A Brighter Guitar

Summary

Advice regarding brightening-up your Les Paul-type guitar, which applies to most guitars made of darker woods, equipped with humbuckers.

Reading time ~ 11 minute(s)

Les Paul GuitarIntroduction

WARNING: Some of the suggestions below will void your guitar’s and parts’ warranty. Use discretion. Employ a guitar technician if you get out of your depth.

Many guitarists find themselves in this situation: they end-up with a guitar that is simply too dark, sometimes so dark it’s muddy. This is often the result of inexperienced or beginner guitarists buying badly built, or badly setup guitars, or it can happen during your (seldom ending) quest for Tone. The Tone.

What is “darkness” when we speak of a dark guitar? To my ear (and understanding), a dark guitar sounds bassy, tends to accent the lower mids, and tends to significantly diminish the upper mids and highs. If this is an otherwise good guitar, the tone will be a mellow, warm, deep one. If it is a poor guitar, as it’s sometimes the case with cheap instruments, these characteristics will yield a lifeless tone, lacking articulation (notes, especially lower ones, tend to blur into each other, especially with high gain) and presence (you often get “lost in the mix” when recording, or playing with a band).

If you take this to the extreme, you get an unusable tone, for all intents and purposes, known as mud — because that’s the impression it gives: a poorly defined pulp of sound lacking any personality, presence and articulation, most likely useless for even the most extreme (in both directions) musical styles. Therefore, absolutely no guitarist actually looks for a muddy sound, and we all try to get rid of it by fixing our rigs, starting with the guitar.

The tonal character of any guitar begins at wood level. Different woods, in different combinations, have different tonal characteristics. You can test this by playing your electric unplugged, and listening to the purely acoustic tone. A Mahogany guitar will always sound darker than an Alder one. This is a given, pertaining to the inherent physical characteristics of the wood. Just as a side note, wood doesn’t really add anything to the frequency spectrum, it only subtracts  certain frequencies. E.g., Mahogany sound “middy” because it attenuates low and high frequencies, not because it adds middle frequencies — it cannot, the wood is a passive resonator.

From here on, I will assume you already have your guitar, thus changing the wood(s) it’s made of is not a practical option. Let’s see what else can be done, sometimes with minimal cost and huge effect, in order to brighten-up your electric guitar.

I’ll take it from the beginning, to the end of the tone chain, excepting the player. Although it is said the player is the main factor influencing tone, and I hold this to be true, there’s no way that playing technique alone can turn a muddy-sounding guitar into a lively instrument. That being said, I’d still listen to Guthrie Govan playing on the crappiest Squire starter pack, rather than putting up with a beginner tormenting a custom shop guitar, on a state-of-the-art rig.

The further you get from the origin of the signal (the string vibration inducing current in the pickups) without having solved the brightness problem, the poorer the end results, when you’ll find yourself compensating with equalizers. It shouldn’t get to that. Those are meant for fine-tuning the tone, not creating the tone.

Keeping in mind that I’m fully aware that you get what you pay for (sometimes, unfortunately, even a lot less than you pay for, and this is a problem in the magic Tone World), but also that I would never ignore the simple, cheap, yet often spectacular cheap solutions and techniques, let’s begin.

1 Strings & Picks

The lighter the gauge, the brighter the sound. This is mostly due to “thinning” of the tone, and loss of lower range, not to accenting the highs, thus there is, presumably, some overall tone sacrifice going on — which can be easily compensated for (Brian May, Billy Gibbons, Yngwie Malmsteen, and others use gauges below 0.009, and get monster tone). Using bright bronze strings is not an option on electrics, but not all strings are created equal brightness-wise, so choose a brighter set — all string manufacturers will have some sort of scale to indicate the brightness of their different products.

Some picks impart more higher-order harmonics to the tone (hence brightness) than others, and are an all important tone-shaping tool, but all too often completely disregarded. One such pick is my current favourite, the Dunlop Big Stubby 2.0 mm Nylon, but there are many, many alternatives, and they will help you brighten-up.

Cost: minimal
Brightening factor: minimal

DYI difficulty
: basic

2 Pickup covers

The debate on whether or not pickup covers dull your tone is still raging on. To my ear, this A/B testing shows beyond any doubt that open humbuckers have a perceptibly brighter tone, and more “bite”. There’s a long string of famous players who took the covers off their Les Pauls for this exact effect, before bare humbuckers where “cool”. The difference is enough for removing the covers to be worthy. It’s a subtle thing, but it’s there and it helps.

The duller tone with covers is due to stray capacitance between the pickup and the cover, leaking high frequencies into ground, therefore losing them, therefore dulling the overall tone (it will lack some highs).

WARNING: The covers are also supposed to protect the coils from outer interference, so you might get some after removing them, if you’re playing in such an environment. Also, although the operation itself is very easy to perform, you may still damage the pickup by applying to much heat when de-soldering the cover, or by sloppy or rough manipulation of the coils.

Cost: zero
Brightening factor: minimal

DYI difficulty
: average

3 Pickup adjustments

The Golden Rule: lower your pickups, raise the pole screws.

