How to Upgrade Your Guitar Tone

Do you have the nagging feeling that your guitar tone falls under “been there, done that?” Take heart, because one of the quickest and easiest ways to alter your guitar’s fundamental tone is also one of the simplest: change the pickups, and then make sure they’re adjusted properly.

As one example, maybe you feel your Stratocaster or Strat “clone” needs some more midrange chirp, a tighter bass, and more output—so check out Fender’s set of three Texas Special Stratocaster pickups (Fig. 1), which are overwound, calibrated pickups with high-output alnico 5 magnets. You even get a little bit of humbucker action thrown in—the middle pickup is reverse wound/reverse polarity to cancel hum in positions 2 and 4.

1 Fender Texas
Figure 1: The Texas Special Stratocaster pickups from Fender’s Custom Shop give Strats that “Texas blues” tone.

Or maybe you wish your Gibson’s humbuckers had active pickups for more output and no impedance-matching issues. No problem: There’s Seymour Duncan’s AHB-1s “Blackout” active guitar pickups. Because of the balanced design (like XLR microphones), there have 12 to 14 dB less noise than pickups with an unbalanced design. And because they’re active, they deliver more highs when feeding low-impedance inputs, and give a higher output.

Then again you might love your Strat, but sure wish it had humbucking pickups. Again, there’s a solution: Seymour Duncan’s Hot Rails Humbucking Strat pickups (Fig. 2).

2 Hot Rails
Figure 2: Although the Hot Rails pickups are the size of single-coil pickups, they have humbucking electrical properties.

Want more versatility? Fishman’s Fluence pickups, like the Classic Humbucker Pickup Set, offer two distinct sounds in each pickup (Fig. 3).

3 Fishman
Figure 3: You can wire these pickups to default tone positions, or use a push-on/push-off or toggle switch to switch between two different sounds for each pickup.

One voice for either the bridge or neck pickup peaks at 2.25 kHz to accent the midrange. The bridge can also peak at 1.6 kHz for some lower midrange “bark,” while the neck offers a 4.5 kHz peak for extra clarity and articulation—choose the sound you want. They’re active, with an on-guitar rechargeable battery that’s estimated to last for 200 hours per charge.

Get the picture? Browse around, and you’ll find plenty of options—from vintage to ultra-modern. But that’s not the main point of this story, because it’s not just enough to drop in new pickups: You need to adjust them correctly. If you don’t, it’s like buying a Lamborghini and putting in the wrong kind of engine oil.

Pickup Adjustments

There are three main adjustable pickup elements:

  • Pickup height
  • Pickup angle
  • Pole piece adjustments

All of these can alter tone, balance, and perhaps surprisingly, sustain. We’ll start the pickup adjustment process from scratch, so before making any adjustments, screw a pickup’s individual pole pieces (if present) so that they’re flush with the top of the pickup shell—adjusting pole pieces is the final adjustment you’ll need to make.

Pickup Height

Despite the opinion of Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, louder is not necessarily better. Although moving pickups as close as possible to the strings generates more output, this also reduces sustain, and alters how the guitar’s output level relates to a pluck or strum’s initial transient.

To find out how pickup height affects a guitar’s output, I tested neck and bridge humbuckers, with two different pickup-to-string distances, using 0.010 gauge strings. The test compared the pickups when they were 2 mm and 4 mm away from the strings, while recording similar strums into Steinberg’s Wavelab digital audio editor. It’s impossible to strum exactly the same way every time, but there was a definite pattern.

Although at 4 mm the signal level was down about 8 dB, there was a higher average level over time compared to the initial transient, and more sustain. The 2 mm position generated a big attack transient, but decayed rapidly. The reason for the increased sustain in the 4 mm position is because the magnets create less drag (like friction) on the strings. Fortunately, it’s easy to compensate for less gain: Just turn up an amp’s or audio interface’s drive or gain control. It’s a tradeoff that makes sense, because the only way to compensate for less sustain is to use a signal processor like a limiter or compressor.

Other Implications of Pickup Height

Guitars are percussive instruments, so the initial transient can generate levels far above string sustain—and note that this is mostly a non-tonal transient, because it consists of string and pick noise. These transients tend to be less of a problem with tube inputs, because they “absorb” the higher levels. However, digital processors are another matter. With compressors, high-level transients monopolize the gain control mechanism to turn the signal down. This can create a pop when the compression kicks in. What’s more, amp sims generally don’t like transients because they don’t distort very elegantly. High-level transients also require turning down direct inputs in audio interfaces to avoid clipping, which lowers the signal-to-noise ratio and resolution.

Lowering the level of transients can help reduce these problems; with the pickups further away from the strings, the initial transient’s level is lower compared to the average level. Again, you’ll need to increase the input level to compensate for the lower pickup output, but these days there’s plenty of gain at our disposal—this would hardly be considered a problem.

Pickup Angle

Adjusting the angle properly can make sure that the levels coming out of the high and low strings are as evenly matched as possible. However, this can also customize the response. If you’re into leads, or ultra-thin string gauges, you might want to bias the output somewhat toward the high strings, especially if you hit the lower strings hard. But if you’re into beefy rhythm sounds, then increased low-frequency output might be the ticket. Just remember the comments above about pickup height, output, and sustain.

Pole Piece Adjustments

This is like a fine-tuning adjustment for pickup height, because you can tweak the output of individual strings. The same concepts involving general height adjustment and string proximity apply, but adjusting pole pieces has less of an effect than moving the entire pickup.

Because you started with all pole pieces at a uniform height (i.e., the height flush with the pickup shell), listen carefully to determine which strings are louder, and which are softer. It also helps to pluck each string with equal intensity while you observe the peak reading on a meter in a DAW or similar recording program. You have three options to make adjustments:

  • Determine which string is the loudest, and raise the pole pieces for strings that are softer to bring them into alignment.
  • Determine which string is the softest, and lower the pole pieces for strings that are louder to bring them into alignment.
  • Decide which strings are in the middle, and raise or lower other pole pieces to compensate. This is the approach I prefer, because it almost never requires re-adjusting the pickup height.

Are You Ready for a New Tone?

This isn’t to say all guitars need new pickups; manufacturers choose the pickups they feel will satisfy the greatest number of customers at a particular price point, and often, they’re on target. But you might not be “the greatest number of customers,” and want to strike out in a direction that’s unique to you. I haven’t replaced all the pickups on my guitars, but I’ve replaced quite a few of them, and am very glad I did. Considering that a guitarist’s main concern is tone, it’s well worth investigating what replacement pickups can do for you.


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