I first got one back in march of 2011 as a condition 2 discounted musician’s friend deal. The problem listed is some light play scratches on the front. When i got it, i couldn’t even see it, unless i look 3 inches close and under a bright light, at a very specific angle. Absurd, but i guess some picky people would do that. I prefer to play my guitars, not show them behind a glass cage, and eventually it’s gonna have wear. Like it’s supposed to!
But i digress. I got a honeyburst, and this looked immaculate. Had all the papers and warranty cards unfilled and the plastic covers and everything. super mint! For a nice discounted price (i never pay full price anymore for anything). Ever since i woke up from my guitar coma, i’ve trolled around and found the original Gibson nighthawk and had lusted for one ever since. That staggered/slanted bridge humbucker pickup was something i’ve thought of for a long time now, and seeing it on a production guitar was a pleasant surprise. And reading the specs- it had a longer (fender) scale, an odd one for a Gibson guitar, and the arrangement of the pickups echoes -no , screams!- FENDER! Mahogany body with a non-carved simple book-matched maple top, the 5-way switch for more variety of sounds. And small and light with that sexy Florentine shape body? I want one! But sadly it ranged somewhere beyond my acceptable guitar affordability. And then epiphone reissued it.
Elation! At a very good street price too! sure – it’s not made in the USA (Indonesian), but the workmanship and detail showed instant desirability, and best of all, it’s well within my acceptable guitar affordability. And now one of them is priced much less? sold! I actually wanted the amber, but the honeyburst was a close second -good enough!
When i got it, the finish was almost flawless, the binding was tight, there was hardly any finger-cutting frets. What i can’t get over with are the ornate crown inlays and bindings – all this for under $400??? I’ve seen more expensive no-frills guitars with less workmanship than this!
Then i played it. I was expecting strat sounds, but sounded NOTHING like it. Even in the coiltap settings. It sounded much closer to a Gibson guitar (les paul, SG, explorer, etc). Which i should have expected. And even then it’s not very… exciting.
so THAT’S where the cost-cutting went. The pickups, though usable, were not very inviting. Regardless of what amp i plugged it in, the tone was flat. In any setting, whether clean or distorted, they were uninspiring. Maybe the middle pickup had some zazz (yes, i said zazz). It was strong and clear, and evoked a full sound on its own. But with the neck or the bridge pickup, it wasn’t very satisfying.
The neck pickup itself, being a minihumbucker from a firebird, you’d expect some chime when it’s set to clean, and some grit in the high-end when overdriven. None of that here. Even worse when you coiltap it – it becomes weak, and even for an under-wound coil, it hand no spring to it’s single-coil sound.
The slant humbuckers were decent on their own, which evokes a classic late-60’s vintage kerrang when overdriven. Nothing overpowering here, but quite usable. Just don’t coiltap- it too sounded weak and flat. Clean or overdriven.
The 2 and 4 position on the 5-way switch is the big question- does it even evoke ANY fender strat quack? Answer is NO. There is NO trace of any quack or even a cluck here. Pffft! I guess the only thing that can sound like a strat is, well, a strat! (duh!) But you’d expect something close. Nope, not one bit. Even just taking what those sounds put out, it was still not quite enough to make you want to stay on that settings. Quite disappointing.
So i stored it away, and after several months, i sold it.
Yep, this guitar i lusted for did not live up to my expectations. I truly wanted to like it, it just didn’t have the sound i was looking for.
Several months later after i sold it, i thought about it. Actually i’ve BEEN thinking about it since i sold it. It felt great, the price was great, it was just the tones that didn’t sound great. I could replace the pickups… i’m a guitar tech, i could do that easily. oh man! what did i do???
well, if there are guitar angels, they must’ve heard me think out loud, and told my thoughts to the guitar gods. Within a couple of weeks, i trolled musician’s friend again and what do i see? ANOTHER DISCOUNTED HONEYBURST! but this time it was priced well more than half their retail price! WTF? this one had pictures of the actual guitar, and looking at them i see no breaks or deep scratches or broken headstocks or chipped parts. It was the electronics – it said it produced no sound. Bah! i fix those all the time! i snapped it up immediately, and within a few days it arrived.
HELLO AGAIN! AND WELCOME BACK! immediate inspection showed it was in super mint condition, still had the pickup cover tape, had all the paperwork and warranty cards, pretty much like the first one. When i plugged in, there was sound! it was playing well – where was the problem??? After a few minutes of twiddling with it, i figured out the problem – the 5-way switch was really just intermittent. Thanks, musician’s friend! Thank you for that can’t-be-bothered-to-fix attitude and generous markdowns, you give techie guitar junkies like me reason to spend unnecessarily. 🙂
A simple swap of the 5 way switch solved the problem – no more intermittent sound when switching. As usual the pickups still had the same lousy uninspiring tones, but this time i planned to replace them. Only the middle pick up will stay, as it held its own robust sound. A very good thing, only because it’s not going to be easy to replace it. What held it in place were two screws in the middle of the pickup (like a P-90 without the dog-ears). Researching for it, i can find NO direct replacement for it anywhere.
