What’s The Deal With Pickup Polarity?

If you’re reading this article, you probably were trying to order a single pickup. Trust us – it’s not too difficult to find your pickup polarity, and it’s well worth the effort. Please read this article so we can make your pickup custom to your guitar.

Imagine this scenario:

You just purchased a single Strat Bridge pickup for your guitar. You’re excited to throw it in and rock out. You get it installed. You plug it in. It sounds GREAT on it’s own, but when you select the Bridge with the Middle, it sounds like crap! It sounds thin, hollow, and weak. What happened? Your Bridge is out of phase with the rest of your pickups.

Now you have to take the pickup out, send it back to us, and pay for shipping again to get the pickup back in phase with your other pickups. Not cool. At Fralin Pickups, we deal with polarity every day. What is Polarity? Why does it matter to you? Why does it matter to us?

Polarity:

Pickup polarity is the combination of Magnetic Direction and Coil Direction. Your Pickup can have either North or South pointing towards the strings, and the coil could have been wound Clockwise or Counterclockwise. This equates to a 25% chance that your pickup will work correctly if you just take a guess.

The ideal situation is to have your pickup In-Phase and Hum-Cancelling with other pickups. You’ve probably heard the term “Reverse Wound / Reverse Polarity” (RWRP) – well, that’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about an In-Phase and Hum-Cancelling set or pair of pickups.


WHOA.

You’re saying there’s a 25% Chance your single-coil pickup will work correctly in my guitar? Yes. Absolutely. There are 4 combinations that are used when making a pickup. Let’s break them down:

  1. Magnetic Orientation: The top of the magnets could be South (South to Strings, in our lingo), or North.
  2. Coil Direction: Once again, there are 2 options. We call this Bottom to Winder (Counter-Clockwise) and Top to Winder (Clockwise).

Determining your Magnetic Orientation:

Your pickups either have North or South aimed at your strings. It’s easy to find out which one if you have a compass. Simply hold the compass on top of your pickup, on it’s side. This will allow you to observe which way the compass is pulled. If North is pulled towards the pickup, your pickups are “South To Strings”, or “South Up” (Opposites attract). If South is pulled towards your strings, your pickup is North To Strings. 

It’s really important to know your magnetic orientation, as some pickups are able to have their coil direction reversed easily. For instance, a Steel Pole bobbin doesn’t have the wire touching directly on magnets, allowing you to reverse the coil direction easily. However, if you have a traditional Strat or Tele pickup, you’ll need to observe your coil direction as well:

Tricks to find Magnetic Direction:

  1. Use a compass! Opposites attract, so, if you hold a compass to the top of the pickup, it will pull the opposite towards it. You can get a cheap compass online or at a local hobby store.
  2. Use a Magnet marked North and South. Just like the compass, you’ll feel and see what orientation attracts your magnet.
Checking Magnet Direction With a Compass

Checking Magnet Direction With a Compass. This pickup is South to Strings. 

This pickup’s magnetic orientation is being checked by a Magnet marked North and South. This pickup is North to Strings.

 

 


Determining your Coil Direction:

String Polarity Diagram

Illustrated above is where the coil starts and ends. As you can see, the coil starts on the left on Bottom To Winder, and on the right with a Top to Winder pickup. The Start of the coil is always shown by our Black lead, and the last turn is denoted by our White lead. For a real world example, see below:

Lindy Fralin Coil Direction

In the Above Image, the Strat Pickup on the Left has a Counter Clockwise coil direction, from Ground (Black) to Hot (White). A Counter-Clockwise coil direction is the same as Bottom to Winder, in our lingo. The Tele Bridge on the Right has a Clockwise coil direction, from Ground to Hot. In our lingo, the Clockwise coil direction is Top to Winder.

Tricks to find Coil Direction:

  1. Observe! The best thing to do here is to pull your pickup out and look at it. Use the diagram above to let us know before we wind it. That way, we will match your polarity.
  2. Send us a picture of the pickup out of the guitar. If we can clearly see the leads, we can denote which way the coil was spun.
  3. Check with your manufacturer, or do a quick search on the internet for your exact model. This is not always the best case, because there is not a lot of consistency throughout the industry.

Putting it all together:

We all love the tone of a Strat®. With a 5-way switch, you can get Hum-Cancelling tones in positions 2 and 4. So, what’s going on under the hood? See the diagram below to see how reversing the Coil Direction and Magnetic Orientation between pickups can give you hum-cancelling tones that sound great:

Strat Polarity Diagram

 

By reversing both directions, magnetic and coil direction, we get hum-cancelling tones in positions 2 & 4 of your 5-way switch, and your pickups are in phase with each other. The same applies for virtually any instrument that uses Single Coil pickups: Telecasters, Jazz Basses, Mustangs and Jazzmasters…the list goes on.


