Filter’Tron Shootout: Gretsch, House Of Tone, TV Jones, McNelly and more

We take a look at aftermarket Filter'Trons and see how they stack up against vintage and modern Gretsch pickups, as well as popular units from the likes of TV Jones.

In the hands of players as diverse as Brian Setzer, George Harrison, Malcolm Young, Pete Townshend and John Squire, Filter’Trons have shown they can handle everything from 1950s rockabilly to hard rock and indie jangle. They’re not as powerful as Gibson-style humbuckers and P-90s, and not as bright as most Fender pickups, but they fuse hazy clarity, twang and midrange growl in a way that’s utterly unique and endlessly alluring.

For a long time, if you wanted to buy a set of Filter’Trons without a Gretsch guitar attached to them, TV Jones was the only game in town, with founder Thomas Vincent Jones having dug deeper into the work of Ray Butts and the history of these pickups than anybody else. However, that hasn’t stopped almost every other pickup brand throwing their hats into the ring too.

With so many Filter’Tron clones to choose from, it’s high time for a buyer’s guide to the best on the market. For testing purposes, we’re using a modern Gretsch G6118T-135 135th Anniversary model loaded with the company’s modern High Sensitive Filter’Trons, and a 1960 Anniversary/6120 conversion with a set of vintage units.

Advertisement

People with vintage Gretsch guitars are unlikely to ditch their original pickups, so the focus here is how the aftermarket replacements compare both with current Gretsch pickups and the vintage benchmark. We’ll be keeping the G6118T stock throughout and swapping the pickups in the 6120 conversion.

Gretsch High Sensitive Filter’Tron

Gretsch High Sensitive Filtertron

Like our 6120 conversion, the G6118T has trestle bracing, a Rocking Bar bridge and a Bigsby, and they sound similar unplugged. Gretsch introduced this pickup with an alnico V magnet in about 2001, replacing the earlier ceramic magnet units found on reissue models during the previous decade. The pole screws were changed to a more vintage style too, the ceramic versions having domed screw heads.

In use

These units have a thickness in the midrange that ramps up the power at the expense of a little clarity and twang. The bridge has more of the nasal upper-midrange character that we associate with Gibson-style humbuckers, while the neck has a smooth fullness that can sound a touch woolly in the lows if you aren’t careful.

Both pickups have a slightly compressed quality and, while there are plenty of upper mids to produce that classic gritty Filter’Tron growl, the ‘air’ frequencies of unpotted Filter’Trons are missing. These are a fine compromise for players who want to reap some power and aggression from their guitar but retain much of the classic Filter’Tron tone.

Key Features

Gretsch High Sensitive Filter’Tron – 8/10

  • PRICE £61.99 each
  • DESCRIPTION Humbucking pickups, made in Asia
  • FEATURES Alnico V magnets, potted
  • DC RESISTANCE 4.58k (bridge), 3.93k (neck)
  • VERDICT Priced competitively for Filter’Tron tone with added grit, aggression and player-friendly compression
  • CONTACT gretschguitars.com

Vintage Gretsch Filter’Tron

Gretsch Vintage Filtertron

Advertisement

Compared to 1950s and 1960s Gibson and Fender pickups, vintage Filter’Trons aren’t particularly expensive. In part, this can be attributed to the fact that, over its first three decades of operation, Gretsch never deviated from Ray Butts’ design. There’s no narrow ‘golden era’ as such, and there’s no way of dating them. The vintage units featured here were bought on Reverb, appear to be from the 1960s, and cost a shade more than £400.

In use

These pickups have a slightly lower output than the High Sensitives, and are far less gritty in the upper mids. They’re noticeably smoother too, and plain strings played high up the neck combine a full solidity with a hint of wiriness.

There’s midrange growl in abundance but the bridge has a clucky quack that hints at Tele tone, while the neck has a mellower roundness that’s equally suited to clean jazz and overdriven blues. Unsurprisingly, these nail the tones you hear on records by the likes of Neil Young, The Who and even Chet Atkins.

