These guitar tweaks offer big payoffs in expanding your musical palette.
You love the way your guitar plays; the way it fits you, the way it’s set up. And most of the time, you love the way it sounds too. But there are those times when you yearn for something more in the tone department.
Maybe you’re a Les Paul player who needs to do a couple of rockabilly covers mid-set and you don’t want to drag your prized Telecaster along to gigs. Or perhaps you’re into prog rock and are on the hunt for exotic sounds that can be shaped with picking dynamics—something your stomps don’t really do.
Here for your consideration are four relatively simple ways to give your guitar a whole new voice.
Split that coil
As you probably know, humbucking pickups have two coils wired in series and out of phase with each other. This cancels out the noise common in single-coil pickups. Coil-splitting humbuckers are wired so so you can isolate one of those coils, thus approximating the sound of traditional single-coil pickups. Keep in mind that when you switch to coil-splitting mode, you will bring back the hums and buzzes that ‘buckers were designed to deal with in the first place. But if you’re looking for those bright, glassy, chimey single-coil sounds without bringing multiple guitars to the gig, coil splitting could be the way to go.
A quick search on the web will uncover many tutorials about modding your guitar’s humbuckers with split coil switching. But proceed with caution, especially if you lack a basic understanding of circuits. You’ll also need a soldering gun plus a well-equipped guitar tool kit to make the modification on many guitars. A guitar tech can be a good resource if you’re not sure about the DIY approach.
If the idea of working on your beloved gives you sweaty palms, not to worry—you’ve got alternatives. One approach would be to consider picking up a guitar that’s equipped with coil-splitting pickups right out of the box. The Gibson Les Paul Futura Plain Top has push-pull knobs that provide fast access to either sound.
The Les Paul Futura makes switching between single-coil and humbucker sounds easy.
But we were talking about modding your current guitar—not buying a new one—as tempting as that might be. The good news is there are many aftermarket humbuckers with coil splitting capability. And some pickup kits come with the switches, pots and wiring necessary to make the installation straightforward. The key is to look for models that will fit your guitar’s existing body cavities and require little or no modification to your instrument.
A great example is the Seymour Duncan SH-12 George Lynch Screamin Demon. While it easily drops into the pickup cavity of any standard PAF-equipped guitar, switching between the two pickup windings brings on a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experience. In the “single-coil” position it has crisp definition without being shrill. Popped back into humbucker mode, it generates miles of creamy harmonics and sustain.
The Seymour Duncan SH-12 Screamin Demon has a serious case of split personality.
No thanks, I’d rather tap it
There’s a lot of confusion about the term coil-tapping versus its cousin, coil-splitting. Coil tapping is done by inserting a switch point within the winding intended to replicate the sound of a single coil—hence the term “tapping the coil.” A wire lead is routed from that sector of the pickup’s winding to a button or knob switch that activates the coil tap.
The advantage over coil-splitting is that pickup designers can optimize the single-coil winding “stages” in each coil so as to create more realistic single-coil sounds, but continue overwinding the pickup for throatier, thicker humbucker-like voicings. The other big advantage is that since both coils are operating, you get hum canceling, even in single-coil mode.
Here’s a clear explanation of how coil splitting and coil tapping differ.
Generally speaking, higher-output pickups work best with coil-tapping. In fact manufacturers such as Seymour Duncan offer some models in both untapped and tapped versions. One that gets big props from a range Strat players is the Seymour Duncan SSL-5, which sounds especially good mounted in ash or alder guitars that tend to have a naturally bright sound.
The overwound coils in the Seymour Duncan SSL-5 make it a great candidate for coil-tapping.
One final word on both coil-splitting and tapping: Don’t expect miracles. The Telecaster sounds the way it does due to its unique combination of tonewoods, scale and pickups. Extracting single-coil sounds on a Les Paul pickup will not sound the same. That said, many modern players count on both these techniques to broaden their tonal tool sets.
Sweet sustain at your service
Ask hard rock guitarists what qualities they want out of their guitars, and the word “sustain” will quickly pop up. It’s the holy grail for playing those dramatic lead lines with notes that seem to go on for days. Paired up with a nice reverb and a whammy bar, a guitar with plenty of sustain can be a thrill to play.
But imagine having a guitar that lets you sustain notes practically indefinitely. That’s where the Fernandes FSK-401 Sustainer System comes in. This one-of-kind mod uses electromagnetic technology to keep your strings vibrating—pluck a note and the Sustainer will keep it going. Switch to the Sustainer’s harmonic mode, and your guitar begins pouring out huge waves of harmonically rich sounds that instantly transform you into a guitar hero. It will work with any guitar that has a humbucker in the bridge position.
The Sustainer has a pretty substantial circuit board that may require some routing of your guitar’s interior to accommodate. But the payoff in terms of tone is huge. And the kit comes with all the components for installation.
The Fernandes Sustainer adds drama to your music by adding near-infinite sustain and waves of harmonically thick chords.
If the Sustainer is a little rich for your blood, take a look at the EBow Plus. This clever device takes the place of your pick and generates a small electric charge to “excite” your strings. From violin-like swells to whining pedal-steel licks, this little gizmo is capable of totally transforming your guitar’s sound. You’ll find the range of effects is near limitless once you begin experimenting with the EBow Plus.
With an EBow Plus you can coax an extraordinary array of tones and effects out of your ordinary guitar.
At Musician’s Friend you’ll find the world’s largest selection of guitar pickups at the guaranteed lowest prices in the known universe.
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