One of the most common misconceptions of new guitarists is mistakenly assuming that their Stratocaster is broken due to its humming or buzzing feedback. The design of Stratocasters makes them have a hum-canceling effect in pickup positions 2 and 4 and commonly generate hum in the other three pickup positions.
Suppose your Stratocaster features the classic three single-coil pickups, and you hear any humming or buzzing during play, there is nothing to worry about since this occurrence is typical. A humming noise does not automatically mean something is wrong with your Stratocaster.
The single-coil electrical system generates this annoying noise feedback, and the 60 Cycle Hum emanating from the power system is the most frequent sound you hear. If your pickup has more than one coil, you can silence this feedback problem.
The middle pickup on a modern Stratocaster is used in reverse, so pairing it with either the neck or bridge pickup will stop the humming feedback. Pickup positions 2 (neck and middle) and 4 (middle and bridge) don’t generate humming sounds.
On the other hand, if your Stratocaster has a humbucker—a double-coil pickup, it will automatically stop humming in pickup position 5. Typically, humbucker pickups are wired to disable one of the coils in pickup position 4. This well-known Stratocaster modification, referred to as the “Fat Strat,” allows you to combine the middle pickup with one of the coils in the bridge.
In this article, I will elaborate on what a single-coil pickup is, why pickups hum, and the possible solutions you may do to eliminate the humming noise.
In its simplest form, a single-coil pickup is a magnet that transforms the strings’ vibration into an electric signal. An electrical current is produced when a string vibrates because it disturbs the pickup’s magnetic field.
An amplifier increases this electrical current before feeding it into a speaker to produce sound. But to do that, the pickup must have a higher output to send a stronger signal to an amplifier. This is where the pickup’s copper wirings come in, leading to the tone becoming more mid-range and less high-frequency.
Another method you may incorporate to generate a stronger electric signal is using thicker strings that have greater mass or more iron content. The change in your strings’ iron content vigorously excites the magnetic field, strengthening the signal.
Why Do Single-Coils Produce Hum Or Buzz Noises?
The magnet on your Stratocaster’s single coils acts as an antenna that picks up the primary source of constant vibrations when you play.
The main flaw of this design is that the magnet is strong enough to draw current from other sources.
One of the common causes of hum is radiation from lighting circuits and fluorescent lights, both present at stages and homes. This radiation produces electric and magnetic fields that oscillate at a frequency of about 60 hertz. Given that this frequency is so low, there shouldn’t be much of a problem.
The humming or buzzing issue arises when it produces harmonics beyond the 60 Hz cycle. As a result, the amplifier generates humming and buzzing when it captures these powerful currents.
Do Humbuckers Also Produce Humming?
Humbucker pickups don’t produce any humming sounds since they use two single coils. If ever yours does, it probably has wiring issues.
You may perceive single coils as an unnecessary pickup option because they inherently have humming problems. However, it is essential to note that single coils and humbuckers sound very different from one another and offer a diverse range of tones in their own ways.
These days, it’s also possible to find humbuckers that can be single-coiled thanks to their wiring, giving you more comprehensive tonal options with them.
How To Eliminate Humming Problems In Single-Coils
There are numerous ways to effectively eliminate or reduce your Stratocaster’s humming issues if you decide to stick with its three traditional single-coil pickups.
One of the most influential and renowned methods in reducing single-coil humming issues is shielding them. By doing so, you are protecting them from any unnecessary noises.
Shielding acts as a cage for your single coils, isolating them from external noises, and will not eliminate the 60hz oscillation. This method works by making a shield out of copper or aluminum tape. Both materials are conductive, blocking external signals from reaching your pickup’s magnet.
Another option is using shielding paint made of graphite. In terms of appearance, this method is more appealing but is more expensive and time-consuming compared to copper and aluminum tapes.
Shielding your pickups is difficult, especially if you have no experience with soldering and wiring. It is essential to have basic knowledge about your Stratocaster’s electronics to successfully incorporate this method into its pickups.
Note: Perform the procedure at your own risk.
- Heavy-Duty Aluminum Foil
- Adhesive Spray (Preferably 3M)
Two processes are used to shield your Stratocaster’s single-coil pickups, either from the pickguard or the body.
- Loosen the screws holding the pickguard in place using a screwdriver, then remove it.
- Lay down a portion of aluminum foil slightly more significantly than the size of the pickguard.
- Place the removed pickguard on the foil and trace its shape using a marker.
- Using scissors, cut the traced outline of the pickguard on the foil. Feel free to cut small pieces rather than a single whole cut.
- Once done, apply a light coat of adhesive spray on the cutout aluminum foil and cautiously position it on the backside of the pickguard. It is vital to ensure that no excess foil overlaps the shape of the pickguard.
- If you cut the foil in portions, applying a bit of foil between each foil connection is essential to ensure the cutout is connected as a whole.
- Remove your single-coil pickups from their cavity.
- Cut small portions of aluminum foil and position them in the pickup and electronic cavity. This step is identical to making a puzzle piece to complete a puzzle. It would be best if you covered the entire cavity with aluminum foil.
- Once done, apply adhesive spray one by one on each piece of aluminum foil and place them back in their position. You are simply securing the puzzle in place.
- To maintain continuity contact between the pickguard and cavity, cut out four small pieces of aluminum foil and position them on the surface of your Stratocaster’s body on the cavity’s corners/edges.