Key Features

Vintage Gretsch Filter’Tron – 9/10

  • PRICE £225-£300 each approx (used)
  • DESCRIPTION Humbucking pickups, made in the USA
  • FEATURES 42 AWG heavy formvar magnet wire, 1/4” alnico V magnet, unpotted
  • DC RESISTANCE 4.12k (bridge), 4.1k (neck)
  • VERDICT Although there are fabulous modern alternatives, Ray Butts’ design is still the benchmark

Mojo Pickups Mojotron

Mojo Mojotron

It’s clear that enormous effort has gone into making these UK-built units as vintage-correct as possible. The long baseplate, loose cover, full-thickness alnico V magnet, hook-up wire and pole screws are all bang-on. These were left unpotted at our request but wax potting is standard.

They’re easy to mount on vintage-spec Gretsch guitars and loose covers allow you to shim up the coils just as Gretsch did. Gretsch neck angles vary, so this set is more widely compatible than some.

In use

Mojo’s attention to detail has paid off; this set sounds remarkably similar to our vintage Filter’Trons. They’re bright and have plenty of chime and growl without being too hot. The bridge provides wiry quack, the neck is mellow and full, and the in-between position sounds phasey, compressed and authentic.

The Mojos are brighter than the vintage set and single notes on the plain strings don’t have quite as much body, but they do have more chime and a touch of extra clarity. If you’re looking for vintage Gretsch tone, this set will get you there without having to pay import duties.

Key Features

Mojo Pickups Mojotron – 9/10

  • PRICE £100 each
  • DESCRIPTION Humbucking pickups, made in the UK
  • FEATURES 42 AWG magnet wire, 1/4” alnico V magnet, unpotted (potting available on request)
  • DC RESISTANCE 5.15k (bridge), 4.02k (neck)
  • VERDICT Up there with TV Jones’ Ray Butts units as the most authentic in construction and tone, these are highly recommended
  • CONTACT mojopickups.co.uk

House Of Tone FilterHouse

House Of Tone Filtertron

House Of Tone uses 43 AWG polyurethane-coated wire with extra thick alnico V magnets just like the originals. Nickel silver baseplates are used rather than the original brass, for added clarity, with wider string spacing on the bridge than the neck.

As with the originals, a spacer is placed under the bridge pickup’s magnet to raise its height. They’re available unpotted, lightly potted or fully wax-potted, and with two or four conductor wires, hotter coils and any magnet type. Check the website for cover options.

In use

Although the parts aren’t as vintage-correct as the Mojos, this is another old-school-sounding set. But rather than emphasise the growly and chimey aspects of the Filter’Tron sound, the Filterhouse set focuses on the mellower and woodier end of the spectrum. Their output levels are also the lowest in the group.

The upside is that the response is smooth and refined, and the tone has more of that vintage Filter’Tron body. These are perhaps not the best choice for Townshend and Young tones but if you’re more interested in Chet pickin’ and jazzier stylings, this set is absolutely superb.

Key Features

House Of Tone FilterHouse – 8/10

  • PRICE £90 each
  • DESCRIPTION Humbucking pickups, made in the UK
  • FEATURES 43 AWG magnet wire, 1/4” alnico V magnet, unpotted (potting available on request)
  • DC RESISTANCE 3.9k (bridge), 3.47k (neck)
  • VERDICT With mellower tones and a lowish output, this refined set is better suited to cleaner styles and fingerpicking than the rockier stuff
  • CONTACT houseoftonepickups.com

TV Jones TV Classic & TV Classic Plus

TV Jones Classic TV Classic Plus

These are the pickups that established TV Jones’ reputation. They were once reputed to be authentic vintage Filter’Tron replicas but with non-authentic hardware, revised pole spacing and Jones’ preference for wax potting, that’s not entirely the case. The Classic Plus is a hotter version of the regular bridge Classic. Here, we’re testing all three.

