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Understanding flat and staggered pole pieces in pickups

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Sometimes I get emails requesting I write about specific stuff and this is one of them. If you'd like to email me in your own question, write me.

Kyle writes:

Could you post your thoughts on your blog about the difference between staggered and flat pickups. Pros and cons of both.

What Kyle is referring to are the pole pieces of a guitar pickup. On traditional Stratocaster guitars (Fender or Squier), the pole pieces, as in the six metal round things on the pickup, are exposed. You'll also notice that on most Strat guitars that these pieces are not all mounted using the same height.

Pickups in which all the pole pieces are the same height are called "flat" or flat-pole. Ones with differing heights are called "staggered" or staggered-pole.

Now before continuing, staggered-pole is for all intents and purposes a "Fender thing", and I'll explain why in a moment.

Does pole piece height actually affect the sound?

Yes, it does.

Pole piece height is a "natural EQ" of sorts, and fortunately can be explained in very simple terms.

If all the poles are even height ("flat"), the first immediate difference is that you'll probably hear more bass frequency response, mainly because the string balance as far as volume is concerned is even across all the strings.

With staggered poles on the other hand, you'll notice that the poles mounted higher are almost always in the middle of the pickup, and in addition it's very typical that the pole under the G string will be mounted highest, making the G the loudest string compared to the rest.

Staggered poles are very much the "foundation" of classic Fender solid-body electric guitar tone

Fender originally did not use pickups with staggered poles. From 1952 to 1956 they were all flat-pole, which means that yes, if you absolutely want that very specific early-1950s string balance on a Telecaster, it's pretty much required to use flat-pole pickups.

However, the classic Fender sound you know comes from pickups that use staggered pole pieces.

Does this mean the Strat naturally has unbalanced string volume? Yes. But that's the way Strat guys (including myself) prefer them to sound. We like that louder-than-usual G string because it's a part of a Strat's "personality", so to speak.

The main tonal differences between flat-pole and staggered-pole

Flat

Advantages: Even string balance (as in volume), resulting in even output across all strings.

Disadvantages: Lower strings may ring out too loudly and there's very little you can do about it, and typically takes away all the "personality" of a Strat's classic sound (which some would call "bland").

Staggered

Advantages: Has the "bell-like chime" Strats and Teles are known for. Lower strings never overpower the overall sound.

Disadvantages: G string is loud by design, and staggered poles do typically sound a bit "muddy" compared to flat-pole because of the string imbalance. Again, this is by design but that's what classic Fender sound is supposed to be.

Do Gibson guys ever use staggered-pole?

Almost never. While Strat/Tele tone is largely attributed to staggered-pole pickups, the exact opposite is true for the classic Gibson sound.

Generally speaking, staggered poles on humbucker pickups usually sound awful.

The only time Gibson guys use staggered-pole is for making very small string balance adjustments. On Strat/Tele guitars, the pole height differences are very obvious and done that way on purpose. On Gibsons, if you ever see staggered-pole, the height differences will be much, much closer together. Staggered-pole on Gibsons are only for players with ears so "picky" that they can hear tiny string balance differences like that.

In other words, on Les Paul style guitars and for humbucker pickups in general, keep the poles flat and don't mess with them.

Should you adjust your pole pieces manually?

Only if it has screws to allow you to do so.

On Gibson PAF-style pickups, one coil of the pickup has poles that can be adjusted using a simple flathead screwdriver:

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(white side has the poles that are screws)

Poles with no screws should not be adjusted, so don't mess with those. Ones with screws on the other hand can be adjusted.

Additional note: Yes, it's true that if you take out all the screws from one-half of a PAF-style pickup, this essentially "converts" the humbucker into a single-coil. Traditionally, this is called a "dummy coil" setup.

What about Lace Sensor pickups for Strats?

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The way Lace Sensor pickups work is that they don't use the traditional 6-pole setup, but rather 36 separate magnetic "sensing" fields. This supposedly gives you the classic unbalanced Fender sound while doing it without producing any 60-cycle hum, and do so with better string balance.

The Sensor basically takes the idea of traditional staggered poles and throws that all out the window in favor of using different magnetic technology. You can't consider the Sensor a "flat" or a "staggered" because it's neither due to it having a completely different way of how it works. Yes, Sensors sound great. The only problem is that it can be very confusing which one to go with. Generally speaking, the go-to pickup for Sensors is the Lace Sensor Gold, as seen above. When you want classic Strat tone utilizing better pickup technology, the Sensor Gold is a good choice.

What about "blade" pickups?

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Blade-style pickups like the DiMarzio DP181 pictured use a dual-blade setup that has a sound which is best described as unique. It doesn't sound like a humbucker, but acts like one, and literally has double the output compared to traditional 6-pole pickup. The blades do have a curve to them which means yes, you do get somehwat of that classic Strat/Tele sound because of the balance curve.

If you want Strat pickups with way more output and a decidedly "growly" sound to them, Fast Track pickups by DiMarzio work great.

On the Telecaster side of things, you'd want the DP381 in the bridge and the DP417 in the neck. That combo will turn any Telecaster into a vintage screamer the moment you install them.

If you want classic Fender sound, you want staggered poles

For the metalheads out there, you prefer flat-pole pickups. You like string balance that's even, predictable and, well, flat-sounding. That's your thing, and I don't have a problem with that.

For others who want the "bell-like chime" classic Fender sound, staggered-pole pickups are pretty much required. Fortunately, even the cheapest Squier has the staggered poles, so it's not like you have to spend a lot of money to get it (and heck, you may already have it now).

If you're considering doing a pickup swap-out on your Stratocaster or Telecaster be it Squier or Fender brand, yes, poles matter. If you want to keep that classic Fender sound, stay with staggered like the Fender Tex-Mex set. If you want something more suited to metal music, use blades or flat-pole. If you want something modernized with no hum, use the Lace Sensors.

Also remember that the stock cheap pickups in Squier Strats do in fact have a "personality" all their own. I do sincerely believe there is such a thing as "Squier tone", as the stock pickups are typically very "growly" sounding in their own unique way.

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