What’s The Deal With Polarity?

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.

At Fralin Pickups, we deal with polarity every day. What is Polarity? Why does it matter to you? Why does it matter to us? Let’s answer a few of these questions and help set the record straight, without getting too technical.

1.) What is Polarity? Overall pickup polarity is the combination of the Magnetic Orientation of your pickup, as well as the Coil Direction of your pickup. This will determine if your pickup is In Phase or Out of Phase with the pickups currently in your guitar.

2.) Why Does It Matter To You?  Let’s say you have a Strat that you purchase a single single-coil pickup for. There’s a 25% chance that the single pickup will be in phase with the rest of the pickups in your guitar.

3.) Why Does It Matter To Us? We like to get it right the first time, and not have you send our pickup back for phase reversing.


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. For instance, our Strat polarity is South on the Neck and Bridge, and North on the Reverse Middle.
  2. Coil Direction: Once again, there are 2 options. We call this Bottom to Winder (Counter-Clockwise) and Top to Winder (Clockwise). See image below for clarification.

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.

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. 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.

 


Okay. My head hurts. What do I do? 

We get it. Polarity can be confusing. All you need to do is let us know the Magnetic Orientation and Coil Direction of your pickup, and we will make it custom for you. Here’s how to check the polarity of your pickups:

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.

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.

Checking Magnetic Direction with a Magnet. This pickup is North to Strings.

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.

3 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. I got this site from my buddy who shared with me concerning this site
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  3. Excellent descriptions, Ty. And you used one of my favorite expressions, “pop the hood”! I just said it today!

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