Finding the height at which each pickup sounds best by itself.



Last month we began exploring

the fine art of tweaking

a Stratocaster's pickups

[“Adjusting Stratocaster Pickup

Height, Pt.1," June 2011]. If

you experimented with the

specs we covered, I'll bet you're

still surprised and amazed with

the results. Hopefully, your

Strat never sounded better.

Who knew you could mod it

by simply turning six screws?



As I mentioned last month,

if you're tonally satisfied after

making these adjustments, leave

the new settings alone and have

a good BBQ. If you feel that it

sounds better than before but

you still miss that certain something,

read on for some good

sweet-spotting fun.



After following last month's

instructions, when you look

along the strings from the

bridge toward the neck, your

pickups should look something

like the image above.



Before we get out the screwdriver

again, let's define “sweet

spot." For me, this is the height

at which each pickup sounds

best by itself. So sweet-spotting

is the process of finding this

magical place. I don't know

who came up with this term

or when it was introduced, but

today you'll hear it whenever

guitarists gather to share nuts-and-bolts Strat lore. (One of

my customers from Italy calls it

“the electrical G-spot.")



The sweet spot is very

small—a quarter-turn of the

screws can spell victory or

defeat. Here are some tips on

how to prepare for and then

initiate the sweet-spotting procedure.

(Note: Always sweet-spot

with your guitar in regular

playing position—not on a

table or workbench.)



The first step is to play your

Strat for a few days after doing

the basic adjustments we covered

in Pt.1. This is crucial, because it

makes it much easier to recognize

subtle sonic differences when

adjusting the height. The second

step can't be done in a hurry or

when you're stressed—you and

your ears should be fresh and

rested: Put a set of new strings on

and tune up. Then, using a short,

high-quality cable, plug into your

amp's clean channel. Switch off

the reverb and tremolo, and don't

use any pedals or effects.



Once you've made these

preparations, it's time to begin.

Essentially, there are three different

ways to sweet-spot a guitar,

although you can also combine

them to find your own tonal

heaven. Regardless of the method,

always start with the bridge pickup

and work toward the neck unit.



Sweet-spotting for a specific

function. This is the easiest

and least time-consuming

approach, but still very effective.

And it's logical: If you

want more output, raise it

closer to the strings. But don't

overdo it! Raising it too much

will cause its magnetic field to

pull too hard on the strings,

resulting in a weird sound and

tuning problems that some

guitarists call “Strat-itis." If you

need more output than you can

get before the onset of Strat-itis,

you'll need a hotter pickup.



If you want a softer, more

mellow sound, lower the pickup.

Don't overdo it here, either.

Lowering it too far degenerates

sound quality and vibrancy.



Want a little more oomph?

Raise the bass side and lower

the treble side. If you want

more treble, do the opposite.



Sweet-spotting to compensate

for pickup volume. A lot

of players want even output

between all three pickups so

there isn't a volume drop when

flipping from one pickup to

another or when using the “in-between"

settings.



Pickups deliver a slightly different

volume depending on their

position. This is because there's

minimal string movement close

to the bridge, and it increases as

you move toward the neck. The

greater the string movement, the

greater the volume and output.

If you don't compensate for this,

you'll get weak output from the

bridge pickup and too much

from the neck pickup. This is

why the bridge unit should be

closest to the strings.



As always, start with the

bridge pickup. Once it sounds

right, flip to the middle pickup

and compare its volume. If

the middle pickup is too loud,

lower it slightly, checking its

volume against the bridge pickup.

Do the same with the neck

pickup, alternately comparing

it with the bridge and middle

pickups. If you're satisfied, take

a short break and then fine-tune

the dual positions (bridge-plus-middle,

middle-plus-neck).



Trust your ears. There are no

absolute rules, and if you like a

slightly unbalanced combined

pickup sound, go for it—it's

your tone! Keep in mind that

getting the pickups to sound

great alone and in combination

will always be a compromise.



Sweet-spotting for maximum

tone. This is the supreme discipline

of sweet-spotting. You need

plenty of time to do it right, and

you'll have to redo it if you change

your string gauge or action. Again,

the sweet spot is very small.

Sometimes you'll hit it with less

than a quarter turn of the screw.

Here's the most common method:

Raise the pickup until you hear

signs of the aforementioned Strat-itis.

Next, lower the pickup until

the unpleasant qualities disappear

and your Strat sounds normal.

Fine-tune the rest by ear, carefully

moving the adjustment screws a

micro-turn at a time. On a lot of

guitars, you'll suddenly hear a sort

of natural vibrato when you find

the sweet spot. This can be an

indicator that you're close to—or

already at—the sweet spot. Move

out of the sweet spot, and you'll

lose some of the desirable tone,

transparency, string separation,

and touch sensitivity.



Don't get frustrated if you

don't find the sweet spot immediately—this specialized work takes

time and practice. If you aren't

successful, try again a few days

later. Remember, all guitars are

different, and so much depends

on your guitar's pickups, strings,

and action. Ultimately, your individual

taste is the most important

factor in this tone quest.



Happy modding!


Dirk Wacker lives in

Germany and is fascinated

by anything related to old

Fender guitars and amps.

He plays country, rockabilly,

and surf music in two

bands, works regularly as a

session musician for a local studio, and writes

for several guitar mags. He's also a hardcore

guitar and amp DIY-er who runs an extensive

website—singlecoil.com—on the subject.

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