by Professor String

What do you think it sounds like?




One of the most exciting things you can do in customizing your guitar is changing the pickups. If you have ever done this modification, then you know the difference can be dramatic. In fact, you don’t know what it is going to exactly sound like until it is fully installed and the instrument is plugged in. It’s like getting a gumball from a vending machine. You don’t know the exact color you will get until you put in a coin and turn the knob. Most pickup makers and advertisers talk about pickup tone in a relative sense. For example they may say, “This pickup has a sharp, crisp and edgy response with a hotter output that can cut through.” To the non-guitarist, that description may conjure up a mental image of a very sharp buck knife that has been heated over a bunsen burner. Without a doubt, such a knife could cut through butter with little effort! In the meantime, one could argue that none of these words have anything to do with sound. The point is this: It is hard to sell a sound without an actual sample or mental image of it. The difficulty about guitar pickups (and strings) is the issue of not knowing what they sound like until they are bought and installed. Some manufacturer’s websites offer sound snippets to hear the pickups. The good side of this is being able to get some idea of any major differences in overall tone. The down side is hearing the sound snippet come out of a tiny little computer speaker. It’s not even close to the sound you will actually experience coming out of a cabinet full of twelve inch drivers with the amp volume set on nuke.

Your Mental Image
In order to describe a sound to somebody, it has to be compared to something else. Anytime you read something that says a product sounds warm, soft, bright, fat, heavy, lighter, dull, thin…etc., they are references to something we can relate to from a sensory point of view. They are things we experience with our other senses such as sight, taste, smell and touch. A description of a pickup or a set of strings can read with no references to an actual sound (i.e. loud, quiet, lower pitch, screech…etc.). The idea behind describing a sound is to create a mental image. When done correctly by marketers, the mental image should draw upon good emotions. Emotions conjured from our senses and memory. Saying a pickup gets a “warm and smooth buttery tone” creates a much better image than saying it gets a “quieter sound with low frequency overtones”. Manufacturers want us to get the warm and fuzzies…hey, even the term “warm and fuzzy” deals with our senses!

It’s all Relative
Read between the lines. Before you buy that pickup, amplifier, or set of strings think about your mental impressions of the product. As you read their advertisement, ask yourself some pointed questions:
1. What are they really trying to say?
2. What image do I get in my head as I read this?
3. Is my mental image really true, or is it what a manufacturer wants me to believe?

Maybe some of this sounds like common sense to many of you. Then again, when it comes to the masses, how common is common sense?


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About The Author


Professor StringTM is a leading expert in the musical string business. He leads a development group that specializes in guitar and bass string research for musicians. You can visit their site at