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Troubleshooting Your Guitar Tags: troubleshooting



"The naive person knows everything.  The wise person seeks even more knowledge."  (Or for guitar owners:  there is no dishonor in asking for help.)

This article is for those who have built / modded / upgraded their guitar and it just doesn't sound or perform as they'd hoped or expected.  If you're to the point of scratching your head or even frustration... that's what this article is here for. 



To cut to the chase, Wishbring sells guitar pickups, and has for years.  Low or "noisy" sound is generally not a  problem with a brand new, hand-tested pickup.  Malfunctioning pickups tend to not work at all (no sound).  Low volume or noise indicates something else is most likely the problem.  Recognizing this fact allows us to focus on... everything else.  Thus, this article on troubleshooting guitars.



The following information offers straight-forward, common sense solutions to normal guitar installation problems.  To gain full benefit it's good to read the entire article. 

I've been in this business several years.  The most common issue in failed installation and maintenance starts with simple failure to read the instructions.  This is fairly common.  Most of us tend to think, "I already know how to install these things.  I don't need to read the instructions".   But every installation is different, every pickup brand is different, and sometimes we just overlook something. The FlatCat™ pickup is unique in design.  They're generally easy to install but require specific knowledge of how to do so.  The installation instructions are detailed and precise-- for a reason.  So first step:  make sure to read all of the instructions.


THE MOST COMMON PROBLEM AREAS:  Problem issues most likely lie in the type of strings used, the guitar itself (failure in the instrument), bridge, action, other electric components, wiring, a bad ground,  the guitar cord or even the electrical wiring in your home (many of these things are discussed in detail elsewhere on this website). 

Bottom line:  if you're getting sound out of the pickup but the volume is "low" or "noisy"... the problem isn't likely to be the pickup.  This article is designed to help you locate the trouble area and achieve the full, rich sound your pickup is capable of producing.  There is good reason the FlatCat is a 5-star pickup.  It works very well and when installed correctly, it sounds great.



Shooting from the hip:  sometimes the first step in troubleshooting a guitar is recognizing there is far more to the guitar field than most people are aware-- and that even experts sometimes make the most common mistakes.  It happens to us all.   So the first question one should always ask is, "Did I miss something, somewhere?"  Sometimes the solution involves the simplest and most basic of things-- such as needing a set of electric strings rather than phosphor-bronze or nylon, or replacing a damaged volume knob. 

"But it worked before" is a major hurdle between a functioning or malfunctioning guitar.  Coincidences happen all the time when upgrading equipment.  A borderline-functional component can easily stop working when a new piece of equipment is installed.  Never discount any possibility.  Examine the simple things first.

Many people have had to pay a technician for a service call because they thought their TV was plugged in.  So we keep that in mind whenever troubleshooting a guitar installation.  There are many variables. Check even the most simple and unlikely.  This is especially true for people who have "been in the business for years".  That's when we most easily overlook the obvious... and kick ourselves later when we finally locate the source of the glitch.  Check even the obvious and least-likely.

It is very true:  Reality and common sense often trump experience and tech manuals.  That recognized... we start with the very basic concepts and work up from there.


NOT ENOUGH VOLUME.  As mentioned prior, pickups generally either produce sound or they don't.   If they are producing sound but that sound isn't what's desired, usually we need to look elsewhere for the source of the problem.  The most common causes of low volume are wrong strings, reversed phase, incorrect installation.  Let's discuss these issues.


STRINGS.  This is a common issue. Sometimes people installing a new pickup are moving up from a piezo-based or other microphonic pickup to an electric "mag"-based pickup.   The issue here is that piezo pickups most often use bronze or nylon strings, whereas mag pickups require ferrous-metal electric strings. Even techs have difficulty telling bronze strings from steel.  That's the first place I look for "low volume".

Since mag pickups are (as the name infers) based on a magnetic field that senses the vibration of the strings, the strings must be made of a field-sensitive metal-- typically steel, nickel, or combinations of the two.  Phosphor-bronze strings will produce very low volume.  Nylon strings will often produce no sound at all, or very low sound just on the lower 3 strings and no sound on the trebles.  In such case all that's needed to fix the problem is to change the strings.

