Vaughn's Musical Notation

How To Adjust (Set) Pickup Height on a P-90 for ULTIMATE TONE!

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How To Adjust (Set) Pickup Height on a P-90 for ULTIMATE TONE

Wow!  So, this has turned into part four in this series:

But man, it was brought to my attention that I totally forgot about the lowly old P-90s!  Well, let’s rectify that situation!

Once again, I need to make it clear that these are my personal recommendations.  You may be going for something totally different, and as such may want to totally disregard my suggestions; if so, I fully understand, and rest assured, my feelings will not be hurt in the least bit. 

Okay, now this is important, as far as pickup height is concerned, P-90’s are an entirely different animal from either humbuckers or single-coils.  With a Strat or Tele style single-coil pickup the magnetic field, or the part of the string being sensed by the pickup, is soooo small and, even microscopic changes in pickup height make a perceivable sonic difference. Humbuckers are sensing a much larger portion of the strings movement, and as such are a little more lenient on pickup to string height adjustment.  From nearly as close as the pickup can get without touching the strings to as far away as it can be adjusted, decent tones can be had.

Now a P-90 is an “interesting bird”; tone-wise it’s in the same camp as the early PAF Humbuckers, in fact, the design goal of the first humbuckers was to sound just like a P-90, but without the hum!  But, of course from a physical standpoint, the P-90 is much more akin to a Fender-style single-coil pickup.  However, there are some very important things to keep in mind when setting the height of a P90:

The P-90 IS a single-coil pickup, but that coil is way wider and more shallow than on a Strat or Tele style single-coil;  the P-90 is also wound with a lot more turns of wire ie: it’s a lot fatter and hotter.  As a matter of fact a 1957 P-90 has about the same output as a 1957 PAF.  Result:  Tonally, the P-90 is more like a PAF humbucker than a Strat single-coil.  The narrow coil and (relatively) low output is a big part of the Fender spank ... and the P-90 has neither!

Fender’s designs employed pole-pieces that are the actual MAGNETS, whereas the P-90’s use steel screws/slugs (same as the humbuckers), with magnets on the back-plate wedged up aginst those steel pole-pieces making them somewhat magnetically charged.  This means the Fender pole pieces have a gauss (magnetic pull) of about 3-4 times what a P-90 has.  So again, the result:  Tonally, the P-90 is more like a PAF humbucker than a Strat single-coil.  The strong magnetic pull is a big part of the Fender chime!

And so, setting the height on a P-90 is a lot more like setting a humbucker than it is a Strat/Tele pickup.  Because the magnetic pull is fairly low (in the 300-Gauss range compared to 1100 for a typical Strat pickup), you can get by with placing the pole-screws very close to the strings without worry about it sacrificing string resonance.  Because the coil is so wide and the gauss so low, the P-90 is also quite forgiving placement-wise, although not as much so as a humbucker which has even less pole gauss and more coil(s) width.

One last thing to mention:  P-90’s are an archaic design from the 1940’s; really, they are the oldest pickup designs still in regular use.  As such, they were never really designed to be very adjustable.  In fact the earliest versions (often called the “A-90”) didn’t even have adjustable pole-screws, just fixed steel slugs.  Now, the soap-bar versions generally have a decent amount of height adjustment available … but those old “dog-ear” versions, well … if ya want to make any drastic height adjustments to them, you gotta actually “shim” them.  Yep … archaic!

I prefer to use a digital caliper to take measurements, but a quality luthier’s ruler will do fine if you have excellent vision!  Okay, so with no further ado, here are my suggestions and reasons why.

Bridge pickup

Low E: 2.6mm / 0.10"

Hi E : 2.35mm / 0.092"

 

Neck Pickup:

Low E: 4.5mm / 0.18"

Hi  E  : 3.43mm / 0.135"

 

(Measurements from the bottom of the string to the top of the magnetic pole piece screws)

 

Yep … that’s CLOSE … even a little closer than a humbucker on the bridge!  But here’s why:  That old design used a pair of magnets forced head-to head with a poor old pole screw/slug smashed in between to “charge” the pole-piece. The measured magnetism (gauss) at the actual pole screws in these is only about 200-300gauss, compare that to the 1000+ gauss of a typical Strat or Tele style pickup … there’s a HUGE difference here, buddy!  As you raise the pickup closer to the strings the tone gets brighter and more focused … now with a super bright single coil, that’s usually a bad thing, especially on the bridge pickup.  However, with the relatively warm tone, wide detection area, and inherently low magnetic pull of these archaic designs, that’s EXACTLY what makes them come alive

