Charlie Christian Pickup
With its distinctive pointed sides and large blade, there’s no mistaking the look of a Charlie Christian pickup. And when you plug one in, the rich, mellow tone and exceptional clarity leave no doubt that you are hearing one of the best-designed pickups ever. The pickup takes its name from Charlie Christian, the legendary musician who used the unique tone of the pickup in his Gibson ES-150 to create the template for amplified jazz guitar in the 1930s. Players like T-Bone Walker, Oscar Moore, Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell and Herb Ellis have all used guitars fitted with Charlie Christian pickups.
Jazz guitarists have been using the pickups ever since Christian taught them to plug in, but other musicians took a while to catch on to their unique tone. This is primarily because the pickups were originally designed to be mounted in archtop guitars. John Lennon was one of the first guitarists to play a solid body with a Charlie Christian pickup. In the early 1970s Lennon asked New York luthier John DiMarino to install a “humberdinker” pickup in his sunburst Les Paul Junior. DiMarino suggested he try an old Charlie Christian pickup instead. Because the magnets on a Charlie Christian pickup are so big, DiMarino had to install the pickup through the back of the guitar. DiMarino refinished the sunburst guitar with a red finish at the same time. Lennon played the guitar in concert on August 30, 1972 at New York City’s Madison Square Garden to benefit the One to One Organization, a group that helped children with learning disabilities, and in recording session thereafter.
Also in the early 1970s, country jazz wizard Danny Gatton fitted a Charlie Christian-style pickup he made himself in the neck position of his Fender Telecaster. The fat, clear tone became an integral part of his sound and over the years pickers he inspired like Redd Volkert and Vince Gill played Teles fitted with Charlie Christian pickups in the neck position. For years, Charlie Christian-style pickups were hard to come by. They are complicated to build and because there were so few players who were aware of their versatility, pickup makers didn’t feel that they could put in the time and effort to tool up to make them. Happily, Jason Lollar was up to the challenge.
Lollar produces a number of variations of the Charlie Christian pickup that are designed to fit in different types of guitars. Our favorite version is the classic style with the pointy sides and we have usually have a guitar or two in stock with one installed. The Collings 290 pictured here on the left was inspired by John Lennon’s guitar and also features a Lollar P-90 in the bridge position. The shorter scale of this guitar, when combined with the warm sounding single-coils, produces a dark, mellow tone that can still produce some sting and bite. Like the 290, the Nash T-63on the right has a Christian in the neck position that is paired with a custom Lollar bridge pickup. The longer scale length of the T-63 produces a brighter, crisper tone which, when combined with the Christian neck pickup, has a tone that might be described as fat twang. Stop on by and try these guitars to see if a pickup designed for playing jazz in the 1930s is right for you. You may be surprised at how modern a Charlie Christian pickup can sound.
(Oh, and in case you are wondering, we can install Lollar Charlie Christian pickups in your guitar. The pickup requires extra routing that will not work with certain models so please check with us before you make the decision.)