Back in the late 1950s, if you walked into Sears and asked where you could pick up some lipstick, chances are most answers would land you at a cosmetics counter. If you were a teenager looking to start a band, however, and asked where to find the lipstick pickups, you’d find yourself staring down an isle of mid-century modern guitars with chrome cylinder pickups.
In the grand typology of guitar pickup designs, there are many categories and variations. Most six strings, however, capture and dispatch their output signal using humbuckers, single-coils, P-90s, or some variation of these designs. Yet the lipstick pickup has become almost synonymous with one classic, American brand: Danelectro. The man behind the brand and this classic pickup design was none other than Nathan Daniel.
In the mid-1950s, Danelectro’s headquarters in Neptune, New Jersey was turning out some futuristic looking guitars at an unbeatable price point. Leveraging both standard guitar building materials as well as the then “latest” material innovations (Formica, Masonite, and Vinyl), Danelectro’s builds were as bold then as they are now. As part of their market and branding strategy, some of their instruments came out under the Silvertone name and sold in major department stores as well as through mail order.
One of the many design innovations of these guitars was their silver, tube-like pickups. Aptly named “lipstick” style pickups, these single coils looked like something you might find in your mother’s purse. In actual fact, the initial designs of these pickups were housed in real lipstick tubes. As Daniel’s guitars were sold at an almost impossible price point, innovation and economics went hand in hand. After securing an excellent deal on some metallic lipstick tubes, Daniel found a housing solution for his new pickup designs.
What really makes these pickups stand out is beneath their shiny exterior. Technically, lipstick pickups are single coils. While the entire pickup is encased in a thin polished chrome cover, inside you’ll find a single long magnetic rod, not bobbins as you would expect on typical single coils. The copper coil is then wrapped lengthwise around the magnet to capture the signal. At times, these components were potted with wax to keep things all in place and secure. The result is a sound that is all its own, but if you had to describe it in light of something more familiar, you might say it’s reminiscent of the middle ground between that Tele twang and a springy Strat-type sound.
As Danelectro grew and evolved over the years, their catalogue was always known for its throwback flare. Yet for all the changes in gear and design trends, one thing remained static in many of their builds—those shiny tubes offering just the right shade of tone.