A Trio of Tonefreaks

An article in ToneQuest Report, August 2002

We found Jason Lollar by way of our good friend Peter Stroud, who was introduced to Jason by Pete Droge. Jason lives on an island near Seattle, where he builds exceptional guitars that are clearly unique among the more derivative small-production instruments that seem so common today. He also designs and personally winds some of the most magical pickups we have ever heard.

TQR: How and when did you first become interested in the guitar?

I became serious about guitars around 1971 after buying a copy of Are You Experienced (my first rock album). I had been playing sax in the school band, but after hearing that first Hendrix album, I eventually dropped it (the sax). I figured nothing could be as cool as electric guitar. Now I like to have a good tenor player around, and it seems like it would have been a good idea to keep up on the horn. Soon after the album, I bought a Kay copy of a Gibson SG along with a Sonax solid-state amp with green alligator pattern tolex and a wild tremolo function. Cheap guitars back then were poorly made compared to today, so I was looking for something better right from the start.

TQR: Was there anyone in particular who encouraged or inspired you to pursue your interest in guitars, pickups, and amplifiers?

My dad built flying model airplanes, so my brother and I were indoctrinated into that when we were still in grade school. After I bought my first guitar, 1 found a book on classical guitar construction and got it into my head that I wanted to make an electric guitar, which I attempted unsuccessfully in Junior High. I didn't know any guitar makers: there just weren't many at that time, nor was there any information available till several years later. I look woodshop in 10th grade and talked the teacher into letting me make a guitar. By that time I had looked at a lot of guitars, so I had an idea about neck angles. I thrashed my way through a P-bass copy and a double cutaway Les Paul. They came out playable, but not very good. I re-carved a pre-fretted existing neck for the bass and used a Gibson fingerboard for the guitar that I had talked a repair guy out of. I would say both were a success at the time considering that I was blindly forging ahead.

TQR: Your skills span a lot of territory - from guitar design and building to custom pickups and amplifier repair. Did you receive any formal training?

My formal training came from the Roberto Venn School of Lutherie, which I attended in 1979. What I got out of that was the confidence that I would eventually figure out how to do every procedure involved in making guitars. While I was attending the school I also built a heavy, overbuilt acoustic and an electric that was pretty behind for the times. They showed us how to make pickups, which were basically Moserite/Bigsby copies with the flimsy celluloid bobbins and segmented Alnico magnets potted in bondo. I guess they don't show students how to wind anymore, but the rest of the curriculum is now up to date. I had expected to come out of the school a guitar maker, but I realized that I was lacking in some important skills like finishing, design work, and production methods. What I did get was the confidence that I could build guitars, which is not to be underrated. Somehow, I never wound up working in a repair shop or factory, so I learned my finishing skills working in antique restoration, piano refinishing, and in spray booths. I also worked with a local finish guru. I got my production experience from working in cabinet shops and millwork outfits. It was kind of a roundabout way, but it was a long time before I met another guitar maker. During all this time, I built an occasional guitar and did repairs on the side.

I learned electronics from gigging. I took care of the PA, and also from a local guy that let me watch and ask questions while he repaired my tube amps. I also read a lot of old books on electronic organ repair and old amateur radio guides.

With pickups, after being shown how simple it is to wind a coil. I figured I should get set up. I built my first winder in 1980 out of a motorized Lego set. I set it up so it would guide the wire onto the bobbins automatically—a hands off self-winding machine. It worked pretty well, but it was slow—maybe 40 minutes a coil. It got me by, supplying pickups for the limited amount of guitars I made and some occasional rewinds. I was almost working in a vacuum, figuring out pickups as I went as far as dealing with the mechanics of winding. The majority of what I know about pickups came from rewinding, repairing, and examining them, but I also made some wacky custom pickups for people. I may have saved a lot of time if I had gotten a job at a place like Duncan or Fender, but I didn't want to move out of the Seattle area. A lot of how I perceive guitar design comes from gigging, using instruments and amps, and from talking to other players. Having played a few thousand nights has given me the experience to know exactly what I'm after when I build an instrument. Most of the big manufacturers like Gibson, Fender, and Epiphone have influenced me basically anything they made before the '70s build it heavy craze. I'm not really interested in keeping up with the times for the sake of being "progressive."

