Stellartone ToneStyler

December 21, 2005

Typical tone controls roll off both highs and mids, robbing your licks of the harmonics required for punch and focus. Searching for more clarity, many pros experiment with changing the capacitor on their tone pots—a laborious process of unsoldering, resoldering, and testing different values.

The Stellartone ToneStyler ($119 retail/street N/A) kicks this concept into the stratosphere by connecting one knob to 14 miniature capacitors, each contoured to progressively shave off highs while leaving the midrange essentially intact.

A 16-step rotary pot mounted on a tiny circuit board, the ToneStyler is available in both short- and long-shaft models to fit either slab body or thicker carved-top instruments. Sized to accommodate standard Fender and Gibson knobs, it’s a drop-in replacement for most guitars. Step 16 (rotated fully clockwise) sonically duplicates a stock tone control at 10—the familiar “wide-open” position. From here, one click counterclockwise yields a no-load, potentiometer bypass setting that coaxes extra sparkle from your pickups. Continuing counterclockwise, the remaining 14 clicks provide discrete treble cuts at progressively lower frequencies.

To audition the ToneStyler, I installed three units—one as a dedicated tone control wired to a Gibson 498T humbucker in 1980 Kramer XKG-20, another as a 2001 Fender Telecaster’s master tone, and lastly as a dedicated tone control wired to the bridge pickup in a Fralin-equipped 1992 American Standard Strat. Thanks to the illustrated instructions, installation was straightforward (if you’re used to waving a hot soldering iron at your axe and working with delicate wires, you can handle this yourself), and in each case, there was a huge sonic payoff.

For example, I found that carefully trimming the highs from the humbucker emphasizes its throaty mids—excellent for grabbing the lower line in a harmony part or launching a flutey solo. Taking the bite off a Tele yields a full, yet taut voice that’s great for R&B or even bebop. Wiring a ToneStyler to a Strat’s sometimes brittle-sounding bridge pickup opens a new world of possibilities for round, violin-like leads, à la Eric Johnson. This latter arrangement also delivers hip middle-plus-bridge tones.

If you use your tone knob as a manual wah—think Roy Buchanan and his 1953 Tele—this stepped potentiometer isn’t the right choice. But, otherwise, the ToneStyler will expose a spectrum of midrange timbres you didn’t know your guitar possessed.

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