More From Less: Maximizing the Single Pickup Electric Guitar

After making guitar-related videos for over a decade I feel like I've found the ONE THING all guitarists can agree upon: versatility is key!

We want our gear to do more stuff rather than less. Yet, we also seem to want gear to be simple. Both factors don't always go hand in hand.

But is it in any way possible to get more from less? Of course it is...and I had a particularly mind-altering experience recently that caused me to, as Apple computers used to say, think differently.

Although Cockeyed Optimist remains on hiatus, I haven't JUST been making videos. My main gig has been playing at church...Oceans Church to be specific. And for that gig my main guitar since April has been the Vola Vasti KJM J2.

It's an incredible guitar and was designed with the idea of only being able to bring one guitar to the gig in mind. HSH pickup configuration, 5-way switch, coil tap switch, Volume,'s a straight-forward set up with a lot of options.

And I've used the options...then came the summertime.

The Vola Vasti KJM J2; an incredible instrument that is now ONLY $1200 USD!

It was the first weekend of June and California was unseasonably cold. Maybe it was my mood that morning or the weather but I wanted some HOT tones that day! After finishing the two Sunday services I went back and watched the livestream from that morning. I was surprised by several things that week but the most important thing was this: I NEVER USED ANY OTHER PICKUP THAN THE BRIDGE PICKUP.

All my changes in sound can from using the Volume and Tone knobs to make adjustments. Not once that day did I feel like I wanted something else. I was happy. And, more importantly, I was having fun! I began to wonder: what I could do if my guitar ONLY had one pickup?

It was at this point I fired off some emails to my friends at Gibson.

Thanks to my buddy Cam (who also happens to be the brains behind Gibsunday) I got two guitars to help me in my experiments: the USA Les Paul Jr. and the Kramer SM-1H. Check out these links if you want to know more about these guitars:

Les Paul Jr. -

Kramer SM-1H -

Ultimately, I had ONE goal for this video: how could I help other players maximize the potential of single pickup guitars?

If you've already watched the video, you should know the tips. But if you want me to expand on them, read on!

TIP 1: Use Your Knobs!

This tip may seem obvious. But if it's SO OBVIOUS why is it that lots of players don't use them? Now, I'm incredibly guilty of neglecting my knobs. For my heavier music, I rarely make adjustments but the Tone and Volume knobs are fantastic on the gig and in the studio!

If your guitar's electronics are wired properly you should have no problem taking a fairly saturated and crunchy sound down to a mild crunch, edge of breakup or pristine clean!

Not only that, subtle adjustments to the Tone control are capable of subtle softening effects to getting you a close-to-kinda-could-be fuzzy tone. And yes, worship music could use more fuzz...just saying.

I feel silly admitting that, in the past, I have not taken this advice to heart. Thankfully, that is changing. But I think one of the key things that opens up the Volume/Tone box is getting the right sound for it.

On that day at church, I used one particular pedal combo that just worked! The Signal Path went like this: guitar > NuX Queen of Tone > Revv Tilt > Walrus Audio Slö > Keeley ECCOS > Keeley Hydra > Walrus Audio ACS1.

The current church pedal board.

I'm quite impressed by what the Revv Tilt's overdrive sound responds to touch and guitar knob changes. Even with a crunchy sound going I was able to achieve a plethora of usable and enjoyable sounds! And in the video, the "clean tone" you hear in this portion is JUST the guitar turned down to "3" on the dial...the Revv Tilt knobs never change.

TIP 1.5: Mod It!

This one is a little "extra" tip...consider some of the minimally invasive mods out there!

Mods like coil tap/coil split, treble bleed or series/parallel options are not only easy to do, they also are nearly impossible to detect. You won't need to hack up your favorite guitars to get a little more out of your favorite single pickup guitar!

My personal favorite is the Treble Bleed.

The Treble Bleed mod adds a capacitor in line with your volume knob that allows you to maintain the high end of your tone as you turn the volume knob down. It's a handy mod that helps those who love to ride their Volume control for tonal versatility.

Another great mod, like on the Kramer SM-1H featured in the video, is the Series/Parallel switch! Essentially this switch changes the orientation of the coils of your humbucker. In Series, the output of one coil runs into the second, then to your Volume knob and finally to your output jack. Parallel wiring sees each coil running the your volume knob and then output jack at the same time.

The result is one humbucker tone with more lows and midrange and another that has the tone and character of a single coil BUT has no hum!