In use

After playing these for a few seconds, it’s clear why TV Classics were the making of TV Jones. Together, the Classics combine elements of both the vintage Filter’Trons and the High Sensitive units. They’re bright, clear, superbly balanced and generate a thrilling combination of growl and twang. The bridge pickup easily overdrives an amp but without the edge and grit of the High Sensitives. The neck sounds wide open and clear, with fabulous bass depth and no wooliness.

Switching over to the Classic Plus in the bridge delivers a tone that’s louder and more compressed but equally bright and clear. In fact, all three seem to be brighter and clearer versions of the originals, only with added punch and aggression.

Rather than being slavish replicas, these are more like idealised Filter’Trons updated for modern ears to provide great Gretsch tones with minimum effort.

Key Features

TV Jones TV Classic & TV Classic Plus – 9/10

  • PRICE $135 each (Classic), $138 (Classic Plus)
  • DESCRIPTION Humbucking pickups, made in the USA
  • FEATURES 1/4” alnico V magnet, wax potted
  • DC RESISTANCE 4.62k (bridge), 3.97k (neck), 7.61k (Classic Plus)
  • VERDICT These units still rank among the best and can now be regarded as classics in their own right
  • CONTACT tvjones.com

TV Jones Brian Setzer Signature

TV Jones Brian Setzer Filtertron

Longtime Brian Setzer fans will know that his approach to his gear and tone has evolved over the decades. He famously said that it took about 40 years to get his vintage 6120s roadworthy, and although the first Setzer Signature models sported TV Classics, he and Tom eventually collaborated to create the Brian Setzer Signature pickup set.

These differ from TV Classics thanks to mismatched coils, pole screws with more steel content, and wider pole spacing on the bridge pickup. Our set is also unpotted and the bridge is wound a little hotter than the vintage spec but less than a TV Classic Plus.

In use

There are vintage elements to the tone but this is a pickup set designed to cut through in a live context. As such, they’re quite bright and the absence of wax potting extends the upper treble.

The bridge is punchy and growly, and competes with the High Sensitive and Classic Plus for output. But compared to the latter, there’s a lower-mid scoop that shifts the tone to a more greasy brrrang while sounding a touch thinner.

The neck unit is fuller and has more of a vintage frequency balance while also sounding bright and clear. Both units balance nicely and the in-between setting is quintessentially Gretsch. These are great fun and overdrive amps without any grittiness but we feel they’re voiced more for live work than studios and home playing.

Key Features

TV Jones Brian Setzer Signature – 8/10

  • PRICE $158 each (chrome and nickel options $153)
  • DESCRIPTION Humbucking pickups, made in the USA
  • FEATURES 1/4” alnico V magnet, unpotted
  • DC RESISTANCE 6.14k (bridge), 4.41k (neck)
  • VERDICT The obvious choice if you’re chasing later Setzer tone or want a clearer, brighter and louder twist on vintage Filter’Trons
  • CONTACT tvjones.com

TV Jones Ray Butts Ful-Fidelity Filter’Tron

TV Jones Full Fidelity Filtertron

Our current Maker’s Mark series began with the background of these units but, suffice to say, Ray Butts designed and made Filter’Tron pickups before signing the manufacturing over to Gretsch, and his original name for his pickup was the Ful-Fidelity. Having been granted custody of Ray’s archives and parts, Tom has recreated the original Ray Butts design as close to the original specifications as possible.

Early bridge Filter’Trons had taller covers, and prospective customers must account for the height – approximately 25.2mm with a shim and 22.5mm without – to ensure these will fit their guitar without extra routing to achieve the necessary clearance. The pole screws also protrude beyond the baseplate by about 7mm.

In use

Given their history and spec, it’s no surprise that the Ray Butts pickups sound extraordinarily close to our vintage Filter’Trons. These have a touch less weight in the lows, especially on the neck pickup, and they’re not quite as gutsy, but they do have marginally higher fidelity.