TQR: Lets review the various models of guitars that you build.

I make a lot of solid bodies—both bolt-on and set neck. I also have a line of archtops that are variations on one basic design. For bolt-ons, I make a model called the Standard, which is basically a Tele. The major difference being the body thickness, which is a lot thinner than a Fender to save weight and get rid of some mass in an effort to make the body resonate quicker and more fully in response to string vibration. Slab-sawn flat grain Western maple is standard neck material for all my bolt-ons. Western big leaf maple is a little softer and lighter that Eastern hard rock maple. I'm really after getting the entire instrument to vibrate. All my guitars have single-piece truss rods to save on weight. Double, two-piece action rods add too much weight and they kill vibration. I want to feel and hear the entire instrument vibrate, which requires a precise fit of the neck to the pocket joint—a tight press fit—something the larger factories don't normally do. The standard finish on all bolt-ons is nitro cellulose lacquer in transparent blonde, vintage sunburst (tobacco burst) or black.

The Tonemaster was one of my original designs—an offset-waist, contoured body guitar with a P90 neck pickup and a calibrated Tele bridge pickup with string through body. All my bolt-on models have alder bodies, which is my preferred wood. This guitar is kind of a cross between a Jazz bass, Tele, and a Gibson, with two volume and two tone controls. I'm changing the pickup combination on this guitar to a Stringmaster style steel guitar pickup set in the bridge position and a new design I call the Chicago Steel in the neck. The Stringmaster set has two coils similar to Strat pickups, but they are reverse wound/reverse polarity and they use a blend pot. The coils are wired so when you turn it one way all you get is the pickup closest to the bridge, and as you turn the pot, it adds in the other coil, which is connected in series. When the pot is completely open, both coils are at full output, giving you a humbucker. The coils are separated by a gap of about 1" giving you different tone than a standard humbucker. I believe standard humbuckers have a proximity effect that causes some phase cancellation of harmonics.

For set necks. I make a V model that is one of the few instances where I use figured wood. I bought a board of flamed koa back in the '70s that is only wide enough to make this type of guitar. After the Koa is gone. I won't make anymore. The Koa is tonally superior to maple. The V has a Koa cap laminated to Mahogany with a total thickness of 1" which is thinner than a stock Gibson. I build either a mahogany or a cherry neck selected for weight and density, with a rosewood or ebony board with block inlays, two P90 pickups, and a tune-o-matic bridge with stop tailpiece. However, I'm switching to the newer wraparound tailpiece with adjustable sections. I think that's one of the best things to come out recently. I also make an approximation of the Gibson SG with a 1-3/8" alder body and mahogany neck. The alder makes it unbelievably light, and you can get it to feedback on demand with two P90 pickups that have that magical, early Gibson SG sound. My archtops come in the Concert and Performer versions with various options. The differences in these two are cosmetics, inlays, and bindings. I don't care for modern archtops with odd curves, thin wood finger rests, and wood tailpieces. I designed mine around '30s and '40s instruments.

I'm after a blend of acoustic and electric tone—something easier to use at a gig than a purely acoustic version with floating pickups. My guitars are designed around a 16" top like early Gibson's, parallel-braced and carved for a good compromise between electric and acoustic sound. The Performer has a rosewood fingerboard, dot inlays, Grover pegs, single-ply binding. and a 24 5/8-scale length and a standard tobacco sunburst finish.

The Concert has an ebony board, gold MOP block inlays, Grover imperial pegs, two dog-ear P90's, 3-way switch, two volume and tone controls, frequensator tail piece, floating tune-o-matic, and multiple ply binding with a standard tobacco burst finish. I tint the binding to give it a 30-year-old look. In tact, the design and execution often fools people into thinking they are vintage. Options are Venetian or Florentine cutaways and standard depth body or thinline. I will build the thinline with an alder center block on request The lop mounted dog-ear P90s are spectacular sounding. People call these Jazz guitars, but in reality, they work great for jazz, blues, funk, and rockabilly. With the P90s, you're not limited to the typical dark hollowbody sound. I build these in batches and vary the woods I use. The last batch had cherry necks, sides, and back, with selected Douglas fir tops. The batch I'm working on now has Mahogany necks, Sitka Spruce tops, and Western flamed maple backs and sides. I cut and milled up a tree that fell near my home and have a large quantity of air-dried flamed Western maple that is incredible wood.

