We’ve all been there. We show up at the venue with our feet sticking to the beer soaked wooden floors guitar in hand. The dim stage lights beginning to warm you up as you plug your Strat straight into what your venue of the night refers to as its “backline amp”, which essentially looks to be a Twin Reverb that is about two drinks away from total failure. You turn the amp on and are greeted with a most unpleasant, HUMMMMMM – it’s at this time the rest of your band looks right at you thinking something that should remain in the thought bubble.
What is this terrible hum? It seems at certain angles it is gone, at others it is worse – there has to be a solution! Well my friend, sit tight and prepare to get schooled on the world of 60 cycle hum and noises that we just plain hate.
60 cycle hum is a phenomenon that is caused from your wall main power. Typically, alternating current that is found in most power lines has a frequency of 60hz. Interestingly enough, power cables and audio cables do not like to play nice together, which results in a hum when they are too close without proper shielding or isolation. The result of this ill-fated crossing of cables is a sound all guitar players have heard in their life – the 60 cycle hum (or a potential hum at another frequency that we find undesirable).
For the single coil lover, you are battling electromagnetic frequency interference (EMI) and Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) from the world around you. From the neon Bud Light sign behind the bar to the fluorescent lights in the ceiling are all producing frequencies that your pickup is quite literally picking up. Even the console you are plugging into in relation to your set up can be a culprit for these humming shenanigans and thanks to your amplifier picking up these frequencies as well results in louder and louder buzz with the more gain that you have in your signal chain.
Fear not though! Science has provided us with solutions to fix this 60hz terror:
This is one of the best low cost mods one can do to your guitar. Have you ever wondered why the underside of your Fender pickguard has all of that copper? Or why sometimes you see control cavities that have a different paint or coating? Those elements are added to your guitar to shield them from interfering frequencies.
Companies such as Stew Mac and Guitarfetish.com have incredibly reasonable priced sheets of copper that can easily be cut and applied to your guitar. Simply cut out the material into the shape you need and glue it into your instrument. Remember to solder your ground wire to the material or it will not work (if you have a volume pot or other pots mounted directly to the material, the ground wire is not needed). For maximum impact I would suggest covering all areas where electrical components are with the material (some might call that overkill, but I call it being over obsessive with quiet, clean tone).
If you decide to use shielding paint instead, simply cover the control area with the paint, let it dry and reinstall your components and like BAM (sorry Emeril) instant quiet tone
Not all cables are created equal. While there are so many factors that determine a good cable (in fact that may be my next article) we will discuss the ideal shielding qualities to look for when purchasing a good audio cable.
Guitar and instrument cables are typically “unbalanced” which means that they have two connectors and two conductors each connected by two wires in the cable (a balanced cable has 3 wires inside and out with one being a ground wire). Skipping the other components of a cable the one we will discuss is the shield braiding.
On lower end cables you will typically see foil shielding which provides insufficient amount of protection from RFI and other magnetic fields. When purchasing a cable look for a braided one, which will provide the maximum amount of protection against these interfering frequencies
Note: Better cables make a huge difference with RFI and other magnetic frequencies, but they will minimally impact ground loop hum.
There is a reason they call it a HUMbucker – can you guess why?
A humbucker is constructed of two single coil pickups wound together in opposite directions. This is crucial to the design because the individual hum that would occur through one coil is then reversed in the next, so when combined it cancels out removing the hum from the equation!
For single coil fans fear not, there are dozens of great examples of noiseless single coils. A noiseless single coil is technically a humbucker in design, but designed to be the same size and sound the same as a single coil. From Fralin to Kinman these pickups provide the same killer tone as a single coil, but remove all the headaches of their inherent problems.
Looking for another excuse to buy a guitar pedal? Pedals such as the Electro Harmonix Hum Debugger and ISP Decimator II are great low cost pedals that will help remedy any unwanted noise coming out of your chain
If you want to tackle your issue at the source, the Ebtech Hum X plugs directly into a wall outlet which in turn becomes the new input to plug your amplifier into. The Hum X removes the ground loop to provide a much quieter platform for the rest of your chain to thrive on
Many pieces of gear oftentimes have what they call a ground lift. This ground lift essentially breaks the connection between electrical earth and your setup. While it technically breaks the connection each unit is independently earth grounded making them still safe
Note: You may hear people on the forums discuss cutting the ground of a three prong cable. DO. NOT. DO. THIS. While yes, it will serve the purpose people say it does, you are also creating a huge risk of electrocution.
If you follow the guidelines above you will have a much quieter rig. Get nerdy with it and experiment with what works best for you, plus it gives you more reasons to get more gear – something I jump at the chance to do every time!