A P-90 sittin’ far away from the strings produces a downright fluffy/thuddy tone (with a lot of 60-cycle buzz, too) … hey, if that’s what you’re going for then do it!  Personally, if I want that tone, I just roll down the tone pot and maybe the volume a little. The truth is that you might find the tone you are looking for anywhere from the closest you can get those puppies to the strings all the way to as far as you can get them away from the strings (about 6-7mm is as far as you can go on a Les Paul style guitar).  As always, just remember this:

The closer you get to the strings the brighter, louder, and more focused the tone will get.

The further you move the pickup away from the strings the warmer, quieter, and less focused the tone will get.

There ya have it, see y’all next time.

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Fender Pro Reverb – Ultimate Vintage Club-Gig Amp?

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Blackface Fender Pro Reverb Amp

I’m a Fender guy through and through, my first amp was a Brown Deluxe, and my first workhorse gigging amp was a silver-face Twin Reverb; with the JBL D130F speakers, the thing actually weighed more than I did at age 15!  Since then I have played a plethora of vintage tweed, brown, blackface, and silverface fenders.  For the last decade or so, a ’67 Super Reverb has been my gigging amp of choice.  But several months back a ’67 blackface Pro Reverb followed me home from a used music store … and she’s giving the Super a real run for the money!

The Pro is an amp that has all the right stuff to be a fantastic club amp.  She’s tube rectified, for nice early sponginess, and she does not quite have the huge trannies of say the blackface Bassman or the Super Reverb, so again, she gets juicy a little earlier, but she DOES have enough clean headroom on tap for a loud club date, unlike say a Deluxe Reverb.  She IS about the same size as a Twin Reverb, but with half the power section and WAY smaller transformers, she’s a LOT lighter!  And then there’s the TONE…

Tone-wise, the Pro Reverb has its own beautiful niche.  It’s way bigger and bolder than a Deluxe, or even Vibrolux Reverb, but not quite the all-out force of a Super … and a LONG way from the hard-hitting Twin.  She really sits in that sweet spot of having enough of everything without having too much of anything … which makes her VERY rewarding to play at medium-loud stage volume.  And, the sound is uber juicy Fender tone at its best.  And maybe it’s just the one I have … but of all the Fenders that have rode through my stable, this one has the best reverb of ANY of them!  Oh, and the tremolo sounds super sweet, too.

I just happen to have an old Twin-Reverb road case that the Pro fits in perfectly, so I’m definitely seeing this Pro Reverb under the buss on my upcoming shows!

Blackface Pro Reverb Amp Original Speakers

One SPEAKER related side-note:  My Pro came with fully healthy stock Fender/Oxford speakers, and she sounded sweet … but she just started to loose bottom-end solidity and “fart-out” as she was pushed.  I took my own advice (given on the Q&A forum many times) and installed a pair of ET-65s and man … it went from sweet to sweeeeeeet … and no more farting out.  Probably a good idea to keep those original speakers safely boxed and stored anyway.

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Electric Guitar Tone Capacitor (Caps) Values

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Electric Guitar Tone Cap Capictor Values

As any of you who have bought my pickup sets already know, I include quality tone caps at my preferred values with all my pickup sets.  Yes, they DO affect your tone.  How much?  Well, here’s my list from what I consider MOST important to least. Remember we’re talking SOLID BODY ELECTRIC GUITAR HERE!

#1: The amp (taking ALL design features into consideration)

#2: The Pickups and Speakers (tie)

#3: The guitar’s scale

#4: The guitar’s body (materials, specs & methods)

#5: The Guitar’s Neck (materials, specs & methods)

#6: The guitar’s electronics, including pots, wire, jack, and CAPS!

#7: The guitar’s hardware, especially the bridge and nut

#8: The guitar’s frets

So, caps are fairly far down the list … but … for folks trying to eek out that last little bit to take a guitar from good to truly great, yes, the tone cap value will be important.

For simplicities sake, we’ll specifically be comparing the three most common values: 0.1uf, 0.047uf, and 0.022uf; I’ll also mention that I like 0.033 caps with P90’s … we won’t specifically discuss them, but as you can imagine, they fall in-between the 0.022 and 0.047uf.  Ready? Let’s dig in!

