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What Does Phase and Polarity Mean for Your Guitar’s Pickups?

guitar close up pickups

Pickup specs are often written to be user-friendly. But how can players make informed decisions on pickup combinations without phase and polarity details?

Hello and welcome back to Mod Garage! This month’s column is about phase and polarity, two pickup parameters we talked about in detail some time ago, but which could use a thorough review. From numerous emails and requests, I know that this can be a very confusing subject. So, here’s a story that happens every day, all around the planet. Maybe it sounds familiar to you:

Your Strat plays great and sounds good, but it’s not quite right yet, so you’ve decided to spruce up the electronics to tweak the tone to your personal taste. You’ve spent months and countless hours researching. You logged onto Strat discussion forums and contacted shops and pickup makers. You interviewed your guitar buddies and your guitar teacher, subscribed to all kinds of blogs and newsletters about Stratocasters, and you read all of the PG articles and books you could find. Your YouTube algorithm is now full of Strat demos. Finally, after all this work, your shopping list is ready to go for a new Stratocaster pickup set.

For the bridge pickup, you decided to go for a certain model from the Smith company—one of your favorite pickers is using this one as well. On Smith’s website, you can read: output (DCR): 6.5k / magnet: alnico 5 / wires: plastic coated.

For your new middle pickup, you chose one from the Jones company. A lot of your new forum friends recommended this one because it is “super silent.” On the Jones pickup company website, it says: alnico 5 magnets / 42 gauge Formvar wire / 5.8k / middle RWR.

And finally, your dream neck pickup is one from the renowned Wilson pickup factory that is built just like they used to make them in the late ’50s. Searching the Wilson website, you found the technical specs of this pickup: alnico 2 magnets / DCR: 6.15k / treble 7.5, mid 5.5, bass 4.5.

Everything is only one click away now, and you pulled the trigger right away on your Friday evening. On Monday, your pickup set was delivered, but you had to wait until Friday to have the time to put them into your Strat. What a week, full of anticipation, and you can’t wait to heat up your soldering iron! After spending two hours on Friday evening putting everything together, you plug into your favorite amp, eager to reap the fruit of all your labor.

You start with the bridge pickup. It sounds marvelous after adjusting the pickup height a little. Now, the middle pickup—delicious. And the neck pickup—well, simply stunning. You can’t believe that it worked out so perfectly for you.

When you want to hear the in-between pickup positions, you start with the bridge and middle pickups, awaiting the total Knopfler experience. You strike a cool chord, but what the heck is this? The sound is thin and shrill with a lot of noise. How can that be? Switching over to the combination of neck and middle pickup, you receive the same thin, shrill tone, but dead quiet with no background noise.

You instantly open up your Strat again, checking all solder connections several times, but everything looks good. You start to post this problem on some forums, sharing sound samples and explaining what happened. After a short time, you’re told you have an out-of-phase problem and are given conflicting advice on how to fix it. It may seem, at this point, that you’re at an impasse.

“When you want to hear the in-between pickup positions, you start with the bridge and middle pickup, awaiting the total Knopfler experience. You strike a cool chord, but what the heck is this?”

So, what happened here? It’s the old phase and polarity game when combining pickups from different companies. What is it and why? In simple and non-technical terms, we can define (electrical) phase as the winding direction and (magnetic) polarity as the magnetic direction of a pickup.

One reason this occurs is because there is no standard, so every pickup company is on their own regarding phase and polarity. The same goes for the color code of the wires on humbucker pickups—while the Jones company is using red for hot, Smith is using yellow, and Wilson prefers green. Personally, I think that as long as we don’t solve this problem, there will be no peace on Earth.

Another reason is that pickup companies usually only offer user-friendly parameters on their websites, with DCR and inductance as the most technical specs, if any. I’ve never seen a description like this, which, for my taste, would be complete and, of course, useful and expressive:

Magnets: alnico rod magnets A5, staggered D and G raised

Magnet polarity: south (towards the strings)

Magnet wire: plain enamel AWG 42

Winding direction: top right, top going

Number of turns: 7.600

Resistance: DCR 6.5 kiloohms

Inductance: 2.9 H (@120 Hz)

Quality factor Q: 5.95

Resonant peak: 7.850 Hz

See the entries for magnet polarity and winding direction? These are the really important parameters you need to know when you want to combine pickups from different companies, which is flirting with disaster anyway.

I don’t want to flame on pickup companies here, and there are also some companies, like Fralin pickups, that provide phase and polarity in their technical specs. But this is an exception and not the standard.

So, what can be done to avoid these problems?

There are only two ways to go. Number one is the easiest: Buying all your pickups from only one company as a set, often declared as “balanced” or “calibrated” in marketing language. Translated into normal language, this simply means that the pickups in a certain set will not have phase and polarity issues with each other.

The second option is to collect these specs by contacting the manufacturer or shop. Both phase and polarity are simple parameters, so the manufacturer should have them in their records, and every serious store selling pickups should be able to measure it within two minutes.

How this is done, what you need, and what both parameters are in detail will be part two of this column next month.

That’s it for now, so stay tuned, keep on modding, and may the phase be with you, young Padawan!