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
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"
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,
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.
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.