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September 2014
more... GearHow-TosApril 2008

The Tone Checklist: Eight Steps to Tone

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Checklist Point # 3: Pickups
Electric guitars are a peculiar beast – while they often look relatively straightforward and utilitarian, every component of the instrument contributes to your tone. There are, however, four main things we can examine to help you zero in that sound: pickups, body type, woods and components. We’ll begin with the pickups, as they actually transmit the string vibration to your amp.

The Tone Checklist: Eight Steps to Tone
A single coil Tele pickup
For classification purposes, there are three basic kinds of electric guitar pickups: single coils, humbuckers and piezo. But beware; there is a lot of magic in a pickup’s configuration. The right pickup can turn a lackluster plank into a divine axe. Conversely, the wrong pickup can turn a perfect beauty into a worthless piece of wood.

Single coils: Having only one coil (a magnet wrapped in wire), these pickups remain one of the most versatile designs around. Developed in the fifties, Leo Fender’s single coil pickup – found in Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters – has become a standard for many players, producing a clean, clear, crisp, biting sound. These pickups generally have a medium to low output resistance and phasing characteristics that enable the pickups to cut through a mix.

Of course, there are plenty of other options here. Introduced by Gibson in the forties, the higher-output P-90 produces a fat midrange with lots of punch. Likewise, the eighties gave us Lace Sensors, which are classified as single coils, but use compression magnetics rather than the standard slug coil technology used in most pickup designs. This technology produces a slightly mellower tone, but virtually eliminates the pesky 60-cycle-hum associated with single coils.

The Tone Checklist: Eight Steps to Tone
A Seymour Duncan SH-11 humbucker
Humbuckers: In the fifties, Seth Lover designed a pickup for Gibson that was designed to help eliminate the hum common with early single coils. In order to eliminate (buck) the hum, these pickups are made with two coils instead of one, and produce a fatter, thicker, more focused tone than single coils, with deeper lows, rounder mids and full highs. The Gibson Les Paul is commonly recognized as the humbucker-fitted guitar. They are often used for jazzy clean tones, blues, and clear, bell-like chord work. They have a slightly higher output resistance than single coils, making them the most popular pickup for fat, chunky, distorted power chord-style work in metal and rock. Recognizing that many players don’t want to decide between the two, pickup companies have developed humbucker designs that can be “split” to harness both humbucker and single coil sounds from one pickup. Most pickup companies also make “stacked” single coils (two magnets, one on top of the other) as well as mini-humbuckers (two coils, side by side), both of which fit into a single coil slot.

Piezo: These pickups were designed to amplify acoustic guitars but have been used on electric guitars to great effect. Essentially ceramic transducers – as opposed to magnets – they produce a resonant, somewhat quacky tone with lots of hollow (notched), ambient overtones. Godin’s Multiac is a very popular piezo-equipped axe. Players who don’t want to lug an acoustic to a gig often use piezo-fitted electrics. Jazzers and janglers alike often use a blended mix of single coil or humbucking pickups with a piezo tone.

The Tone Checklist: Eight Steps to Tone Which pickup or pickup configuration is right for you? How do you want to use your pickups? Do you need one sound or several? Do you need lots of highs, or do you want your tone to be fat? Do you want it to cut, but not feel thin? Remember that creating a personal tone often means using things in a manner they were not intended. Jazzer Mike Stern uses a Yamaha custom Telecaster-style guitar with a single coil in the bridge – not the first choice for your average jazz cat. Some folks – Scott Henderson, for example – think that single coils work better in a trio because of their wide sonic throw, rather than their ability to cut through. Once again, if you ask the tough questions, you’ll get the answers you’re looking for.


Checklist Point #4: Body Style
The Tone Checklist: Eight Steps to Tone
Gibson’s semi-hollow ES-335
The body of a guitar – including shape, materials and components – will all help determine its resonance and overtone structure. In terms of a guitar’s body makeup, we will first look at the three basic body styles: hollowbody, solidbody, and semi-hollowbody.

Hollowbody: The first electric guitar was an arched top, acoustic f-hole guitar with a pickup attached to it, and not much has changed since. With a hollow, resonant sound and lots of woody overtones, these guitars react strongly to the kind of strings used. Being completely hollow, the entire guitar becomes a resonant chamber. Gibson’s ES-175 and Ibanez’s AF75 are popular hollowbody choices. Primarily used in jazz, the hollowbody is favored by everyone from jazz genius Pat Metheny to the ever-funky Eric Krasno from Soulive.

Solidbody: A solidbody electric is basically a solid piece of wood (or several pieces laminated together) with the strings, neck and pickups attached. It has no resonant chambers and creates a tight, directed, focused attack with narrow and specific overtones. It is the weapon of choice for most guitarists, from blues to rock to country and beyond.

Semi-hollowbody:
Take a fat hollowbody and make it thin; then stick a solid wood center block inside the guitar, from the neck tenon to the tailpiece, leaving the “wings” hollow and the center solid. The result is some of the resonance and overtones of a hollowbody, with some of the focused attack of a solidbody. Semi-hollows have a quite pronounced midrange punch, with Gibson’s ES-335 remaining one of the most recognizable guitars in this category.

The Tone Checklist: Eight Steps to Tone So what body style is right for you? Ask yourself how “open” do you want your guitar to be. How important are resonance and overtones to you? Some players want as tight a tone as possible. Consider how loud will you be playing, and in what kind of environments – semi-hollows and hollows often wrestle with feedback at higher levels, although a young Ted Nugent famously made this work for him. Some players fill their hollowbodied guitars with stuffing to control feedback while keeping the resonance. There’s also the practical – how much weight do you want hanging around your neck for prolonged periods of time?

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