You're probably aware of the difference between neck and bridge pickups. Pickups located near the neck will capture “bassier” and rounder tone, while bridge pickups will render a thinner and sharper sound. Many guitars allow the player to activate both pickups and get a more in-between sound fitting for various music styles.
When should you use the bridge and neck pickups together? Neck and bridge pickups can be used together to achieve a balanced tone that fits Country or Funk settings (similar to the traditional Telecaster sound). Some guitars are designed with the option, while others require rewiring and/or the installation of additional knobs and/or switches.
In this article, we'll discuss the type of tone that results from the combination of the bridge and neck pickups and how to combine the two in guitars with and without the stock wiring option.
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A Distinction Between Neck And Bridge Pickups
Before we begin, let's quickly discuss the differences between neck and bridge pickups.
In summary, the neck pickup highlights the strings' vibrations near that spot in which they're are able to oscillate with more amplitude and lower harmonics, thereby producing a warmer tone.
Meanwhile, the bridge pickup emphasizes the vibration at the anchor point, meaning that you'll get a more restricted oscillation. This restriction affects all harmonics of the string but has a disproportionate effect on the lower (typically more powerful) harmonics. Thus, the string vibrations over a bridge pickup cause a sharper and thinner sound.
Initially, guitars with three pickups give the player the ability to find a mid-range by playing the strings around the middle pickup. Yet, in many instances, the sound delivered by the middle pickup is not exactly the same as that delivered by the combination of neck and bridge pickups because of the way these last two are designed, positioned, and mixed together at the guitar output.
To wit, some bridge pickups are wound with at least 5% more turns per coil in order to increase gain. Many modding enthusiasts take advantage of this circumstance and interchange neck and bridge positions for added warmth and roundness.
The Tone Of Bridge And Neck Pickups Together
You will notice the contrast in tone between using merely the middle pickup and combining neck and bridge pickups. This is due to what was explained before regarding how the bridge pickup is positioned compared to the neck pickup. This state of affairs allows a guitarist to take advantage of the round neck sound while adding a bit of sharpness to the tone, a slightly different twist of what the middle pickup usually grants.
The twangy yet powerful sound delivered by the combination is very reminiscent of classic '60s rock and country music and funk guitar. While there are ways to achieve similar sounds with other settings, there is just an extra oomph about this combination that really brings back to life those vintage sounds without much effort.
However, keep in mind that the player matters just as much as the instrument played. If you are a versatile enough guitarist, you might be able to reach a similar tone quality by relying on playing technique.
Depending on the guitar wiring (modified or stock), we may be able to use the bridge and neck pickups together in a variety of tonal arrangements. There may be a blend knob that mixes the two pickup outputs together. There may be independent volume and even tone controls for each of the pickups, which gives us even more control over their combination.
If we are able to blend the bridge and neck pickups together, we can achieve a more balanced tone by blending them 50/50. Having the bridge pickup louder than the neck pickup will nearly always result in a brighter, more twangy tone while mixing the neck pickup louder will add more warmth, low-end and even sustain to the tone.
Combining Neck And Bridge Pickups At The Output
As mentioned previously, some guitars are designed with wiring that makes combining the bridge and neck pickups easy. This is common with two-pickup guitars and is often achieved via a three-way switch and/or with blend or independent pickup volume controls.
To learn more about pickup switches, check out my article How Do Guitar Pickup Switches Work & How To Use Them.
Let's consider some popular examples to learn how to combine neck and bridge pickups.
The Fender Telecaster is a famous two-pickup guitar with relatively simple controls for combining the single-coil neck and bridge pickups. It has a volume control wired to both pickups, a tone control, and a 3-way switch.
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The standard/modern wiring of the Telecaster's 3-way switch is as follows (assuming the guitar is righthanded):
- Position 1 (switch lever to the right): Bridge pickup alone with tone control engaged
- Position 2 (switch lever in the middle): Both pickups together in parallel
- Position 3 (switch lever to the left): Neck pickup alone with tone control engaged
Note that there are plenty of modifications available for Telecaster pickup wirings, including 4 and 5-way switches, additional middle pickups, blend controls, among others.
The Les Paul
The Gibson Les Paul is another classic two-pickup guitar (usually) with the ability to blend both pickups through a selector switch. The Les Paul has it located at the top-left corner (when positioned upright). This is roughly due to the fact that the Les Paul traditionally has only two humbucker pickups, making it easy to make the combination.
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The typical Les Paul has a volume and tone control for each of its pickups and a 3-way switch. The standard/modern wiring of the Les Paul's 3-way switch is as follows:
- Position 1 “Rhythm” (switch lever up): Neck pickup alone
- Position 2 (switch lever in the middle): Both pickups together in parallel
- Position 3 “Treble” (switch lever down): Bridge pickup alone
The stock wiring of the Les Paul, like many other dual-humbucker guitar designs with independent volume and tone controls, has coupled volume pots. This means that turning down the volume of one pickup, even slightly, will dramatically decrease its presence in the output. Furthermore, turning either of the volume knobs to zero will bring both pickups to zero output. Of course, there are mods for this, but it's worth noting here.
What About The Stratocaster?
Unlike the previously-mentioned Tele and LP, the Fender Stratocaster does not have stock wiring that allows the bridge and neck pickups to be combined. This guitar has three pickups and a 5-ways switch but requires modification to include this feature (as is the case with most three-pickup guitars).
The original 5-way switch only has the ability to combine two pickups but always involves the middle pickup when two are engaged together. This means that you won't be able to trigger both neck and bridge pickups together.
The typical Stratocaster has a master volume, two tone controls (Tone control 1 is higher and affects the neck pickup while Tone control 2 is lower and affects the middle and bridge pickups), and a 5-way switch. The standard/modern wiring of the Strat's 5-way switch is as follows (assuming the guitar is righthanded):
- Position 1 (switch lever to the right): Bridge pickup alone
- Position 2 (switch lever to the centre right): Bridge pickup and middle pickup in parallel
- Position 3 (switch lever in the middle): Middle pickup alone
- Position 4 (switch lever to the centre left): Neck pickup and middle pickup in parallel
- Position 5 (switch lever to the left): Neck pickup alone
While, in theory, the Strat renders a better sound palette than the older Telecaster, you may feel limited when trying to attain a more vintage sound, often having to rely on DAW filters or amplifier features. Fortunately, as you may expect, there are modifications for solving this issue as well!
Stratocaster Blender Mods
There are ways to access multiple pickup configurations apart from those offered by the stock Stratocaster. This is done by installing a “7-sound blender mod” that, luckily, doesn't require permanent modifications on the guitar's body.
The way it works is by means of a “blender knob”. This great feature brings a lot more nuanced options than simply installing an additional switch, as it allows you to trigger even the three pickups at once and to adjust the intensity of each pickup's output. Furthermore, the blender knob is meant to replace one of the original tone controls, so there is no need to perform substantial reforms in the body or pickguard.
The knob has ten positions that gradually adjust the emphasis of each pickup, depending on the position of the 5-way switch, and acts as a bypass control. If the switch is set to bridge or bridge-middle, the neck pickup is blended via the blender knob. If the switch is set to neck or neck-middle, it's the bridge pickup that is blended in via the blender knob.
Fortunately, this mod work can on all guitars with a three-pickup configuration, given the components fit and match the current setup, and is not merely limited to the Stratocaster.
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).
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