In today’s crowded boutique pickup market, true innovation and quality are often promised but not always delivered. Professional guitarists and their techs don’t have time for gimmicks or parts that break or just don’t sound good. Which is why many artists, from Bruce Springsteen to Keith Richards, have turned to Joe Barden Engineering (JBE) over the years for their custom pickups and bridges. That’s also why The Music Zoo is proud to carry them. They are intelligently-designed, well-made American products, born from the needs of real guitar players. The JBE of today is a different company than the one that started off with the Danny Gatton Telecaster pickup from years ago, but still sticks like glue to the old-fashioned recipe that their reputation is founded upon. We caught up with Frank Troccoli, President of JBE, for some insight into the company, the products, and the artists who use them.
Give us some background on the JBE that exists today.
Joe Barden Engineering is now about 4 years old. It retains the Joe Barden brand name but is a new and totally separate entity formed after the demise of the older Joe Barden Pickups (JBP) in 2004. Today, we are under new ownership and management, but still driven by the vision that Joe Barden and Danny Gatton first set years ago. A lot has changed operationally but at the same time nothing has changed, especially with regard to the pickups we build and how we build them. They remain true to the designs that Joe brought to the market.
The products we make today are as accurate to Joe’s vision as they were when he and Danny collaborated on the T-Style pickups. We focus on keeping the “recipe” and tone right. As a matter of fact, we use the same materials, same hand-made building techniques, the same design formulas, and even many of the same vendors to make JBE pickups today. And they are still made here in the US. (although some internet folk-lorists suggest that they are now being made outside the US – what hogwash!) One thing however has changed. Today, there is a higher degree of quality control that ensures every pickup is consistent and leaves our shop in perfect cosmetic and working condition.
So where does JBE stand today in today’s market? Like the old company, JBE does NOT seek to reproduce “vintage” pickups of the past. We leave that to other manufacturers, several of who are quite good at recreating their versions of vintage pickups. Unfortunately, vintage single coil pickups still retain their characteristic noise and hum. JBE pickups in contrast, are in a class of their own. They all continue to use a hum-cancelling design that still captures the single coil sound in the cases of our “single coil” – a misnomer for JBE but the word works to describe the sound of the pickups. JBE pickups are not designed for any one style of music or even player. They bring out everything a good instrument has to offer with the inherent tonal character of that instrument. A Strat is still Strat-like, a Tele has authentic Tele tone and twang, the J and P Bass are true to the J and P Bass “life” . Our HB and HB Two/Tone pickups are full and thick but never muddy, dull, or boomy. And, they are all dead quiet.
Tell us about the Barden Tele bridge replacement; it is so functional. Were there any specific people involved in its development? Please explain to our readers exactly what it does.
The Tele bridgeplate is a replacement for stock Fender bridgeplates. It corrects several problems that were inherent in the original Fender design including:
- Difficulty to properly intonate the Tele
- Squealing at high volume
- Sidewall obstructions for finger-picking
- Imbalance of the high and low E strings
Danny Gatton was unarguably the main person who inspired the bridgeplate. Danny would intonate his Teles by “persuading” the saddles into a proper angle using very precise surgical tools he had at his disposal…a BFH (hammer) and a screwdriver. By persuading the saddles into more precise compensated angles, he was able to better intonate his Telecasters.
Stock bridgeplates are made of a lighter material and could have slight undulations along the bottom surface, creating a void between the plate and the guitar. This can cause a loud squeal (actually physical feedback) when playing at higher gain. By going to a thicker material and ensuring a true flat bottom, squealing is virtually eliminated. If your Tele squeals at high volumes, pinch the sidewalls of the bridgeplate with your thumb and index or middle finger while pushing down on the bridgeplate. If squealing stops…replace the bridgeplate.
Danny was also a master of “finger rolls” he used so predominantly in his playing style. However, the sidewall on the treble side of the Telecaster bridgeplate created an impediment to fingerpicking and certainly hampered Danny’s ability to do his magic. So the sidewall of the JB bridgeplate is cutaway or “scooped” to allow unfettered access the strings for finger-picking.
Lastly, the Telecaster was known to have louder outer E strings in comparison to the other 4 strings. To correct this, the underside of the outer saddles under the E strings are notched to reduce mass and bring the E strings into better balance. Brass is used for the three saddles for a warmer sound.
Joe Barden was of course a good friend and protégé of Danny. So it is not unexpected that Joe and Danny would collaborate on things to optimize the Tele. Joe incorporated each of these fixes into the Joe Barden Vintage bridgeplate, formalized a design, and made sure it adhered to key specifications so that no mods to the guitar would be required and musicians could install it themselves. Today, that product is licensed to Allparts for manufacture and distributed worldwide.
Fender later introduced the American Standard Tele with a new bridgeplate design having 6 saddles and a heavier flat plate without sidewalls. However, guitarists still wanted the Vintage Style plate but could not readily install it on an American Standard guitar due to differences in mounting and string-thru hole geometry. Also, the Vintage plate was shorter than its American Standard counterpart. A Vintage-styled bridgeplate will simply not fit on an American Standard guitar. So, JB designed another bridgeplate for American Standard Tele players that mimics the Vintage style bridgeplate design with its scooped sidewall construction and three compensated brass saddles, but fits the American Standard guitar perfectly.
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