The sound is clearer and less gritty than the vintage units – the Ful-Fidelities are extremely refined and capture detail superbly. The key difference is that you don’t get the slight blurriness in the upper mids that has become associated with classic Filter’Tron tone. Overall, they’re arguably more practical but slightly less characterful, and that’s an observation rather than a criticism.

Key Features

TV Jones Ray Butts Ful-Fidelity Filter’Tron – 9/10

  • PRICE $175 each
  • DESCRIPTION Humbucking pickups, made in the USA
  • FEATURES 42 AWG magnet wire, 1/4” alnico V magnet, unpotted
  • DC RESISTANCE 4.25k (bridge), 3.77k (neck)
  • VERDICT These authentic vintage-style Filter’Trons deliver impressive clarity and are well worth the money
  • CONTACT tvjones.com

Sunbear BearTron

Sun Bear Pick Ups Filtertron

Sunbear Pickups is a relatively new UK pickup manufacturer that has quietly been garnering a reputation for fine-sounding products. These units come with full-sized alnico V magnets and are wound a hair hotter than the vintage spec at 5k and 4.4k ohms. The magnet wire is heavy formvar and we requested unpotted coils.

In use

The Sunbears have bucketloads of Filter’Tron flavour and absolutely nail the phasey midrange character. The bridge has a wonderfully vintage quack and the neck has a pleasing sheen with no lack of clarity.

Output levels are strong but they’re not too powerful, and there’s no sense that compromises have been made to achieve such a healthy output. This refined set is warmer and smoother than most but doesn’t have quite as much chime or the Telecaster-type wiriness of some of its competitors.

There’s a full and almost plummy character to the low mids and the output level, combined with the non-scooped midrange and total absence of grit, would make these ideal for jazzy cleans and overdriven rock alike.

Key Features

Sunbear BearTron – 8/10

  • PRICE £120 each
  • DESCRIPTION Humbucking pickups, made in the UK
  • FEATURES 1/4” alnico V magnet, unpotted (potting available on request)
  • DC RESISTANCE 5.25k (bridge), 4.27k (neck)
  • VERDICT A high-quality Filter’Tron replica with fuller and warmer mids and a touch of extra output
  • CONTACT sunbearpickups.com

McNelly SparkleTron

McNelly Sparkletron

These may look like vintage Filter’Trons from the outside, but with vulcanised fibreboard flats and widened pole spacing, they’re anything but. This Canadian-made set has full-sized custom-made alnico V magnets and recessed polepieces.

In use

We’ve reviewed McNelly Sparkletrons before and, despite being wowed, we felt the wax potting inhibited the upper treble. This time, they’ve been left unpotted at our request, and we find them even more impressive. Considering how much they deviate from vintage Filter’Trons in component parts, it’s astonishing how much they sound like both the vintage Filter’Trons and the TV Jones Ray Butts pickups.

The output is a little lower on the bridge but the midrange voicing and overall balance is almost identical. The Sparkle’Trons have a lively and non-compressed response and feel particularly sensitive to playing dynamics and all the subtle details of pick and finger attack.

The short fibreboard bases make them more difficult to mount on vintage-style Gretsches but it can be done. This set is hard to beat in a Cabronita Telecaster too.

Key Features

McNelly SparkleTron – 9/10

  • PRICE From £139.99 each
  • DESCRIPTION Humbucking pickups, made in Canada
  • FEATURES 1/4” alnico V magnet, unpotted (potting available on request) DC
  • RESISTANCE 5.25k (bridge), 4.09k (neck)
  • VERDICT These are longtime favourites. Although they’re not the most vintage correct anatomically, sonically they hold their own with the very best
  • CONTACT homeoftone.co.uk, mcnellypickups.com

Like This? Try These

Other pickup manufacturers offering their spin on Filter’Tron pickups include Lollar, Seymour Duncan and Monty’s Guitars.

Not sure how to set up your Filter’Trons? Check out our guide here.

Advertisement

Trending

Advertisement