Thawing the Ice-Pick

getting a warmer tone from your Strat bridge pickup

For many players, the Strat has one good pickup in the neck.  The middle is simply there to occasionally get a weird two-pickups-in-parallel sound or to cancel 60-cycle hum, and the bridge is there only… ONLY for use with a fuzz pedal.  God forbid you would want to play your bridge pickup through a clean Fender Twin, you might ruin the hearing of everyone in the first row!
Here are a few tips to warm up the tone of that pickup in order of cost and simplicity.
1. Adjust pickup height $0- Make sure your bridge pickup is not too close to the strings.  Depress the high and low E at the last fret and measure from the top of the two poles to the bottom of the string.  Make sure the pickup is no closer than 1/16″ and adjust the rest of the pickups to match the volume of the bridge.

2. Wire the bridge pickup into the middle tone $0- The classic wiring of Strats is to have a tone control for the neck and a tone control for the middle, and the bridge is left out of the tone circuit.  Most modern Strats have the bridge wired in with the middle control.  If your bridge pickup has no tone control, here is a wiring diagram to help you:

3.  Affix a baseplate to the bridge pickup $4- This mod is cheap, easy, and completely reversible, so why not give it a try?  Tele bridge pickups sound amazing because they have a baseplate to raise the inductance, lows, and volume, the same technique can be applied to Strat pickups.  Buy a baseplate from a guitar parts supplier and either apply glue or melt some wax to adhere it to the bottom of the pickup (wax is my preferred method as it is easier to remove later).  Any metal plating on the guitar should always be grounded.  Use a file or course sandpaper to scratch up a section of the baseplate and apply some solder.  Then solder a lead from the baseplate to the back of a potentiometer.

4. Replace the bridge pickup with a higher output pickup $85- single coils with a greater resistance (measured in ohms) with have more output, more lows, and less highs.  There is a wide variety of drop-in replacements out there that require no modification to the body.  Here is one of my Blue Dog pickups that measures 8.1K ohms in the bridge and uses steel poles and bar magnets like a P-90 for a fat, warm tone.

Common Myths of Scatterwinding

Myth 1. Scatterwinding is just a bunch of hype

Is good tone just hype?  Scatterwinding is putting the most space between each consecutive wind as possible, thereby lowering the capacitance of the pickup.  This is achieved by the winding pattern and the tension of the wire, which is usually done by hand, and takes years of experience.  This is, in my opinion, the most important aspect in pickup making next to resistance and magnetism.

scatterwinding a single coil

Myth 2. Scatterwinding can only be done by hand

Nope.  Although hand-guiding the wire onto the bobbin is probably the best and easiest way, you could get the same results from a machine.  I have heard that when Jason Lollar was starting out pickup winding, he made his own machine that would turn the bobbin and guide the wire automatically.  A pickup can be scatterwound in this way as long as the motion and wire tension are calibrated.  The problem is that machines are consistent and the point of scatterwinding is to be inconsistent, it is hard to replicate the motion of the human hand.

Myth 3. All handwound pickups are scatterwound

Not really.  The winding pattern and the tension are still dependent of a number of variables: machine type, speed, wire type, and most importantly, who is winding the pickup.  All will make a pickup sound different.

Myth 4. Scatterwinding just means randomly guiding the wire onto the bobbin

Wrong, it almost has more to do with wire tension, which takes a lot of time to perfect by hand.  If the pickup is too loose, you won’t get the correct number of turns and the pickup will sound thin.  Too tight and it will sound dead.  Here is a useful tool for figuring out the proper tension.

Myth 5. Scatterwound pickups need to be wax potted

Not always.  Microphonics are screeching sounds coming from winds of wire and little parts of the pickup vibrating together.  This can be a big problem when playing at a high volume on stage.  A lot of it has to do with the quality of the parts used, the age of the pickup, and how it was wound.  If you use a pickup that has been made with quality parts that fit together tightly and that has been carefully scatterwound, you do not need wax potting, and that gives your sound extra openness and clarity.  I have been testing this myself for years.

