By now, most ES aficionados are well aware of the “Varitone Controversy” which states, simply, “the Varitone is a piece of crap. Take it out of your guitar for improved tone.” But, being a controversy, there must be two sides to it. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to play a whole lot of 345’s and 355s. As a dealer, I get to do that. I’ve noticed something that might well account for much of the so-called controversy. In the presumed “bypass” position (position 1), all 345’s are not created equal. It is absolutely true that some 345s and 355s sound “nasal” in the bypass position and some don’t. My guitar buddy, Chris W. wrote a paper on the Varitone which is available here and he discusses the circuit and the bypass and all things Varitone related. Scientific theory and practice can be on a collision course over time and may seem at odds. How is it I can have a 345 that sounds as good as any 335 on Earth and another that sounds as if the switch is in position 2 when it is, in fact, in position one. Let me point something out, which Chris brought to my attention. If the values of some of the components of the Varitone circuit drift, it can change the bypass into something else. That something is “not a bypass”. I’m not trying to be cute here (well maybe a little) but I think we can agree that “bypass” has no range. It’s bypass or it ain’t bypass. Another thing to consider is what years we are looking at. Sometime around 1961 or 62, I think, Gibson went from a hand soldered switch with an ungodly number of components-resistors and capacitors- soldered to it to a switch with two big square “circuit” chips-that is, it was all the components in a single chip. There were actually two of these big blue or orange things, one for each pickup, with a number of connections coming off of it. Surely, an improvement over the amateur hour looking spider web/rats nest that lives on the early ones. But, ya know what? It seems the later ones drift more and I hear more nasal varitones from 62 onward. Not sure if this is coincidence or whether there is something in the circuit chip that is vulnerable to drift. I’ve played 12 or 13 ES-345s this year and at least half of them had some nasal qualities in position 1. There were also at least 6 I can recall that sounded just like 335s to my ears. My blonde 59/60, a sunburst 59, a red 60, a sunburst 61, a sunburst 64 and the red 59. Those that had some nasality were another red 60, a SB 61, a SB63, a red 64 , a red 65 and a SB 64. So, it isn’t conclusive-there are funny sounding bypasses from early 60 until at least 65 and great sounding bypasses as late as 64. The only conclusion I can draw is that the later ones are more likely to sound like they have no true bypass. All but one of the “good” sounding ones were pre circuit chip. Of the 6 that sounded like the bypass wasn’t quite true, 4 of them were later guitars. So, does this mean the later circuit is more prone to drift? It might and it might not. The sampling isn’t really large enough to be conclusive and I’m not a scientist. Chris writes “I thought of at least one circumstance based on my understanding of the circuit that removing or true bypassing a varitone could noticeably change the sound compared to position 1. If one of the 10M resistors has significantly drifted downward (to <500K) or shorted, then viola, I’m in 100% agreement that there will be a noticeable difference between True Bypass and Pos 1. The math will also support this idea…In the event that the positon 2 10M resistor is shorted, then the net effect is that position 2 works normally, positions 3-6 have thier frequency centers shifted, but most importantly, position 1 behaves like a weakened position 2 due to the removal of the 100K series resistor in pos 1.”
I know it sounds too techy for most of us but the point is clear. Eventually we will do our “Varitone Shootout” and maybe draw some conclusions based on both science and our own ears.