Who doesn’t love The famous ‘Gretsch sound?’ Admired by guitar players all over the world.
With that said, a large portion of the sound is due to the distinct ‘Filer’Tron’ pickups at the helm.
Arguably, these pickups are as popular as ever these days. So let’s delve deeper so you can know everything about them.
In this article, I’ll deliver everything you need to know about Filer’Tron pickups, their origin, construction, sound, typical genres, fitting one in a non-Gretsch guitar, and the famous players.
Thus, the question that comes in hand is, What are Filter’Tron pickups?
The Filter’Tron pickup is the very first low output humbucker pickup ever to exist. This pickup is well-known for its fat, warm sound and its clean, piercing high-end. The combination of solid low-end, rich mid-range and clear highs make the Filter’Trons an in-between single-coil pickups and humbuckers.
Why Filtertron Pickups Rock! (Watch Below)
The Filter’Tron Pickup – The Short History
In 1957, one of Gretsch’s engineers, Ray Butts, was in charge of helping guitar legend Chet Atkins create a new pickup type. Little did they know, this invention would revolutionize the guitar world.
This invention is called the Filter’Tron pickup and is one of the most popular designs from Gretsch.
The main issue with those pickups and the popular single-coils and P90s is that they produced a quite annoying and interfering 60Hz hum-cycle.
One of Gretsch’s most prominent sponsored artists was the legendary Country guitarist Chet Atkins. Looking to create a pickup that could reduce that 60Hz hum-cycle, he asked for engineer Ray Butt’s help and designed the first-ever double-coiled pickup.
Interestingly enough, it is said that Ray Butts created the Filter’Tron pickup before Gibson created their PAF Humbuckers. However, Gibson filed a patent first and is now considered the first to create these pickups.
Regardless, the Filter’Tron pickups are very different from your standard humbuckers, and even though they are not as popular, they are much more unique in tone and color. So what is their unique sound?
How Do Filter’Trons Sound?
The Filer’Tron pickup’s tonal quality is very well-known and considered to be “The Gretsch Sound.”
This is obvious because these pickups are part of Gretsch’s arsenal and were used in electro-acoustic instruments for a very long time.
The best way to think of these pickups’ sound is by combining the warmth and fullness of a PAF humbucker pickup with the clarity and crisp of a single-coil pickup. Hence, placing them in the middle of the tonal spectrum between a single-coil and humbucker.
Think of them as a middle of the spectrum with single-coils and humbuckers. The main reason why this combination works is that the Filer’Trons are low output pickups with a tight coil construction and placement.
So, even though the overall power of the pickup is low. The closeness to the strings compensates for that lack of power and provides a lot more volume and fullness while still maintaining the clarity of a single-coil pickup.
Therefore, this is why you can consider Filter’Tron pickups (and P90s, for that matter) a middle road between your regular humbucker and a single-coil.
Anatomy of the Filter’Tron Pickup
As I mentioned before, the Filter’Tron is a low output pickup. In essence, the higher the DC resistance on a pickup, the more the magnets help create volume and power.
For example, a Seymour Duncan Humbucker is likely to be somewhere in the range of 16k of DCR (DC resistance).
This is a very high output and, consequently, makes the pickup magnets more influential on the guitar’s overall volume and tone. In turn, this makes them very full and warm sounding.
On the other hand, Filter’Tron pickups are typically between 3k and 5k of DCR, which is considered very low. However, to get the best tone out of these pickups, you place them very close to the strings.
By doing so, you get the best out of both worlds. The low DCR allows you to have a clearer, thinner, and brighter sound.
The close proximity to the strings compensates for the lack of power and adds volume and fullness. In essence, this is what gives the Filter’Tron their bright but full and unique sound.
What Genres are Filter’Trons Good For?
One of the most significant advantages Filter’Tron pickups have is their versatility offering themselves to many genres and playing styles.
Starting off, due to their bright and crystal clear tones, it allows these pickups to fit genres such as jazz, funk, blues, country, and indie thanks to their dynamic piercing cleans. Hence why Gretsch guitars are more associated with softer genres of music.