TIP 2: Choose Your Pedals Wisely

If you're reading this you probably love pedals. And I will tell you, pedal choice is indeed a VERY important part of helping get MORE TONES from a single pickup guitar. Personally, I feel that the most useful pedals in this scenario are Compressors, EQs and gain pedals (OD, Distortion, etc.).

Dirt and gain pedals are an easy one: the more you have, the more versatility you have! I personally keep between 3-5 gain staging pedals on my board at all times. These days I rely on the Revv Tilt for my main "crunch" tone and will boost it for extra gain with the NU-X Queen of Tone. I do use the Queen of Tone for another "crunch" flavor from time to time. It's not as squishy as the Tilt, it's a bit more stiff. And then finally is my beloved Ibanez Session Man! This is my most saturated pedal and I keep it on the dark side...however, I can use my volume knob to clean it up as well!

Compressors are generally a misunderstood pedal type. I blame pedals that label Compressors as "sustainers". Yes, a compressor can indeed give your tone some perceived sustain but they are really meant to control the dynamic range of your instrument. Because of this you can use them to maintain the cleanliness of your guitar tone! This is what I like to use compressors for: keeping the "loudest" parts of my signal from clipping my signal so my tone is "cleaner". A nice by-product of that is that a get more string separation in my tone!

Then there are EQ pedals...the red-headed-stepchild of the pedal world. I don't know how these pedals got such a bum wrap! Over the years, most of my most favorite and used pedals have been EQs of all types. Whether they're parametric, graphic or other types they can prove to be far more than JUST EQs.One of my FAVORITE uses (that I showed in the video) for a graphic EQ pedal is re-voicing pickups. Connecting the pedal in-line with your guitar and then into the front end of an amp can lead your to many different possibilities. I personally like using them to make my humbuckers sound a lot cleaner by dialing out muddy frequencies and emphasizing highs.

So do yourself a favor and choose those pedals wisely! Some are more versatile than others.


At the risk of sounding like a cheesy motivational speaker: you must remember that YOU are the player and it's only a guitar! You are in control of the music you create. You just need to tap into the potential that you're missing out on.

So how exactly are we in control? Many ways...

Picking position, picking style, playing dynamics, fretting hand control...the options are limitless!

Off all the tips I've shared in this blog, this one is the hardest to illustrate and teach. They're concepts that require a certain level of commitment to "master". Even still, I would highly recommend that you consider making and spending the time to get comfortable with them. Once you get even remotely "okay" at them you'll see how valuable these skills are. Let's dive into a couple:


What are the differences between the two above photos? Don't see it? Take another look.

In the photo on the left, my picking hand is closer to the Bridge on the guitar.

In the photo on the right, my picking hand is closer to the neck of the guitar.

By picking closer to the Bridge the tone is brighter and more "punchy". You could also say that the tone has more "twang".

Picking closer to the Neck produces a warmer, more "rounded" tone. Some would say the tone is "darker".

Could you imagine the vast tonal palate available to you by combining this idea with working your volume and tone knobs?!?


This may just be the HARDEST thing a guitarist will endeavor to learn. Yet what fascinates me is how the concept of Dynamics is a BASIC skill of musicians who play instruments like violin, cello, viola, saxophone, flute, etc. I suppose the blame could be placed on the "electrical" aspect of our chosen instrument. We tend, as electric guitarist, to "set and forget" our tone. And, if we're being honest, most popular music has been guitar-oriented since the dawn of the rock n roll genre in the 1950s. But that was then and it's time for us to be BETTER guitarists!

So, how can we practice our picking control? Well, I'm not sure. Here's some of the things I did to get better:

  1. Practice with an acoustic: since the volume of an acoustic guitar is entirely dependent on how hard you pick, this is a simple starting place. Just start picking lightly and try to gradually increase your force.
  2. Practice with a crunchy tone: don't go clean or high gain. Go for the middle-of-the-road crunchy tone. You can do the same thing like with the acoustic but this time you'll be gradually increasing your tone's saturation.

With all of this said, should you ditch your HSH Super Strat and go for a Les Paul Jr. or an 80's shredder axe? Absolutely not. A lot of these ideas will work with ANY guitar you choose. Instead, my goal in making this video (and by proxy this Blog) is to share some of my own musical journey and guitar revelations. I want to open your eyes to the possibilities outside of our immediate vision. I never would have thought I'd enjoy a single pickup guitar as much as I did while making this video. The many times I used the Les Paul Jr. in a band context were some of the BEST times!

And for the first time in a long time, I felt like a really PLAYER.

I think we all could use more moments like that in our lives.

Wishing you Great Tone & Happy Stomping! - SPJ

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