It might be that we, the guitar players, are too obsessed with our beloved instruments, but we’re sure that electric guitars provide things that many other instruments don’t. First off, they have some very expressive qualities and give musicians many different tone-shaping options. The possibilities are almost endless, and with the further development of amp modeling units, pickup modeling peals, and MIDI pickups, you can make your guitar sound like just about anything. Yes, you might spend hours, days, weeks, even years researching different topics in order to make your tone better, but that’s all part of the game! And, at the end of the day, it’s totally worth it!
However, even with all the research that you invest in learning new stuff about electric guitars, there are always some things you might have overlooked or that you just never thought about. And some of these issues might actually be really important for your guitar’s tone.
The topic that we want to focus on here has been present since the earliest days of rock ‘n’ roll, but not that many guitar players have actually paid attention to it. Have you ever wondered why some guitars have angled or slanted pickups? The most common examples are Fender’s classic Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars, with their bridge pickups placed at an angle. Meanwhile, most of the other guitars have pickups are at a normal angle. Why is this the case? Would a different pickup position make any difference? Let’s find out.
Single Coils on Strats, Teles, and Other Guitars
We’ll start with the most common settings, the setups we see on Stratocasters, Telecasters, and some of those “offset” guitars like Mustangs or Kurt Cobain’s Jag-Stangs.
The simplest explanation is that with the slanted pickup positioning, you get more response from the treble strings and more control over the low-end strings. The closer the pickups are to the bridge, the brighter and more treble-heavy the sound becomes.
So how does this affect your tone in practice? Basically, with slanted pickups, your tone is more “evened out” and you get more balance between the low and high end in your tone. When the pickup is further from the bridge and closer to the neck, you get a warmer and a “bassier” sound. These are some tonal properties that you’d want to keep when playing on the bass strings through the bridge pickup. Even though the pickup is slanted, the poles that are picking up the signal from the bass strings are still somewhat close to the bridge. This way, you keep the tightness, but manage to get just a little more of the bottom-end in your tone.
What’s more, the single-coil pickups might sometimes have issues with pronouncing these low-end tones. This type of pickup positioning has been proven to be the perfect one for single-coils on the bridge position. (So far, at least.)
When playing through the bridge pickup, you’d even feel the difference between a perpendicularly placed single-coil and a slanted one. With a straight single-coil, you’d feel like you need to hit harder on the bottom two or three strings.
Now, there’s no right or wrong way of placing single-coil pickups. There’s just a difference in the overall output. For instance, Fender Jaguar guitars often have two single-coil pickups that are placed perpendicularly to the strings. This is probably why such a guitar is popular among classic surf-rock or surf-rock-inspired musicians as it keeps the tone more treble-heavy. On top of that, the bridge position pickup is pretty close to the bridge, making the tone significantly brighter and more “twangy.”
Fender Mustang is another guitar model where we can see slanted pickups. However, in this case, we also have a slanted pickup in the neck position. Again, this is yet another solution that would add some balance to the tone, in this case, the neck pickup position.
How Did the Concept Come to Be?
The idea of slanted pickups was first introduced back at the very beginning of the 1950s by the founder of Fender guitars, Mr. Leo Fender himself. The first guitar with such a formation was the Broadcaster (that eventually became known as the Telecaster), with this concept implemented during the instrument’s early design stages. He tried to find a way to even out the tone across the spectrum, and this simple solution worked so well that almost all single-coil guitars even today are made with this particular feature. The whole thing was also confirmed by Leo’s assistant Freddie Tavares who explained this was the best way to keep both the brightness of treble strings and the power of bass strings.
You also need to note that back in the 1940s and the 1950s, the tones of pedal steel and lap steel guitars were pretty popular. The whole swing movement was also getting a lot of attention, and guitar players were always looking for those twangy tones. With a slanted single-coil, you get the maximum brightness from treble strings. Adding in the tremolo bar was another thing that helped guitar players replicate steel guitar vibes, but that’s a whole different discussion.
Another suspected reason for the implementation of slanted pickups was the amplifiers at the time. These days, amps are voiced in such a way that allows guitar players to have good response both with lower and higher strings. But back in the ’40s and the ’50s, guitar amps were a completely different ballgame. Although tube amplifiers back then had some pretty appealing naturally distorted tones, there was still a lack of brightness and balance between the low and high parts of the spectrum.
Pole and String Spacing
But the whole thing is not that simple. Another thing we need to think of is the pickup pole spacing. In some cases, slanting a pickup might help when the pole piece distance is wider than the distance between the strings. For instance, there are humbuckers designed for guitars with Floyd Rose or vintage-styled tremolo bridges. Their pole spacing is just slightly wider, 52.6 mm instead of the standard 49 mm from the center of the lowest string pole to the center of the highest string pole. If you place these kinds of pickups into regular guitars, there should be some slanting involved so that all the strings go directly above the pole pieces.
But, at the end of the day, these cases are not that common. It may happen if you want to put this specific humbucker into your guitar but the pole piece and string distance don’t match.
Slanted Humbuckers and Other “Unconventional” Examples
As mentioned above, the same slanted positioning can be seen with humbuckers. Arguably one of the biggest innovators in the world of guitars, Eddie Van Halen slanted the bridge humbucker on his legendary Frankenstrat guitar. Although it was slanted only slightly compared to single-coils of Strats and Teles, the idea behind such a decision was still the same – adding more brightness to treble strings and more low-end and warmth to the bass strings.
One rather unusual example comes from former Ozzy Osbourne guitar player Jake E. Lee. His signature Charvel guitars feature a humbucker in the bridge and two single-coil pickups in the middle and neck positions. Interestingly enough, it’s not the humbucker that’s slanted here, but the single-coils. What’s more, they’re slanted in the opposite direction from what we’re used to – the bottom-end leans towards the bridge, while the treble side leans towards the neck. The idea here was to get rid of those sharp “ice pick” tones on the top three strings. At the same time, bass strings retain some of the tightness in the middle and neck pickup positions.
Extended range guitars with fanned frets are another great example where humbuckers can be installed at an angle in order to balance things out in the spectrum. Fanned-fret guitars are kind of unusual, where the nut and the bridge are at an angle. To put it simply, if you put a pickup perpendicularly to the strings on fanned-fret guitars, it’s technically as if you slanted a pickup on a regular guitar. For the bass strings, the signal is picked up further from the bridge, while the treble strings pick it up closer. Slanting the pickups on a fanned-fret guitar, you’ll actually get a tone closer to “conventional” guitars.
However, there’s one important thing to note here – in this particular case, some are advising that you use a humbucker originally intended for a guitar with one more string. So if you have a fanned-fret 7-string and want a slanted humbucker on it, it’s advisable that you use an 8-string pickup. This way, the magnetic field covers all of the strings and there are no dead spots.