6 Guitar Tech Questions You Were Too Afraid To Ask

The world of guitar design has an intriguing and often confusing history. Oftentimes we gloss over certain basic aspects of guitar design without ever completely grasping the reason behind them.

In this article, we will discuss six common questions that many guitarists are too afraid to ask—either because they believe the concepts to be basic enough to where they should inherently understand them, or because learning about the technical aspects of guitar design is less fun than learning to play "Iron Man."

When putting strings on my guitar, what direction should the tuning pegs be wound?

If you’re using a locking nut, it won’t matter at all how you wind them. However, if we want the string to be able to slide through the slots in the nut as they do when using vibrato or doing big bends, we want the string to travel as straight as we can through the nut slot to eliminate any sort of binding that might happen.

On Fender and Gibson headstock designs, we want the string to start on the inside of the headstock and roll around the tuning peg. So Fender guitars that feature all of the tuning pegs on the same side should all be wound counterclockwise. Meanwhile, we always wind from the inside out on a 3x3 style headstock (like a Gibson)—counterclockwise for the three pegs on the left and clockwise for the three pegs on the right.

What is a "skunk stripe" and what is it for?

A "skunk stripe" refers to the dark piece of wood inlaid into the back of many Fender guitar necks. The reason for this strip of wood is pretty straightforward: That’s where Fender routed out the neck to insert the truss rod.

Skunk stripe
Skunk stripe. Photo by Green Moola Store.

Originally, it was only present on guitars that featured a one-piece neck construction—the truss rod would be inserted through the back of the neck rather than into the top of the neck before the fretboard is glued into place.

According to most sources, the truss rod route was initially supposed to be filled in with another piece of maple that matched the existing neck in color, but this made it look too much like a repair had taken place. So instead, luthiers hid the patch piece in plain view by using a darker colored piece of wood to patch the routing. People came to like the skunk stripe aesthetically, and it's now being used on Fender guitars that feature rosewood fretboards whether it's really necessary or not.

Why do Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters have slanted pickups at the bridge?

Fender Deluxe Roadhouse Stratocaster
Fender Deluxe Roadhouse Strat. Photo by Pancho's Guitar Shop.

Fender single-coil models like the Stratocaster and Telecaster typically feature a slanted bridge pickup. This is done to balance the pickup out by sliding the bass side of the string away from the bridge and the treble side toward the bridge.

As previously discussed, the string vibrates differently depending on its proximity to the bridge. Moving the bass side away from the bridge ensures that we’re getting a full range of motion when the string is vibrating and keeps it from sounding weak and thin. Sliding the treble side toward the bridge gives us a bit more bite and attack when playing the higher strings. If the highs get too harsh, we can always tone it down with the use of our tone knob.

Are bridge pickups and neck pickups different?

Guitar pickups detect sounds by the way a string vibrates within the magnetic field. And a string vibrates differently at the bridge than it does further toward the nut, where we would typically find our neck pickup.

If we were to use the same pickups at both locations, we would find that the string vibrates less at the bridge and thus, the signal would be naturally weaker. Most builders compensate for this by making the bridge pickup "hotter" so that it boosts the signal to match the neck pickup’s output signal.

The other key difference is string spacing. String spacing at the bridge is (almost) always wider at the bridge than it is at the nut, which results in the neck pickup having closer pole spacing than bridge pickups to ensure that the poles reside beneath each string. This is true with humbuckers and P90s but not for Fender single-coil pickups.

I get what the volume knob does, but what does a tone knob do?

Your tone knobs allow you to cut certain frequencies—generally the higher frequencies—out of your signal. If you have your tone knob on 10, for example, you’re getting the full spectrum of frequencies, which can make your tone quite bright, especially on the bridge pickup. These highs can be harsh, and sometimes this is described as "ice pick" tone. Rolling off the tone knob removes some of the top-end from the harsh ice-pick highs for a tone that's a bit darker and less severe.

tone knobs
Tone knobs.

The tone knob is a vital part of shaping your sound, and it's right at your fingertips. Some people just set it at 10 and forget it exists, instead resorting to the controls on the amp and pedals to adjust EQ. Having the power to boost your treble on your guitar frees you from having to be stationed at your pedalboard and cuts out any excess noise that might find its way into your signal path via boost pedals.

My advice is always to learn to use your tone knob because it will allow you to dial in your sound on the fly. I typically recommend setting your tone knob at six or seven and then dialing in the tone of your amp and pedals from there. This way, you’ll always be able to give your guitar a bit of a boost for solo parts, adding depth and range to your sonic palate. You’ll probably find yourself turning the treble and mids up on your amp to compensate for the lower setting on your tone knob.

What is a coil tap?

A coil tap is where you connect another wire to the winds on your coil somewhere between the first and last wind. You then install a switch so that you can select between using your "tap" (which is typically tapped into your coil somewhere in the middle) and the unadulterated pickup as it was intended.

When tapping a pickup, you’ll naturally get a lower output than if you used all of the winds on a pickup. Remember: The more winds your pickup has, the "hotter" its output. For a single-coil pickup, a coil tap is going to allow for switching between a modern "hotter" signal and a tapped "vintage" or lower output signal.

A coil tap can be used on humbuckers as well—one can "tap" into each coil and have both coils still operational so that you still retain the humbucking features (no hum). This setup is more of a simulated single-coil sound than a true vintage single-coil setup. I suppose that in theory, it would actually be closer to a low-output humbucker than a single-coil. Still, some prefer it—especially when playing live.

Skunk stripe
Fender Modern Player HH Tele with factory coil taps. Photo by Darrell's Vintage Stuff.

What is a coil split?

A coil split allows players to switch between using one or both of the coils on a humbucker pickup. In other words, you can essentially shut one of the coils in your humbucker off. Jimmy Page adopted this mod on his No. 2 Les Paul, and since then, a coil split on the bridge and neck pickups of a Les Paul is sometimes called the "Jimmy Page" mod.

We often find that certain mods get named after the artists who adopted them, even though they weren’t the people who came up with them. A couple other common ones would be the "Peter Green Mod" or the "Jimi Hendrix Mod."

Coil splits have greatly aided working musicians who would generally travel with two guitars—one with humbuckers and one with single-coils—by allowing for greater sonic diversity in one guitar. A coil split will also re-introduce hum and noise into the sound, just as we would hear on a true single-coil pickup. Just a heads up: Some of the more modern high-gain amps can struggle to control the noise and hum that come with the vintage single-coil pickups.

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