Saturday, April 23, 2011

Top Five ways to improve your tone

In honor of the movie (and book) High Fidelity here are the top five ways to make your electric guitar or bass sound better.

5.  electronics- 
this Stratocaster pickguard has copper shielding tape, 250k CTS pots, .022 uf orange drop capacitor, 5-way switch, cloth-covered wire, and Schuyler Dean pickups

This includes pots, capacitors, switches, jacks and shielding.  If you're building a guitar it is a good idea to not skimp on this part and if your doing something like installing new pickups it's nice to use quality electronics to carry the current.
  • Shielding- it is important to have shielding grounded properly and surrounding the entire control cavity so that outside electrical interference can't get in.  typically luthiers use shielding paint on the wooden cavity grounded by a lead wire, and shielding tape on the back of the pickguard.  Everything is grounded in this circuit; the pots touching the pickguard shielding, the metal covers on humbuckers, and even the braiding on 2-conductor wire.  A wire is then run from the back of the pots to the bridge grounding the strings.  Ever notice how when you touch the strings the amp stops humming?
  • Potentiometers (pots)- 250K pots are warmer and typically used for single coils and 500K pots are brighter and typically used for humbuckers.  No-load pots are louder and make the guitar sound brighter.  There are endless possibilities.
  • Capacitors (caps)- The higher the number, the more bass at the zero setting on your tone control.  A .100 uf cap will sound warmer than a .001 uf cap.  Again the possibilities are endless.
4.  The Nut-
 a bone nut in a Fender P-Bass

This piece of shaped plastic or bone holds the strings in place at the zero fret for the correct string spacing.  Most are made of inexpensive plastic but you can get a nicer tone from bone or even brass for killer sustain!  You can only hear the difference when the strings are being played open of course.

3.  The Bridge-
the Stratocaster tremolo pivots on six body screws and is tensioned by three 
to five springs mounted on the bottom of the body.

There are many different types from the tremolo to the string-thru-body and they all add a bit of character to your guitar.  Brass saddles will typically sound a little nicer than cheaper steel ones.

2.  Pickups- 
Jazzmaster pickups get their fat tone from short "pancake" style 
bobbins and plenty of winds of copper wire.

All pickups really do is change string vibration into an electrical current, but they have everything to do with your guitar tone and how it behaves through the amp.  Good quality pickups like the ones I make will sound clearer and have more voice and character than cheap ones.  High-output pickups will be louder and produce more lows than brighter low-output pickups.

1.  Strings-

And the number one best way to improve your tone (aside from practicing) is to use new, high-quality strings.  Strings with more nickel will sound warmer, and strings with more steel will sound brighter.  You can also opt for flatwounds for an even warmer tone.  Larger diameter strings like .011's (on six string guitar) will be louder and warmer because there is more mass moving for the magnetic pickup to detect.  Old, dirty strings will not perform as well and sound dead so it is important to keep your strings clean and change them regularly.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Bass Pickup Test

Can better pickups really make a cheap guitar sound more high-end?

 I've been wanting to try this test for quite a while now, doing a controlled experiment where all the variables are the same to test the difference between stock pickups and high-quality ones like mine.  For this test I acquired a fairly run-of-the mill P-Bass copy with a maple neck, rosewood fretboard, some sort of inexpensive body wood like basswood or laminate, and standard electronics. Cost: $100.

I started by recording the stock bass via direct input to my M-Audio Firewire.  I recorded in ProTools and just used some simple compression and a little bit of reverb to give it some depth.  I did a simple riff (forgive my sloppy playing) first with a pick and then switched to fingers.

Next I took apart the bass and took out the old Select by EMG pickups.  Output was 7.6k and magnetic pull was over 50 Gauss per coil.

I replaced these with a set of my vintage-spec pickups with Alnico V magnets hand beveled and hand weakened to 25 Gauss.  They are scatterwound with 42 gauge Formvar wire with 10,000 winds per coil, yielding a little over 10k of output.  I top it off with wax potting in the proper mixture of beeswax and paraffin and wire it all up with vintage-style cloth covered push-back wire.  Truly the cream of the crop.  Total cost of the bass with my pickups: $200.

I wired everything back up and restrung the guitar with the same strings and recorded the same riff with the same software and the same compression and reverb and you can hear the results below in the two mp3 files. It helps to listen with some high-quality headphones.

First you will hear the guitar with the stock EMG pickup, it's a cheap pickup and sounds about as it should.

Stock Pickup
Next you hear my vintage-spec P-Bass replacement.  First, pay close attention to the extreme highs and you will notice even the most subtle sounds of the fingers moving over the roundwound strings, something you can't even hear from the EMGs.  This clarity and response of my pickup is a result of scatterwinding, this lowers the distributed capacitance of the pickup.  Now listen to the extreme lows and you will hear nice round, organic low notes where the EMG is flabby.  If you listen to the track again and this time listen to the mids and you will hear all kinds of character and life where the EMG's are obviously lacking.  A guitar should have a "voice" and not just sound like a P-Bass, the mids are where this character lies.  The Sklar pickups hear this voice very well and it comes through organically whereas the EMGs sound harsh and metallic. 

My Pickup

The clarity and character of the Schuyler Dean pickup comes from the select components that I use and the quality of the craftsmanship.  They say a band is only as good as its worst player, and that is true with pickups as well.  If every piece of the puzzle is a good one then the results will be good.