First a quick reminder of what a “tone cap” in a standard passive electric guitar actually is; it simply is a device that shunts high-frequencies to ground, effectively eliminating them.  Effectively, the bigger the cap, the more highs are eliminated.  The “tone pot” (potentiometer) controls how much of the guitars signal is sent to the tone cap to have its highs removed.  Standard tone pots are between 250K-ohms and 1000K-ohms (1-meg).  By far the most popular values are 250K, which are typical in Fenders, and 500K, which are typical in Gibsons.  When it comes to passive guitar TONE controls, there is not a significant difference between the two values, except for the speed in which the control reacts.  Folks, feel free to disagree with me here, but I’ll try to prove this at the end of this blog.  Now, if we were talking VOLUME controls, then there is more difference … but that’s a whole nother blog topic!  One last note:  a “250K” pot in a perfect world would sweep from 250,000 (250K) ohms to zero ohms (dead short);  in the real world it could be anywhere from about 225-280K on one end, and 3-12 ohms on the other end.  In other words: the tone cap is NEVER totally out of the circuit, even when “on 10”, there is still a little signal going through the cap, unless you use a no-load tone pot that clicks into a dead-off short at “10”.  Most folks do not use those … so we’ll assume you are not using them.  Okay let’s talk CAPS!

The 0.1uf cap: this is the “warmest” cap the one that removes the most highs. 

This I the one that Leo Fender originally choose to use in his single-coil guitars.  In fact, early Broadcasters, no-casters, and Telecasters actually had a .1uf cap that was fully engaged in the circuit when you selected the 3rd position on the selector switch … removing all highs and turning the guitar into total mud!  Now, that’s crazy … but I DO still recommend .1uf caps with fender style single-coil pickups.  Why?  Because they sound the warmest, and that’s a nice compliment to the typical Strat or Tele!  Here are some graphs, first of a .1uf tone control with a 250K pot, first fully rolled down, then mid-way, and then full on 10.

.1uf 250k at 0

.1uf 250k at 5

.1uf 250k at 10

Pretty dramatic!  The roll-off begins well below 1,000Hz, and pretty much everything above 5K is completely removed with the control on zero.  Notice, by the way, how the bottom end remains nearly smooth and unchanged throughout the control sweep.  That’s important in single-coils!

Now here is the .047uf cap - Very Common in Telecasters

Again with a 250K pot, first fully rolled down, then mid-way, and then full on 10.

.047uf 250k at 0

.047uf 250k at 5

.047uf 250k at 10

Here, we start to see a little less in the way of top roll-off.  This cap is often used in Teles, when folks want a little more top-end bite, and it works well for that.

The .022uf cap, My favorite cap for humbuckers:

Again these graphs are with a 250K pot, first fully rolled down, then mid-way, and then full on 10.

.022uf 250k at 0

.022uf 250k at 5

.022uf 250k at 10

Here you will notice quite a bit less of the top frequencies are removed, and possibly just as important … you will notice that when the control is fully on 10, there is actually a small decrease in the low frequencies.  This might work out well in humbuckers, but spells the death-nail for bright single-coils!

And one last graph with the .022uf, this one is the same as the first one, a .022 cap and the control rolled all the way down, but this time with a 500K tone pot often used in Gibsons.  The result is nearly identical to that of the 250K, it's just that the sweep of the control will feel different.

.022uf 5000k at 0

And my final word on caps: 

Vintage Fender Strat tone capacitor cap

There is only one reason to pay more than five bucks for any passive guitar cap, and that reason is if it’s to preserve the integrity of a valuable vintage instrument.  The main thing you need are caps that are dead-on with their claimed value, are stable under all temperatures and conditions, and have ultra-low esr.  Only the very cheapest caps fall below this, sadly, many low-end guitars use these, replace those puppies right away!  If ya want to spend $50 on a repro bumblebee go for it, but the reward will be in bragging rights, not tone. Three – five bucks will buy ya a cap that exceeds any and all specs needed in a guitar tone circuit.

Y’all let me know if ya want to do a little hair-splitting talking about the differences between Mylar, polypropylene, oil-n-paper, etc.  The short story is: it aint much; the long story is … well, long!

