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A common problem with single-coil pickups is severe dissonance in the neck position, known by a few names like Stratitis. I know it can be reduced by properly adjusting the pickup height in relation to the strings, but are there any other significant factors in play, like pickup construction or the setup of the instrument?

FWIW, I ask because I have a Telecaster with a very finicky neck pickup- it's stock, but I did remove the cover. If I play anything more complex than single notes or major chords, especially with overdrive or distortion, I'll get this awful discordant sound, even after I've carefully adjusted the height. I don't have this problem with the bridge pickup, and it's not easily noticeable when the pickups are in parallel.

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Nobody so far has actually discussed stratitis yet. Well, it probably isn't the issue!

Before I say why, another thing: pickup damage is almost certainly not the issue either. Symptoms of pickup damage are:

  • Dull sound due to resonance damping by shortcuts between windings. Happens when the isolation is faulty.
  • Loud thudding sound when you touch the pickup, or feedback even while you're holding all the strings. These problems are caused if some windings aren't properly held in place by the wax cast, or if magnets are loose.
  • Uneven level between the strings. caused by aged or broken (or wrongly oriented!) magnets.
  • In the extremest, simply no sound or extremely quiet sound, or dropouts – caused if the wire's broken somewhere in the winding.

None of these effects can really cause “discordant” sound.

As for stratitis. That is the effect of strong magnets exerting significant mechanical pull on the strings. This is a very nonlinear effect, and disturbs the strings' harmonic vibration. The overtones then come out not as exact multiples of the fundamental frequency, but slightly (and quite unpredictably) off. Hence, it causes inharmonicity.

Now, since the magnets are permant magnets (they aren't turned off by the pickup switch), you can't really say “stratitis affects only a single pickup”. It may be caused by only a single pickup, but it affects the entire guitar, even when it's not plugged in at all. So if you only notice the problem when using the neck pickup, it's probably not stratitis.

At least not stratitis alone, that is. Some degree of inharmonicity by itself isn't necessarily bad: a similar effect (caused not by magnets but string stiffness) is actually quite important for the characteristic sound of upright pianos, as well as the plucked strings of violins, cellos or jazz guitars. It can however become nasty when particularly affected frequencies are boosted too much. Perhaps that's the issue with your neck pickup. So one thing you should try (apart, of course, from adjusting the pickup height) is to change the pickup's resonance frequency. This can easily be done by wiring a small capacitor (try 3.3 nF) parallel to the pickup. Perhaps this solves the problem (regardless if it's caused by stratitis, or e.g. some nasty resonance of the neck).

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Hmm sounds like possibly you could have a bad pickup? I've had some guitars have great sounding positions, and just one bad one. Usually it was always down to just the pickup itself. I have to ask how old is your Tele? Vintage or new? Also do you happen to know if your pickup pole pieces are Alnico or Ceramic? This can also help to know what could be going on.

If your pickups are Alnico, they could be losing their magnetism and you're experiencing issues in your tone when you're on just the neck pup. I had one guitar I remember, a strat, with the same kind of issues you're talking about. I tried the capo trick too and that wasn't the issue at all. It was an old strat 70s, the pickups had been swapped out before form the previous owner. He said the neck and middle pups were off a 60s issue strat and Alnico, and the bridge was a newer ceramic generic pup he pulled out of a different Japan copy strat.

The bridge has the best loudest tone on it being ceramic pole pieces. The neck and middle on the alnico pole piece pups sounded like crud. I found I'd have to turn my volume up which only made it sound even worse and broken up in spaces. And mind you the pup heights were set at a reasonable low height so the strings weren't being pulled down by the pickups. The simple fact was that those old 60s alnico pickups, had lost their strength.

I got a neck and middle pickup out of a MIM Fender strat I had laying around, the middle pup was also reverse wound so that was a nice upgrade for this strat. The problem however was completely solved! No more Stratitis! The new neck and middle pickup also being Ceramic, had the best tone and I or whoever else owns it later, will never have to worry about those old alnico pickups losing their magnetism. They really should of switched over to just ceramic pole pieces but people love the sound of old dying pickups.

If you can't find a solution on your own, if you can get a hold of a new pickup for neck, try installing it and see if your issue is gone. It might just be a weak pickup on its last leg. Even the newer guitars that are built with Alnico pole pieces will go bad over time quick. Especially those who lay their guitars against their amps lol Those magnets on those speakers are killing your Alnico pole pieces in a matter of time. I know some dudes who leave their guitars like that cause they think it looks cool like they're always ready to play. But they're always complaining their guitars just don't sound right anymore lol

Good luck with it, hope you can solve the issue and get it back to playing.

  • It's new, 2009, made in Mexico. The pickup itself sounds quite good, I think, and it's actually noticeably louder than the bridge, but I suppose it could still be damaged. I might try and find something cheap on Ebay, see if that helps. – player3 Apr 1 '15 at 23:44
  • If it sounds good to you then, you might not have to replace it. Since you say it sounds noticeably louder than the bridge, maybe the neck is up too high than the rest of the pickups and its giving the thrown off sound. You could try lowering it a little and see how it sounds in relation to the rest of the pickups. If it sounds like perfect, the pickup maybe a hot wound and its just too close to the strings in height. A little lowering could even it all out. However if doing all that still doesn't fix it, if you can live with it I'd say just keep it, instead of getting a new one. – Fret_Bender80 Apr 2 '15 at 9:37
  • Stratitis is a particular problem caused by too strong (and/or too close) magnets. When Alnico pickups loose their power, they loose sound too of course, but this doesn't cause dissonance and has nothing to do with stratitis. – leftaroundabout Jul 19 '15 at 21:10
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Would it be accurate to describe your problem as an oscillation sound especially noticeable when using distortion? Making even one string sound out of tune with itself and making it very difficult to intonate the guitar? If that is accurate, lower your neck pickup in a go no go manner until the oscillation is gone. The magnetic field of the pick-up is dragging on the strings, not allowing them to move as they should

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Suggestion - try testing the guitar with a capo on the first fret. If the problem goes away, then I suggest the problem is just a badly cut nut or poor break angle.

  • No such luck, I tried this some time ago and it didn't help whatsoever. I also tried adjusting the pickup with a capo at the twelfth fret, trying to get a clearer sound (fewer harmonics?) and that helped a little bit. – player3 Mar 28 '15 at 21:52

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