I think archtops are the pinnacle of guitar making. They are a bold design statement that can catch anyone's attention, and they are the most difficult and time-consuming guitars to make properly. All the features I've developed are in response to feedback I've heard from other guitar players. There are a lot of musicians that find most modern archtops unusable and too prone to feedback. Having a floating pickup attached to a pickguard can sometimes oscillate and increase this vulnerability.

TQR: Do you have any particular favorites among the various woods that can be used to build guitars?

I like alder for solid bodies. It's fairly lightweight, resonant, finishes easily (closed pore) and can have good grain patterns. Koa or Honduras mahogany would be my next choice. For necks, I like West Coast maple or Honduras mahogany, but it is getting harder to get the good quality Honduras that was common 20 years ago. If it becomes any more scarce, I will switch to walnut, which is a close substitute as far as weight and density. I have also used a lot of cherry. It's quite stable, and the hardness range is in between maple and Honduras. As cherry ages, it darkens to a nice reddish brown tone. I keep exotic wood use to a minimum, and only for fingerboards. It's generally too heavy for electrics, and it's often brilliantly colored with strong grain patterns that I don't like, since it tends to dominate the design. I have used Bocote (Mexican rosewood) for fingerboards if I can get it quarter sawn. It has a waxy feel to it when buffed, just like a well-used 30 year-old fingerboard.

Basically, I want something reasonably light weight, but not punky, and I want it to resonate. Hopefully, the wood is neutral in color, so I'll have a lot of finishing options. I use a lot of pigmented transparent finishes. I don't laminate flamed maple on top of a body for the sake of having pretty wood to look at if it doesn't add anything to the tone, and it usually doesn't. I know for a fact that I could sell more guitars, that way, but it's just not the direction I want to go.

TQR: The situation has improved, but it seems as if we are still forced to do a lot of work to make most new instruments truly great. From your perspective, why does the industry seem to be stuck in time when it comes to fretwork and tone, when at the same time, there are more skilled custom builders and high quality after-market pickups and parts than ever before?

The situation has improved, and cheap guitars are of far better quality than they were 25-30 years ago. However, the big manufacturers are focusing on the majority of consumers. which for the most part, have a different agenda than a tone freak or a pro. A large percentage of the public will squawk at paying a grand for a guitar. Their tolerance for parting with money is low compared to, say, a horn player. That's not to say that my guitars are expensive compared to most custom instruments. I try to not add a lot of extra stuff like inlayed dragons or expensive exotic wood, so I can keep the price down. I can't tell you how many people have tried one of my guitars and said that it sounds great, while I'm thinking. "You haven't even hit one good note yet. Fortunately, there are enough players around that do know how to draw tone out of a guitar to keep the small guys like me going.

You also have a lot of people paying for a name. Fender Artist Series are priced pretty high, and Gibson, for the real stuff like Super 400's or Les Paul reissues, are way up there. Gibson can do that to some extent due to the price of vintage pieces, so good for them. You won't find $600 fret jobs on a production model because these companies are in tune with materials and labor costs along with what the public will pay. When you break down procedures into a production line where one person is responsible for a specific task and it gets passed from one area to another, things tend to get overlooked. When you sectionalize, it becomes increasingly difficult to match the quality of an instrument made by one person, assuming that person is well versed in all the procedures. Couple this with having quotas to fill in order to match previous time and material studies, and some things are going to get out the door before a problem is noticed. I have seen plenty of expensive new instruments that needed a fret file out the door! Cheaper ones often need a complete setup. I have also seen well-known custom builders that are weak in one area like inlay or finishing, which you could have done out-of-shop without compromising overall quality, and it could possibly save some time. There is nothing wrong with using CNC machines if you can resist using them like cookie cutters. I use lasers to cut out my Strat and Tele style bobbins, and I will eventually have my inlay done that way in an effort to reduce cost without compromising quality. Considering a large manufacturer's overhead, setting up a guitar takes a lot of time. Cutting the nut properly, getting a good fret file, setting up the pickups, checking it all out... on and on.