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How Frets Affect Tone, Intonation, and Playability

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fretwire size samples

As a bit of an artistic diversion, I “make” a few guitars every now and then, a habit I’ve had since I made my first guitar in Jr. High wood shop at age 15.  Lately, I’ve been making Tele style guitars, since Nashville guitar slingers need top-shelf hard-core road guitars at a working-man’s price.  There seem to be plenty of Strats in this category, but Tele’s … not so much.  The process of making vintage Tele style guitars has really brought fret size to the forefront; as the traditional 3-saddle bridge really makes intonation difficult, which makes fret selection extra-important.  At a later date, I’ll delve into what separates world-class Tele ELECTRONICS from the simply mediocre; but for now, let’s talk frets.  

Vaughn Skow Telecaster guitar pickups

First: a note:  while some of what we are discussing here relates to both acoustic as well as electric guitars, we are specifically talking about ELECTRIC guitars at this time!  So a good place to start where frets are concerned would be a basic frame-of-reference; problem is, there is no such thing!  Over the 70 years or so of the modern electric guitar’s life, quite a variety of frets have made finger-board appearances.  So, dispel the belief that there is a “normal” that can apply to ALL electric guitars.  There are a few very GENERAL observations that can be made, however.

Here is the single most important nugget, taken from an earlier blog my buddy Dave Hunter did on this topic: “While larger frets do seem to result in a rounder tone, perhaps with increased sustain too, they also yield a somewhat less precise note than narrower frets”.  Please read Dave’s fine blog for his always dead-on thoughts on this topic!

So there ya have the view from 50,000-feet!  Big frets = bigger tone, smaller frets equal more precise intonation.  Ah, if it were just that easy; if there were only TWO fret sizes … big ones for those who want maximum tone, especially on single-string big bend solos, and small ones for those who want precise intonation.  But take a look at this fret size chart, and understand that these are ONLY the most common guitar fret sizes!  Yea, these waters are getting murky!

fretwire_size_chart

So first of all, let’s eliminate the extremes on BOTH sides. 

Yes, we have heard about Stevie Ray’s using enormous “bass” fret wire on some of his guitars, something his long-time guitar tech says is hogwash … but he DID play big frets, but unless you also plan to play with the huge strings he played with and only in HIS style, don’t even consider it!  On the other end of the spectrum is the infamous Norlin-era Gibson “fretless wonders” of the 1970’s.  With frets so small you “won’t even know they are there”.  Again, unless you only play chords and play VERY light gauge strings, don’t even THINK about going there!  So, that leaves us …

“Big frets”

For MOST guitar players, this will translate into either Dunlop 6110 “Jumbo” or Stewart-MacDonald’s #150 (SRV).  These are the frets to go for if you DO want the tone and playability of someone like SRV, and if you are willing to sacrifice a little precise intonation on chords for a big ballsy tone on single-note bends.  Also remember, big frets require big strings!  As far as I’m concerned Jumbo frets arte only for medium gauge or bigger strings … unless you play very lightly, you will undoubtedly bend chords out of tune with light-gauge strings and big frets … ugg!

“Small frets”

Like Pre-CBS Fender’s and modern Dunlop 6230 or Stew-Mac #141 & 147.  These are the frets for folks who are picky about tuning and are precise players.  I especially like these frets on a Tele with a vintage 3-saddle bridge, as intonation is so compromised on these guitars anyway!  Inverse to the big frets, I’d say these are for those who use light(ish) gauge strings … say 10’s or smaller.

“Somewhere in-between”

This is what most “modern” guitars are equipped with, like the Fender “standard” size and Dunlop 6130.  And, I believe these frets are a great “best of both worlds” compromise on most any Strat or Les-Paul style guitar.  They bend nicely, offer full-bodied tone, intonate fairly accurately, and are friendly to all but the most extreme string sizes.  There is a reason why the major manufacturers have almost all adopted this fret size as their standard … it just works!

As for stupidly wide or tall frets, I would certainly avoid them unless you really don’t care about intonation or play stupidly lightly.  But always remember: these are just my recommendations.  Folks have really taken the fret thing to extremes with scalloped fret-boards … and then there is the “glitter” guitar that is ALL fret ... with no fret-board at all ... but I’m gonna say these just flat ain’t for everybody!

guitar with no fret-board

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Squeaker, My Lil Buddy (apx 1997-2016)

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It’s been five years ago now that we said goodbye to my old runnin’ buddy Rosie, and now we say goodbye to the little guy that’s shared our home for nearly the last two decades.