Myth 6. Single coils are scatterwound and humbuckers are not

Traditionally this is the case as most humbuckers are wound on a machine.  Personally, I prefer all pickups to be scatterwound.  Anywone who plays a with a humbucker in the neck position knows that it doesn’t really cut through the mix as well as the bridge in a band situation, try using a scatterwound humbucker!

Pickup Magnetism

magnetizing a strat pickup with powerful rare-earth magnets
With all the talk out there about scatterwinding and coil wire types, it’s easy to forget about how much of a role the magnets play on the sound of the pickup.  A lot of pickup manufacturers will charge the poles all the way up and be done with it giving little thought to “tuning” the magnets, but a few of the boutique builders out there will take the time to “hand weaken” the magnets.

To charge up the poles, rare-earth mangets, like those used in guitar repair, are placed in the jaws of a vice.  One has it’s north pole facing in and the other south.  The rare-earth magnets will charge the Alnico poles with the opposite charge, north charges south and south charges north.  This is because we all know that if you put two magnets with a south polarity in close proximity, they will repel or demagnetize each-other.  As the bobbin with the magnets is swiped between the rare-earth magnets, it is fully charged to about 35 gauss.

A fully-charged south-up Strat pickup
Now that the pole is charged all the way up, we can widen the jaws of the vice to about twice as far as they were before.  The pickup is flipped around so that it’s south pole will be facing the south pole of the rare-earth magnets and north will be facing north.  With the jaws of the vice farther apart, we are just weakening the magnets a little bit, the closer we move the jaws of the vice, the more magnetism we are removing.  It only takes two or three swipes through through the jaws to weaken the poles a little bit.  In general, I weaken my neck pickups to less than 30 gauss and my bridge pickups to less than 20 gauss.
By weakening the magnets, we are essentially aging the pickups to sound like something 40 or 50 years old.

Setting pickup height

Depress the first and sixth strings at the last fret.  Now with a ruler measure from the bottom of the string to the top of the pole.  In general, bridge single coils should be about 1/8″ away from the strings.  Humbuckers can be set a little closer.  The closer the pickup is to the string, the more bright or harsh the tone will be, the farther away it is the warmer the tone.  Once you get something you are happy with you can move on to the neck pickup.  Since the strings are vibrating farther over the neck pickup, this pickup will always be louder and warmer than the bridge pickup.  Lower the neck pickup towards the body until the volume is even with the bridge pickup.It’s really a matter of personal taste and there is no wrong way to set magnetism or pickup height, but if the pickup is too close to the string it will pull on it too hard, killing your sustain and messing with intonation.  If the pickup is too far away it will sound too dark and quiet.

Eliminating electrical noise in your guitar

Getting rid of outside interference in 4 steps

For many of us who love the sound of single coil pickups (eg. classic Strat or Tele) we are familiar with 60 Hz hum, radio stations, and cell phone signals coming through our amp.  This is electrical interference that our single coils are especially susceptible to, and yet we refuse to give up single coils, we just love the tone too much!  Humbuckers are a great way to fight this 60 Hz hum, if you have ever played a guitar with a humbucker and a true single coil you can easily hear the difference, but a lot of players complain that too much tone is lost when the hum is “bucked.”  The truth is, you can stick with your old single coils as long as you follow a few DIY procedures that are guaranteed to reduce the noise to an absolute minimum.  Even if you have humbucking pickups these steps will help reduce the overall noise of your rig.

Step 1.  Shielding Paint

With the pickguard and electronics removed from the guitar, you can paint shielding paint from Stew-Mac on the inside of the control cavity and the pickup routs.  Two or three coats (allowing it to dry overnight between coats) should provide enough coverage.  All grounding material must come in contact somehow with the back of the potentiometer (ground).  Connect a ground wire from the paint to the back of a potentiometer or paint up to a screw hole so the paint comes in contact with the copper tape on the back of the pickguard (see step 2).

Step 2.  Copper Tape

This tape (also from Stew-Mac) is great for sticking to the back of pickguards and totally blocking out any interference.  The tape is grounded by coming in contact with the switch and potentiometer casings.

Step. 3  Leads

Keeping all electrical connections to an absolute minimum length will reduce the chances of interference.

