tone

How to set pickup pole-piece height

How to set pickup pole-piece height

The (possibly) weird, but (definitely) good method for adjusting your pickup pole screws… 

If you've got adjustable pole-pieces on your pickups you can balance the output of individual strings so that none is too loud or quiet as you play across them. That's a great advantage. 

Find out how to do it well. Check it out…

How to install jacks, pots and switches in hollow guitars

How to install jacks, pots and switches in hollow guitars

If you've ever had to wire or replace components inside a hollow or semi-hollow guitar, you probably know what a pain it is. You have to fish all the wiring and components through the f-hole to work on them. Even worse, then you have to get them back. It's like building a ship in a bottle but there are some tricks to make things a little less annoying.

Guitar Nuts: Bone for Tone

Bone for tone, goes the saying (well, in certain circles, at least). 

And it's right. Bone's my favourite substance for nuts and acoustic saddles. It looks great, lasts well and works nicely. And, of course, the tone's all there. 

Except when it's not. 

The problem is that bone's a natural substance. Sometimes there are bits that are less hard or dense than others and it's important to keep an eye out for this when you're making a nut or saddle.

The less dense area of the piece in the photo is easy to see. A hefty semi-circle that allows more light though gives it away. It's not always so obvious and it's not always so big. If I'd cut a string slot in this part, there's a good chance that string would have a different tone to the others. The slot would certainly have worn more quickly than the others, too. 

By the way, bone (especially unbleached bone) has many small differences in colour here and there. If you spot small specks and streaks in your own nut, it doesn't necessarily mean you've anything to worry about. When you're making a nut or saddle, though, it's not a bad idea to examine the blank bone first. 

This one? This one went in the bin. 

Fret Buzz: Is it REALLY a Bad Thing?

I need to talk about fret buzz. This is a bit difficult for a repair guy to do because, as I get into this, it can sound like I’m trying to dodge responsibility for shoddy work. That’s not the case—I actually feel pretty strongly about not doing that. The thing is though, it’s important for a player to be realistic about his or her needs and expectations when it comes to setup. Nowhere is this more of an issue than with fret buzz.

Here's a bold, but true, statement: The guitar is an imperfect instrument.

In order to generate noise it’s necessary to make a string vibrate up and down. Unless you’re fingering at the very end of the neck, under that vibrating string is a length of fingerboard, usually with a number of frets installed in it. It’s not like a harp, where you pluck a string and it rings beautifully and unimpeded—your guitar or bass has a bunch of wood and metal just dying to interfere with that vibrating sting.

Careful fret levelling and good setup can get an instrument playing cleanly. However, bear in mind that your playing style and technique, and the choices you make around action and strings, will have a major bearing on how cleanly that guitar plays.

Fret buzz MIGHT be a problem. Or it might not. Think critically and be consider the compromises either way.

Fret buzz MIGHT be a problem. Or it might not. Think critically and be consider the compromises either way.

Is buzz bad?

Yes.

Most of the time.

However, if you’ve got a low action on your electric guitar or bass and you tell me you can hear a buzz when you play it unamplified, I’m going to ask you if that buzz can be heard when you play it through the amp, in a normal setting.

Buzzes on electric instruments that can’t be heard through the amp are often the price of that low action you like. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be there but it’s not an ideal world (see note above on harps). If you want to play your electric guitar unamplified, it might need to be set up differently. Remember that there’s a reason most acoustic instruments are not set up with actions as low as their electric cousins.

Consider action

Is your action appropriate for your style of playing? We’ve talked about this before—if you’re a hard player, you can’t expect to play with the same action as a really light picker. Bigger string vibrations need more room to move and a higher action is the answer.

Consider string gauge

Super light stings wobble about more on a particular instrument. A heavier gauge might give you a cleaner result. Playing the heaviest strings you’re comfortable with is always good advice.

The elephant in the room: technique

Ooooh. This is the difficult bit.

I’m (very, very) far from being the best player in the world. However, I’ve worked on these things enough that, at least, I’m pretty good when it comes to fingering/fretting notes cleanly. There have been times when I’ll play a guitar that someone’s brought in for buzzing problems and it’ll play just fine.

That’s tricky. Nobody likes to think something might be their fault (I certainly don’t) and nobody wants to be the guy to tell someone that it’s their fault (I certainly don’t). But sometimes it is.

Fingering position and pressure are likely culprits. You want to be right behind the fret with a firm enough pressure to ensure good string-contact with the fret. If chords are buzzing, play the same notes individually—is the buzz still there? Sorry that I’m teaching grandmas to suck eggs here. However, if someone else can cleanly play your buzzing guitar, you might need to consider adjusting your technique or your expectations for your setup.