Once you add some grit and distortion, they offer some fantastic ‘crunchy‘ sounds ideal for rock rhythms and lead lines. Hence, Gretsch guitars were so involved in the rock n roll era but a popular choice for today’s modern rock guitarists.
Another great advantage these pickups have is their excellent response to overdrive and fuzz.
The Filter’Trons are very dynamic, and their inherent brightness lets you have good overdriven tones that are not muddy or chunky but have enough bass to sound full and not brittle.
It’s fair to say, Filtertrons shine with clean tones, mild-distortion, medium distortion, warm overdrives and punchy aggressive distortions.
In summary, if you are looking for a lot of versatility in playing different styles, Filter’Trons are an excellent option for a vast amount of genres and playing styles.
Genres to Avoid with FilterTrons
All pickups have their pros and cons. When it comes to the cons of FilterTrons, they are not best suited for high gain metal tones. Now, describing the staple sound of metal is simply highly saturated gain creating an aggressive sound.
Knowing this, Filter’Trons don’t have the sweet low-ends required for metal compared to humbuckers. Low-ends are important for metal as it provides thickness and the bottom-end punch required for all the low detuned notes and chords.
Secondly, FilterTrons have the ‘top-end spank’ similar to single-coils which is great for cleans and crunch. However, for saturated high-gain metal distortion, this is not a great combination. The reason is lots of distortion plus treble and no bass leaves you with a thin and brittle sound which is not ideal for metal.
It is usable for metal leads but when it comes to metal rhythm which requires tight and bassy low ends. Therefore, Filtertrons sound too thin and brittle for the typical ‘chugging’ rhythms of modern metal.
Also, these pickups do not react well to high gain since they do not have the noise-canceling ability of humbuckers. They do a good job but not as good as regular humbuckers in this regard.
Therefore, generally, Filter’Trons pickups are typically avoided for any forms of metal. In contrast, standard humbuckers or active humbuckers are better for fulfilling the need for tight and aggressive metal tones.
Filter’Trons vs. Humbuckers
As I mentioned before, both the Filter’Tron pickups and the humbuckers are dual coiled pickups designed to cancel the 60Hz hum cycle. Both pickups have a similar appearance and both highly versatile for a spectrum of playing styles and genres.
However, Filter’Trons do have a brighter and clearer sound than normal humbuckers. The main reason is that their coils are more tightly spaced.
Therefore, they offer bright cleans but enough low-end for warm overdriven tones and punchy overdriven tones, which certainly won’t get lost in a band mix.
On the other hand, humbuckers offer considerably more lows and mids for more thumping lows but still provide a decent clean tone but are unmatched when it comes to the piercing high-ends of Filtertrons and single-coils.
Nevertheless, Filter’Trons are not super well-suited for heavier styles that demand more low-end (such as metal). A humbucker pickup will be a better choice in that instance.
The reason is humbuckers are a doubled design that is efficient at canceling hum and noise. Additionally, they provide more lows offering a thick and fat sound which all metal players love.
In summary, both pickups are incredibly versatile for a range of genres and playing styles. However, if you tend to lean on playing heavier genres, then humbuckers are optimal for fulfilling metal and hard rock tones.
On the other hand, if you like a versatile pickup with a spanky and somewhat vintage tone, whilst having the bass response close to a humbucker then filterTrons are a fantastic option.
Filter’Trons vs. P90s
As I previously mentioned, you can consider both Filter’Trons and P90s the middle road between a single-coil and a humbucker.
They both conserve the low-end/mid-range humbuckers have, and some of the high-ends similar to a single-coil. Hence why P90s do offer similar tonal qualities.
However, one of the most significant differences between the Filter’Trons and the P90s is that Filter’Trons tend to have a bit fewer mids and sound “stringier”
This, in turn, makes Filter’Trons a bit brighter and with a bit more twang than P90s. Some P90s also have a fuller low-end and can sound thicker hence why p90s are so versatile.
It does not necessarily mean P90s are better pickups for some styles that require less fullness from the guitar to avoid cluttering of frequencies.
Filter’Trons vs. Single-Coils
The P90s lean towards a humbucker’s sound; The Filter’Trons are a bit closer related to the sound of a single-coil pickup.