Possible Situations:

Reversing only one “attribute” of a pickup will put the pickup out of phase with it’s neighbors. Only by reversing both Magnetic Direction and Coil Direction do we keep our pickup in phase, and hum-cancelling. Keep reading for some common outcomes of out-of-phase guitar pickups:

Possible Problem #1: Both Coils are in the same direction, but the magnet direction is opposite between pickups.

  • These pickups are out of phase, and when used together will sound weak, hollow, and thin. A lot of midrange is cancelled out.

Possible Problem #2: Coils in different directions, but the pickups are magnetized the same.

  • These pickups are out of phase, and when used together will sound weak, hollow, and thin. A lot of midrange is cancelled out.

Possible Problem #3: Both Pickups are the same coil direction and magnetic orientation.

  • These pickups will be in phase, however, they will not be hum-cancelling.

Part 2: Hum-Cancelling pickups

Hum-cancelling pickups are a little easier to identify, as one part of the puzzle is already given to us. A Humbucker (this can be our Hum-Cancelling P-90’s, Hum-Cancelling Jazzmasters, Split Blades, etc.) has both magnetic directions already. So, you don’t need to worry about Magnetic Orientation. What you do need to know is Coil Direction. This is really easy – just order your pickup with Multiple Leads!

Fralin Pickups 2-Conductor Lead

This 2-Conductor Lead has a White, Black, and Chassis Ground (Shield / Bare). Simply Ground the Shield. White and Black can be reversed if your pickup is out of phase.


As you can see, Polarity can be a little confusing. We hope this helps break it down. If you have questions, give us a call! We’ll do our best to help.

27 Comments

  1. If I have 3 strat pick-ups and neck and bridge are south facing and middle is north facing and all lead hot wires are on same side, let’s say left when looking from bottom, all grounds on the right, can I just swap the middle hot and ground to achieve noise canceling and no weak signals?

    Thanks!

    1. Robbie,

      You should be able to – that’s the concept! However, if you have the chassis of the pickup grounded through the black lead, then you’ll want to try to reverse it. If you have a 2-Conductor lead, with a White, Black, and Shield (Bare), you will have no issue performing this.

      Tyler

      1. I found out more info and hooked them up on an old pick guard last night. They are all Fender pickups. The neck and bridge are pure vintage 65’s with a white and black wire. The middle is a RWRP Fat 60’s with a yellow and black wire. My buddy says he thinks the fat 60’s are wound opposite of most Fender pickups. Seems to be correct so far I just switched the hot for ground and visa versus on the middle and 2&4 are quiet. I will swap out into the guitar in the next few days as that will be the only true test. How will I know if phase is off? If that’s the correct terms. I read it will sound weak per your article?

        Thanks

  2. I have a P90 strat style guitar. It has 3 P90 pickups although they suck and the middle is out of phase. I would like to upgrade these to 3 new P90’s with the middle being reverse wound. Can you recommend a set? These are the normal P90’s that screw into the body from the two middle screws (Not dog ear).

    1. Hey Jenn,

      Sure thing – our P90 Set would work fine, and you would just need to order (2) Necks and (1) Bridge. In the “Notes” field on the checkout screen, you can say these are a 3-P90 Set, and we’ll get you straight!

  3. Hi all, I’ve been researching adding a Vintage Strat bridge pickup to my config now that has a Fat50’s neck and Squire pups in middle and bridge. When we installed the Fat 50s neck position I had to have the tech reverse polarity of them to get it right. Would I have to do that when adding your Vintage Strat bridge pup?

    PS Big fan of your work as I already have your pups in my Tele and other Strat with SSHB config.

    1. Hey David,

      It’s impossible to tell without more information. It could work, but there’s a 75% chance it won’t. I would recommend finding the magnetic polarity and coil direction, and we can make a pickup to match.

      Tyler

  4. Some noiseless bass pickups have 1 magnet by chords and 1 coil for 2 magnets and 1 coils in oposite direction for the 2 other magnets. Commected together it works as a single coil with hum cancellin function included. Great.
    But I see also this kinf od pickup for 5 string bass. How are they doing?
    Thank you

    1. We’ve only seen “stacked versions of the 5-String Jazz Bass pickups, which have never impressed us. That being said…we are working on a 5-String Split Blade for Jazz Bass, for this year!

      Tyler

  5. Hello,

    I have a circular compas. The needle has a green mark. But…the compass itself I can turn it 360 degrees. This means that when I hold N near the pick-up magnet and the needle is pulled towards the magnet, it does not tell me if it is north or south, because the needle is always attracted to the magnet,equal which letter of the compass is attracted by the magnet. also when I turn the body of the compass in equal which direction.IOW: when I hold the compass with the letter W close to the magnet , the needle shows E . This means that a North- South magnet is always correct. With a compass you first need to calibrate the compass to the north-pole of the earth, and after that moving the pick-up towards the compass.

