By Frank Deimel
Toward the end of the last century, one could get the impression that the electric guitar had been established and developed to the fullest. This was particularly true as the appeal of the electric guitar started to wane after its meteoric rise during the golden ’50s era.
In the 1980s, MTV hit the airwaves. Keyboard and drum machine–based electronic music made its way to the top charts, dethroning the overdone/overexposed ’70s guitar rock and punk music. Guitar-related crossover inventions such as the synthaxe—and even the more developed high-tech designs such as the Bond guitar, with its first digital pickup routing system—were state-of-the-art developments that made you think that the wooden guitar was doomed.
With the ever-evolving development of technical inventions, the electric guitar and its market especially got felled not only by the natural change of trends and tastes but also by another phenomenon: the vintage market.
People quickly realized that a rock ’n’ roll item, really almost any accessory that surrounds a rock star, seemed to be a collectible bargain. That went for anything from a wadded-up tissue to a broken and thrown-into-the-audience guitar neck. The electric guitar had become a status symbol, and therefore it was almost untouchable.
Even techno music, with its European roots, could not overtake the practical as well as the sex appeal of the electric guitar.
The guitar survived the general assault of the digital world, and its value as a rock ’n’ roll icon finally propelled it to being the most successful and popular instrument in the world.
The search for enhancements, though, never ceased. The electric guitar seems to be just as experimental as any other electronic device, but compared to the development of telephones or cameras, the basic technical function has, to this day, never been changed or reinvented on a digital level to any measurable modicum of success.
Synth technology in the ’60s and ’70s never really bowled over the average player. And so there was a return to recognizable guitar sounds.
Small inventions and gadgets popped up now and then to moderate success. Gizmotron, Sustainer/E-Bow, Sustainiac and midification devices found a niche but only as a way to enrich the mechanical guitar sound as an add-on device.
The instrument as played through effects and amplifiers already created a colorful rainbow of sounds, but certain demands of extending the guitar with onboard features seemed to be kept alive with inventions such as those mentioned above.
The guitar is easy enough to play with one hand but is held back in its expression possibilities by construction limitations such as frets and determined pickup positions. This restricts individual phrasing as a violinist might play. These technical parameters are determined during the construction and design process. It is a specific framework: You have one, two, or three pickups; a certain amount of controls and switches; and a determined playing area. That’s it.
When my friend Pascal Stoffels, inventor of the Pickup LesLee™, told me about his idea in the early ’90s, my ears perked up. It sounded so logical that I wondered if anyone else had thought of it too. Apparently, no one else had.
He wondered, why not “automate” the pickup selector switch? The player always has to make a choice while playing—use either the bridge or the neck pickup.
The idea was based on what had already been done by the legendary Jimi Hendrix. He had introduced a sort of wah effect on the Strat using only his onboard controls. Jimi turned down the tone knob of the neck pickup, and went switching back and forth between a bright and a dark sound by using the three-way toggle switch.
As there were no five-way switches at the time, and with the natural curiosity of a player looking for more than the guitar might offer to inspire him, several pioneers found out pretty early that the given knobs and switches could be used in a creative context too.
I remember Brian Eno once explaining in an interview that you should creatively use the equalizer on your home high fidelity system. He recommended tailoring the settings to your taste instead of leaving all settings on zero, in order to change listening habits. He then recommended leaving these settings untouched for a while.
Anyway, it seemed to be an idea that lots of guitarists subconsciously embraced for decades.
However, they never thought of it as a permanent effect that could be switched on and off. I’m still amazed, to this day, that the idea had never been made public, as far as I know.
Here, Pascal is quoted on how he came up with the concept:
“It was during the exciting times in Berlin after the Wall came down. The partially deserted boroughs of the former East were spontaneously taken over by the first wave of diverse, young creative types. The cost of living was extremely low, so we all had plenty of time to realize our projects and live our dreams.
In this excitingly nurturing environment, I was busy making music, doing a jewelry project with cut coins and also figuring out how to build my first homemade guitar.
In the process of developing the electronics for the guitar, I had an epiphany and soon found myself using my jewelry saw to cut a circular copper plate into 12 segments.
These segments formed a circular contact surface which, when touched by a rotating arm, provided the alternating pickup sequence for the first prototype of what would soon be called the PickUp ‘Leslie.’
It was a motor-driven, automated pickup switch with speed control.
I encapsulated the electric motor and switch plate in a metal casing for shielding and built this unit into my homemade guitar. Since the unit needs to tap into all pickup signals to do its thing, it has to be onboard the guitar.
Right from the first prototypes, it was a nice effect to play with, giving a metronome-like timing when playing alone, serving a layer of vibrato/tremolo to single-note melodies and riffs. The hard switching also provided a very enjoyable and defined extra percussive rhythm.
Through longtime work collaboration and friendship with Frank Deimel, we have moved away from the motor-driven version to electronic switchboard versions. We now feature a custom circuit board that preserves the original idea of hard switching but cancels the pops or cracks of the switching itself.
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The name ‘Leslie’ got altered when Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth bought a guitar through Deimel Guitarworks that Frank and I built in the late 1990s, a 12-string Jazzmaster type guitar with the effect on board. Lee loves the fact that we decided to call the device Pickup LesLee™ since then.
The Pickup LesLee™ is a simple effect that stays close to the nature of the electric guitar itself.
All it would take is a third hand moving the pickup selector switch up and down in the timing of the beat while playing the guitar. Any electric guitar with more than one pickup can fabricate this tonal effect by being switched continuously.
And that is exactly what is automated by Pickup LesLee™. This simplicity makes it a natural and pleasant effect.”
As a matter of fact, the sound itself may resemble a tremolo device, but it definitely has a unique quality of its own.
First, the input signal being altered is fed by two different sources. As both (pickups) have different volumes and frequencies, they also produce a slight phasing while being switched against each other. As the switching itself is designed to be silent, the circuit oscillates and blends out the switch click noise. Its envelope is very soft. Once the speed pot is turned, a noticeable warm and musical texture develops, which has a truly unique character.
We are working on different versions at the moment to make it possible to change the envelope character as well as effect intensity. This will allow for adjustments to suit personal preferences and for use in various musical contexts.
Finally, I have worked out the most silent, and most natural-sounding, circuit with the help of Stephan Junge from Tortenmann Effects in Berlin. Our plan is to offer this unit as an onboard effect exclusively on Deimel Guitarworks Firestar guitars.
The most up-to-date version is ready to rock and will be delivered to New York City through www.customguitarboutique.com this coming winter.