TQR: Moving to pickups...There is definitely some magic in certain pickups—especially yours. Where does it come from? What are the subtleties in pick up design and construction that make the difference between ordinary pickups and those that are really inspiring?

Pickups based on specific designs like a Fender style with AINiCo rod poles lock you into certain parameters of tone that you can manipulate to some degree. You already have your magnet structure and coil size verified if you want it to fit into the stock pickup rout, so you couldn't change that. In this example, you have a few things you can do to change the tone and action, like the winding pattern, wire gauge (size), turn count, and magnetic material type and size. If you look at old Fender coils from an end view, you will see the coil is flared, funnel, or pear-shaped. This indicates that the coil was hand or random-wound. It's not an infallible indicator though, because you can easily get a consistent coil by hand-winding. I feed the wire on to a coil with a combination of hand winding and 19th century yarn spooling machine technology. The way I have it set up results in a random wind pattern. Newer production machines have the ability to lay each turn of wire very accurately next to each other, so you can wind very fast and also pack a lot of wire into a small area. This is useful for over-winding and making high output pickups, but it bleeds off some high frequencies due to increased capacitance. They tend to sound darker and perhaps a little more compressed. The amount of turns you use affects output level and frequency response. You can wind a little higher than stock to overdrive the amp a bit easier in response to picking pressure, but you don't have to overwind to the point that the pickup obviously distorts more all of the time. You can approach it subtly, so you can certainly feel the difference, and if you have the chops to take advantage of the pickup-to-amp response, you can really make some cool sounds. The turn count on the coils is one of the big differences between various manufacturers.

The type of material you use in the magnets is another factor. New AINiCo 5 will have more zing than either the aged, or the grade of AINiCo that Fender used in the '50s. and AINiCo 2 will sound a little softer than 5. The longer the rod you use, the stronger the magnetic field will be. A 3/4" long rod will have noticeably more pull than a 5/8" rod. which adds power and high end. With wire size (diameter), you can make a smaller coil of equal output for a cleaner, tighter sound, or a larger coil for a fuller, fatter tone. High output pickups that are standard designs usually use 44 gauge wire compared to the standard 42 gauge. Old lap steels often use a 38 gauge wire, which makes a relatively larger coil, giving you big sound without necessarily increasing output.

Most manufacturers solidify the coil either partially or completely with wax, or in the old days, with lacquer. Once you do that, you lose some of what most people refer to as "transparency." It's subtle, but noticeable. If you don't pot, you have to be extremely careful to get the coil tensioned properly to avoid the excessive microphonics that most people would find objectionable. There are other problems with not potting, because some guitars just don't take to it well. Pickguard-mounted pickups tend to have problems with the pickguard oscillating at high frequencies that transfer to the coils with unpleasant results. Also, on most Fender pickups, the wax helps hold the whole pickup together. Everyone has seen Tele's with smashed or warped top plates on the bridge pickup from years of hard playing. A lot of these only had the outside layer of the coil solidified with lacquer, so there is nothing to hold the bobbin together. Of course, Fenders aren't the only pickups with bobbin failure—old Gibson P90's get a condition I call "bobbin rot" due to the plastic deteriorating to the point that it will crumble apart. Some guitars don't have enough resonance for an unpotted coil to make much difference, and besides, the new AINiCo 5 and random-wound coils help avoid too much signal degradation after potting.

If you want an example of taking the opportunity to really tweak a pickup design, lake a look at my P90's. Right away you can tell it's different than what anyone else makes. I make my own bobbins out of fiberboard and use the Fender style eyelets to connect the leads. It creates a much better connection and it's easier to service if ever needed. Also, the fiberboard will never rot. But these features are just mechanical—the real difference is that I use a different type of screw for the poles and I position the magnets right up against the poles instead of using a metal spacer, like the stock units. These may seem like insignificant changes, but they add up to a pickup with more definition than anyone else's, yet you still get all the character that you expect in a P90. I build a lot of custom pickups that don't have to fit in a certain size hole, and then I can use all of my tricks when designing, but most of the time I'm trying to make a pickup fit into a certain size box. In that case, you have to add up a lot of small tweaks to he able to make much of a change. The reason everyone's standard design pickups sound different is a combination of how many turns they use and the method of feeding the wire onto the coil. Another variable that's often overlooked is that each guitar will sound a little different with the same pickup in it.

