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.
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.