  6. I have a “The Loar” archtop with a single P90 in the neck position. The pickup has 48mm pole spacing for some dumb ass reason. the Guitar in that spot has 52mm string spacing.
    So… I need a neck position, 52mm pole spacing P90. Can you do that? I can find lots of 52 mm but are all bridge wound pickups. Not sure what that would work like.

  7. Good evening, if I feel the magnet attracting to the pole piece, do i use that side to charge or the opposite side (retracting) to charge pickups? And vice versa, if I feel the magnet retracting (attracting away) do i use the opposite side of the magnet to charge?

    1. Hey Tony,

      If we’re talking about our Remag kit with the Neodymium Magnet, then you are 100% correct. Don’t let the magnets repel – that will demagnetize the pickup’s magnet. Make sure everything is attracting.

      Thanks for your question!

  8. I have about a dozen electric guitars with a whole host of different pickups that produce a great variety of sounds, but I don’t have or have I ever had a guitar with a P-90 pickup, a PAF pickup, a lipstick pickup, or any of several other different “off the beaten track” types of pups. I would like to put together some sort of hybrid electric that has perhaps three such pickups, starting from a body style “TBD” (I have a lot of Strat and Tele types, and want something different, maybe from Warmoth, AllParts, or the like, but don’t know what I want yet). Tentatively, I’m thinking P-90 (my only *definite* choice), probably in the bridge position – but the jury’s still out on the other two choices and their positions – and, of course, I’ll want to optimize my tonal prospects with those push-pull pots and/or switches. SO… what do you suggest I use in order to optimize my tonal variety?! I don’t care at all about conventions, and do want some eclecticism but without thinness – your suggestions?

  9. What is the proper high output noiseless or lower noise p90 dogear to replace the slug dogear in my gibson lp jr?

  10. I want to put a P.A.F. in the bridge position of my road worn fender stratocaster. It has fender custom shop 69 p/u’s in it now and I plan on leaving those in the neck and middle positions. I play mostly blues and hard rock stuff like SRV and AC/DC no metal or anything. Just looking for a little extra “beef” for lead work with the blues and some extra punch for the rock n roll… I want a nickel cover and it appears to me that people use neck pick ups for this mod? Please help so I can order the correct pick up. I like to measure twice and cut once. Thanks!

    1. Scott,

      It sounds like you want a 8.2K Pure P.A.F. bridge with 3-Conductor Lead. Make sure you get that lead as you won’t have any polarity problems if you do.

      Tyler

  11. My name is matt boren. I have an old kramer with the angled bridge humbucker and two single coils. I’m going to gut all of that out and order just a bridge position pure paf @ 8.2k. I’m going to also order a split shaft 500 k pot. I’m only going to run the bridge pickup, and i need a 52 mm pole spacing. In a single humbucker application do i need 3 or 4 lead? Also i have no idea what direction north or south or does it matter in a single pickup? Also i want it w black bobbins and no cover. My phone # is 843-729-5723

  12. Apologies. Now I need to retract my previous comment, because:
    The north pole of a compass needle is a magnetic north pole. It is attracted to the geographic North Pole, which is a magnetic south pole (opposite magnetic poles attract).

  13. No No No. Wrong.
    A compass north always points to the North Pole. So the compass North will point to the north polarity of any magnet.
    Basic physics. The compasses north pointy end (usually red) has been magnetised as a south polarity, otherwise it wouldn’t point north.

    1. The earth’s north pole is actually a magnetic south pole. A compass’ north pole is, in fact, a north magnetic pole.

  14. Excellent descriptions, Ty. And you used one of my favorite expressions, “pop the hood”! I just said it today!

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  16. Hi, I’m considering adding a dummy coil for hum cancelling to my rig. The wiring for this is apparently quite simple. My question is, I have an old pickup from a Mexican Strat that I want to use for the dummy coil. I have pulled off the bar magnets, and measured the resistance at 6.85 ohms. This appears to be a bit more than most vintage style pickups. I have a Callaham prewired pickguard assembly, with the H/SRV special wind Lindy Fralin pickups. Will this work, or will I need a lower resistance dummy coil? I have read that the dummy coil needs to be 50% to 80% of the pickups. Thanks in advance.

    1. Hi, I have a Gibson ES-175 with two humbuckers. I want to replace just the neck pickup with one of your humbucker-sized P90s. Is polarity going to be an issue? Since the bridge humbucker will remain a noise-canceling pickup will I gain any noise canceling from the P90 when the selector switch is in the middle? To match the output volumes would an underwound or overwound P90 be preferable? Any other considerations? Thanks in advance.

      1. Hey Christopher,

        If you’re purchasing the Single Coil P90s, then yes – but, all you need to order is 2-Conductor With Shield lead for reversing the coil direction.

        You will notice a significant drop in single coil hum when in the middle position, but it won’t be 100% hum cancelling. I would probably go with the Stock output or a +5% Overwind just to be safe!

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