We found Squeak by the side of a little country road one Sunday morning in obvious distress.  My now 24-year old daughter was but a pre-schooler then.  It turned out that Squeak had been shot and the bullet had entered his left jaw and exited on the right side of his throat.  He was pretty messed-up, but we paid the vet to have him put back together as best he could be.  That was the first of several surgeries, and the poor little guy always looked a bit funny because his jaw didn’t align properly.  Dogs are amazing, though, in their ability to live in the present, and squeak never thought of himself as sub-par.  That was lesson #1 squeak taught me.

Squeak was Kim’s dog (my wife); he loved her and tolerated me but I loved the little guy all the same.  As is often the case with small-breeds, squeaker had his idiosyncrasies, seemed to always bark at inappropriate times, and was generally a pain in the kiester,  but I loved the little guy all the same.  That’s the second thing Squeak taught me; how to love like God does.   I can soooo see God shaking his head at me and mumbling something about how he wishes my behavior was better, but oh how he loves me. 

Daughter two is now about the age daughter one was when we brought squeak home; she and the little man were great buds.  Callie, Kim and I all feel the sting of loss and the emptiness of our home.  Squeak you were truly loved in your time on earth, and you are missed.

Alnico II (2) vs Alnico V (5) Humbucker PAF Pickup Tone

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Average: 5 (2 votes)

Howdy gang!  I just received an email inquiry from a pickup customer in the UK … asking such a fine question that I thought it would make for good blog fodder.  So, let’s get started with the initial email, and the questions and answers to follow.  Good stuff!

Alnico II (2) vs Alnico V (5) Humbucker PAF Pickup Tone

Hi Vaughn,
… I tried Fralin vintage hot singles found them flat, tried his pafs, too nice and soft no grit, then I tried lollar imperials loved these in my LP but the neck was muffled which is why I replaced it with an Alnico II pro for its sweetness and clarity, then I tried his single coils and they didn't live up to his reputation either perhaps because of expanding his business like you said. And I have tried others like Bareknuckle in the uk none come close to the real three dimensionality of yours, when I'm playing I really feel I am talking through my guitar.
Will the 57 pafs still provide proper grunt and grit for heavy rock in the bridge? Not sure how to go on the LP re: covered uncovered, and bobbin colours.... Is covered neck open bridge the norm here? I think I prefer the feel and tone of uncovered pups but two black might not look so good here.
Best regards
T

Hi and thanks again for the props! 
So ... on to your questions ...

Q: "Will the 57 pafs still provide proper grunt and grit for heavy rock in the bridge?" 

Well ... it depends ... Yes, if you like the high(ish)-gain tones Slash and Billy Gibbons get in the bridge position.  ...but... No, if what you are really going for is more along the lines of Dimebag Darrell ... or even say, Brad Gillis (Night Ranger) or Doug Aldrich (Whitesnake).

I will say that with either set, I do more "calibration" between the neck & bridge pickups than is typical ... so my bridge pickups are always a good bit meatier than the neck (as is required in my opinion).  And, all my humbucker sets are lightly potted in my own special system that retains true PAF tone ... but also allows high-gain without ugly feedback!

In a nutshell:

Go Alnico II (57) if you get most of your gain from pedals and want great string/note definition, a lot of sweet and complex harmonics, and a magical ability to clean-up as the volume is rolled down.

Go Alnico V (59/60) if you get most of your gain from the amp and need a tight and powerful tone for heavy palm muting with very high gain.

Q: "Not sure how to go on the LP re: covered uncovered, and bobbin colours.... Is covered neck open bridge the norm here?  I think I prefer the feel and tone of uncovered pups but two black might not look so good here."

First, I love your UK spelling of "colors" :-)  Soooo .... yes, if it comes down to old chrome over brass covers, I certainly prefer uncovered as well!  However, I use only Nickle-Silver covers, which are darn-near sonicly transparent, so go with what you want it to look like!   Personally, I prefer bare (unpolished) covers ... they ESPECIALLY look the most authentic and "right" on straight-up LP Bursts like yours, and they naturally age  beautifully.  Open black would be fine ... like the look of so many bursts that had their covers removed in the 70's and 80's.  The one thing I would suggest against is shinny covers, they only look right on closet-queen shinny girls!

