Tag Archives: Free Electric Guitar Lesson

Solidbody Setup VI – Pickup height adjustment

Setting the the height of your pickups is a crucial step in achieving the best tones possible from your instrument. Often a guitar that plays great can sound completely the opposite when amped up. Often the simplest of pickup adjustments can change that. The article shows the easiest methods of getting there….

Before adjusting anything ensure your guitar is strung up correctly and tuned to proper pitch!

In this particular tutorial measurements are used more as guidelines and not as solid facts. The large number of electric guitar pickups available on the market and individual’s playing styles these adjustments should be made to suit them as opposed to some arbitrary “perfect value”.

It is important to understand that the magnetic fields of many high output pickups designed to overdrive the front end of an amplifier – such as a DiMarzio X2N – can be far greater in strength than a say, a “standard” PAF pickup. You may therefore notice quite a correspondingly larger pickup-to-string spacing after this adjustment procedure is completed. This is not always the case – such as with EMGs for example – however is important to understand.

Before plugging your guitar in and firing up your amp, start out by making the easiest of adjustments. Fret your strings one at a time at the last fret and ensure that the polepieces of the pickups are about 3/16″ to 1/4″ (4mm – 13mm) away from the bottom of each string.

If you’re a player who attacks the strings with a lot of force you may want them a little towards the further of these two measurements. This will help avoid hitting the pickups with your guitar pick whilst playing.

You will also notice at this point that you can adjust one side of the pickup higher than the other which comes in handy since the magnetic field around the thinner high strings effects those differently than the field under the thicker low strings.

Now that you have given yourself a base to work from, plug in and power up just like you normally would play with your Volume and Tone knobs adjusted on the guitar about half way but your amp settings where you normally would have them. Switch to your neck pickup and strike notes the way you normally play and from the distance you would normally position yourself away from your amp.

It is important to do everything in a position you would normally play in. Focus your attention to the sound and tone coming out of your speaker or cab.

Strike a note and turn the height adjustment screws raising both sides of the pickup closer to the strings. Listen to the change in sound over all of the strings. You will have to strike notes several times while doing this and at differing levels of power but you get the idea….just be consistent!

As polepieces are advanced towards the strings, the tone and dynamics will alter. Too close to the strings, you will notice unpleasant artifacts such as “wolf tones” (the pull of the magnetic field interacting with the strings causing unwanted overtones), an unpleasantly muddy overdriven sound and/or a lack of playing dynamics and sensitivity.

If that occurs back the pickup downwards until you find the sweet spot. Ensure that you balance the pickup at both sides to get the best sound from both the low and the high string sides.

Once you have found this, set down your screwdriver and take a quiet break! A common problem called “listener fatigue” can cause your ears to lose a degree of sensitivity causing subjective listening errors and overcompensating your adjustments to counter.

Coming back, play for a little while to be sure that this is the sound and tone you want from this position before switching over to the next pickup and repeating the process. Make sure your guitar is only outputting one pickup rather than being in any of the combined pickup positions!

Once you’re done making all of these adjustments wipe your guitar down with a clean soft cloth and have a nice day!


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The Nuts and Bolts of Electric Guitars

Recognizing the different parts of the guitar is important, but knowing what makes an electric guitar work as a whole is essential to differentiate it from, say, a bassoon, accordion, or kazoo. Not that there’s anything wrong with those instruments, but try doing a windmill (a showy strumming technique where you extend your right arm out and move it in a circular motion, striking the guitar strings once a cycle — Pete Townshend is the windmill’s most famous practitioner) with a bassoon and they’ll cart you away quicker than your friends can ask the musical question, “Why is the bassoonist having a fit?”

String vibration and pitch

An electric guitar is a string, or stringed, instrument that creates musical sound through a vibrating string. Each string can produce a variety of different notes, but only one at a time. If you want to play two or more notes simultaneously, you must play them on different strings and strike them simultaneously. Because a standard electric guitar has six strings, it can play up to six simultaneous notes, but no more. (Consequently, guitarists more than make up for this “limitation” by playing extremely loudly.)

If you tighten a given length of string to a particular tension and then set it in motion (harpists by plucking, pianistsby striking, violinistsby bowing), the string will vibrate back and forth at a regular rate. This vibration produces a steady tone that we call pitch. The pitch remains the same as long as the string vibrates. As the string’s vibrations lose power, or intensity, over time, the note gets quieter, but its pitch doesn’t change.