Also, twisting the positive and negative leads from your pickups (as seen on this Jazz Bass pickup) will help cancel interference.  It is debatable whether this makes a noticeable difference in passive equipment, but it won’t hurt, some like it for aesthetics and wire manageability.

Step 4.  Final details

Having a good quality, shielded instrument cable free of cracks and keeping it as short as possible will help tremendously in avoiding interference.

further reading:

Eliminating Troublesome Hum & Buzz Created By Electric Guitars by Bruce Bartlett 

Canceling Tele hum on the cheap

Switch polarity to get rid of 60-cycle hum

For more than 50 years, the Fender Telecaster has been manufactured pretty much the same way. It’s trademark sound is one of raw, gutsy tone with sharp attack and great clarity. Because of it’s simplicity and honesty, it is perhaps the best way to showcase a pair of single coil pickups. One of the drawbacks of true single coils is their hum which guitar makers have been trying to fix for decades. Since the Telecaster’s design was perfected rather early on in electric guitar history (1950) it is one of the only dual pickup guitars that did not have hum-canceling capabilities, and it still doesn’t today. Most of the time the two pickups are made reverse-wound/reverse-polarity so that when they are used in combination (the middle position of your pickup selector) they will cancel the hum. The telecaster design has been pretty much left alone because so many players love the trademark sound and especially the sound you get when the neck and bridge pickup are played together. For a lot of players that is more important than “bucking” the hum, but for you it might be more important to have a quiet setting on the guitar. Here I will show you how to cheaply and easily buck the hum on a standard Telecaster.

As we just discussed, most Tele pickups are wound the same direction and charged with the same polarity facing up, making them non-humbucking, so all you need to do is switch the leads and reverse the polarity on one pickup. You can test the polarity by holding a compass up to the top of the pickup as shown below. Opposites attract, so this pickup is charged SOUTH UP (fig. 1).

fig. 1
Reversing the leads on a pickup is a simple operation with a soldering iron, but charging the magnets will be a little more tricky.  Especially since most vintage, and vintage-reissue Telecasters have a copper-plated steel baseplate on the bridge and a chrome cover on the neck pickup, which is soldered to the ground of the guitar.
Modern American Standard bridge pickups, like the one shown below, do not have a baseplate, and are changed NORTH UP (fig. 2), so here I will remove the pickup and charge it SOUTH UP.
fig. 2
This can be done with a pair of 1″ rare earth magnets from Steward-Macdonald ($8.57 each).  These are extremely strong magnets that will successfully charge Alnico polepieces like in my pickups here.  They will also successfully erase hard drives like in you iPhone or MacBook, so keep them away from all computerized equipment.  You can see the magnetic field you are dealing with by holding it to a compass .  It is attracting the NORTH needle, so this is the SOUTH pole of the magnet (fig. 3).
fig. 3
Charge the pickup polepieces by moving them back and fourth between the rare earth magnets.  The magnets will change magnetic fields of weaker magnets to what they are most attracted to, so a SOUTH pole with charge pickup polepieces to be NORTH.  Rare earth magnets will hold themselves to the jaws of a vice.  Label the side that will charge magnets to be North as I have done below (fig. 4).
fig. 4
Adjust the jaws so that the magnets are as close as possible to the polepieces but still allow the pickup to pass freely.  Move the pickup through the jaws of the vice a few times and it is fully charged.  Reinstall the pickup with the leads reversed.  Positive leads are usually white or yellow and in this case would be soldered to the ground (the back of the potentiometer), negative leads are usually black, blue or green and in this case would be soldered to your switch.
If this pickup had a metal baseplate (fig.5) or a cover it would be a little more difficult to charge the magnets but sill possible.  It would require disconnecting the negative (ground) lead from the baseplate or cover and running a separate ground wire from the baseplate to the back of the potentiometer.  Then, special care must be taken to break the hold of the potting wax and remove the baseplate or cover without damaging the coil.  Then you can charge the magnets.
fig. 5
Now you have a hum-canceling mode on your Tele without effecting the tone of the bridge or the neck pickup!