Why pickup adjustment is so important, and how you can use it to your advantage
How’s everyone doing? This month I’d like to discuss how you can learn the art of adjusting your pickups and the reasons why it can be critical to achieving even more stellar tones than you may have heard from your guitar yet. Over the years, I’ve noticed it was a rare instance when I didn’t have to make any pickup adjustments on a guitar I’ve owned. A heightened sense of what is “right” musically all starts when your brain begins to make mental notes about the tones you encounter while listening to your favorite records and CDs. Particularly important are those tones that really jump out at you from the home stereo or car radio speakers. You know what I’m talking about—those times when you just have to stop and ask yourself, “How is he getting that sound?” These are the moments when we get really inspired to recreate a stunning tone. Conversely, you may have heard a sound that wasn’t very pleasing to your ear and you want to avoid it at all costs. It’s very much a two-way street here, and this is where your preferences in musical sounds are being shaped.
For our tonal examples, let’s take the distinct sounds we heard on the first two Led Zeppelin albums, okay? These two albums are great studies in the contrast between fabulous Fender Telecaster tones and glorious Gibson Les Paul tones. There are two very distinct sounds that I want to break down a bit here. On the debut Led Zeppelin album, it’s no secret that Jimmy Page used a 1959 Telecaster as the main electric guitar. That big tone he got on their debut record didn’t sound very twangy, as you might’ve expected from other records at that time also featuring a Telecaster as the main guitar. It’s also safe to say that the sound Page got here certainly wouldn’t remind anyone of a modern-day Telecaster master like Jim Campilongo (as just one example). Page’s tone was too dark compared to the brilliantly treble-laden tone found on many of Campilongo’s records.
Fabulous Tele Tones
In my opinion (and I’m not alone), the Fender Telecaster is the world’s most versatile electric guitar by far. It can do anything in any given musical genre, beginning from the country and western music heard in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s all the way to Page in the late ‘60s, and right on up to today. If you lower the bridge pickup of a Telecaster, it will get bigger and thicker, giving you a sound that is much more akin to a rock ‘n’ roll type of tone—less twangy or bright-sounding. The higher you raise the bridge pickup the brighter it will become. The optimal bridge pickup position for your own version of Telecaster bliss is a matter of taste and intent, but keep in mind that you can also control very effectively the way the two Tele pickups sound together by raising and lowering the bridge pickup while keeping the neck pickup at its original height.
It’s a really good idea to do the adjustments in small increments on both the treble and bass sides of the pickup—perhaps a quarter of a turn at a time so you can always return to your starting point. Remember to count the number of turns to each of the three height adjustment screws. Better yet, get a ruler that measures smaller increments of 1/32nd and 1/64ths of an inch. Just be sure to measure from the bottom of the string down to the flat part of the pickup’s pole-pieces to know where you started from. The bottom line is that you can get the sound you really want just by getting the pickup height right. Anything that goes too far in either direction of bright or dark will probably not sound good. There are a few sweet spots to listen for, and if you do it correctly you’ll be a very happy camper. I’m of the view that each instrument has its own sweets spots, and you’ll have to learn to listen for exactly where they are!
Glorious Les Paul Tones
The second Led Zeppelin album featured a vintage Les Paul, and Page’s rhythm/lead sound came from using both of the humbucking pickups at the same time. Before this record hit the airwaves, I had not heard a timbre of that particular quality. I cannot tell you how many Les Pauls I’ve played in a music store whose double pickup sound was very banal and lackluster in character. The trick here is to get the sound of the bridge and neck pickup to sound really good by themselves first. It might be a cool thing to have the sound you’re aiming for firmly in mind before you do any tweaking. Take the time to listen very carefully to how and where the instrument reacts to your own touch, and then proceed to make fine adjustments until you’ve arrived precisely at your aim. The sound that I am referring to here can be achieved when you understand how the pickups work in concert with each other.
Hopefully, these examples will start to give you a good concept of where you will want to end up, possessing your own tone. Keep on listening, and we’ll see you next month.
Dean is the chief designer of "Snake Oil Brand Strings" (sobstrings.net) and has had a profound influence on the trends in the strings of today.