If you’ve been reading the Seymour Duncan web group forums for any period of time you would have noticed quite a bit of talk about modifying pickups. Many members have had great success with replacing magnets in humbuckers, making hybrid humbuckers from two different pickups, and more.
Opening up and pulling apart magnets may seem a little daunting to some, so I thought I would talk about a few things you can do to adjust your pickups to achieve the sort of sound you are after without any extensive surgery. If you can use a screw driver or allen key, and have basic soldering skills you can achieve some pretty remarkable results.
Adjusting pickup pole piece height
Many would be familiar with adjusting the height of a pickup to balance the volume between bridge and neck humbuckers. One thing that you may notice when adjusting a pickup is that the lower frequencies are amplified as the pickup gets higher. With some guitar/pickup combinations they may result in an undesirable muddy thick tone. Lowering the pickups may resolve the EQ issues, but not give you enough output.
There is a way around this though. Humbuckers typically have at least one coil that has pole-pieces that are either fillister head screws that can be adjusted with a flat-head screw driver, or socket head cap screws that are adjustable with an allen key. By lowering the pickup and raising the pole-pieces you can raise the output of the pickup without raising the low end too much.
One trick that works really well for a bridge pickup is raising the three-bass side pole-pieces, keeping the treble side flush with with the bobbin, and raising the treble side a fraction to match the volume across the strings. This gives you a sharper, less bassy tone for the wound strings, and a fuller tone for the unwound strings. This setup works really well if you want to play lead further up the fretboard, but find that notes get too shrill on the bridge pickup.
Swapping pickup pole pieces
You’ve probably noticed how some humbucker models use the aforementioned fillister head screws and others the socket-head cap screws. The reason for the two different types is that each alter the tone of the pickup in slightly different ways.
The Socket head cap screw generates a slightly tighter and brighter tone than the more traditional fillister head screw. If you have a pickup that uses fillister head screws, and find that the pickup sounds a little loose and dark, a swap to the socket head cap screw might suit you just fine.
Generally both the fillister head and socket head cap screws used in most humbuckers are the same thread size (5-40). You may not be able to find them in a regular hardware store, but most specialty fastener stores will have them.
Another major factor is the length of the screw itself. Fillisters are typically 3/4″ long screws. Trimming them or installing 1/2″ ones will significantly brighten up a pickup as well. The socket head cap screws typically used by Seymour Duncan are already 1/2″, which may account to the significant changes some experience if you are to swap pole-pieces between different Seymour Duncan models.
Using a capacitor as a high pass filter
Here’s another trick for those who are comfortable with using a soldering iron. If you are finding that a pickup is sounding a little too muddy for your liking you can use a capacitor as a high pass filter.
Solder a 0.047uf non-polarised capacitor between your pickup’s ‘hot’ wire (black for Seymour Duncan pickups) and the pickup selector to cut out some of the low end frequencies the pickup produces. If this isn’t quite cutting enough for you experiment with a few slightly smaller value capacitors (0.022uf, 0.01uf, etc) to dial in your perfect tone. This is a great little fix for any pickup in any position, single coil or humbucker.
More to come!
There are a few other more complicated modification that you can make to your pickups. Keep an eye out for Tinkering with pickups 102.