- Leaving an unshielded space where the pickups are installed with screws is essential. This prevents any connection problems from the screws that may cause your pickups to malfunction.
- Position your Stratocaster’s ground back into the pickguard shielding and securely place the electronics onto the body cavity.
- Fasten every electronic component back in place with its screws, and you’re finished.
Alternative To Eliminate Hum Noise: Using A Humming Eliminator Pedal
Purchasing a humming eliminator pedal is an excellent alternative if you’re trying to eliminate your Stratocaster’s humming issues but don’t want to dismantle it. One device specifically designed to eliminate the 60Hz cycle hum Stratocasters have is the “EBTECH Hum Eliminator.”
An eliminator pedal is an excellent tool for balancing your signal, all the while making the tones you generate much clearer.
This fantastic device features three different presentations. The first item is a two-channel box for 1/4 inch or 6.35mm cables (guitar cables). The second device is a two-channel box compatible with 14-inch and XLR cables ( often used for microphones). The last feature is an 8-channel for providing more inputs if needed.
Alternative To Eliminate Hum Noise: Noise Gate Pedal
Noise gate pedals are another external device you should consider if you want to eliminate your Stratocaster’s humming or buzzing issue. It is a perfect item, especially if you have prior experience building a full pedalboard that compliments your unique sound.
This device works by reducing or completely muting the sound once it crosses a specific limit. The pedal’s function is excellently illustrated by imagining yourself playing a solo or lead line. When you reach your final note, which you commonly hold, the gate ensures that you get complete silence without any humming remaining behind once the sustain of that final note has ended.
A noise gate pedal is helpful, especially once you’ve reached the point where your ears begin to pay attention to the sounds and actions of other instruments you are performing along with. You will want to manipulate dynamics more skillfully.
Noise Gate Pedal: Adjustable Parameters
Noise gate pedals are easy to use since they typically only have two or three adjustable parameters. The thresholds are the only parameter you will encounter and are the maximum sound level you can play before the gate activates.
The gate will react faster once the threshold is higher. As a result, more noise is suppressed. This will increase the space and tightness and is especially useful for rhythm guitar.
This device might not be preferable if you are the type that doesn’t want the sustain cut immediately. It also isn’t ideal for both lead and solo roles. However, if you still insist on using it, you might want to lower its threshold, have some practice runs, and you’ll be good to go!
Decay is another helpful parameter, as it lets you choose how quickly the sound will fade. It also works excellently for leads because of its reverse swell effect. The sound will take longer to reach zero once the decay is more significant.
Mute or reduction is the third parameter not featured in all noise gate pedals. Its primary function is to provide an option between hearing complete silence or keeping your sound to improve the song’s tone. Although this parameter isn’t considered valuable, why not use it if your pedal has it?
Is Purchasing A Noise Gate Pedal Recommended?
Noise gate pedals are handy devices. However, not everyone will benefit from having one. It still depends on your playing skill level.
If you’re a beginner who plays guitar for fun or as a hobby, there are better choices than adding a noise gate pedal onto your pedal board. For instance, you can spend money on tone-shaping pedals such as delays, distortions, choruses, flangers, etc.
On the other hand, if you are a performer or someone experienced in playing with a complete pedalboard, then a noise gate pedal is highly beneficial.
Alternative To Eliminate Hum Noise: Noiseless Single-Coil Pickups
Noiseless single-coil pickups are the most intriguing yet least effective method in this list of alternative methods to eliminate or reduce your Stratocaster’s humming or buzzing problem.
A noiseless single-coil pickup is a humbucker, not a single-coil. This means that two single-coil pickups are stacked to eliminate the humming issues using their magnets.
They are called single coils because the primary goal for these pickups was to preserve the sound of a single coil while eliminating their hum problem. Hence, some companies call them single coils, but they are more of a humbucker.
Additionally, noiseless single-coil pickups are single-coil in size, which is advantageous if your guitar lacks a cavity large enough for humbuckers.
Two factors make noiseless single-coil pickups the least viable option in eliminating your Stratocaster’s humming issues. The primary reason is that they are the most expensive option among the other solutions.
In addition, you aren’t solving your single-coil pickup’s humming issue but rather replacing them with a humbucker.
Μanufacturers of noiseless single-coil pickups still haven’t completely eliminated the humming problems. If your primary goal is to eliminate hum, noiseless pickups won’t help because you will only reduce the buzz you generate. This scenario is highly noticeable, mainly when you use distortion.
As mentioned, noiseless single-coil pickups are the most intriguing option of the four methods because they are pickups, and each has its distinct sound. Manufacturers like Fender have tried to resemble their single-coil pickup’s signature sound to noiseless single-coil pickups, but both pickups still generate a different sound.
Choosing the proper pickup that compliments your preferred sound is still essential. If your main intention is not just eliminating hum but also looking for the right tone that best suits you, a noiseless single-coil pickup might be your best choice.
Even though the Stratocaster’s classic three single-coil pickups have a humming or buzzing issue that may hinder your search for your ideal tone, they are still highly loved by musicians due to their signature unique, bright, and warm tones.
Besides, this humming issue is solvable by various methods without affecting your Stratocaster’s euphonious sounds. You can do the abovementioned methods or have an experienced guitar luthier do the task for you.
Your Fender Stratocaster’s single-coil design is a high-quality and renowned pickup throughout the musical world.