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How to Get the Most from Your Pickups

Bare Knuckle 'T-top' custom built humbucker
Bare Knuckle 'T-top' custom built humbucker (Image credit: Future)

Tim Mills is not only a well-seasoned session guitarist but also the founder of U.K. tonemongers Bare Knuckle Pickups. Based in the South West of England, he and his team of dedicated experts have spent many years perfecting the delicate art of hand-winding guitar pickups and diving deep to find out what makes great tone.

Pickups are the heart of an electric guitar – where string vibrations start electrons flowing. Many interacting variables contribute to the overall sonic picture, oftentimes in a subtle way. But when it comes to getting the most from your instrument and staying inspired there are some essentials every guitarist needs to know. 

Here are Tim Mills’ top five tips…

Bare Knuckle Pickups founder Tim Mills

Bare Knuckle Pickups founder Tim Mills (Image credit: Future)

1. Talk to an Expert

Get the best advice and choose the right pickups for the job to start with. Interact with your pickup maker/manufacturer as much as possible and discuss your playing style, the tones and applications you’re looking for as well as the specifics of the host guitar – timber, neck construction, scale length and type of bridge.

The more specific you are with the detail the easier it is to be advised on making the correct pickup choice resulting in you getting the best tone from your guitar.

2. Pots

Everything between the pickups and jack socket (jack and amp too!) will affect the tone. There are a host of premium pots and caps out there with a range of different tapers and torques. At Bare Knuckle I advise our custom 550K pots for use with humbuckers and P-90s, and our custom 280K pots with Strat and Tele coils.

3. Capacitors

Paper-in-oil caps have always been a personal favorite and deliver a clear, smooth tone roll off whilst retaining plenty of detail. While I find a lot of players gravitate towards 0.022uF caps across the board, there any many different options, so don’t be afraid to experiment with values and type of cap. 

The difference between ’50s and modern tone pot wiring is well worth trying out with humbuckers producing a marked difference in both tone and feel.

Tim Mills of Bare Knuckle Pickups winding a pickup

Tim Mills of Bare Knuckle Pickups at the bench (Image credit: Future)

4. Pickup Height

Just as no two players pick the same there’s no ‘do all’ pickup height. How hard you pick and your string gauge will be big factors in where you set your pickups. 

As a general rule, the closer you get to the strings the more drive you’ll get along with more bottom-end response, whilst lowering the pickups will produce a cleaner tone with less output.

Start with the pickup closest to bridge and raise it up as high as possible whilst still allowing the strings clearance. Slowly lower the pickup listening for the sweet spot you’re after. Once dialed in do the same with the other pickups on the guitar referencing back to the bridge for balance of output. 

Trust your ears!

5. Play Like You Mean It!

Dig in, play dynamically and your pickups will rise to the occasion.

Credit Bare Knuckle Pickups, Blue Note 90 set with aged cream covers

Bare Knuckle Pickups Blue Note 90 set with aged covers (Image credit: Bare Knuckle Pickups)

Visit the Bare Knuckle Pickups website to discover more.

Rod Brakes is a music writer with an expertise in all things guitar-related. Having spent many years at the coalface as a guitar dealer and tech, Rod's more recent work as a journalist covering artists, industry pros, and gear includes writing hundreds of articles and features for the likes of Guitarist magazine, MusicRadar, and Guitar World, as well as contributions for specialist books and blogs. He is also a lifelong musician.