Yes, I realize this is very basic information.  But it's surprising how often the strings themselves are overlooked as a very likely problem source.  Is the television plugged in?

Please read near the end of this article regarding additional tips on string brand and set-in time.


HUM and NOISE.  There are two other articles on this site dealing specifically with hum and noise.  If that is the problem you're experiencing, please check those articles. 


PHASE.  Low volume or tone that is weak and less rich than expected is very often caused by a phase issue-- the hot/ground wires needing to be reversed somewhere.   There is an article specifically covering phase elsewhere on this site.



"Expertise and experience is irrelevant if our level of knowledge and observation can't fix the current problem."

If you only have one pickup and one volume control, trouble-shooting can be relatively easy.  But if you have three pickups, two volume controls, two tone controls, a 5-way switch and maybe even a digital add-on... checking phase can be a complex rats-nest issue. 

"But I'm an expert / technician / have installed zillions of pickups".   This is a statement heard by guitar repairmen world-wide.  It's also a familiar to auto mechanics, computer repair centers, appliance repair shops, ad infinity.  

So the first thing we need to do is admit it to ourselves when we can't figure out the problem.  Rather than blaming the equipment or someone else who has no  control over the process we used to install a new piece of equipment... it is often wise to seek the advice of another person-- especially someone who works with guitars every day and has seen wierder things happen with musical instruments than the average person can imagine.

Such expertiese seldom comes free... but it gets the job done. 



If you're a hard-core do-it-yourselfer and decide to handle the project yourself (and since I myself am such a person), remember the tech addage:  what you don't think is the problem is very possibly the problem.  The best way I can point this out is by giving real-life examples, with the simplest / most frustrating one leading the pack:

 * One guitar tech, after having checked everything on the guitar, double-checked, tested, and replaced until he was pulling his hair out and still getting rotten sound... finally decided to replace the guitar jack.   The jack appeared to be in perfect condition.  He'd even re-soldered the leads.   However, once the jack was completely replaced the guitar sounded just fine.  The actual malfunction was never discovered, but that jack was the problem point.

Guess who the tech was. ; )

A time consuming lesson.   Check everything.  Never discount anything off-hand as "It can't possibly be THAT."   Sometimes the issue can be as simple as a guitar jack suddenly gone bad for no discernible reason.  Weirder things happen, every day.

* There is no counting the number of volume or tone pots that have had to be replaced over the decades.   Sometimes, for some reason, they "work" just fine (the volume increases and decreases, the tone changes as expected)... but the sound output is not what is desired.  Or they are working one moment-- then not working the next.  Replacing pots often fixes the problem.

* Bad guitar cord.  Doesn't matter that the cord was working 5 minutes ago.  Borderline function can change to non-functional in an eyeblink.   If all else fails, check the cord or the jack that goes into the amp.  (We check a cord by replacing the cord.  We check the amp by using another instrument.  This may involve borrowing from a friend if we don't have extras.) 

In short, ignore nothing, test everything.

* Incorrect "correct" phase.   There is an article here about phase, but we'll summarize here to highlight the issue.  The instructions said the colored wire goes there and the white wire goes there, and that's how you hooked it up, precisely.  However, for whatever reason, your particular instrument requires reverse phase.   A professional electronics expert might be able to figure out why.  To everyone else it makes no sense at all-- but when the pickup wires are reversed... the sound clears right up.   The "correct" phase was incorrect-- and had to be reversed.  Of course you can pull out the electric test equipment and test every single connection until you track down the specific issue. 

Or alternately, if reversing the phase works, go with what works. 

* Grounding issue.   Everyone hates grounding issues... because they can exist almost anywhere... from the internals of a pickup to the volume knob to the strings themselves.  It can be the guitar cord leading to the amp... and beyond into the amp itself.   Grounding issues can be a bear to locate. 

