Brighten a Les Paul: Part III: Pickup Tweaks

In the quest to open up the sound of a dark Les Paul, to lift the blanket off its tone, so far we’ve looked at steel bridge posts in Part One, and, in Part Two, aluminum tailpieces, like they used in the Fifties. It makes sense that these were tackled first; they each change the original starting tone of the guitar, its natural sound, which can be heard acoustically before even reaching the electronics. Now we’ll see what can be done with your pickups.

Anyone can tell you, “Get brighter pickups.”

I don’t really consider this to be advice. It works, of course it does. Off-the-shelf options like Seymour Duncan’s Jazz or Pearly Gates models will most likely be brighter than what you have. Indie-winders can listen to your grievances and hopes and custom wind a set of humbuckers for you. But here I’m interested in working with what you’ve got. First, because it’s cheap, educational and immediate. Second, because, well, that Jazz you put in the neck is still going to be more open and versatile in another, more neutral Les Paul. How do you get there with your dark LP, unless you know some tricks, hmm hotshot?

Avoid The Trap

The pickup adjustment trap: To knock some mud off the tone, you lower the pickups like everyone says. Unlike a microphone, which seems to get clearer the closer it is to a voice, a pickup sounds most garbled close up to the string and gets clearer as it’s backed away. Around about the time you lower it to where it best cleans up, the sound seeming to open like a flower (sometimes pretty drastically low, such as below the rim of the pickup ring) your smile of discovery fades to a frown when you realize half your gain has gone, the guitar no longer pushing the amp hard enough to make the sexy noise. You begin to incrementally raise the pickup back up, seeking the sweet spot, the compromise between both extremes. When it gets high enough to make playing feel loose again and the overdrive sweet, you’re back in mudtown, not three yards down the road from where you set off. Dagnabbit.

The answer is to raise and lower it at the same time.

“That’s impossible!” you shriek, throwing down a law book for emphasis.

“Shut up when I’m talking,” I insist.

We spar. Your shirt gets torn. I admire your flat, toned midriff as your eye, beneath a mischievous arched eyebrow, considers the accommodating sofa, then returns to me, within it burning an unmistakable suggestion.

Wait a minute. Pickups.

Raise the pole pieces but lower the pickup itself, is what I’m saying. And don’t be shy about it.

Tweak ’Em If Ya Got ’Em

Usually pole pieces are considered for fine adjustments: echoing the radius of a neck or bridge to get similar distances to each string, say, or mildly de-emphasizing a loud string that seems to want to shout louder than its friends. Balance, basically.

I’ve read absurd tips suggesting an optimal formation, passed down through the decades, based not on height but on the correct rotation of the screw heads, arranging the slots into the magical pattern!

Some players never touch them. Indeed humbucker inventor Seth Lover is often quoted admitting that the screws were not for anything, other than placating a marketing team that wanted the new pickups to look a certain way. (He first tried to get away with false screw heads stamped into the nickel covers.)

But adjustable pole pieces are useful, in both common and unorthodox ways.

Pickup adjustment illustration © Gray Nicholson 2011

When fighting for clearer, brighter tone without giving up output, it helps to think of the humbucker in two parts.

The main body of the pickup can be thought of as affecting thickness versus clarity. Higher is fatter, lower is clearer. The adjustable pole pieces can be thought of as affecting output: higher for more, lower for less. Playing each of these for their strengths, your ballsy Les Paul doesn’t have to start whispering anemically just because you want to drop the pickups down for clearer tone. Set the pickup where you like the clarity, then jack up the poles to get your output back.

Beauty is Only Screw Deep

The combination you arrive at can end up looking pretty strange; the pickup sunk unusually low, the poles standing well proud of the casing. But experiment and find what works. It only matters how it sounds — no one is going to point and say, “Hey, Joey! This guy is ripping, but get a load of his high pole pieces! Ha ha!”

Obviously, there are limits. Past a certain point, the sound seems to overshoot the loud-and-clear sweet spot to become aggressively midrangey. Possibly you’ll get there before things sound quite as bright as you’d like. Don’t sweat it. We’re not nearly done yet. There are still several cheap, quick and easy ways to wake up Lester. Come back for Part Four.

17 Replies to “Brighten a Les Paul: Part III: Pickup Tweaks”

  1. […] effective ways to brighten the tone of that dark Les Paul, another of which we’ll get to in Part Three. […]

  2. Great stuff! Revealing to even a vet like me. Waiting for the next part… get on with it!
    Thanx for you efforts!

    1. Appreciate the praise and the kick in the pants, j point! Real life took over for a while, but there are at least three more articles on my to-do list for this series. Thank you for swinging by.

  3. Great articles! Many thanks! Learnt a lot, even while being in the ‘repair- and mod hobby since long. Too obvious to use longer screws, deeper into the body, for a bridge mount but never thought of. Brilliant.
    Working on a ’73ish Ibanez LP with bridge/mount troubles. Will take these lessons into account!

    1. I think the reason most of us never came up with it before is that you look at the bridge screws and assume they go all the way down, right? The screws themselves don’t move when you raise or lower the bridge, so it seems rational they would go way down into the body from the factory.

      Good luck with the nez. Are you hitting metric/imperial issues? I’m not sure what they would have used back then in the murky facsimile era. 🙂

      1. fantabulous stuff Gray.

  4. I once raised the polepieces and lowered the rest of the pickup on a cheap PRS, it was quite an effective way to brighten up the tone. These days I just use Bill Lawrence L90’s, Aerosmith loved then in the 70s and so do I. Nice article series you got going, Gray!

