck pickup in the Gibson Custom Shop 5os Les Paul plain top I had a chance to demo in a shop some time ago for its clarity.

The Vintage Nocaster has that ’round’ tone people tend to associate with Alnico 3 pickups. The most fascinating thing with this pickup was how it behaved when I put some gain on, to test the overdriven tones. I’ve heard people talk about that mid-range growl of those early 50s Telecaster pickups, but I would describe the overdriven tones of the Creamery Nocaster pickups the same. There is nothing ‘thin’ about this pickup. Often the worry with ‘hot’ sounding pickups is that they either lose clarity and become muddy, employing the aforementioned sledgehammer technique to beat the front-end of an amp/signal chain in to submission by having ungainly (no pun intended) amounts of output. The bridge pickup on mine however was very ‘dynamic’ and still got that twang within easy access. No ice pick here. Just beautiful tele twang and growl, thickening up tremendously as you wind more and more gain on.

The litmus test of all this was playing live. I’m happy to report that all of what I described of these pickups translated really well to ‘live’ playing. The ‘acoustic’-like character of the humbucker helped me out for a nice clean rhythm sound when I played with a Bass and Drums only. And it also held together pretty well when I played with Keys, another Electric and an Electro-acoustic in the mix. The bridge pickup really shone in this situation, cutting through very well amongst these other instruments during lead breaks and such.

The only possible negative I felt was that the tone in the middle position is a very subtle change when going from neck-to-middle in the pickup selector. It didn’t seem to have that in-your-face jangle as the stock ESP setup (check the vid here of the stock ESP). In actual fact, I believe this was specific to my amp setup. A week later, I had a chance to play a newer Vox AC15C1 equipped with a Celestion Greenback, and the middle position jangle was as in-your-face as you can get! In this setup, the neck humbucker even sounded like single-coil. It really put a smile on my face. So, I believe my impressions were due in part to the Alnico speaker in my amp: the Greenback with its seemingly extended high-end detail seemed to bring out the sparkly qualities of these pickups to the fore. The bridge Nocaster in this setup sounded even more twangy, still retaining its bold character without any ice pick. Well, you can consider all my needs and expectations from this guitar to be fulfilled. I consider myself fortunate, for with one sweep, my tone chasing has ended when there are many many restless souls, after countless pickup changes, still haven’t got what they are looking for.

Concluding Thoughts

The guys at Feline Guitars have to be really commended for their recommendations of the 50s wiring, the bareknuckle pots and the excellent setup work of the guitar. These other ‘upgrades’ have really transformed the guitar’s playability and the range of tones I can coax out of this thing. First time in my life I’ve said, “so that’s what people mean by ‘clean-up’?!”. The 50s wiring is a revelation. Before this, I’ve never experienced this level of ‘clean-up’ from a guitar, so I had learned to vary the pick attack to get some dynamics in to my playing but the 50s wiring is great and has added another dimension to my playing.

In conclusion, I whole heartedly recommend Creamery Pickups for your custom wind. Choose the pickup that suits your fancy, tell Jaime the kind of tones you’re shooting for and he’ll make a set tailored for you. One thing I learned in this experience was that tone is not that subjective after all. I described what I wanted in text using common terms (with a link to an youtube vid thrown in for good measure! lol) to Jaime, and I got exactly what I asked for. To my mind, you really have to know your stuff and understand the various interplay of the pickup componentry to be able to translate from the descriptive text medium to the physics of pickups, to make a pickup that sounds exactly like what I described…and have a good ear for tone too. So from me it is a thumbs up to Creamery Pickups.

If you got this far, you might want to check out the video of some samples of my ESP with the Creamery pickups:

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Microbiologist, guitarist and motor sport aficionado.

4 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. Fantastic review. That guitar sounded excellent in our workshop – it was hard to give it back as it sounded so good.
    Thankyou also for the kind words about our work on your guitar – we always seek to bring out the best in the guitars we see, and it’s nice to know when we hot the mark.

    Reply

    • Hey! Jon thanks for commenting! My pleasure. Your work certainly hit the mark on this guitar. People often underestimate the power of a well setup instrument when ‘upgrading’ something on the guitar, choosing to blame the pickup rather than looking at how it’s set up. I understand that setting up a guitar is half the job of making it sound good, so credit where it is due! 🙂

      Reply

  2. I just want to say what a great in depth review this is on the ESP tele. I just purchased the same guitar based on this write up and feel exactly the same about it. I love it but am definitely going to replace the pickups.

    Reply

    • Thanks for your comments and I’m glad that the review helped. Though I feel that the review was mainly focusing on rectifying the negative aspects of the ESP (the electronics), it is a great left field choice for a tele-style guitar and it feels very different to Fenders in the same price range and all the better for it IMO. Classic ESP playability with the classic tele sound: a very attractive proposition! Just wish they’d paid a bit more attention to the electronics, but for the money, I’m not complaining!

      Reply

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