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Adjusting pickups to achieve a different tone or sound – Bruce Lyons

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Electric guitar pickups are the heart and soul of an electric guitar. Add some switches, and you are able to select a single pickup or multiple pickups.  Roll back the volume or the tone, and you are able to customize your sound as you’re playing.  But for a more permanent change in tone, sustain, or sound, we can make adjustments to the pickups themselves.

Pickup adjustments can start with adjusting the pickup height, that is, the distance between the top of the pickup and the bottom of the string.  There is, for each pickup, and optimum height, or distance/clearance, at which the string is able to vibrate freely and the magnets in the pickup don’t affect the string such that there are overtones or a lack of sustain.  Generally, lowering the pickup gives it a darker, maybe even a woodier sound, while raising the pickup gives it a brighter, sometimes harsher sound or tone.

With pickups built with polepiece screws, such as the Humbucker pickup, or the P90 pickups, raising or lowering the polepiece screws, either all of them, or selectively can help to achieve either a balance in string-to-string volume, or an overall tone in one or more pickups.

With single-coil pickups, as in a Stratocaster or a Telecaster, the pole pieces are fixed magnetic bars.  In the case of most import guitars with single-coil pickups, there is a bar magnet on the bottom of the pickup.  On American-made models, the pickups usually have the Alnico magnetic pole pieces.  The latter design can actually be pushed up or down to achieve a balance in string volume.  These magnets are typically stronger than the magnets in Humbucker pickups.  So, what works for a single coil probably won’t work for a Humbucker.

At any rate, adjustments like these are not invasive and are easily reversed.

Raising a pickup will usually result in higher output or volume as well.  The neck pickup is usually lower than

 the bridge pickup, mainly because the strings need more room to vibrate at the neck position than they do at the bridge position.  Along with that, since the strings don’t vibrate as much as the do at the neck position, so the pickups need to be closer to the strings at the neck position to have the same or slightly higher volume.  It’s long been thought solos or “leads” needed to be played on the bridge pickup for the solo to cut through the rest of the band.  Now, however, we see many solos where the guitarist may use the neck pickup, or both pickups during a solo.  As a result, achieving the desired balance in volume between pickups is essential.

Bruce Lyons guitars and Computers, 3110 Seymour Highway, in the front strip of the Fre-Mar Valley, offers repair and setup service on most guitars.  940-691-1727

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– Bruce Lyons