  5. Thanks Gary….Been playing many years and replacing the studs is something I never thought of…many thanks

  6. Hello Gray,

    GREAT tips for better tone! Since life is in the way, I was wondering if you could at least share with us what the other 3-4 articles are about, and even better, when you think you might get to them? It’s been about a year and a half already. Ha-ha! Time flies whether you’re having fun or not!

  7. Actually I’m not at all sure that Seth Lover ever said the adjustable pole pieces don’t do anything. He was tasked with developing a new pickup to replace the P90 which was and is very prone to hum. The problem was to make a pickup that did not hum. The humbucker design cancels hum most efficiently when the two coils are identical and therefore perfectly balanced. Seth’s prototypes had identical coils with the same hidden pole pieces in each coil. When he previewed it to the marketing department they said “Yes very nice, it does not hum, but we need to sell it as an improved replacement for the P90 and one of the P90’s selling points is that it has adjustable pole pieces for string volume balance. We must have these on your new pickup”. Seth knew that a single row of adjustable poles would reduce the hum cancelling properties of his humbucker, but decided not to make a fuss about it because he did not want to jeopardise his pay check.

  8. Very interesting finding Gray, thanks for sharing!
    How I see this effect is, that lowering complete humbucker decreases overall output, and moving pole pieces on only one coil effectively transforms humbucker into a single-coil. Because pieces are ferromagnetic, they conduct magnetic field better and one coil is virtually closer to the strings than the other. Other coil acts as a “dummy”-coil and cancels the hum.
    If there is negative effect on hum-canceling, it could be due to decrease of inductance in adjustable coil because there is less magnetic material of a pole-piece in the coil. This could be easily remedied by using longer pole piece screw.

  9. Firstly, thanks for the 3 parts to date. I am in the process of brightening the neck pickup of my trad. Trads seem to suffer from muddy neck tone in comparo to historics and vintage gibbos.

    The bridge 57 classic plus is perfect as is and sounds like Slash’s Derrig. (I lucked out there). I swapped out the neck 57 classic for a burstbucker pro with brighter alnico 5s. – Small improvement.

    I removed the neck vol pot and tested it. It measured a shockingly low 243k! I popped in a gibson non-linear pot measuring 554k I had lying around. – Noticeable improvement but needs a linear taper to work well with bridge vol pot. It’s simply “nothing, nothing.. all at the end.”

    I disconnected the tone pot and cap from the neck pickup circuit. (I never use it anyway). – Slight difference, almost there.

    I don’t really want to do anything to mess with my lovely bridge pickup tone but failing a pickup height adjustment I might consider looking at the bridge next. Greg Koch often says “a good les paul should have a lighter jangly sound almost single coil like.” When I listen to Allman Brothers, Thin Lizzy and Gary Moore that is what I’m hearing. I’ve had a Fernandez Super Grade and an Edwards ELP-130 that were light and jangly on the neck, but thin on the bridge. Balance is a tough thing to get.

  10. Very good advise, in the search for tone I once was told by a professional guitarist (plays in a well known band) that he skips the volume/tone knobs and just has the pick up wired drect to the lead socket…. interesting I thought. Tired it and yes it gave the raw tone or sound of the pickup.
    I tried many options in my quest for the magical peter green tone and decided to make my own guitar and wire it my way.
    For clarity on the bridge pick up (stew mac godlen age) is use a mylar .0022 capacitor – I use 500K CTS pots though I found the cheeap ones sound just the same tone wise..
    For the neck pic up (9stew mac godlen age) I decided to have a tone selector/rotary switch in place of the tone switch (I use the same knob that was there so the look is the same – there just arent 10 positions to chose.
    Using the rotary switch I connected these capacitors 1)sprague mylar black .044 2)sprague PIO grey tiger .05 3)chinease mylar .0022 4)fender 303 5)no cap 6)sprague silver PIO .0022
    The difference in clarity anoungst the lot is amazing, and depending on what i m playing or trying to aceive sometimes the muddiness is gone .0022 or very prevelent .044. I have tried different caps and to keep highs when lowering volume I use a treble bleed which work beautifully.
    Always something to consider in tone, I have come across muddy (read cheap) pick ups in my time, and swear by Seymour Duncan Perly Gates and Gibson burst buckers. But now I am a Stewmac Golden Age pick up convertee and find the unpotted ones dont squeel at all – VERY NICELY WOUND PIC UPS, MADE WITH NICKLE THE OLD WAY.

  11. Almost threw in the towel on an H157 bought used with aftermarket pups in them. The low E was ‘dead’…took the above advice and voila…guitar is now a keeper. Thanks!

  12. Indiana Jim says: Reply

    Did we ever get to part 4?

  13. Hey ! This was an amazing-to-read article series.. are you going to publish the last 3 articles too?

  14. I enjoy your writing!!

    I can think of three other things…

    Don’t use over-wound pickups. Vintage DC resistance values were often higher 6 to 7k and sometimes to mid 8k ohms. Specify un-matched coils (more windings on the screw coil).

    Use alnico 4 magnets. Old Gibson order records show that a majority of PAF era humbuckers used alnico 4 magnets, which are brighter and more even across the tonal spectrum.

    Specify un-potted pickups or pickups with less potting (wax saturating the coil windings). Up until the 70s, Gibson p90 and humbuckers pickups weren’t potted. Fender might have started potting their pickups much earlier. Un-potted pickups sound more open, with an edgier resonance and have more dynamic and complex tonality. Potted pickups are for high-gain (over-wound) coils and high-gain amps, or for very high volume amp settings. A parametric eq device is a better way to deal with taming frequency-biased feedback than wax potting (in my experience), if dynamic tonality is to be preserved in the signal chain for amplification.

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