But the bridge pickup does – Seymour Duncan came out with a drop in replacement for the nighthawk’s bridge, with 2 of their most popular humbuckers: The 59 and the JB. After doing more research on those 2, i settled on the JB which had a very strong and very musical output, whose coil-tap was no slouch either. Thousands of JB users over the past 30 years have sworn on its sound – its been used in a ton of records over it’s production lifetime. The 59 was a Gibson PAF derivative, sweet sounding and classic, but with a comparatively lower output than the JB. I need something stronger and more versatile.
As for the neck pickup, there are MORE options. Thanks to the firebird and other guitars that employ the use of mini-humbuckers, there’s a plethora of boutique and production-run replacements, not just from Seymour Duncan. I decided on GFS pickups, also known as Guitar Fetish online.
I’ve purchased several types of pickups from them before, i even made a stealth replacement pickup for a re-built early 60’s Kay Speed Demon, and they all sounded brilliant.Best of all, they don’t cost an arm and a leg, and are fairly priced. But after hearing how the pickups sound like, they really are a bargain! No i don’t get paid by them, nor am i endorsed (i wish!). This is simply a testament to how good the pickups ive purchased from them are.
After checking the prices, i decided to do the more affordable one first – GFS neck pickup (the JB was a bit more – i’ll update this when i get that).
but which one? There are the exact look – all chrome cover replacement for firebirds, there’s the mini-humbucker with the pole piece screws. And then there’s the minitrons!
Basically, minitrons are the size of mini-humbuckers that look like small Gretsch Filtertron pickups (hence MINI tron). GFS makes them in several flavors: different windings, and different magnets. Ceramic magnets are stronger, accentuates the highs more with a tighter bottom end, Alnico V magnets have a warmer tone, with a bit more emphasis on the mids. Alnicos are also the de facto magnets in most vintage guitars. I opted for the ceramic magnet, with the highest output. In this case It’s the Nashville model (the alnico models were called Liverpool), but i went for the strongest output for the BRIDGE, even though i’m going to use it for the neck. If i need to coiltap (and i DO want to coiltap the neck), it will still be strong enough to be more than usable.
It took about a week, and as soon as i got it, went straight to work. But not without some snags. The minitron’s holes for the pickup height adjustments were TOO BIG! even for the screws they sent. Apparently these were made for guitars where the screws go INTO the guitar wood. Larger screws could go in, but that would look odd, and i don’t relish going to a hardware store at the moment. So i decided on an easier solution: cover the hole with solder and drill a smaller hole. It worked like a charm!
The other issue: since i bought a pickup made for the bridge, the pickup wire/lead is shorter. MUCH shorter! An inch longer and it would have been ok. I can understand that if it’s for the bridge, the wire would be shorter. But with DiMarzios and Seymour Duncans, their leads are about a foot long, even longer in some cases, giving you the option to move the pickups where you prefer. The solution: soldering another inch or two to the leads that need it. Easy enough!
After installation, the real test is on.
on its own, the minitron sounded more full, the low-end is strong but not boomy, but best of all, the chime is there! the high end is well more what you would expect from a bridge humbucker, but with more emphasis on the higher frequencies. And the coiltap? MUCH better sounding! Stronger, and much clearer in tone. No mush at all!
What was even better was position 2 on the 5-way switch. The humbucker and middle pickup mix was more what you would expect from a strat derivative – not quite the quack, but the cluck is there! Even more so when you coiltap the neck. This guitar has come alive – amazing!!!
Talk about inspired tone! i played the nighthawk for a good 90 minutes AFTER i installed the minitron, just doodling around without any effects, just the guitar plugged straight into the amp, CLEAN!
This already is sounding better – makes me wonder how much better it can get with a JB in the bridge!
But wait – there’s more! (ha ha!)
The simple strat-like wiring of the 5-way is good, and made better with the tone control coil tap. BUT! Im a guitarnerd techie with a semibackground in mechanical engineering. I CAN NOT LEAVE THINGS WELL ENOUGH ALONE! he he he…
I plan on rewiring this to include an option to run the neck AND bridge together, and also the option to play ALL pickups at once (kinda like a blow switch to turn all the pickups on). And all without having to drill anything new, just replacing the volume control with one that has a push-pull switch (like the tone control).
On a sidenote, i already replaced the capacitor with a paper-in-oil one, with a different value (also known as the “woman tone” cap).
After the JB bridge and the rewiring, this baby is gonna be sounding WAY better! And by the way, her name is Honnie. 😉