Many guitar players get to a place where they find their humbuckers are creating a distorted or muddy tone.
The good news is that several options help make a more precise sounding tone from your humbucker pickups while still getting the added benefit of the higher quality sound humbuckers will create in your playing.
These options include adjusting the height of the pickups, replacing your tone pots, installing humbucker sized single coil pots, considering a coil sized pickup, and considering 50’s wiring.
The process of getting your tone just right can be a time-consuming one. However, the good news is that you can experiment with plenty of variables to create the exact tone you are looking for.
If you do not use them already, chances are you will get to a point where you want to play an electric guitar with humbuckers as pickups instead of regular pickups.
Humbuckers have the advantage of the dual coils wound in opposite directions to create a more robust sound than a traditional pickup.
As someone who has played the guitar and bass for over fifteen years, there are decent practical solutions to eliminate the muddy sound that humbuckers can produce.
Other factors can also eliminate a muddy tone that is not related to humbuckers. This article will go over some easy-to-follow tips and solutions to both problems.
This article will cover what a muddy tone is, why humbuckers can sound muddy, and five tips to make humbuckers sound clearer (less muddy).
This article will also cover four frequently asked questions, such as if humbuckers sound better with no covers on them, why your guitar tone may sound muddy, how to make your guitar sound clearer, and why your neck pickup may be muddy.
What Is Muddy Tone?
A muddy tone is a tone that lacks definition and clarity. A muddy tone can also be produced by overloading with too much of a bass sound from your strings and not enough higher treble-like sounds.
Please check out the video below for an example of a muddy tone produced by humbuckers (this is before applying any of the tips mentioned in this article below to clear up the muddy sound they can create):
Why Do Humbuckers Sound Muddy?
Humbuckers sound muddy due to the spacing between the two spaced coils. The muddy sound humbuckers produce can also be influenced by the coils’ shape and the magnets’ shape.
5 Tips to Make Humbuckers Sound Clearer (Less Muddy)
1. Adjust the height of the pickups
The distance between your guitar strings and pickups can drastically alter the tone your guitar will produce.
If your pickups are too close to the strings, they may not pick up the sound to the best of their ability. If they are too far away from the strings, they can create a tinny sound or not produce the best possible signal from the vibration of your strings.
Get a metal ruler to correctly measure the distance between your strings and your pickups to adjust your pickup heights. Press the low E string to the last fret on the fretboard.
Then place the ruler on the metal pole in the pickup under the low E string. You now have the exact measurement from the string to the pole in your pickup. Turn the adjustment screw clockwise to raise the pickup’s height and counterclockwise to lower it.
2. Replace your tone pots
Tone pot (or tone potentiometer) is another phrase for the tone knobs on your guitar.
This refers to the electric components beneath the actual knobs you turn on the guitar itself to adjust your tone settings. Consider replacing your tone pot with a 500-k tone pot, as this will pick up more of the treble frequency than a 250-k pot.
Depending on how old your guitar pots are, they may need to be replaced anyway. Malfunctioning tone pots will often fail to pick up the higher frequencies your strings will produce.
The higher the number of the pot, the higher frequency it carries. The general rule of thumb is that 500k pots will create a warmer sound.
3. Install Humbucker sized Single Coil Pots
Changing your pickups to a single coil pickup in a humbucker casing will help get the great tone that humbucker pickups produce without the potential electronic interference that dual wire pickups with the wires being wound in opposite directions can have.
There are tons of boutique options available for this type of pickup. One option to consider is the Seymour Duncan Phat Cat. If you have a higher budget, you may want to consider Jason Lollar’s Novel T-Bridge pickup. If you are on a lower budget, consider the GFS Dream 90 or Mean 90 pickups.
4. Consider a coil split pickup
A coil split pickup will allow you to isolate which wires your guitar will activate in your humbucker pickups.
This will create a push-pull effect that will enable you to adjust the setting to your liking to help eliminate any muddy tone your guitar may produce. You can also coil split a pickup yourself if you do not wish to purchase one.
5. Consider 50’s wiring
This is the original style of wiring that was used on original electric guitars from the 1950s.
This simply means that each pickup in your guitar has its own volume and tone knobs instead of one volume and tone knob or knobs for all the pickups in your guitar.
You may find that having direct control of each pickup in your guitar will help clean up the sound. The advantages of 50’s wiring are that it will pick up both low and high frequencies very clearly regardless of the volume you are playing at. Another advantage is that the tone and overall sound effects will remain consistent.
Some guitar players do not care for the 50’s wiring style as it can produce an overly bright tone. Adjusting the tone (turning it down) can also affect how the volume will come through.
Q: Do Humbuckers Sound Better Without Covers?
Uncovered plastic or wooden covers will slightly affect how your humbuckers will sound, even though they are not affected by the magnetic fields produced by your pickups.
Many guitarists feel that uncovered humbuckers will have a more open and brighter tone. Feel free to remove the covers from your humbuckers to see how you like the sound. This assumes that all other variables, such as the magnets, coils in the pickups, etc., are all the same.
If you do not like the look of uncovered humbuckers, consider a steel or nickel cover for them, as pickups with these types of covers will bend the magnetic field and help to produce a slightly warmer tone.
Q: Why Is My Guitar Tone Muddy?
Your guitar tone could be muddy due to a few other things like not setting the correct tone on your guitar, guitar strings that have gone bad, or the equalizer settings in your amplifier.
Sometimes your guitar tone can be improved simply by where you are strumming. Experimenting with strumming closer to and then further away from your guitar’s bridge can often help fix the problem.
Q: How Do I Make My Guitar Sound Clearer?
If your strings are more than three months old, consider replacing them to have a clearer guitar sound. You may be surprised by the amount of dirt and grime that can accumulate on your strings.
Taking a white cloth and running them up and down your strings can help eliminate any grime or dirt accumulated, which will help improve your tone.
You may also consider experimenting with the equalizer setting on your amplifier. Try moving one setting all the way up and then all the way down until you get the best sound possible.
Think of this the same way you would be at the eye doctor’s office. If you have been fitted for glasses or contact lenses, they will show you various options to pick from until you get the best, most precise vision. Feel free to experiment with your equalizer settings on your amplifier in the same way
Q: Why Is My Neck Pickup Muddy?
Neck pickups can sometimes be muddy due to the higher magnetic field in this area of the guitar, where your strings will vibrate more intensely. This can often be solved simply by cutting back on the gain setting on your amplifier.
This article covered what a muddy tone is, why humbuckers can sound muddy, and five tips to make humbuckers sound clearer (less muddy).
This article also covered four frequently asked questions, such as whether humbuckers sound better with no covers, why your guitar tone may sound muddy, how to make your guitar sound clearer, and why your neck pickup may be muddy.