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What are vintage drifted capacitors? And why would I want them?

Drifted late-50s Sprague Black Beauty capacitors, aka Bumblebees

Drifted. If you've browsed our collection of wiring harnesses, you've seen the term used often. In this blog post, I'll explain what it means and why we think these caps are so special.

First, a little background:

When we decided to offer harnesses, I wanted to do something different that would appeal to players with USA Les Pauls like a Traditional, Classic, or Standard at a more affordable price point. There were already plenty of vendors selling harnesses with with Luxe reissues, Russian PIO, or other new caps, but the vintage in-spec caps were expensive, and that limited the majority of the market for those to Historics. When we came up with the idea of drifted vintage capacitors, I knew we'd found what I'd been after.

In the late '50s and 1960, Gibson used Sprague Black Beauty caps that were rated .022 +/-20% 400v. In the '50s they used a stripe pattern to indicate the values. Because of this, they became known as Bumblebees. We still call them that now, but the reality is that it's nothing more than a nickname, Sprague has always officially referred to them as Black Beauties. Here's a photo of the stripe pattern that was on the caps used in the original '57 goldtop and the '58 and '59 Bursts.

Original 1959 Bees

As you can see, the stripe pattern is red, red, orange, black, yellow. These caps, in excellent condition and in spec, command a hefty price tag on the collector's market because they are the only suitable replacement for an original vintage guitar. They are also the only reasonable upgrade for an R7, R8, or R9 because the purpose of the Historic reissues is to be as close to the originals as possible.

In 1960, Sprague did away with the stripe pattern and started printing the values on the caps in red.

For obvious reasons, the Bumblebee nickname went away and these are what are commonly known as Black Beauties today.

We offer the original .022 Bumblebee and Black Beauty caps in spec on the harnesses in our Absolute Vintage Collection. The full top-of-the-line rig sells for $349. I'll pay that for a replacement harness for my original vintage guitar. I'll also cough it up to upgrade my Historic. But there's no way I'd pay that to upgrade my Traditional. Why? Because while my Traditional is a great-playing guitar, it will never be a replica of a '59. The headstock shape isn't vintage-correct, and depending on the year it was made, it may be weight-relieved. Construction techniques are different, and so on. There’s no good reason why I would care about the color of the stripes on my caps in a Traditional. What I care about is the tone!

So why not buy one of those harnesses with new caps?

Because new caps don't sound like old caps.

A new capacitor, whether it's a Luxe Bee or an Orange Drop, does exactly what it's designed to do: roll off the high end. But a vintage cap, especially a drifted one, acts differently. When you back off of the tone control, you can hear it sweep through different frequencies. It's not just rolling off the highs, it's addressing highs, mids, and everything in between. Very much like a phase shift. Once you've experienced it, it's hard to go back to normal tone controls.

Here's where the drift comes in.

We wanted to offer a harness with caps at a similar price point the others were selling their Luxe-equipped harnesses for—but we wanted the sweep! The only way to get that was to use vintage capacitors. So we bought a lot of old caps and started testing them. Check out this photo.

This little beauty was originally rated at .015 over fifty years ago. But look at what she reads now! .024 is dead on in spec for a .022 cap at +/-20% (which means .018–.026 passed in 1959). Considering that the construction techniques were the same on all of Sprague's caps, it's fair to conclude that this one is going to sound exactly like any other cap from the '50s that reads similarly. So I put a set in my guitar and the result was clear: their tone and sweep is identical to any other vintage Sprague capacitor from the era, regardless of the color of the stripes. And since they're not being sought by collectors to restore an old Burst, they're much more affordable. The harnesses we build with these babies sell for about the same price as what others are offering with new caps, which makes them ideal for your Traditional, Classic, Standard, or Studio.

What causes the drift in the first place? 

Temperature. Heat caused them to rise. Cold caused them to come down. Take an old organ from a church, pull out the board, and if you're lucky, you'll find this.

Those caps are dead on. Installed inside an organ in a climate-controlled church for 50 years, they're still like new. And they have a price tag to prove it.

But all of the caps in the late '50s and 1960 didn't live in a climate-controlled church. Some lived in bars; some spent cold nights in the trunk of a Chevy while their owner slept off the night in a cheap motel. Others got stuck in a hot attic or storage shed for years. And they drifted. Slowly, for years and years.

The good news is: They're stable now.

After we discovered the drift. We wanted to be sure that they wouldn't continue until they were off the chart. So we put them in the freezer and we put them in the trunk of my car in the summertime. They moved a little, but they always came right back within an hour. Today, they're as stable as any new capacitor.

Get real vintage tone for your Gibson USA guitar!

Check out the entire line of CreamTone harnesses fitted with drifted caps from the late 50s and 1960 here: