Factors that Affect a Pickup's Tone - Part 3

Staggered On staggered-pole pickups like the one above, some of the pole pieces stick out slightly, with different poles having different variations on the amount of stagger. Flat-pole pickups have the poles all laid flat, usually with no stagger beyond their plastic encasing.

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been discussing factors that play a role in determining a pickup’s tone. In Part 1, we touched on coil size and thickness as well as how pairing two pickups with wires wound in opposing directions can be used to cancel out hum. In Part 2, we looked at high out-put, hot pickups along with magnets and the tone they deliver. Today, we’re taking a look at staggered-pole versus flat-pole pickups and pickup height as they relate to tone. Make sure you check out Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven’t done so already.


Staggered-Pole and Flat-Pole Pickups

Guitar manufacturers such as Fender usually ship their guitars with staggered-pole pickups, citing their tone balance and ease of use as a recommendation for most guitarists. The problem often cited with these types of pickups is differences in volume for each individual string, creating smeared and muddy tones caused by the inconsistency in volume, although some do enjoy the effect. Although this may sound like an unreliable setup, staggered-pole pickups rarely overpower the amp since certain strings such as the high E or the lower two strings are underutilized, resulting in a consistent and balanced overall sound (although the G string does tend to be heard above the rest) and work better out of the box for newer guitarists.

Flat-pole pickups on the other hand do retain string volume balance. No hidden high E string sound or muddled low notes, which might create problems for inexperienced players not aware of their inherent nature or knowing how to compensate through other means such as amps and effects. The first thing most people notice when changing from staggered-pole pickups to flat-pole pickups is an increase in bass tone since there is no longer a need to compensate for weak lower strings. This gives the entire sound a much deeper presence, which is why bass guitars are usually shipped with flat-pole pickups.

Depending on what type of music you generally play, either choice might be right for you. Staggered-pole pickups, although possessing unbalanced string dynamics, offer tone familiar to most and require much less setup to achieve a good overall sound. Most rock styles benefit from this setup, such as classic rock or country. If metal is more your style, you can take advantage of the superior resonance and balance of a flat-pole pickup. Deeper, fuller low notes will not only give that dropped D setup a much welcomed boost, but the more vibrant and piercing high E string will definitely help those solos stand out.


Pickup Height

height A ruler is an invaluable tool in order to precisely measure and record your height setup.

Although pickup height does have a lot to do with personal preference, there are certain specifications for each instrument’s optimal tone which is usually found in the owner’s manual or the manufacturer’s website. But with that said, by tweaking things up a bit, you may find a height that better fits your tonal preferences. Still, using the manufacturer’s factory settings is always a great starting point if you’re looking to make changes to your pickup height.

Adjusting a pickup’s height is as easy and straightforward as you’d expect – use an appropriate screwdriver on the height screws on either side of a pickup to lift or drop its height. It’s also a really good idea to have a ruler with that can measure in 1/32” increments (or even 1/64”) to make it much easier to accurately record different height preferences.

You generally don’t want your pickups too far or too close to the strings. Too far and you’ll end up with a sterile and weak, thin sound. Too close will give you an excessive, boomy sound that is not only unpleasant but may yield undesired noise. Beyond that, there’s really not much more to it than getting a screwdriver and experimenting around with height setups until you find that certain sweet spot that sounds best to you.



As long as you're pleased with your guitar's tone, there's no need change a thing when it comes to your pickups or anything else for that matter. But if you're getting a little tired of that same old sound, feel like tweaking things up a bit or simply feeling adventurous, finding that perfect pickup setup is a great place to start! Need help finding a pair that best suits your style? We're here to help! Shoot us a message at info@proaudioland.com or chat with one of our pros by using the Chat With Us feature located on the lower left hand corner. In the meantime, you can browse our huge selection of pickups at the best prices around!

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