Probably the most noticeable similarity between these two is the crisp high-end. Both these pickups have a lot of clarity and cut through a full band mix excellently well.
Conversely, their most significant difference comes in the low mid-range. The Filter’Tron has much more tonal fullness and blends a bit better with everything, while single-coils are much more piercing and the thinnest out of all the pickups discussed.
Hence why single-coils give you that bright and twangy clean tone that all country and funk players love. However, adding heavy distortion leads to a thin and brittle tone the main reason why single-coils are not a popular pickup for metal.
Again, different styles require different tonal characteristics and in terms of versatility. Lastly, you have the whole 60Hz hum cycle situation, giving the Filter’Trons another advantage over single-coils.
Single-coils pack the most bite and high-ends out of all the pickups but are the most prone to noise and hum when distortion is added to the signal. For this reason, Filtertrons offer more low-ends and hum canceling ability compared to single-coil pickups.
As a side note, have you ever wondered why pickups are mounted at an angle in a guitar? View my next post to see the interesting reason for this common modification. Click here to read this post.
Different Types of Filter’Trons
Gretsch Filter’Trons are the standard pickups in a Gretsch guitar. These are based on the original Ray Butts’ invention and incorporate that warm “Gretsch tone.”
There are some variances between these pickups, the most important being the Filter’Trons, the Full’Trons, and the Broad’Trons. While the Filter’Trons represent Grestch’s vintage sound, they tend to be on the lower output side.
The Full’Trons have a broader and fuller frequency spectrum and, consequently, more power. However, the added mids and fullness cause the Full’Trons to have a bit less clarity. However, they react well to overdrive.
Lastly, the Broad’Trons are even more full-sounding and reproduce tones with powerful mids, extended lows. And a smooth high end.
Once again, this fullness takes a bit of clarity compared to the Filter’Trons but the Broad’Trons also react well to overdrive and distortion, especially in the hard rock category.
TV Jones Pickups
TV Jones is an American pickup company specializing in replicating the original Gretsch Filter’Trons but using American-based materials.
They have been in the business for a long time among the top recommendations for those looking to add a Filtertron to their arsenal.
These pickups successfully capture the twang and growl of the original Filter’Trons. They also have a mellow high-end with a bit of natural compression, which makes them very sweet-sounding.
This is especially true of the TV Jones TV Classic and TV Plus. Both these pickups come with the highest recommendations from various guitarists and the company itself.
Once again, these pickups react well to overdrive and distortion but not to high-gain styles.
Now, if you are talking about close to exact replicas with extra detail and research on reproducing the classic Filter’Tron sound, MojoTone is your best bet.
These pickups are bright and have plenty of chime and growl while maintaining the low output characterizing the Filter’Tron sound.
They also replicate well that wiry sound that emphasizes the string attack. Its neck pickup is mellow and full while maintaining that sweet organic compression.
They do have a bit of a brighter top end, as well as a bit more output than your classic Filter’Trons, but are probably the best replica of the old school Gretsch Filter’Trons
Lollar Pickups is another American-based company specializing in creating pickups from scratch, without any form of assembly from other companies.
This allows them to keep their work’s quality very tight and top of the line. The Lollatron Traditional pickup is their replication of the classic Gretsch sound.
In essence, Lollar pickups referenced the tone of a ’63 Gretsch Country for their sound. The result was a pickup with the incredible clarity and punch you would expect from a classic Filter’Tron.
The Lollatron Traditional delivers sweet high frequencies, a tight low-end, and a mid-range fullness that fulfills the standard of a Filter’Tron replica.
Installing a Filter’Tron in a Non-Gretsch Guitar
Installing Filter’trons can be a slightly complicated business. They are a tad smaller than your regular humbucker and much larger than single-coils meaning the problem is housing them in your prized guitar.
When it comes to installing a Filter’Tron in a non-Gretsch guitar such as a Telecaster, Les Paul, Stratocaster, etc, there are two options to consider.
1. Install a FilterTron With The Correct Ring Mount
The first option is to purchase a regular-sized Filter’tron pickup which comes with the ring mount designed to fit your guitars pickup cavity.
