Why Are Some Guitar Pickups Angled?


There’s great variety in electric guitar designs, which extends to the pickups. One aspect of the design is the angle, or lack thereof, at which the pickup shifts from being perpendicular to the strings.

Why are some guitar pickups angled? Guitar pickups (typically single-coil) can be angled to achieve a certain “equalization” in an electric guitar; where the high/treble strings are brighter (more high-end as the poles are closer to the bridge) and the low/bass strings are warmer (more low-end as the poles are closer to the neck).

In this article, we’ll discuss why pickups may or may not be angled in a guitar design. We’ll also consider the history of such a concept and look at a few examples of real-world guitars with slanted (and straight) pickups.


A Quick Primer On Guitar Pickups & Their Angles

Solid-bodied electric resonate quite poorly on their own and aren’t nearly loud enough to be considered practical acoustic instruments. Rather, they operate by way of a device called a pickup. As the name implies, it “picks up” the vibration from the strings and transforms it into an electric signal (audio signal) that is ultimately transferred to an amplifier and speaker to render the audible sound.

Pickups are made with six magnetic bars or poles (or a number corresponding to the number of strings the guitar is able to hold) wrapped in copper wire and embedded in a bobbin. Each row of magnetic poles is called a “coil.”

Some guitars have single-coil pickups, such as Fender Stratocaster (link to check the price at Sweetwater), while others sport what is called a “humbucker” or double-coil pickup, such as the Gibson Les Paul (link to check the price at Sweetwater). For this article, we won’t be going in-depth regarding their differences.

You may notice that some single-coil pickups are angled, particularly those located at the bridge. There is a reason for this, and it’s not just a style choice.

Fender is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
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Gibson is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
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Why Are Some Guitar Pickups Angled?

The pickup near the bridge is slanted to “even out” the frequencies between the treble and bass strings. That way, your bass notes are warmer, while your treble notes are brighter.

According to the physics that operates in the setup, the closer a pickup is to the bridge, the more treble it picks up and the brighter the tone becomes. Inversely, the closer a pickup is to the neck, the warmer the tone gets.

If we think of a vibrating string, the oscillations of the fundamental frequency and each harmonic will be the greatest at the antinodes and will be virtually zero at the nodes. So, the closer we are to the centre of the string (determined by the bridge and the nut or the bridge and the fretted fret), the greater the fundamental will be. Conversely, the further we get to the bridge (the outer node), the weaker the fundamental will be, especially when compared to the upper harmonics.

The portion of the string vibrating above the bridge pickup will be weaker in fundamental and overall oscillation. Still, it will have more high-end relative to the lower fundamental and harmonics. The neck pickup, which will always be closer to the node of the fundamental frequency, will have a more balanced tone with greater vibrational strength.

We can hear this is we pluck a string near the bridge and pluck it again at the neck. At the bridge, the tone will be weak, bright and “tinny.” At the neck, it will be strong, full and warm.

So then, angling a bridge pickup can help increase the high-end of the high/treble strings while increasing the “warmth,” low-end and overall volume of the low/bass strings.

This is mostly seen in single-coil pickups. Humbuckers, on the other hand, do not require any offset since they are already mellowed and don’t need their bass to be emphasized. In the case of double coils, there is a noise cancellation mechanism by which each coil cancels the other’s “hum” out, getting rid of most of the high-frequency hiss. Some humbuckers, however, can be slanted, as we’ll see shortly.

Even though, as affirmed above, most of the slanted pickups reside near the bridge, there is no impediment to installing slanted pickups in any other spot of the guitar. In fact, there are examples of guitars with only slanted pickups, such as the Fender Jag-Stang (link to check the price at Sweetwater). This latter disposition gives more edge to the notes and delivers a sound suitable for genres that require an extra punch.

Fender Jag-Stang

Note that the differences in pole location near the bridge (the far extreme) will have a greater effect on the overall tone between strings than differences in pole location near the neck, which is much more centralized.


Background Of Angled Pickups

The Fender Broadcaster (later known as “Telecaster”) was the first electric guitar to feature an offset pickup. The idea was conceived by Leo Fender (founder of Fender guitars) in the early ’50s as a way to provide some equilibrium to the overall tone of the guitar.

The Fender Telecaster (link to check the price at Sweetwater) is one of the most famous and best-selling guitars on the market today.

Fender Telecaster

You will notice that most guitars used in that period had a very bright tone (it was, after all, when lap steel guitars became very acclaimed). Not much time passed until virtually every guitar manufacturer that used single-coil pickups started to adopt this feature. Many performers demanded this kind of “twangy” sound for their guitars, especially as the western swing music rage was kicking off in the California scene.

Additionally, the slanted pickup was devised as a way to address an issue present in all the amplifiers of that period, for they were unable to handle high frequencies correctly. Leo Fender knew about these shortcomings by the time he started building guitar amps in the late ’40s.

The aforementioned issue was solved when Jim Marshall started developing his trademarked Marshall stack and the advent of the 100-watt guitar amp in the ’60s. Nonetheless, slanted pickups were already a staple for many manufacturers, and the evolution of amp technology only served for further experimentation.

Marshall is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar Amplifier Brands In The World.


Slanted Humbuckers

From the time when angled pickups were implemented, only single-coil pickups were slanted, while PAFs mostly remained square. The PAF was an early version of the humbucker produced by Gibson.

The earliest record of a guitar built with slanted humbuckers was Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat guitar, built-in 1974. The double-coiled pickup at the bridge was just slightly angled. This is one of the factors that probably made Eddie’s sound stand out (apart from his known skills).

In this case, he used a PAF humbucker, which had a standard Gibson pole spacing (hence wider), and made sure that both E strings were over at least one pole by angling it.

EVH currently produces the EVH Striped Series Frankenstein Relic (link to check the price at Sweetwater), which is a tribute to, rather than a recreation of, the original Frankenstrat.

EVH Striped Series Frankenstein Relic

This practice of angling humbuckers was then emulated by other artists such as Billie Jose Armstrong and Kurt Cobain with his aforementioned Jag-Stang.

Nevertheless, one of the main challenges, when confronted with the concept of angled humbuckers, is that, contrary to what happens with single-coil pickups, the alignment of one of the rows will always be off by a certain degree. Also, the shape of certain humbuckers and P90’s will create an imbalance in the design when not set in a straight position.

But even with those impediments, many guitar modders and other humbucker enthusiasts have related how the sound rendered by a slanted humbucker on a Stratocaster has a bit more character or gleam when compared to Strats with square humbuckers.


Reverse-Angled Pickups

The first recorded public appearance of a reverse-angled pickup was not long after the first angled pickups appeared. However, it was a product of “accident” rather than mere ingenuity (albeit a bit of inventiveness might have also been in play).

Note that reverse-angled pickups are rarely incorporated into standard guitar designs. Rather, they’re mostly reserved for experimental custom builds and after-market modifications.

Jimi Hendrix, a left-handed guitarist, decided that, instead of asking for a left-handed guitar, he would use his right-handed Strat upside-down, that is, restrung with the tuning reversed. This meant that the bass strings would hover at the higher poles, while the trebles would rest over the lower poles. Consequently, the bass strings would turn brighter while the treble strings would produce a warmer sound.

There was also a change in tension as the length of the strings behind the nut was also shifted.

Needless to say, Hendrix’s guitar sound was remarkably unique for the time and contributed, in part, to his success. Of course, the playing and writing were top-notch, and the wah and fuzz pedals and overdriven amplifiers yielded massive tone. The non-standard guitar setup’s influence on tone was minimal in comparison, though still worth noting.

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This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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