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Fine Tuning Your Guitar and Pickups

This is a continuation of our article (Part 1) on setting pickup volume which is easy to do and important for optimal electric guitar sound. Go to that article here, and below are a few final tips on further sound optimization and available upgrades.

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Now that we’re on the level with pickup volume, you may consider some further adjustments and customization. 

Some players like having a louder lead pickup and a quieter rhythm pickup. This helps alot for solos when you need to switch to the lead position and stand out front from the rest of the band. While many guitars already have a mellower pickup in the neck position, you don't need a new pickup to decrease the volume! Pickup distance from the string is directly related to volume output as discussed in our last article. Simply make sure the rhythm pickup is lower than the lead by adjusting the screws, and you've now got instant volume control with a flip of a switch from lead to rhythm, instead of having to guess on stage with your volume knob or pedal. Alot of guitarists already do this in switching from rhythm to lead when needed, but many do not know you can actually customize the volume of each pickup via its distance from the strings.

Also remember, you may need to revisit pickup adjustment if you change any of your gear. Even adding an EQ or graphic EQ pedal may affect your overall sound and volume, and as stated, let your ears be the final judge as to pickup height.

Another idea is to lower the middle pickup on guitars with three pickups. I like to pick in the middle area and find myself rarely using the middle pickup, opting mostly for bridge and neck positions. Lowering the middle pickup frees up a nice area in which to pick, and the pickup is still functional. It just will be quieter than the others if you choose to use it. And you can always go back the way it was with a few turns of a screwdriver.

5 position switch

The 5-Position Switch

Some guitars only have a three position switch, giving you the bridge, neck, and bridge neck combo sounds. However many Fender Strat-style guitars have a five position pickup selector switch. Singlecoil pickups are known for that biting vintage tone that people love, but along with that usually comes some nasty unwanted noise! If you haven't noticed, that singlecoil noise is even worse with distortion running. It's not nearly as noticeable when you're shredding leads, but lay off the gas for a bit or stop the strings from ringing and you'll hear your amp telling you your singlecoils are working! Even a guitar with three 'noisy' singlecoil pickups can usually be made much quieter with careful pickup selection of this switch. This is because when singlecoil pickups are selectively combined together, they have a humbucking effect and the noise is cancelled out. Carefully playing with the switch positions and checking the sound, you may notice a huge drop in noise as a couple of your singlecoil units now operate as a humbucker in this position. Another option for quieting singlecoils is using a noise gate, either a pedal or a software effect. This will silence the guitar signal the moment no sound is detected from your guitar, when it's in it's 'resting' position. This is highly useful for quieting down your gear, just not it is not operating while you're playing do the noise it silences is when you aren't playing and the amp is buzzing it's singlecoil tune while you're standing by.


Did you know you can coil-split any humbucker pickup into a singlecoil without replacing it? It's called a coil tap and uses a push/pull volume knob enabling you to switch back and forth from humbucker to singlecoil at will, many guitars feature this from the factory such as Paul Reed Smith Custom 24 and certain Epiphone Les Paul models. But it's a quick rewire to do it on any guitar, and you still retain the original pickup.

(Duncan Hot Rails, pictured, allows a humbucker to be placed in an singlecoil slot)

Also, some companies like Seymour Duncan make humbucker pickups that fit in the slot of a singlecoil. Just in case you want to add a humbucker to that vintage Fender Strat of yours (or any guitar with a singlecoil) but don't want to cut a larger pickup hold in the body which was the only way to do it in the past. the Duncan Hot Rails offers a full humbucker in the singlecoil housing, and the sound is absolutely superb for rock, metal, clean, country, and virtually any kind of music. The Hot Rails is an incredibly versatile pickup and is also available in a Telecaster model. Duncan also offers a mellower version of this same pickup called the Cool Rails.

Lastly, a few companies make a volume boost button, this will drive up the volume a set number of decibels of the pickup it's attached to, once again ideal for solos or standing out from your bandmates!

I hope this article has been helpful and given you a new perspective on pickups.

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