This will give you more of a natural sound, less compressed, brighter, better defined, at the expense of some volume loss. The difference may be so dramatic for a poorly factory set-up guitar that the tone will change entirely after the adjustment. Do not overlook this! It is of immense importance, and may spare you a lot of frustration and money.

This article is a good starting point, but make sure you use your ear. Also, a volume meter in your recording software might provide some visual aid for getting the volume right. There are no other rules, but what sounds good to you. I.e., Slash lowers some of his pickups as far as 5.5 mm at the neck, and about 3 mm at the bridge, completely off Gibson’s recommended values of about 2.4 mm and 1.6 mm, respectively.

Do this!

Cost: zero
Brightening factor: significant

DYI difficulty
: easy

4 Pickup upgrade

You can refer to the manufacturer’s EQ values for the pickup to get an idea about how bright the humbucker will sound, but that is still a very general approximation. Listen to sound samples, from the manufacturer and from third parties (i.e., YouTube videos). But keep in mind that the pickup may sound nothing like you’ve heard when placed in your guitar, with your rig. It’s never a precise shot, you have to go ahead based on whatever little information you can gather.

WARNING: a pickup upgrade should be the last thing to consider for the sole purpose of getting a brighter tone! Read further for explanations.

Cost: significant
Brightening factor: decisive

DYI difficulty
: advanced

5 Electronics

This is so often overlooked, and people spend so much time and money on pickups only to return to the same frustrations until they address the issues of the circuitry. Don’t even consider a pickup upgrade until you made sure your other electronics are as they should be.

Wiring modes

There are many ways to wire a Les Paul-type guitar, most common being the 50’s style and the modern style. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and it’s one of those endless issues on forums, but ultimately it is for the player to decide. However, if your main problem is the annoying loss of brightness (highs) when turning down the volume knob on the guitar, go with the 50’s wiring. Switching from modern (or some exotic — and usually stupid stock wiring) to the 50’s wiring makes a world of difference, so don’t ignore this.

Potentiometers

Their role is capital. They are basically variable resistors in the volume and tone circuits. Their defining parameter is resistance, in the Kilo-Ohms territory. The standard value for humbuckers is 500K, for both volume and tone — both affect brightness, as they are a permanent part of the circuit. Anything lower gives you mud and loss of articulation. As simple as that.

For extra brightness you might attempt:

1. Installing 1M potentiometers

Cost: small
Brightening factor: significant
DYI difficulty: advanced

2. Getting/modding true-bypass/no-load potentiometers — meaning that when they are fully open (on 10), they are actually out of the circuit altogether. John Cooper (of Korg) illustrates the mod, which is very simple to do. This will only help brightness with the knob on 10, not below.

Cost: zero (if you don’t break the pot…)
Brightening factor: minimal
DYI difficulty: advanced

Capacitors

Along with the tone pots, capacitors create a low-pass filter, draining treble (high frequencies) into ground according to their capacitance and the associated potentiometer setting. The most important thing to consider here is the capacitance.

The Golden Rule: The lower the capacitance value, the more treble (brightness) in the tone.

The Gibson standard for Les Pauls is to use .022µF capacitors. If that is too dark, switch to .015µF, .011µF or .010µF, possibly different values for neck and bridge. John Cooper has an excellent test of capacitance values you can refer to. I’ve had an Asian-made humbucker guitar with .047µF capacitors in the tone circuit. The tone was pretty much unusable under 10, and the little that was there required radical amp settings.

Do note that this will influence tone only with the knob lower than 10 (at least in theory, unless you have a true-bypass pot).

Some people swear by capacitor material influencing the tone, namely using the more expensive PIO (Paper In Oil) capacitors instead of the cheap stock ceramics. You might change your opinion on this (or not) after checking out this capacitor comparison I’ve done (high-quality FLAC samples available for your listening pleasure). However, for the sole purpose of brightness this might be irrelevant.

Cost: low (if you don’t fall for exotic capacitor stories)
Brightening factor: significant, including with a fully open non-true bypass pot
DYI difficulty: advanced

Other mods

Normally used in some Fenders, the Greasebucket (a sort of treble-bleed) circuit helps with balancing the lows when rolling down the highs with the tone knob. It’s simple, and can be ported to Les Paul-type wirings. Never done it myself, though. Also useful only when working the tone knob below 10.

A possibly more convenient, but more expensive option is to buy a prewired harness (pots, capacitors, switches, already wired together, you just need to solder your pickups on it). Make sure it fits the specs outlined above.

Cost: minimal, but pottentially significant if buying pre-made harnesses, or high-end pots and capacitors
Brightening factor: decisive

DYI difficulty
: advanced

6 Cables

Cables introduce their own capacitance in the circuit. Cable capacitance increases with length. It kills brightness. There are more expensive low-capacity cables available, but are you that far down the brightness chain and still unhappy with your guitar? Have you done/checked all of the above?