What's especially frustrating with grounding issues is that they may be totally grounding out (causing complete loss of sound)... or they may be leeching, meaning it's not totally cancelling the signal but just causing enough of a problem to be very noticable.  The capacitor on a tone knob is burned out or malfunctioning.   The pots are corroded internally.  The strings aren't grounded  (a problem that exists more often than one would believe, especially on home-made guitars)

Whatever the grounding problem, this quite often requires one of two steps:

1. Taking it to a qualified guitar electronics tech and having him locate the issue

2. Replacing parts until you find out which one was bad / grounding out. 



When troubleshooting a guitar, no matter how much we believe we know, it is good to leave room for doubt and question whether we are aware of everything that is going on with that instrument.  Whether it's an over-weight treble B string (a common issue that a lot of players don't know exists or how to fix), to a rumbling low E, from disappearing trebles to basic string grounding... we have to realize there are even more obscure issues about which we may have no knowledge-- nor even be aware we're lacking that knowledge.

The point is this:  we should not be quick to blame the equipment.  It could be something is simply not adjusted correctly, needs fine-tuned, or (as mentioned)... one needs to read all of the instructions all the way through.   "I know what I'm doing.  I don't need to read the instructions" is one of the best ways to find oneself having to troubleshoot an instrument.  Happens regularly.



Once you've checked everything, odds are you will discover and fix the cause of the problem.   If you are getting sound, likely the problem isn't the pickup.   If your volume is low or sound is weak, one of the most common problems is incorrect phase or the wrong strings.   Sometimes controls need replaced.  Sometimes it's a bad solder joint and the solder connections need to be re-done.

Whatever the problem, remember a rule of thumb of all repairmen: 

It's the poor craftsman who blames the equipment.  The wise person searches for and finds the solution. 


Wishbringer after-sale service and advice is 110%.  Honest, I want you to be up and running and very happy with your installation.  That's why this article is here.  So if there's a problem with the resulting sound after installation, please don't hesitate to ask for help.  I don't just sell pickups:  I sell awesome sound.



STRING BRAND. The brand of strings is often important.  Some strings are simply better quality than others, and some brands work better on a specific guitar than do others.  Unfortunately there is no shortcut to finding the proper string type for your guitar and playing style, but you can search the Net for suggestions from other players as to what type of string produces your desired sound.  Are you looking for crisp, clear lead-guitar or deep, mellow blues?   Country twang or heavy metal?  The style of music you play will largely determine the brand and model of strings you choose... and the sound that comes from your guitar.

Brand websites will tell you in detail the primary purpose of each model of string they make.  Reading their listings can provide you abundant useful information.  In my own research and for my style of playing,  I have found D'Addario EXP110s to be a good "all-around" string.  Basic Fender electric strings are meant for Stratocaster-type sound, but for blues or jazz type playing you'll want a richer string.  GHS is a good string in a wide variety of sizes, Ernie Ball has its followers, Martin, you name it... each string brand and each string model produces significantly different results. 

Remember: the majority of sound from a mag pickup comes from vibration of the strings.  It follows that the right string can improve the sound of your guitar dramatically.


SET-IN TIME.   Guitar strings need to stretch and "mature".  In every case strings will sound considerably better after setting on the guitar for a few days.  Usually a new set of guitar strings will sound terrible to the trained ear-- and improve greatly as time passes and the guitar is played.

Professionals handle this by having roadies play the guitar for an hour or two whenever a new set is installed.   Some people over-wind the strings (tightening them an extra half note) when first installing them, then doing that 2 or 3 times throughout the day, finally bringing them down to standard tuning.   If done properly this can stretch and set new strings relatively quickly. 

A new set of strings will rarely sound good.   They need time to stretch and reach their full potential.   There are several ways to do this; check Internet suggestions and pick the way that works best for you.

My method (since I build guitars more than I play them) is to over-tune a whole note and re-tune several times during the day.  For my playing style and habits I find on the 3rd day the strings sound great.   Of course, I only change strings about once or twice a year, so that's my method.  If you play often, you may need a totally different system to break in your strings.

Breaking in strings can be the difference between "okay" sound and wonderful sound.  It's that significant. 


I hope this brief plunge into the depths of instrument maintenance and troubleshooting has sparked the light needed to get your instrument to peak performance. 





June 2018 (1)

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