Thanks for all the thanks and kind words! I'm glad this has helped people over the years, and hope that you all have achieved or at least gotten closer to finding "that" tone!
To answer a few recurring questions:
- F Spaced Pickups:
in a nutshell, F-spaced means "Fender spaced." Standard Strat and Tele bridges have the strings spaced further apart than you'll find on a regular Tune-O-Matic bridge like you'd see on a Gibson (and most other guitars with a stopbar tailpiece). Most companies refer to the narrower orientation as "Standard spaced." To make sure that the pole pieces sit right under the strings, many pickup companies offer pickups in either "F-spaced" or "standard spaced."
The big question that people then have is: "What will happen if I put an F-spaced pickup into my standard-spaced guitar?" or vice versa.
Well, there is a lot of contention as to how much of a difference it makes, with a lot of people telling you that it will destroy your tone, and others telling you it doesn't matter. I fall into the latter camp: IMHO, it makes next to no real difference.
In the case of the Kramer I used in the pictoral, you had an F-spaced through bridge and a standard-spaced DiMarzio Tone Zone, meaning that the pole pieces for the E strings were a couple millimeters short. I honestly noticed absolutely nothing detrimental to the tone. I ultimately sold that guitar, but before I did, I got my hands on an F-spaced Tone Zone. When I put it in, I didn't notice any change to the sound that couldn't have simply been a result of one manufacturing discrepancies from year to year.
You'll sometimes read comments about how you can "lose" sound during string bending, because the string moves too far from the pole piece to pick up the vibration. I am a huge
string-bender, and can tell you that this, too, is crap. Total
xrap. Why? Because before you run out of magnetic field, the string will go off of the fretboard. Also, the pickups are mounted much further back than your strings; go into a steep bend at the 12th fret, and see how far that string has moved from the bridge. If you're really worried, just make sure that you bend the EAD strings down, and the GBE strings up; that way, you're always staying within the magnetic field of the other pole pieces. Debate over,
So, at the end of the day, it's more a matter of aesthetics, and how much you care about it.
2. Covered pickups vs. uncovered
- It does affect the sound, though it's not necessarily going to make it a new pickup. Best advice I have is to buy covers that are made by a reputable company, i.e. Gibson, Allparts, Stewmac, or from the pickup manufacturer itself. They're more likely to use a nickel/silver composition that is more "transparent" than some covers that use a heavier metal and can more adversely affect the tone.
I experimented with a pickup a couple years ago; took a factory Gibson 498T that I got off of ebay that had an oxidizing nickel cover, soldered it into my Gretsch, played some licks and chords on it for about a half an hour, then loosened the strings, pulled the pickup out, removed the cover, tried again. It had more high-end response, though again, it wasn't like an epiphany or anything. It was a little more sensitive - a bit more audible screech when you moved your fingers way up and down the fretboard, and a bit more sensitivity when playing arpeggios.
It didn't change the character enough that it seemed like a different pickup, and at the end of the day, I think a lot of it is going to boil down to aesthetics again: do you want your white Les Paul with gold hardware and a pickguard to have a pair of open-coil black pickups, or do you want them to have a gold cover? What about your black-on-black Jackson King V? Etc.
3. Regarding different pots/jacks/selectors/etc:
I've been all up and down the gamut here, and - no joke - always have a whole selection of 250k, 500k, 1 meg, and even a few 2 meg (!!) pots on hand to try out. The resistance of your pots will make a HUGE impact on the sound of your guitar. All told, a lot of this info is probably best given in its own, separate thread, but, since this one is stickied and they are directly related to one another...
Most Telecasters and Strats, as well as many of their copies, use 250k ohm potentiometers (referred to as "pots" from here on out); most humbucker-equipped guitars, from Epiphones and Gibsons to Jacksons and ESP's use 500k pots. 1meg pots (which are the same thing, numerically, as a 1000k) aren't super-common as factory parts but are a good, low-cost alternative to running your pickups "hot;" using 250k's can get you a warmer, brighter tone out of pickups that may have seemed muddier before. Or, in either case, you can totally kill the sound of a perfectly good pickup.
Let me elaborate with a few examples of guitars I've built and how their tone was affected:
1. Mexican Standard Strat with a custom pickguard: Single neck, single mid, P90 bridge. The neck pickup is a Rio Grande Muy Grande, the middle pickup is stock, and the bridge pickup is a DiMarzio Soapbar P90. With the 250k's, I felt that while I could get some pretty tight, snappy sounds from the higher registers, it seemed really lackluster the rest of the way around; so, I got three 1-megs from Stewmac and soldered those in. Strung it up, plugged it in, and WHOOOOA. Now that
is some freakin' tone!! It woke those pickups up! They handled gain in a much more competent fashion than before - no nasty "icepick" sounds if you plucked hard on the upper frets, and still cut through the fuzz on the lower frets with nice definition and voicing. A lot like the song "Black Lung" from Left Lane Cruiser. They still had a fair amount of "bite" and "snarl" with the gain down low and the pots wide open.
2. SX Telecaster copy: standard pickups that are surprisingly good and toneful for a cheapo, Chinese-made copy; honestly, much better than a Mexican Standard strat or Squier. No real gripes with the tone, but I decided to go ahead and swap some stuff around just to see how it sounded. Dropped in some 500k's, and found that I could get some pretty hefty rythm playing going, and higher-register solos still got a distinctly Telecaster-sounding twang with just a wee bit more overdrive. I went ahead and tried 1-megs next - after all, Danny Gatton used 1 megs in his Telecaster! - and tried that out. Man, did that tone suck!
Rythms with the gain up were too overdriven and fuzzy to be discernible - it was more like a really angry fridge buzz that just changed from one note to the next. Highs were oversensitive, buzzy, and generally unpleasant. Took those out and put the 500k's back in...
3. Kramer Striker: when I put the DiMarzio in, I stuck with the factory, Gibson-spec 500k's. A few months later, I did the 1 meg swap. With the quad-coil neck pickup, it got much more definition; still didn't like it much, but it woke up overall. With the Tone Zone, the pickup's characteristics all ended up being magnified. Specifically, light picking at a slight angle would produce clear, feathery interludes; heavy angled picking would create singing, bell-like tones with tons of sustain; heavy, straight picking would give you a snarling wail that had a gravelly decay. Every single string had TONS of definition, so when you played open chords, you could hear each string individually. Really, REALLY cool sound, but one that, being super-precise, required you to seriously
clean up your playing. Any sloppy tricks would be picked up and magnified much moreso than otherwise, and you'd feel like a doofus for it. Also, got really effortless pinch harmonics and found tapping way easier. The results from sweeping were excellent, as long as your fingers were it total sync. Turned what was basically a straightforward metal axe, into a virtuoso-only metal axe (incidentally, I sold it...
The overall quality of the pots and switches makes a big difference, too. My cheapo SX Strat copy used generic Chinese 250k's that were loose and felt gritty when you turned them. After a few months, the pickup selector started getting noisy, too. I swapped those out for some quality 250k's by Alpha and a Fender-made 5-way, and soldered it all together with some fresh wiring (total cost: about $15). It sounded a thousand times better - like an actual Strat
Now, since then, I've stripped that thing apart, and it's sitting in a corner waiting for my next day off... DiMarzio Fast Track bridge, Fender TexMex mid and necks, 2meg volume/tone and a Torres Engineering Super Midgrange. I should take some higher-quality pics of that build and a more thorough explanation...