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Vaughn Skow in Pickup Shop

Sleeper Amp Alert: The B-52 AT-100

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Average: 5 (2 votes)

B-52 AT-100

Hey gang, I had somthin’ cool pass through my shop that I thought y’all might just want to know about.  An AT-100 that had had its treble and contour knobs busted off.  I spent a little time under the hood replacing the two pots and then played through her for a while. 

B-52 AT-100 on bench

I wound up with two overriding impressions: 1) that this is a well thought-out and easy to work on amp, and 2) that it sounds damn good.  Given it’s VERY reasonable price, that officially qualifies it as a “sleeper amp” in my book!

The construction:

She IS a Chinese made PC-board amp … as are most under a grand tube amps these days, but … she is well laid-out and very tech-friendly inside.  Any amp-tech that says these are tough amps to work on needs to stop telling folks he is a tech!  There ain’t nothing but good old-fashoned Marshall style layout and a bunch of caps, resistors, and diodes inside her … easy-peasy!

B-52 AT-100 PC Boards inside

The sound:

This is one super-versatile 100-watt head!  The clean channel can do a great fender-like spanky clean tone, and the two overdrive channels can be set-up for anything from mild JTM-45 crunch to full-on mesa scooped metal tone.  I’ll highlight several things to know about the controls.

The two tone-stacks have very different frequency-ranges, especially the mid control which is centered around 800Hz on the overdrive channel, and apx. 1.5K on the clean channel.

The “Low-Res” control boosts everything below about 100Hz and is superb at making small cabs at low volumes sound huge … but … be careful, with 100 tube-watts all that bottom end can easily over-excurt and blow speakers at higher volumes!

The bright switch on the clean channel is an ENORMOUS boost, and it shifts the treble control from about 3.5K up to about 5K.  Use caution with this switch if you value the upper portion of your hearing!

The “contour” knob is exceptionally effective at sucking out a big swath of midrange for a classic scooped metal tone.  Just remember, the lower this control is, the more it’s sucking mids OUT! (At full-on, the control does nothing.)

The reverb is a true tube-driven long-spring tank and is perfectly useable, but it will not keep with a blackface Fender on full-tilt surf!

There ya go!  See below for my full-length video review of this cool “sleeper” … one caveat:  at 53-pounds, she ain’t for folks with weak backs!

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Why Every Guitar Player Should Learn to Play the Banjo … or something else …

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Average: 5 (2 votes)

Why Every Guitar Player Should Learn to Play the Banjo

Banjo, mandolin, ukulele, fiddle, dulcimer, and my favorite, the Bouzouki.   Shoot, if ya REALLY want to get in over your head, add sitar to the list.  The point is:  Get outta your “normal” zone where stringed instruments are concerned; when you do you will encounter a refreshing creativity like none other.  Sure, a little experimentation with alternative tunings can breathe a bit of freshness into your creative atmosphere … but it’s not even close to the creative cyclone of a truly DIFFERENT instrument … one that not only has a different tuning, but also a different string arrangement, scale, and totally different tone.  Seriously, I mean it, if you think you might be in a creative slump, go down to your local pawnshop and walk right past all those Squire Strats to that lonely, dusty old banjo in the back and take her home with you.

Ah, and let me now explain the OTHER benefit of playing an “alternative” instrument: the “WOW” factor.  You see, my first “alt” string instrument was a fiddle I played for a while as a teenager in my little country-rock band in the early 1980’s.  The country group Alabama dominated the charts back then and several of their big hits featured fiddle … the parts were prominent, but in all actuality they were not all that difficult.  And so I bought a cheap fiddle and learned to play it a little, affixed a clip-on mic and vola’ … I became a fiddle player.  Now, here’s the big deal:  we were the ONLY local country-rock band that could boast we had a fiddle in the band, and that meant two things:  first, we got a lot more gigs, and second, whenever I brought out the fiddle folks started whooping it up before I’d even played a note!  Was I good? No.  Was I a hit? Hell yea!

