Pickup Polarity and Phase Made Simple

Weather Vane

Yeah, YOU try finding a good stock photo to explain polarity!

If you have only one pickup in your guitar, feel free to ignore this article and live your life unhampered by phase and polarity issues. Everyone else, pay attention!  This is important stuff, and it might save your sanity some day, or at least your tone.

Guitar pickups are like flavours of food. Even if they are delicious on their own, they might be disgusting when combined. The goal of this article is to make sure you wind up with chocolate and peanut butter, not chocolate and onions.

Every pickup coil has two properties that affect how they will sound when they are combined with others. These properties are called phase and polarity. Phase is the direction current travels through the pickup, and polarity is the direction of the magnetic field. With both properties, there are only two options. Phase can either be “top coming” or “top going”, and polarity can either be “south” or “north.”

A typical application of these principles is with single coil pickups. One interesting property of single coils is that depending on their phase and polarity, it may be possible for them to be hum cancelling when combined. Modern Fender guitars are typically wired in such a way. The key to a strong, full tone with hum cancelling is to combine single coil pickups that have both opposite phase and opposite polarity. If one pickup is north polarity, top going, the other must be south polarity, top coming. This is why most Strat middle pickups and Tele neck pickups are what is known as reverse wind, reverse polarity, or RWRP for short. With a RWRP middle pickup in a Strat, for example, you will get hum cancelling in positions 2 and 4 on a 5-way switch.

Humbuckers all operate on this principle. The two coils have opposite wind and opposite polarity. When combined, you get a fat, meaty tone and no hum. Splitting a humbucker will, of course, bring back the hum.

So, what happens when single coil pickups are mis-matched? You will either get hum or phase cancellation. We all know what hum is. Phase cancellation is what happens when two pickups interfere with each other’s frequency responses, and most people find the result to be “thin” or “hollow” sounding. When this happens, we say that the pickups are out of phase. It’s a tone you might like in certain situations, and some great players like Peter Green use an out-of-phase tone by choice. Most of the time, though, it is something we try to avoid.

When you get a calibrated pickup set or loaded pickguard, like this Antiquity Texas Hot set, the RWRP middle pickup ensures you will get hum cancelling in the notch positions with no phase issues whatsoever.

For two single coil pickups to be in phase, both the magnet polarity and the wind direction have to either be identical, or opposite. In other words, two pickups with the same wind and polarity will be in phase, and so will two pickups that have opposite polarity and wind. If the two pickups have the same wind but different polarity, or the same polarity but different wind, they will be out of phase with each other.

The most common reason for two single coils to be out of phase is that one of them is wired backwards. The lead that was supposed to be connected to ground is connected to the output, and vise versa. If you get phase cancellation when combining two single coils, the easiest cure is to swap the lead wires on one of them (not both, or you will just have the same problem).

Bottom line: if you want two coils to be in phase and hum cancelling, you will need one of them – and only one of them – to be RWRP. Simple, no?

Here’s the catch … yeah, we all knew there was a catch.  Life’s never that easy.  If you’re using pickups from the same manufacturer it’s pretty straightforward to match wind and polarity. They are all designed to work together. A Seymour Duncan single coil pairs perfectly with a Seymour Duncan RWRP single coil.  Unfortunately, this is not true if you mix and match pickups from different manufacturers. One manufacturer’s idea of a standard single coil might be another’s idea of a RWRP, and vise versa.

The most common scenario in which the above comes to bear is when combining Seymour Duncan single coils and Fender single coils. It all started when Seymour decided to base his single coils on the original Fender single coils from the 1950′s, which were south, top going. At some point in the 60′s, Fender decided to change their single coils to be north, top coming. The end result is that Seymour’s regular pickups are equivalent to Fender’s RWRP, and vise versa. The only exception to this is the Antiquity Texas Hot; that’s because it’s an accurate re-creation of the “new” style of Fender pickup.

If you want this SSL-5 to coexist with a Fender middle pickup with no hum, be sure to order it RWRP.

This isn’t really a big deal, as long as you’re prepared for it. Let’s say, for example, you are replacing the bridge pickup in your Fender Strat with a SSL-5 Custom Staggered (great choice by the way!), but you’ve decided you want to keep the stock Fender middle and neck pickups.  Since you want your notch position tone to be hum canceling and in phase, you will want to make sure your SSL-5 has the opposite wind and polarity of your Fender middle pickup. This means you will be needing an RWRP SSL-5. It might seem weird to order an RWRP pickup for the bridge, but if you want it to hum cancel with that Fender single coil, that’s what you’ll have to do. Either that, or you can just replace all the pickups with Duncans … it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

I know this isn’t an easy to understand topic, but hopefully this article helped. If you have any questions about phase and polarity, please do post them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them. You can also contact the tone wizards at Seymour Duncan Customer Support; they will be happy to help you get it all sorted out.

Matt Perkins

About Matt Perkins

Matt Perkins is the lead guitarist for up-and-coming Vancouver rockers Coloured Animal (www.colouredanimal.com). He is a relentless tinkerer and experimenter when it comes to tone, and enjoys taking a scientific approach to guitar gear.
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  • Alex

    I got a switch on my strat to flip my in between positions out of phase and I really like it. I can get a lot of Brian May, Peter Green and even a couple of Hendrix tones with it like Freedom and Night Bird Flying. Granted I don’t know if he used out of phase for those ones.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Perkins/543081101 Matt Perkins

      Nice! I myself have a phase flip switch in my Epiphone Dot, which basically adds a second type of middle position tone. I can do in phase middle, which is round and mellow, or out-of-phase middle, which is plucky and quite Strat-like. I’ve never tried a phase flip switch in a Strat though – good idea.