The ring mount is designed to house the Filtertron pickup and slot into your guitar’s pickup cavity.
For example, if your guitar originally housed a P90 or PAF Humbucker, you will need to purchase the correct ring mount to slot into the pickup cavity and accommodate the Filtertron.
If your guitar has single-coil pickups, skip to option number 3.
Luckily multiple pickup brands have several Filer’Trons, which includes the correct mounting so that the Filer’Tron can fit comfortably in your guitar. TV Jones Pickups solve this solution as they include the Ring Mounts to slot into your guitar cavity.
2. Purchase Humbucker Sized Filtertrons
This option is also pain-free as it requires no mounts and is just a simple straight swap.
Pickup brands understand that guitar players want the famous Filer’Tron sound but have little to no guitar modding experience; therefore, taking heavy power tools to their prized guitar is a massive no-no.
Humbucker-sized Filtertrons solve this problem as they are just enlarged versions of normal Filtertrons. Their design is to fit snugly in the humbucker cavity of your guitar.
The pickups I recommend you check out are the Lollotron Humbuckers or the Seymore Duncan Psychlone.
3. Modify and Enlarge The Pickup Cavity
This option is for guitars that initially come with single-coil pickups.
If you want to install a Filer’Tron sized Humbucker in a Single-Coil cavity, it will require some modifications. More specifically, the pickup cavity will need to be carved into a larger space to house the filtration.
A new scratchplate with a humbucker cavity will also be required if your guitar is a Telecaster or Stratocaster.
Entrust a local guitar tech who will do the work for you or do it yourself. I would always recommend hiring a skilled guitar tech who has the woodworking ability to carve a larger pickup slot.
If you have the experience and skills, you can undertake the job yourself.
Famous Filter’Tron Players
Chet Atkins is not only Gretsch Filter’Trons’ main sponsor, but he is also one of the most recognized musicians, especially in the creation of what we call the “Nashville sound.”
His main weapon was a semi-hollow body with a Bigsby tailpiece and the original Filter’Trons (which now you know he helped design).
Malcolm Young (ACDC)
When speaking of good old-fashioned rock n’ roll, you don’t need to go any further than the iconic Australian rock band AC/DC.
While Angus Young takes care of giving you all those rocking riffs and tasty solos, Malcolm had an enormous influence on the band’s sound as the reliable rhythm guitar player.
Interestingly, his guitar stripped it of two of the three pickups and only had one Filter’Tron pickup to create those rock-solid rock rhythms
George Harrison (The Beatles)
George Harrison surely needs little introduction. He is simply one of the most influential guitar players and was arguably the most influential band in rock history, The Beatles.
Geroge Harrison was a lifelong fan of Grestch’s guitars, mainly because Chet Atkins highly influenced him. His first Gretsch guitar was the Chet Atkins Country Gentleman guitar, purchased in 1963.
Brian Setzer is an iconic guitarist, songwriter, vocalist, and 3-time Grammy-award-winner. He single-handedly was able to resurrect two genres: rockabilly in the 80s and swing music in the 90s.
He particularly loved Gretsch guitars due to their versatility and tonal combination of the “Fender twang” and the “Gibson growl.” Brian also has his signature guitar: Gretsch’s Black Phoenix.
Pete Townsend (The Who)
The most influential punk rock band in music history, The Who. Pete Townsend was the guitarist, singer, and composer of this unstoppable force of a band.
Interestingly enough, his main weapon was a Gretsch 6120 ‘Chet Atkins’ Hollow Body, which he used in virtually all of his composers. He, however, did not use it in live situations since “it didn’t stay in tune”.
Along with guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughn, Billy Gibbons is one of the most influential and finest blues-rock guitarists to emerge from Texas. He is 1/3 of blues-rock band ZZ Top and is one of your best tools for learning the blues-rock language.
His guitar is no less remarkable than him, as his G6199 Billy-Bo model is quite eccentric. But don’t let that fool you; this guitar is an incredible asset, especially paired with overdrive.
Thanks For Reading
If you enjoyed this post, check out my related article…what are P90 pickups good for? Learn everything about P90s from tone, typical genres, and what makes them so unique. View this post here!