Fast-forward about 25 years to the present.  I now have a little hobby band that plays every now and then, mostly at air shows and car shows.  We play a smattering of “pop” hits from the 1940s all the way up to present hits.  Nobody really pays us much attention … until … I break out the mountain dulcimer.  In a live music scene awash in guitar-based rock, all I need to do is start into a little Celtic feeling stuff on the dulcimer (loud-n-proud through the PA) and everyone stops talking and turns around to pay attention.  If only for a few minutes, I OWN that audience.  Then I kick into “Copperhead Road” playing the entire first verse just me and the dulcimer before the band kicks in.  It may not be as dramatic as the bagpipes, but it has the same effect!  Now, some might say the dulcimer isn't a very "sexy" instrument; I dissagree.The Dulcimer is SEXY

And last, don’t get me started on the creativity the Bouzouki conjures.  The first time you sit with a Celtic-tuned Bouzouki on your lap be prepared for time to stop.  Hours later you will come to, aware that you have been under one heck of a seductive spell.  Check this out:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLH-L6khu7M

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How To Adjust (Set) Pickup Height on a Humbucker for ULTIMATE TONE!

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Average: 5 (3 votes)

Humbucker Height adjustment setting

Okie dokie gang, this is kinda part three in this series which started with How To Adjust (Set) Pickup Height on a Stratocaster for ULTIMATE STRAT TONE!  And then came How To Adjust (Set) Pickup Height on a Telecaster for ULTIMATE TELE TONE!  So, what about setting the height on humbucker equipped guitars like Les Pauls?  Well, let’s get into it!

Once again, I need to make it clear that these are my personal recommendations.  You may be going for something totally different, and as such may want to totally disregard my suggestions; if so, I fully understand, and rest assured, my feelings will not be hurt in the least bit. 

Okay, now this is important,

as far as pickup height is concerned, humbuckers are a whole different animal from single-coils.  Because the magnetic field, or the part of the string being sensed by the pickup, is soooo much smaller and more focused with a single-coil, even microscopic changes in pickup height make a perceivable sonic difference; humbuckers are different.  Humbuckers are sensing a much larger portion of the strings movement, and as such are a little more lenient on pickup to string height adjustment.  From nearly as close as the pickup can get without touching the strings to as far away as it can be adjusted, decent tones can be had.

I prefer to use a digital caliper to take measurements, but a quality luthier’s ruler will do fine if you have excellent vision!  Okay, so with no further ado, here are my suggestions and reasons why.

Alnico II or III humbuckers:

Bridge pickup

Low E: 3mm / 0.125"

Hi E : 2.5mm / 0.1"

Neck Pickup:

Low E: 3.5mm / 0.14"

Hi  E  : 2.3mm / 0.09"

(Measurements from the bottom of the string to the top of the magnetic pole piece screws)

Yep … that’s CLOSE!  But here’s why:  The old PAF design using Alnico III or II magnets has a single small bar magnet in the base providing the magnetic charge for both the steel pole-piece screws and slugs in both bobbins of a humbucker.  The measured magnetism (gauss) at the actual pole screw in these humbuckers is only about 200-300gauss, compare that to the 1000+ gauss of a typical Strat or Tele style pickup … there’s a HUGE difference here, buddy!  As you raise the pickup closer to the strings the tone gets brighter and more focused … now with a super bright single coil, that’s usually a bad thing, especially on the bridge pickup.  However, with the relatively warm tone, wide detection area, and inherently low magnetic pull of these original humbucker designs, that’s EXACTLY what makes them come alive

Alnico V humbuckers:

Since the Alnico 5 humbuckers have an increased gauss (about 350-500 at the poles), I generally won’t smack them up against the strings quite so close, as they would tend to get a bit “bitey” as close as what I just outlined for Alnico 2 or 3.  However, they DO tend to still sound their best fairly close, as compared to single coils.  Here are my general starting point settings:

Bridge pickup

Low E: 3.5mm / 0.14"

Hi E : 3.1mm / 0.12"

Neck Pickup:

Low E: 4.0mm / 0.16"

Hi  E  : 2.8mm / 0.11"

I don’t like (and I don’t make) any humbuckers with ceramic (Ferric) magnets;

I find their tone to be terribly sterile and uninspiring, as such I’m not going to give any recommended settings here, other than my usual suggestion of properly tossing them in the waste basket, don’t worry … there’s nothing in them that will hurt the environment.

A final note on humbucker height setting:

As stated earlier, quality humbuckers with AlNiCo magnets are quite forgiving of height adjustments compared to Fender style single-coils.  The truth is that you might find the tone you are looking for anywhere from the closest you can get those puppies to the strings all the way to as far as you can get them away from the strings (about 6-7mm is as far as you can go on a Les Paul style guitar).  Just remember this:

The closer you get to the strings the brighter, louder, and more focused the tone will get.