  • http://www.facebook.com/northlander30 Ian Campbell

    I am currently having this exact issue with my Strat! I have a Lonestar
    Strat which is an H-S-S pup configuration. It came with a Seymour Duncan
    SHPG1 Pearly Gates Plus humbucker in the bridge. The Plus was supposed
    to designate that it was slightly hotter than the regular Pearly Gates
    of which it is. It was designed to be paired up with Fender’s Texas
    Special singles in the mid and neck and is wired to Fender’s specs. I
    recently replaced the SHPG1 bucker with a Seymour Duncan SH6 Duncan
    Distortion. Now I Have that out of phase tinny hollow sound which in
    certain applications it really doesn’t sound that bad, but it is too
    weak in the output. Now Do I reverse the ground and lead wire on the mid
    pup to resolve this?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Perkins/543081101 Matt Perkins

      I love those Lonestar Strats! The PG+ is a great pickup in a Strat.

      To answer your question, there are a few ways to fix your problem, but reversing the wires on the middle pickup isn’t one of them. That will actually make things worse, as it will also mess up the phase of your neck-mid position.

      I would start with swapping the green and black wires of the SH-6 and see if that works. The one thing to note with this solution is that the SH-6 screw coil (the one closest to the bridge) will be the one that gets used when split. People generally prefer the tone of the slug coil for splitting since it’s a little less spiky, but that’s a personal preference thing.

      If that doesn’t work for you, you may need to flip the magnet in the SH-6, or replace the neck and middle pickups with Duncans.

  • Steve

    I just got a Pearly Gates Plus off ebay but when wired up same as the Lonestar the bridge and mid Fender pickup was out of phase, were the PGP in the actual Lonestar totally wired different to ones available off the shelf.

  • Diego

    What happend when the out of phase is because of the opposite magnet polarity and same wire direction.
    I have this problem and changed the white and black position, the out of phase now is correct but the Bridge pickup alone does not sound the same as when it was out of phase with the middele position pickup. The combination now is not out of phase but it does not sound nice as the bridge alone is not nice.

  • mld

    I have a Modern Player Tele Plus. It’s configured HSS (all of the pups are “Modern Tele” branded and I cannot tell specs beyond that).

    I was thinking of replacing all three with all Seymour Duncans:
    SH-4 JB
    SSL-5 Staggered
    STR-2 Hot Rhythm

    Would these all work as stock, off the shelf purchases? Or would I need to work with SD for different phase/polarity?

  • Ewan Tytler

    I’m building a “Black Strat” in stages. The Fender Gilmour signature has combination of Fender Fat 50s Neck (Presumably South, Top Going) with a Fender 69 Middle (Presumably North,Top Coming) and a SSL-5 bridge (Presumably South, Top Going). Wouldn’t this hum-cancel in positions 2 and 4? I have the Fender 69 middle installed so the standard SSL-5 would be the bridge pickup that I should buy? What is the Duncan equivalent of the Fat 50s? I was thinking of the APS-1 or SSL-1, I am on the right track?

    • Chris Manganello

      If your CS69 middle is Fender RWRP, you’ll want your SSL-5 to be RWRP also (since Fender has reversed its meaning of RWRP). Essentially, if you want a Fender-Fender-SD setup, your middle and bridge pickups should have the same notated winding/polarity (since Fender and SD now use opposite meanings of winding/polarity). For a Fat 50s-type true single-coil, I’d look at the SD Five-Two.

  • David

    Would it be possible to install a humbucker in the middle position of a Fender Jazzmaster?

  • Matthew Glasscock

    After years of playing Squires, I plan to treat myself with a MIM Fender Standard HSS Strat this year. I’ve heard nothing but good things about the MIM Strats. However, I’ve read many reviews that criticize the pickups. After doing a lot of research, I’d like to custom configure mine with Seymour Duncan pickups. I have decided on a Pearly Gates for the bridge, and I love the tone of the SSL-1s. I’d like to replace the neck and middle with a pair of SSL-1s. Am I venturing into major polarity issues that will kill my tone? Do I need one reverse wound reverse polarity (middle) and one “standard” wound and polarity for the neck? Is adding the Pearly Gates going to cause me added polarity grief or will having a bridge humbucker cure all my phasing ills?

  • Charliehshaw

    Hello folks. I have a 90′s Amer. Fat Tele. Both the single coil in the bridge, and the humbucker in the neck are Fender pickups. Recently, I picked up another Fender DH-1 humbucker used for cheap. I’m thinking about putting it in the middle position, and with coil tap capabilities, this should render some pretty cool combinations. Is this going to work concerning that all 3 pickups have the same phase and polarity? When both humbuckers are tapped, is there a way I can reverse the phase in the middle pickup so I can get the classic ‘in between’ 2 and 4 sounds?

  • Ken

    I have a 1962 fender strat reissue. The bridge pickup was weak sounding and I wanted to beef it up so I bought the Texas Hot Antiquity bridge pickup. I do like the sound of that pickup but when I put it in the 5th switch position it puts out a terrible sound – much thinner and more midrangy than when the original bridge pickup was in it. Will switching the black and white wires on the Antiquity help this situation?