On to Hardware…

Of course, there are hardware problems that can cause fret buzz. A couple of the more common:

Hardware issues: High/Low Frets

For a guitar to play cleanly, each fret should be neither higher or lower than its neighbours. If a fret is high, playing notes behind it may cause the string to vibrate off that fret. If you’ve a low fret, then the fret directly in front of it is (relatively speaking) a high fret.

High or low frets can be caused by poor fret installation and levelling. It’s also possible for frets to loosen and to sneak up out of the fretboard over time.

If your guitar buzzes in one or a few small areas but plays cleanly elsewhere, high or low frets may be the reason. For instance, if you’re playing each note up the board and all play cleanly until, say, 9th fret. The 10th has a little buzz and the 11th sounds awful but the 12th plays cleanly again. You might have a high 12th fret.

It’s not always so cut and dry as this, of course, and it can be useful to use a short ruler to try ‘rock’ across a few frets. You can buy a ‘fret rocker’ (which has a number of different-length sides to fit across differently spaced frets) from Stew Mac or eBay, or you can cut a 6" steel rule into different lengths. If you span three frets and your tool ‘rocks’, one of those frets is higher or lower than its pals.

Hardware issues: Nut Slots

If you get a buzz when you play an open string, there’s a good chance the string slot in the nut is too low. It’s also possible the you need a little more relief or your first fret is too high. Odds are good it’s the nut, though.

Hardware Issues: Relief

Incorrectly set relief (the bow your neck pulls into under string tension) can lead to fret buzz.

At a high level, too much relief can be a cause of some buzz higher up the neck. Too little relief might cause some buzz all over if you don't play lightly. A back-bowed neck will generally buzz in the lower positions and play more cleanly higher up.

This is all very general. If you haven’t downloaded your copy of Truss Rods Made Easy, pop off and do so. You’ll find more information on relief issues in there.

Hardware Issues: Humps and Bumps

The neck itself can sometimes be less than level. Humps and warps can happen. The result is that some sections are higher than their neighbours and that has to be addressed. A fret level or fingerboard level/refret is often the answer.

The bottom line

Potential hardware issues aside, a good setup for you may well be the result of some compromises. You might have to play with a lighter touch if you want a low action. Or, you might need to play a higher action to accommodate your style. You might need to live with some unamplified buzz.

Before you ask your repair person to lower your action, really, really think about it.

The most perfect, flawless, fret-job in the world will buzz if the setup isn’t right for the player’s style and technique. Be realistic about what’s right for you and don’t worry too much about unamplified buzz.

Or buy a harp.

Pickup Pole-Piece Stagger—What's the Deal?

Have you got stagger?

At various times in its long history, the Stratocaster has shipped with staggered-height pickup poles. Actually, the Tele has too but much less frequently.

The 'why' of it is easy. It's intended to balance the output of each string so that one isn't louder than the next.

What's the story with staggered-height pickup poles

What's the story with staggered-height pickup poles

The staggered pole pieces attempt to accomplish this in two ways:

1. They compensate for the radius

The fingerboard on your guitar neck has a 'radius'—it's not flat but curved like a cylinder. If your guitar's set up correctly, your strings will follow this radius from 1st to 6th. So, if your pickup pole pieces are all the same height, those in the 'middle' will be a little farther from the strings and may pickup a little less of the string's vibration.

Having the pole pieces in the middle of the pickup be a little higher means they are the same distance from the strings as those at the outside.

"Ah," I hear you say, "But my Strat's pole pieces are up and down in some crazy pattern."

That brings is to the second way a staggered pickup tries to balance things:

2. Compensate for string size output

A magnetic pickup works by sensing a vibrating string in its magnetic field. The size of that string affects how much of a signal the pickup will output. The funny stagger of those Strat pickups is intended to match each string's output.

Now, even wrapped/wound strings have a solid core and that plays a big part in determining the string's output. This is why the staggered, up-and-down pattern seems weird when you first look at it. The stagger is matched to each string's relative output rather than the apparent physical size of the string. An unwound 2nd string can have more relative output than an apparently bigger 4th string, for instance.

The problem

As with many things in the guitar world, the problem is 'history'. Back in the day, when staggered pole-pieces were conceived, the 3rd (G) string on a guitar was wound. It was a weedy little wimp and had the lowest output of all six strings. So the guys at Fender popped a super-tall pole piece underneath it. All was well with the world.

Until guitarists decided they liked bending strings and string sets with unwound 3rd strings because common. An unwound G-string has a crap-ton of output compared to it's wound brother and that tall pole piece grabbed even more of that and shoved it out the amplifier.

The result is that pickups with a vintage-correct stagger can now have an overbearing G-string.

What's to be done?

Well, you could swap the pickups for ones with unstaggered—flat—pole pieces. This runs the risk of butting up against the original problem of the pickup not matching the radius and sensing lower output on the middle strings (although, in practical terms, it's not really that much of a problem).