The further you move the pickup away from the strings the warmer, quieter, and less focused the tone will get.

There ya have it, see y’all next time.

email Vaughn     About Vaughn Skow 

Historic 1968 Fender Telecaster Bass Restored - Anatomy of a Vintage Fender Pickup Restoration

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1968 Telecaster Bass Before Restoration - Pickguard plastic out-gassing

First a shout-out to my buddy John Scott at Bluesman Vintage here in Nashville for helping to make this blog (along with the restoration) possible … Thanks John!   Now, let’s get into this story.

This bass is currently owned by Georgia picker Wayne Kistner who traded for it it way back in 1971 from super-picker Les Dudek who, in addition to his solo material, has played guitar with The Steve Miller Band, The Dudek-Finnigan-Krueger Band, Stevie Nicks, Cher, Boz Scaggs, The Allman Brothers and many more uber-cool cats.  So, this bass has some History with a capital “H”!

Okay, so take a good look at the above pic of the bass; kinda makes you think “what the heck?” … right?  Looks like some of the guitars that were found floating in a swamp after hurricane Katrina.  But no, this guitar was not the victim of THAT kind of natural disaster … it was ANOTHER kind of natural disaster!  You see, that early plastic pickguard (a concoction of nitric acid, sulphuric acid, cotton fibers, and camphor) was just doing what nitric acid and sulpheric acid naturally does over time … it was an agent of corrosion!  If you have a vintage instrument with any plastic parts made from this highly unstable and corrosive early acid-based plastic, here is a key:  Don’t keep it shut up in a case for long periods of time, because if you do, when you open the case you might well see somthing like the horror pictured here! For more on this dangerous off-gassing, read this Gibson blog on “Plastic Explosives”.

And so, this is the condition the bass was in when it hit the shop of Bluesman Vintage.  They carefully disassembled her and lovingly put her back together again, cleaning and re-using as many original parts as they possibly could.  The dead-as-a-doornail pickup wound up (no pun here :-) in my shop.  She looked terrible … but in a cool vintage kind of way!  When I cut and removed the coil, I found just what I expected: a LOT of corrosion on the magnetic pole pieces; this was probably what led to the pickups demise!

1968 Telecaster Bass Pickup Before Restoration

So I stripped her down and cleaned and polished her up on the inside, but left the outside looking fully “vintage”.

1968 Telecaster Bass pickup Before Restoration

Next, I fully covered the pole pieces with Kapton tape prior to winding, to ensure corrosion would never again suppress this gal’s voice.

1968 Telecaster Bass pickup during Restoration

Then I re-charged the magnetic poles, which were reading nearly fully dead.  Luckily, they charged nicely up to a very healthy level for AlNiCo 5!

1968 Telecaster Bass pickup during Restoration

Then it was on to the hand-winder for about 10,000 turns of period correct Plain Enamel coil wire.

1968 Telecaster Bass pickup during Restoration

The original lead wires were re-used for historic integrity.  The cotton jacket on them was flaking just a bit, and the black lead had turned more blue-ish in color, but they were fully serviceable.

1968 Telecaster Bass pickup during Restoration

Then she got a nice comfy cotton-string protective wrap, just like she was given at birth back in 1968.

1968 Telecaster Bass pickup during Restoration

And then it was on to a nice dip in my own proprietary vintage tint lacquer potting.

1968 Telecaster Bass pickup during Restoration

And last, we checked her vitals, just to make sure she was fully recovered and ready to once again make folks realize that, after all is said and done it really is “all about that bass”.  She clocked in at a perfect 8.7K resistance and 3.66 Hernies of induction, those numbers combined with her average pole gauss readings in the 1,100 range mean she is just flat PERFECT.

1968 Telecaster Bass pickup during Restoration

And, doesn’t she look sweet!

1968 Telecaster Bass pickup RESTORED

Speaking of looking sweet, I’ll end this blog with some pics of the fully restored bass.  Contrast these to the pic at the top of this blog.  And remember children: watch that old plastic “explosive”!

1968 Telecaster Bass  Restoration

1968 Telecaster Bass  Restoration

1968 Telecaster Bass  Restoration

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Vaughn Skow Pickups Shop Photo

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