TQR: What are your favorite classic guitar pickup designs and how have you improved on them (or managed to faithfully duplicate them) over the years?

My favorite, classic pickup designs are lap steel pickups, because to me, they are so interesting and have a unique tone. Before the late '50s you would see a lot of odd pickup designs with magnetic field reflectors, string-through, pole-less bobbins, externally mounted magnet, and many other variations. After that, pickup designs became homogenized to where you basically had Fender or Gibson style pickups (excluding very few odd examples). I have learned more about pickup design from looking at lap steels than anything else, other than what I have learned by making a lot of really odd custom pickups to other people's specifications, like humbucking clavinet pickups. If you haven't played some lap steels, you really should check them out—Rickenbackers with horseshoe magnets. Fenders with the string-through bobbins, and the Valco/Oahu external magnet pickup. They have a huge amount of output. yet they still have top end. I have worked on lots of Rick horseshoes and I have come up with a magic turn count that fattens them up even more, but still retains the original sound. I have a new prototype in my shop that has real magnetic horseshoes, but I haven't gotten much further than that. I've been told that my Stringmaster sets are the best made, and that's just due to winding pattern and turn count. They sound better than '50s originals in a subtle way, but it's pretty tough to get much better than the original Stringmasters.

My newest model is based on the old National/ Supro /Oahu type. I'm calling it the Chicago Steel. Robert Randolph and Jerry Douglas got the first two through Harmos Ltd., which buys a lot of my pickups as OEM. I'm going to try to adapt it as a retrofit Tele bridge pickup and as a P90. lt's high output in a way, but it doesn't get muddy and it has tons of harmonic content. As far as guitar pickups go, I think the P90 is the top. Unlike other designs, when you turn the volume down on a P90, the high end doesn't disappear. Instead, the mids drop out and it cleans up really nicely. I guess that's not important if you play full up all the time, but if you use dynamics at all it's the best thing going. For cutting through a mix without having to rely on sheer volume, the Tele bridge pickup is a good design. I like guitars with two pickups for that neck and bridge combination, which is great for playing rhythm, A Tele is hard to beat for that tone, I have played around with Tele pickups quite a bit to offer a special set that knocks some of the cut out and fattens them up. I prefer single coils, and normally I wouldn't use a humbucker. Humbuckers have a quality that sounds and feels to me like compression, which I don't care for.

TQR: You work on amplifiers as well. Can you describe your philosophical approach to amps as a player and a technician? What are your favorite amps, and why? Do you have any special things you like to do with specific amps? What do you want to hear when you plug into an amp as a player?

What I want to hear in an amp is a natural sound that almost matches the tone of the guitar when unplugged, with no boxiness or nasal sound. If I am playing by myself, I will get out a Masco MA30 or a Deluxe. I used to own several tweed Fenders when you could buy them for 50 bucks all day long. For me, there are basically two kinds of vintage Fenders, which is all I have been playing since about 1980. There are the soft and singing amps, and the tight and dry Fenders. I can take either one and prefer the '71 Silverface Super Reverb I own for playing with a combo. This one is a really nice Silverface... Anyway. I always figured if the amp is dry and light, get the sustain from your hands. Generally, I don't like a lot of breakup, and I gravitate toward the Super. I have always viewed every amp as having its unique strong suit, and you adapt your style to it.

I have also rebuilt a lot of Fenders, so I've had a chance to play them all and Fenders were made to be worked on. You get into Gibsons and you have to unsolder 10 parts to get to the bad one, but Fender really had it together. The only change I occasionally make to Fenders is to switch over the silverface bias balance pot to the blackface bias adjustment. I have built some clones of Fenders, but I really don't do any circuit design at this point, since I already have a pretty full plate.

TQR: What are your plans for the future in regard to new projects and designs?

I'm working on some more original electric guitar designs and I have some flat tops in the works. I get a lot of requests for a Charlie Christian pickup and I have a design that's close, but I'm still figuring out a universal mounting system, I also have a Rick horseshoe in the works. Mostly, I'm looking at applying some of the old lap steel pickup designs that have unique tone and retrofitting them for several types of electric guitars. And of course, I'm always working toward achieving perfection...TQ