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Cheap, easy and sometimes controversial ways to beef up your guitar tone- pickup heights and strings

There are times when electric guitarists want to thin out their tone (

However, most of the time we get the question “How can I get a fatter and thicker sound?” and we spend a lot of time helping our customers define their personal sound. Much of that tone is ‘fingers’, and when I am teaching guitar, I dig into fundament like dynamics and note choice… the underlying skills that make Clapton sound like Clapton on a Strat, Tele, Les Paul or a 335. This aspect of tone has little to do with gear and everything to do with lessons and practice.

At GuitarYouDreamAbout, we also optimize wiring, pickups, amps, pedals and the guitar itself. When all of this is combined, we help our customers discover their ultimate tone.

As far as “fat sounds” go, the good news is there are two simple, non-destructive ways that you can try at home with little or no cost.

The first and relatively non-controversial approach is adjusting pickup heights

Although there are standard published heights for pickups, there is enough variability in pickups, guitars and playing styles that a few turns of a screw can make a dramatic difference. Here’s how you do it.

  1. Use a ruler to measure the distance from the top of your pickups to the center of the treble E string and do the same thing on the bass E string. Write the distance down and /or take a photo so that you can reverse the process if you don’t like the results.

  2. Use an appropriate screwdriver (often a small Philips head) to turn the screws that mount the pickup to the pickguard or body. Most pickups have 2 screws: one for bass side and one for the treble side. Clockwise turns usually increases the pickup’s height and output and you can balance treble and bass by adjusting one side closer to the strings than the other.

For the most part, raising the pickup closer to the strings increases volume. However, and this is a big however, if the pickup gets too close to the string, the pickup’s magnet(s) can pull too hard on the string and actually reduce sustain. And if you raise a neck pickup too far, it may not have enough clearance and your stings may hit the pickup when you play high up the neck.

So that’s it for pickup height. Experiment, make small changes and develop a feeling for optimum pickup heights for you and your rig.

The Second inexpensive (and somewhat controversial approach) to beefing up tone is to increase the gauge of your strings

Without getting into too much detail, electric guitar pickups are miniature generators that convert mechanical string energy into an electrical current. As a result, if all of the other variables are the same, heavier gauge strings have more mass, which means that they have more potential to create more electrical current which translates into more guitar output.

This is undisputed... You can ‘hit’ heavier strings harder than you can with lighter strings… again, you can put more energy into the strings and some guitarists also increase their action slightly to give the heavier strings more room to move.

This leads to increased dynamic range. Kind of like digital bits, the increased gauge string can support a wider range of volume levels… in other words you can increase the ‘distance’ between your loudest and quietist playing with heavier gauges.

Last but not least, this effect occurs with any gauge increase. Moving from 8s to 9s, from 10s to 11s, or even 12s, you keep increasing the energy potential which translates into hotter output which usually sounds ‘thicker’.

So why is this controversial?

Most electric guitarists assume that heavier gauge strings will be harder to play, hurting fingertips and decreasing bends. They have already spent time optimizing their sound with lighter gauges, they haven’t experienced the benefits of heavier gauge strings and they assume they will have to give up many of their favorite techniques.

However there are only a few techniques that don’t become easier as your fingers get stronger; tapping is probably the best example.

But If you think about it, Light Acoustic guitar strings are the same gauge as Heavy Electric strings: .012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054

So it’s really not a matter of pain. It simply takes time to increase finger strength for bends, to learn how to use the increased dynamic range, etc. and everything falls in place in a couple of weeks.

I learned this by accident when I strung a piezo electric with 12s to get a more authentic acoustic sound on stage. However, when I had a string break on my ‘electric’ electric guitar, I switched over to the 12-gauge guitar and immediately learned that the tone was significantly ‘fatter’ with absolutely no other modifications. It rapidly became my primary stage guitar because I could beat it silly on crunch songs and move to delicate finger style without changing guitars.

Stevie Ray Vaughn was famous for using 13s and tuning down a half step and rumors say he went as far as 17s at times! Of course we don’t have to go that far, as mentioned above, a gauge or 2 increase may give you the sound you are looking for.

Once you find the gauge that gives you the tone you need, you may have to make a few simple adjustments so that the new gauge strings will behave correctly. The first adjustment is intonation; this is a simple bridge adjustment that all electric guitarists should learn to do for themselves.

If the new strings are slightly too large for the old nut, and if they get caught when you bend or don’t sit well, another easy relatively easy adjustment is refiling the nut or replacing it with a new nut. Once again, this isn’t hard to learn.

But it’s also relatively inexpensive if you decide to use a guitar technician.

Last, if the gauge change is large enough, the increased tension on the neck might require a truss rod adjustment. You may experience an increased action (distance of strings from the fingerboard) but keep this in mind… heavier strings can absorb a lot more impact, which means you can play harder and a slightly higher action may be good for your thicker sound.

However, if you need a truss rod adjustment, it’s probably best to take your guitar to a technician for a total setup. It’s relatively inexpensive and it's safer… if you aren’t experienced with truss rods, there is a chance that you could break it.

So get some help if you need it but try heavier strings first to confirm that you are getting the new tone that you are looking for.

Keep in mind that great electric guitars are more than the sum of their parts and each one has an optimal string gauge. The Piezo loaded guitar that I referenced earlier is a Parker NiteFly that has a graphite neck and easily handles the increased tension and ‘loves’ 12 gauge. However, I probably wouldn’t try 12s on a significantly less robust guitar (like a lightweight hollow body).

As a result, my Parker loves 12s, my custom L5S loves 11s and at the bottom of my electric gauges, I have a Strat that will only play nice when I give her the 9s that she prefers. A lot of this is due to resonance. Different gauge strings emphasize different harmonics which your guitar may (or may not) need.

So put a little time in to get your fingers used to the heavier strings and learn to take out your frustrations by hitting strings significantly harder. Remember, we are talking about the equivalent to Light gauge acoustic strings and we shouldn’t let the acoustic players monopolize all of the great timbres:)

Looking forward to your feedback;)

Michael Stierhoff upgrades and designs guitars and does a lot of other fun music stuff. Visit to learn more!


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