Last month, I presented a general overview
of the pedalboard I use on tour and discussed
how to reconcile varying volumes
between guitars with different pickup outputs
in a live setting. In this column, we’ll
explore some important aspects of tone
that are often overlooked and have nothing
to do with effects at all.
Pickup height makes a huge difference in
both your guitar’s tone and overall volume.
Every little change in pickup height will
change your guitar’s volume dramatically.
If you find yourself really liking the sound
of a guitar’s bridge pickup, but you don’t
really care for the neck pickup (or vice
versa), try adjusting the height of the pickup
you’re unhappy with. You’ll be surprised
at how much you can change the personality
of your instrument through pickup
In general, you will want to get the volumes
of your pickups equal. Having your
pickups set at the same height does not
necessarily mean they will be the same
volume, so you will need to experiment
and listen closely. A few months ago, Paul
Reed Smith and I were having a conversation
about several different aspects of the
technical side of guitar tone, and he made
a really interesting analogy. He said, “The
guitar is the singer and the pickups are the
microphones.” Imagine how vocalists pull
the microphone away from their mouth to
create a drop in volume. You can apply the
same concept to a guitar by moving the
pickup further away from the strings.
Pickup height can also help cure a very
common problem associated with single-coil
pickups. Often times, if you play an E
chord in the bridge position on a single-coil
guitar with the volume cranked on
your amp, the treble strings will produce
an offensive, shrill sound that will make
listeners wince. I’ve solved this problem on
my single-coil bridge pickups by lowering
the height on the treble side just a touch.
The volume on the treble strings drops a
little bit when I do this, and I also notice
that a tiny amount of high end disappears
on the attack of the notes, but the shrillness
Why is this? If you look at a bridge pickup
on a Stratocaster or Telecaster, you’ll see
that it’s angled toward the bridge on the
treble side. This means that the pickup
senses the treble strings at a different
point than on the bass strings. The closer
the pickup is to the bridge, the twangier
the strings will sound. In addition, more
high end will be translated by the treble
strings because the string is tauter close
to the bridge and therefore moving less.
So before you roll the tone knob back
or dismiss your bridge pickup as “too
bright,” try adjusting the pickup height
and see if you can make its tone more
attractive to your ears.
Position a Shure SM57 mic between the speaker’s dustcap and cone
to capture the most energetic sound waves.
Speakers and Mic Placement
When it comes to speakers, I use Celestion
Vintage 30s and Mesa/Boogie Black
Shadows (the latter are 90-watt speakers).
I like to place a Shure SM57 microphone
between the speaker’s dustcap and the
cone, as shown in the photo. This placement
works well on both the 30s and Black
Shadows. I asked Randall Smith, founder of
Mesa/Boogie, why that particular location
sounds so good. He explained that it was
similar to creating a ripple in a pond. The
most energy resides in the place of impact
and the ripples get weaker the further
they travel from that point. In the case of
a speaker, the ripples are sound waves,
which are created by the speaker’s coil.
The coil is located behind the area where
I place the mic, which produces the best
tone, in my opinion.
Another tip you might find useful: The
Shure SM57 is the industry standard for
mic’ing a guitar amplifier, but we must
remember that an SM57 was created as
a vocal mic, so aspects of its design have
a singer in mind. If you remove the cap
on the capsule, you’ll discover a piece of
foam between the windscreen and the
diaphragm. This foam is installed because
it prevents moisture from a singer’s mouth
from getting into the mic diaphragm. If
you’re using the SM57 strictly for mic’ing a
speaker, you can pull the foam out. When
you remove it, you’ll notice a little more
clarity on the top end, as well as more definition
in the notes’ attack.
As you experiment with mics and mic
placement, remember that every player’s
approach and playing style is different, so
you will want to experiment with different
techniques in different situations. If you
have a wireless system or a long cable, go
to the front of house during sound check
and listen to how your guitar tone is translating.
Then walk back onstage and move
the mic an inch or two, or change the angle
slightly, and go back out to the front of
house and take note of the changes in your
rig’s sonic character.
I hope you find some of these techniques
useful. I’m constantly educating myself on
how to control and improve my tone, and I
encourage you to do the same. Please send
me an email if there are any topics you
would like to see covered in an upcoming
column. See you next month!
Paul “TFO” Allen
Paul “TFO” Allen is a multi-instrumentalist who has
worked with Big & Rich, Sebastian Bach, 112, Jake Owen,
Montgomery Gentry, Larry the Cable Guy, and many others.
He also has his own project called Ten Finger Orchestra,
and can be reached at email@example.com