Tension versus length

Two properties determine a string’s pitch: tension and length. Therefore, you can change a string’s pitch in one of two ways: by changing its tension (which you do when tuning or bending) or by changing its length (which you do when fretting — by changing the length of string allowed to vibrate). You must change pitch to play different notes, whether in a scale, a melody, or a chord progression.

You couldn’t do very much with a guitar, however, if the only way to change pitches was to frantically adjust the tension every time you pluck a string. You’d end up looking like the musical equivalent of the circus performer who spins those plates on a stick. So guitarists resort to the other way to change a string’s pitch — fretting.

And that’s why we have all this fretting about fretting: Fretting is the way guitarists change notes on the electric guitar. Without left-hand fretting, we could strike the guitar and make a lot of noise, but all the notes would sound the same — worse even than a speech by a boring politician.

One of the bigger differences between two icons of electric guitar models, the Gibson Les Paul and the Fender Stratocaster, is that their string lengths are different. The Les Paul has a vibrating string length of 24.75 inches; the Strat (as it’s known to its friends) has a vibrating length of 25.5 inches. Not much, maybe, but enough to make a perceptible difference to the hands.

Physics tells us that two different string lengths drawn to produce the same pitch (as they must to be in tune) will have different tensions. The Strat, because it has the longer string length, has slightly higher string tension than the Les Paul. This creates two key differences in playability for the electric guitarist: tighter, or springier, string response and larger frets in the Strat; and looser, or spongier, string response and smaller frets in the Les Paul.

But before you attempt to draw any conclusions, these descriptions are not value judgments; they do not indicate whether one aspect is good or bad versus the other. These qualities merely describe — hopefully without introducing bias or preference — the physical differences between the feel and playability of the different string tensions. Which one you prefer is just that — your preference. Most professional rock guitarists don’t even have an absolute, one-choice-fits-all guitar. Instead, they select guitars based on the type of music they want to play, and will have many different guitars at their disposal to handle a variety of musical styles.

Hands-on activity

Guitar playing requires you to use two hands working together, but performing different actions. This is different than playing, say, the piano or saxophone, where both hands perform the same type of action (striking keys and pressing keys, respectively). Guitar playing has the left hand selecting which notes to sound (by pressing down the strings against frets) and the right hand sounding those notes by striking (or plucking) the strings. And for you lefties, the ones who reverse the strings to play, please understand that “left” and “right” indicate the hand that frets and the hand that picks, respectively. That’s not a prejudice against lefties, it’s just that guitar convention dictates using “left” and “right” rather than “fretting” and “picking.”

At first, this might seem like the musical equivalent of rubbing your stomach and patting your head, but after a while, performing two different actions to produce one sound becomes second nature, and you don’t even have to think about it — like walking and chewing gum. And if you can’t do that, maybe you should think about running for office instead of playing rock guitar.

Pickups and amplification

Vibrating strings produce the different tones on a guitar. You must be able to hear those tones, however, or you face one of those if-a-tree-falls-in-a-forest questions. For an acoustic guitar, hearing it is no problem because it provides its own amplifier in the form of the hollow sound chamber that boosts its sound . . . well, acoustically.

An electric guitar, on the other hand, makes virtually no acoustic sound at all. (Well, a tiny bit, like a buzzing mosquito, but nowhere near enough to fill a stadium or anger your next-door neighbors.) An electric instrument creates its tones entirely through electronic means. The vibrating string is still the source of the sound, but a hollow wood chamber isn’t what makes those vibrations audible. Instead, the vibrations disturb, or modulate, the magnetic field that the pickups — wire-wrapped magnets positioned underneath the strings — produce. As the vibrations of the strings modulate the pickup’s magnetic field, the pickup produces a tiny electric current.

If you remember from eighth-grade science, wrapping wire around a magnet creates a small current in the wire. If you then take any magnetic substance and disturb the magnetic field around that wire, you create fluctuations in the current itself. A taut steel string vibrating at the rate of 440 times per second creates a current that itself fluctuates 440 times per second. Pass that current through an amplifier and then a speaker and you hear the musical tone A. More specifically, you hear the A above middle C, which is the standard absolute tuning reference in modern music — from the New York Philharmonic to the Rolling Stones to Metallica.


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