Single coil pickups come in many configurations. You might like yours produced the way they were back in the 60s, or you might like ultra-modern high output silent ones. There are many shades in between those two extremes, and it all takes a little bit of research to find out which ones are right for your guitar and your playing style. Understanding the debate between staggered and flat polepieces on your pickup shouldn’t cause anxiety, as it is a fairly straight forward decision. However, like other Cage Matches that I have written here, the correct answer is it depends. What it depends on is what this article is about.
Terms of Engagement
Before we bite into this topic, we have to understand a few terms. First, fundamental to the construction of a pickup: the polepiece. Polepieces are the little round slugs, screws, or hex screws on the top of a pickup. What makes matters worse is that on some pickups, the polepieces are hidden under covers, but they are there. They are either magnets themselves, or magnetized metal which direct the magnetic field towards the strings. Historically, humbuckers contain 2 rows of slugs or screws (one row might be under a cover) while single coils contain just one row. Orpheo’s article contains a great description of polepieces about halfway down the page.
The other important term to understand here is the radius of a fingerboard. Electric guitar fingerboards are rarely flat, and the curvature of the fingerboard is expressed as a specification called the radius. Look at the end of your guitar neck- not the end where the tuners are, but the end where it touches the body. Notice that the neck has a slight curve. Now, if that curve continued into the shape of a circle, the radius of the circle (distance between dead center of the circle and the edge) would be a number. Smaller radii would be a more curved fingerboard, and larger numbers would be more flat. Curved fretboards are generally better for things like barre chords, since they follow the natural bend of the finger. Flatter fingerboards are better for bending since you don’t ever bend into the ‘high part’ of the curve. Some say they are better for shredding as the strings are on a flatter plane. If you look up the specs of your guitar, it will state the radius of the fingerboard. This is important, as it will help you decide on which type of polepieces are right for you. For more information about the radius of a fingerboard, check out Peter’s excellent article.
So, what kind of axe ya got?
This is as good as any starting question. But we have to make an assumption first. The question of polepiece type is generally confined to single coil pickups. If your single coil-equipped guitar was made in the 50s to the 70s, most likely it has a small radius of 7.25″, which is a pretty curved fretboard. Chances are the polepieces on your guitar are staggered to make up for the fact the pickup is straight while the strings are in an arc. Add in the fact that the more massive strings generate more power, and you get the vintage stagger.
Staggered polepieces on new pickups will match what came on the guitar originally, and will respond like you are used to. Remember, that ‘back in the day’ it was common to have use heavier strings, with a wound G string, just like an acoustic guitar. Modern players usually play with a plain G, but the stagger remains. This design is the sound we grew up with, and is perfect for any instrument with a smaller fingerboard radius.
Keep in mind that there are many new guitars that have a vintage radius, including reissues of classic instruments as well as newer designs that keep that smaller radius. You really should check out the specs on your instrument to find out what the radius is, and changing to a pickup with a different magnet stagger will change the string-to-string balance. It might be for the better or worse, but it will change.
Here Come Ol’ Flat Top
What about the single coils with flat polepieces? These are more common on more modern guitars, and they have all of the magnets at equal height. This is better for a more modern radius (9″-20″), as the strings are on a more even plane. You can tilt the pickup to fine tune the balance between the plain and wound strings. When deciding what type of single coils to get, you can always start by looking what is currently on your guitar. Keep in mind that with a lot of things in our guitar universe, there are no hard rules. My 1982 Strat has a vintage radius of 7.25″, but came stock with flat polepieces. As playing styles have changed over the years since electric guitar began, so has pickup design. Fingerboards got flatter, and pickup design changed so one string doesn’t overpower any other.
And whatever you do, never hammer all of the polepieces flat. Don’t laugh, I heard of more than one person doing this. It is a certain way to kill the pickup, and I don’t think anyone will honor their warranty if you do that. They are like that for a reason.
By the way, while we are discussing single coils here, special mention should go to the Stag Mag, a humbucker that is essentially 2 single coils wired together. Designed to be split, it allows both humbucker and single coil sounds out of 1 guitar.
What kind of radius do you like playing on? Who is your favorite single coil player?