Cost: may get significant
Brightening factor: variable

DYI difficulty
: n/a

7 Pedals, amplifiers, and cabinets

This is a no brainer. Select a brighter amp, such as the notoriously jangly and sparkly Vox AC30, with its legendary cleans. Really get into setting up its EQ. Use a smaller, open cabinet. Buy an EQ pedal, dial in some treble and high mids, remove some lows.

But if you find yourself relying too much on this final station in the signal journey, if you constantly have to fiddle with your amp and pedal knobs and sliders and there’s still something missing, get back to the beginning, start over — something isn’t quite right somewhere in your chain, somethings are plain wrong, or maybe others fight each other.

Cost: significant
Brightening factor: decisive

DYI difficulty
: n/a


Conclusion

Let’s sum it up, this time in order of importance and impact, as I see it:

  1. Check and upgrade your electronics. They are the back-bone. Crappy electronics equals crappy tone overall.
  2. Adjust your pickups. This only comes second because pickups rely so much on what comes after them — the other electronics.
  3. Upgrade your pickups.
  4. Get a bright amp and an EQ pedal.
  5. Remove your pickup covers.
  6. Consider a low capacitance cable.
  7. Go down a step in string gauge, choose brighter strings and picks.

After going through all these you may still be unhappy with the level of brightness you achieved, or the price of getting there would be too high, either financially, or in terms of work, time and patience.

There are two possible ways to go here: either your guitar is truly a very poorly made instrument that can’t be helped (this actually occurs much more rarely than you might think), and you need to get another, or, a Les Paul-type tone machine is actually not for you. You might have thought it is, with all the subliminal influence of your Gibson-wielding guitar heroes, but you’re actually a Stratocaster/Telecaster kind of guy, and would be much happier playing on one of those — brighter woods, single coils. Consider it seriously.

I find it  very important to have a properly set-up guitar that will inspire you to pick it up and play, hence this entire article which I hope you’ll find useful. Although your fingers won’t make your guitar inherently brighter, tone is in the fingers, still. So go set-up your instrument and play it!

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2 thoughts on “A Brighter Guitar

  1. On the subject of lower value caps did you know that tone caps are always in circuit and drain off tone from your pickups even when you dial in full treble?

    Even on the best of guitars the effect can be REALLY noticeable and can be made worse by the stock value of the cheap tone caps usually fitted by manufacturers. The higher the cap value the greater the drain, and together with the tone and volume pots presents an appreciable “load” on the top range of your the pickups – the cap literally drags down your tone!

    One solution is a complete rewire with “no load” pots – but the caps still present a problem & tonal range may be limited.

    There are many guitarists who will have nothing else but 0.01uf caps fitted – and its worth a few quid to get a decent quality cap (paper in oil/PETP/Orange drop) as the stock caps often dry out or fail. This may explain why guitarists don’t use their tone controls at all. They complain that their tone control is dull and lifeless. This may be because of the “loading” issue, or the cheap stock caps that guitar manufacturers fit have dried out and are sapping tone even more, or their pickups are a little weak

    Any way round the result is the same – their guitar lacks sparkle. And whenever they use the tone control, the sound they get is unusable and the taper of the tone control (the way it reacts as you turn it down) is useless to them. I’m sure many of you have experienced the last problem; when closing your tone control, all changes occur between 10 and 8, and from 8 all the way to 0 there is no usable tone – it’s just dull.

    Choosing a quality cap e.g Paper in Oil (PIO) cap will give a HUGE improvement, and this cap value (0.01uf) makes the guitar a whole lot brighter and more harmonically rich. Personally I prefer to buy a cap with a test certificate from someone like Monstertone on ebay uk. With the tone setting on full treble, the 0.01uf caps present a lighter “load” on the pickups and help restore the top end losses that can occur.

    1. I have touched on the no-load pots solution – it is, indeed, the only way to completely get the cap out of the circuit.

      The cheap ones are worse due to poor QC and wider tolerance, not because of their material and build, inherently.

      The tone pot taper is a different thing, and it’s a matter of preference, in the end – I have guitars where I don’t mind the 10 to be full open and 8 to be 75% shut, I use them just for cleans (on 10), and “woman tone” with distortion (on 8 downwards). On other guitars I prefer a much more subtle tone control, and I get a very nice and wide range of usable tones. The way the tone circuit connects to the volume pot is also extremely important in overall behaviour of the whole circuit (i.e. as in the “50s wiring” vs modern wiring issue), in that it not only changes the way highs are grounded, but also changes the pot tapers. Many guitarists don’t use the tone pots because they either don’t know the wealth of tone to be discovered there, or they just don’t bother.

      Perhaps unsurprisingly, I disagree completely with most your last paragraph. I of course agree that caps should be properly measured, and that decently made ones have a better chance than ones from dubious sources, but the “huge” improvement and the “harmonic richness” is not something I have come across – there is some minute change, but nowhere near that level of intensity, if you simply change cap material and build, not value. The only real, very obvious, measurable change occurs with changing the cap value, not material.

      The 0.01uF cap is just one option, and a matter of preference. I have guitars where I prefer 0.047uF.

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