Understanding Pickup Polarity - Fralin Pickups

What’s The Deal With Pickup Polarity?

Last Updated: April 22nd, 2020

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. For identifying your magnetic polarity, we recommend buying one of these: Schatten
Magnet Polarity Tester

IMAGINE THIS SCENARIO:

You just purchased a 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 its own, but when you combine the Bridge with the Middle pickup, it sounds like crap! It seems thin, hollow, and weak.

What happened? Your Bridge pickup 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.

WHAT IS PICKUP 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 be Clockwise or Counter-clockwise (more on this later).

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.


There are four important considerations 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 jargon), or North to Strings.
  2. Coil Direction: Once again, there are two options: Counter-Clockwise and Clockwise.

DETERMINING MAGNET POLARITY:

Your pickups either have North or South aimed at your strings. If you have a compass, it’s easy to do: hold the compass on top of your pickup, on its side. This will allow you to observe which way the compass pulls.

If North pulls towards the pickup, your pickups are “South To Strings,” or“South Up” (Opposites attract). If South pulls towards your pickup, your pickup is North To Strings.

It’s essential to know your magnetic polarity, as some pickups can have their coil direction reversed easily. For instance, Our Steel Pole 42s and Steel Pole 43s can be reversed 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.
Checking Magnetic Direction with a Magnet. This pickup is North to Strings.

Determining Coil Direction:

How to determine coil direction
The image on the left has a Clockwise Coil Direction, going from Ground to Hot. The image on the right was wound opposite.

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 Clockwisecoil 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.

  2. Send us a photo

    Send us a picture of the pickup out of the guitar. If we can see the leads, we can denote the coil direction

  3. Check with the manufacturer or look online

    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:

Let’s put all of the concepts of Pickup Polarity together with a common example: Stratocaster wiring. With Stratocaster pickups, positions 2 & 4 of the 5-way switch are both in-phase and hum-canceling. Here’s why:

When the Bridge and the Middle pickup combine, their coil directions and their magnetic orientations reverse. This cancels hum and keeps pickups in phase.

The same applies for virtually any instrument that uses Single Coil pickups: Telecasters, Jazz Basses, Mustangs, and Jazzmasters…the list goes on.


TRYING TO FIX IT YOURSELF:

If your pickups are out of phase, you might be able to fix it yourself. You can try to reverse the coil direction, for example. However, reversing only one “attribute” of a pickup can cause some unintended side-effects. Here are some potential problems, and how to diagnose them:

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 canceled out.

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
canceled out.

Problem #3:

Both Pickups are the same coil direction and magnetic orientation.

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


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-canceling 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!

2 Conductor With Shield Wiring
2 Conductor Lead With Shield lets you reverse the phase of Hum Cancelling Pickups easily.

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

Written By:

Tyler Delsack

Tyler Delsack is the Manager of Fralin Pickups and spends his time editing and maintaining the website, designing graphics and ads, and making pickups. He's powered by Jazz Guitar, Vietnamese Food, Hiking, and Beer.

Author's Note: These blog posts are for educational and information purposes only. We do not offer custom wiring diagrams or wiring help or troubleshooting. For this, we recommend going to a local luthier or tech.

58 Comments

  1. I have a a Tele with two Wide Range Humbuckers. I want to install a traditional single coil in the neck position. How do I determine the correct wind of the new single coil so it will be compatible with the WRH? Will the 2 lead option cover this scenario?

  2. A precision pickup has two separate coils, each with a different polarity and winding direction , what is the correct way to wire them together and which magnetic polarity coil is used for the E and A strings, this is in a PJ configuration the J pickup has a polarity north against the strings? Thanks

  3. Hi Lindy,

    So what’s the deal with basses? Specifically PJ basses? I have a Fender P in a PJ configuration but the J pick up is wrong for many reasons, which I won’t bother with here. But I want a vintage sound, rather than the offered PJ set here in your shop, plus I love the P pickup I already have. But P pickups are split singles, so does all of the above still apply? And how do you even tell if your pickups are out of phase?

    1. Hey Fred,

      That’s a good question about P/J basses. The deal here is that you usually have a Hum-Cancelling P-Bass pickup and a Single-Coil J-Bass pickup. If your pickups are out-of-phase, you can quickly remedy this by reversing the White and Black leads on the P-Bass pickup only.

      You can tell when your pickups are out of phase when you run both pickups simultaneously. If you experience a thin, hollow, nasally tone, you know your pickups are out of phase with each other.

  4. Hello, I have a 1953/54 Fender champion lap steel pickup for a lead position in a telecaster project. This old pickup is North up polarity. I need a rythm telecaster pickup but I am not sure what polarity is needeed ? Thanks a lot ! Alex

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