Pick-Up Line Secrets

Posted: September 7, 2010 by Paul H in Tips & Tricks

My wife and I were at a bar, I left her alone for a couple of minutes while I went to the men’s room. When I came back she told me a guy came up to her and said: “I’ve been waiting all night to ask if I could kiss your feet.” She was disgusted and told the guy to leave. So… cross this pick-up line off your list.

Let’s move on to guitar pickups where I have some definite opinions. Do you remember those first Van Halen albums? That guitar tone was unparalleled. Of course, Eddie’s playing and his touch had the most to do with this, however, there were a couple other factors that I want to bring up. This applies universally to guitar tone and although, I read guitar magazines, I don’t hear it discussed much.

Pickups are always, to a certain point, micro-phonic. If I crank my amp and turn my guitar volume up, I can put my mouth near the pickup and say “breaker, breaker, this is Large Marge” and my voice will come out of the amp, loud and clear, just like a classic CB radio.

When you’re standing in the room with the amp, your guitar will pick up the sound in the room like a microphone and add it to the overall tone coming out of your amp. If you’re standing next to the drummer whacking rim shots, then along with your guitar, that snare will come through your amp a little bit too. The main point is your amp will be regenerated back through the pickups and back into the amp and on and on, that’s where the whistle of feedback comes from when you’re too close to your speaker.

Your pickup is not only doing its regular duty of picking up the vibrations of the strings interrupting it’s magnetic field, but, your pickup is also acting as a contact microphone picking up your guitar vibrations and the sounds in the room. This contact microphone effect will combine with your regular pickup and add a certain warmth. This is one of the reasons your tone changes so dramatically as you turn up.

Getting back to Eddie Van Halen. In the early days, he said he dipped his pickup, which I think was a Gibson PAF, into hot surfboard wax. This is usually done to seal the coils from vibrating, to limit the microphonic effect. But I just don’t think it worked that well. I’m sure Eddie had this contact-mic effect going.  In addition, he didn’t have a pick-guard so he screwed his pickup into the body of the guitar. This further enhances the contact-mic effect by picking up more guitar body vibrations. Ever put you ear up to your guitar body? A guitar body vibrates like crazy.

Some people ask about my tone and I would say a large percentage is helped by my string dampening and my ability to vibrato but, something that also contributes is the fact I copied Eddie, and on some guitars my pickups are screwed into the body, so I can take more advantage of this contact-mic effect.

When I’m recording I’m not usually in the room with the amp, I like to be in the control room. I believe the human brain doesn’t function normally while it’s enduring 130db of ear-splitting 4×12 warfare. Jeff Beck says, at loud volumes your ability to discern tuning decreases. Most of the time though, I do make sure that the volume in the control room is substantial enough so my pickup will get some of that amp tone regenerated. Always, my pickup is picking up those good guitar vibrations.


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