You could go with one of the modified, modern, staggers available on some pickups (e.g. Kinmans).

Or—and here's the funny thing—you could do nothing.

Oddly, enough, this issue doesn't bother many people. I've spent enough time trying to balance string-to string output that, when setting up a guitar, it drives me nuts to hear that overbearing G-string next to a wimpy D. Thing is though, most people don't notice when playing or listening to a solo guitar and almost no one (myself included) will notice when it's in a mix.

Certainly, the people in the front row—or the guy rushing to the toilets at the back of your stadium gig—are unlikely to wonder why the G is too loud in the mix.

If this really, really bothers you, you'll probably need to consider alternative pickups. If it's just niggling you a little, I'd say, live with it—probably nobody else cares. And, if you hadn't noticed until I started talking about it, I'm sorry. ;-)

Left or Right?

Spare a thought for the poor southpaw, by the way. Our left-handed brothers and sisters don't just have a hard time opening tin cans, they need to consider pickup stagger if replacing pickups in their leftie axes. As standard, stagger assumes you're strung up right-handed. If you want to be vintage-correct, you'll need to find a left-handed stagger. Lots of pickup manufacturers make 'em.

Anything else?

Swapping staggered for flat (or vice-versa) might give you a slight tonal shift. Again, it's quite possible that you'll be the only one that notices it if it occurs but it's something to bear in mind.

Obviously, if you have adjustable pole pieces—or adjustable pickups like the P-Bass—you don't need to worry. You can just listen carefully and smugly tweak the pickups according to what your ears tell you.

What Action Is Right For YOU?

Gotta have low action, man. Gotta have low action!

The quest for lower action (the height your strings are from your frets) has long been an obsession of guitarists. We're all desperate to get that action down. 

Possibly, this is a hangover from a time when all guitars were made of tree-trunks and strung with fence-wire. Possibly, it's an ingrained thing from our early days as a beginner guitarist, where anything that made it easier to play was welcome. Or, perhaps we've just heard enough people talk about low action that we feel we need it too.

But, is chasing a low action the right thing to do?

Well, it depends. 

Like so many things in the guitar world, the right answer is determined by what you want the end result to be. Let's consider some, erm… considerations. 
 

Tone

A lower action will generally result in a slightly less 'full' sound and a little less natural sustain. This might be just fine if you play with a lot of gain but might not suit a cleaner player. 
 

Playability

Seems obvious but bears some thought. Again, for the metal-guys and the shredders, fret-hugging action means great playability and super-fast licks. There are plenty of players that prefer a more 'positive' feel of a higher action, though (and those who struggle to get their fingers under a string for a big bend with a low action).
 

The Guitar

A very low action on a vintage Strat can cause problems when it comes time to bend a string. The smaller fingerboard radius (7 1/4") means the bent string hits against higher frets and 'chokes'—the note dies off (there's a reason the super-speedy guys play guitars like Ibanez with a much flatter 16" radius). 

Of course, a Strat can lift the roof. Just ask SRV, Clapton, Beck, Gilmour, Rory, Jimi, etc. It may might not be super slinky, but that's the point—does it need to be?
 

Buzz

With less headroom to vibrate, a string has more potential to buzz off the frets with a low action. Now, I could write a whole essay about the obsession with fret-buzz but that's a job for another day. Suffice it to say, a little fret buzz isn't always a worry. 

For that guy doing the sweep-picking, lighting runs on his high-gain mega-amp, a little fret buzz may not be a concern. It might be a bit more of a problem for the clean-playing guitarist, of course. While we should avoid fret-buzz if possible, in a lot of cases, a little fret buzz that can't be heard through an amp is fine. Don't get hung up on it but do consider whether it's an acceptable compromise to get your action where you want it.
 

Frets

Having said all that, if your frets aren't in good shape, fret buzz will likely become too invasive and start to cause problems. In this case, those problems will be worsened as the action creeps down. 
 

The bottom line

Most guitars these days are capable of handling a pretty low action out of the box. Some will need a little setup or even fretwork to be at their best, action-wise, but it's generally possible to get almost anything super-low. 

But that might not be the right way for you. Have a good think about it. Play a few friends' guitars and see how they handle and sound. Try investigate the action your favourite pro-players use (you can sometimes get an idea from photos). I'd be willing to bet that, in many cases, it's not as low as you think. 

"Suit the setup to the player." That's a great mantra for a guitar-guy like me to live by. Tony Iommi detunes and uses super-slinky action that could probably play by itself while Joe Bonamassa told me he likes a guitar to fight him. You can't argue with either of these guys' tones but they're very different.

Suit the setup to the player. Think about your action. 

Think critically about the action you want on your guitar or bass. It makes a difference. 

Think critically about the action you want on your guitar or bass. It makes a difference.