A myriad of variables intervenes in a guitar's tonal quality and balance. Of them, the pickup takes a preeminent place, along with the strings. Pickups are comprised of parts or pieces that can make or break your guitar's sound, depending on their placement.
How can I improve the sound/tone of my guitar pickups? There are a series of tweaks that may improve a pickup's performance. Depending on the specific needs, you may adjust the height of the pole pieces, increase or decrease the number of windings per coil, install mods, and change the height of the overall pickup relative to the strings, among others.
For the purposes of this article, we'll be focusing on the specific measures to take in order to improve the tone of guitar pickups and the related factors that affect a guitar's tone and the pickup's performance.
Understanding Guitar Pickups & Their Inherent Tone
Before we delve into improving the performance of a guitar pickup, we should understand the basics of how guitar pickups work.
A pickup is made up of a complete system responsible for translating the strings' motion into electric (audio) signals. These audio signals then travel through the guitar and patch cable to the amplifier, which amplifies the signal and converts it into sound by way of a speaker/cabinet.
To optimize this process, there are various tweaks and tricks that we can apply. As with any aspect of guitar playing, the final results may be evaluated according to the subjective preferences of the guitarist or listener. That being said, there are some general notions regarding how a guitar should sound and what outcomes should be avoided.
The starting point is the magnet pieces, which are made of an array of different materials and placed at different heights relative to the bobbin (depending on the configuration).
The material is the first aspect that can make an impact on the sound. Commonly, magnets are made of either ceramic or alnico.
Ceramic magnets, also known as ferrite magnets, are made of iron oxide and strontium carbonate. They are known for their strong magnetic fields, hardness and brittleness, which gives their tone more treble, punch and overall output. Critics suggest ceramic pickups sound harsh and brittle.
Alnico (AlNiCo) magnets are made of Aluminium (Al), Nickel (Ni) and Cobalt (Co) with Iron and differing levels of Copper, Titanium and Niobium. These magnets generally make the sound warmer and rounder due to their lower yet more consistent magnetic strength.
Another parameter to look for is height. By adjusting and fine-tuning the height of the pole pieces, you'll be able to modify the output. You can also try changing the height of the entire pickup.
However, higher is not always better. If you place the pole piece too close to the string, you'll risk muddying the sound or causing string buzzing. Conversely, if you place the magnets too far away, you'll end up compromising the magnetic field, and the signal level will suffer.
To learn more about how pickup height affects tone, check out my article How Does Guitar Pickup Height Affect Tone?
If the magnets are “the heart” of the pickup, the coils can be analogous to the arteries.
Just as in the case of the magnets, the way the coils are arranged may also significantly impact the pickup's performance. Coils are attached to the magnets by several turns of copper wire. The higher the number of turns, the greater the gain.
Normally, we can expect the magnets to be wound by 4,500 or 5,000 turns per coil in humbuckers and 8,000 turns in single coils (such as Stratocaster pickups), depending on the type of pickup and its destined position. Bridge pickups are usually attached with more windings per coil, considering the difficulties in the vibration (and, therefore, signal level) around that area.
The winding method is also important. Hand-wound coils are spread more irregularly, resulting in less electrical capacitance and a thinner sound. Meanwhile, machine-wound coils are more evenly distributed and uniform, thus resulting in more capacitance and the ability to render warmer and pronounced notes.
Similar to what happens with pickup height, there is a balance to be maintained with respect to winding. Magnets could be underwound, but they can likewise be overwound. Overwinding can lead to a very dark and booming tone, leading to intonation issues. On the flip side, underwinding will hamper the midrange frequencies, making the sound much thinner.
Rewinding a pickup is typically reserved for repair tasks when the coil breaks. Though the coil can be unwound to a separate spool and a new coil can be wound around in its place, doing so is relatively impractical for tonal improvement purposes. The thousands of turns of 42 AWG (0.0025-inch diameter) wire isn't exactly easy to take off and rewind.
The cover was first introduced as a way to further shield humbuckers from the radio frequency interference produced by the surrounding electrical appliances.
One of the effects of a pickup cover is that it generally dampens the higher-end of the soundwave. As a result, the tone of a covered pickup will be flatter and smoothened. Some modding enthusiasts over the decades have found ways to experiment with the sound of their humbuckers by removing the cover, and some of them have attested that the tone turns much brighter and clearer.
The degree of distinction in tone could vary depending on the type of cover. For example, metal-based covers – such as zinc and nickel – are expected to interfere more in the magnetic field than a plastic cover would.
The degree to which a cover affects tone is still a disputed topic. The greatest differences lie in the distance between the poles and the strings rather than the presence of a cover.
That being said, removing a pickup cover for a brighter tone (or installing a cover for a darker tone) could be a relatively easy modification to “improve” the tone.
It's true that the position of the guitar pickup will affect its overall performance and tone. All else being the same, a pickup will sound warmer/fuller when positioned near the neck and brighter/thinner when positioned by the bridge.
This is due to how strings vibrate. A string will vibrate more freely toward the middle of its length and will be rather restricted near its anchor points (one of which is the bridge of the guitar).
The fundamental and lower harmonics play a significant role in the sound of a guitar string and are dampened near the bridge. The dampening of the stronger harmonics is greater, percentage-wise, than the higher harmonics.
So then, not only will the strings be quieter near the bridge due to restricted vibration, but they'll also be lacking in low-end harmonics.
Swapping a pickup from one position to another in a guitar is one way to alter that pickup's performance, though another pickup would likely need to take its place. Of course, there is potential to modify the body by carving out a different cavity to host the pickup, but this isn't always practical and may very well end up doing more harm than good to the guitar.
Outside The Pickup
The following variables may be slightly peripherical to the pickups themselves, but they work in tandem to affect the overall tone of the pickup output.
Many guitars have more than one pickup (usually two or three), distributed across the space between the neck and bridge, under the strings.
The guitarist is ordinarily able to choose the pickups that will be activated at any given time through selector switches or independent volume controls. Guitars that sport two pickups are easier to control since you can activate them at the same time, producing a mix of the two signals.
With three pickups, it's usually harder since the stock wiring of most three-pickup guitars only allows two of the three pickups to be activated at the same time, leaving no room for the neck and bridge pickups to be triggered simultaneously.
Happily, there are workarounds to this issue: You may be able to install simple mods – such as a blender mod – that are capable of stimulating those “hidden” tonal features. Furthermore, they are relatively easy to install without substantial modifications to the chassis and grant enough versatility to suit virtually all tastes.
There are numerous 7-sound blender mod kits on the market for Strats and similar 3-pickup, 5-way switch guitars. If you're interested, I suggest checking out options from ToneShaper, Emerson Custom and ObsidianWire (links to check the prices on Amazon).
By honing the guitar's controls, we can get more tonal variation from the installed pickups without necessarily modding the pickups themselves.
Finally, the strings should not be overlooked. It's of no use to sport the best pickup arrangement if the strings are of low quality or in a deplorable state.
Strings are responsible for disturbing the magnetic field that the pickup effectively converts into audio. Electric guitar and bass strings are made of metal, but the specific metal alloys employed in them have varying degrees of magnetism, ultimately affecting their output. Alloys with poor magnetic properties (such as nickel) will hinder the guitar's overall performance, while steel or cobalt strings will surely sound brighter and more powerful.
For more information on strings and their role on tone, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• How Do Guitar Strings Affect Tone? (Acoustic, Electric, Bass)
• Do New Guitar/Bass Strings Sound Better?
• Do Heavier/Thicker Gauge Guitar Strings Sound Better?
• Does Guitar Action/String Height Affect Tone?
This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.