Telecaster Scratchplates & 'Static' Noise

Bob Leggitt | Wednesday, 9 January 2013 |

In this post I’m looking at a problem which has cropped up in forum posts, on the search engines, and elsewhere. But I believe the solutions people have been getting are, at least for most, not addressing the real problem, and therefore unreliable at best, and completely useless at worst.

A lot of Telecaster users have said they get a scratchy crackle from the instrument’s scratchplate, which sounds like it’s being caused by static electricity. As someone who’s used more Telecasters than he can remember, I know this familiar ‘crackle’ well. Or at least, I know a crackle. You touch or bump the scratchplate, and there’s an accompanying burst of non-musical, electrical noise.

Fender Telecaster bridge plate, scratchplate and pickups
Everything looks secure and immovable, but the tiniest amount of 'play' in the scratchplate can create havoc with the neck pickup.

THE LIKELY CAUSE

I don’t believe the typical cause of this problem is static electricity. Of the Telecasters I’ve owned, some have exhibited the scratchy or popping sound, and others haven’t. But in no case has static ever been the cause of the problem on my Teles. In fact, there’s only ever been one cause: the metal cover of the neck pickup rubbing against the tops of the polepieces.

Because of the way the Telecaster is built – specifically that the neck pickup cover is in contact with the scratchplate – any vibration or subtle motion in the plate is also transferred to the cover of the neck pickup. If the cover is not extremely tightly fitted to the pickup, the scratchplate gently nudges the seating of the cover. If the underside of the pickup cover is in contact with the top of the pickup’s pole-pieces (and it frequently will be), there’s an annoying sound as the cover is periodically dislodged. The actual amount of movement is barely evident, but that doesn’t matter. Even the tiniest amount of friction between the cover and the poles is enough to create a sound.

THE SOLUTION

Firstly, make sure the scratchplate is tightly secured, and that it absolutely cannot move when you touch or nudge it. I suspect a lot of the weird and wonderful 'cures' which have been successful, have worked simply because when the plate was refitted, it was fixed more tightly, and that prevented it from nudging the pickup cover.

If ensuring that the scratchplate is as tightly screwed down as possible doesn't completely eliminate the problem, things get much more difficult, because the only other realistic option is to work directly on the neck pickup cover and stop it from scratching against the pole-pieces. On some Tele neck pickups it’s almost impossible to secure the cover to the pickup sufficiently tightly to prevent all movement. You have to be extremely careful when tampering with Tele neck pickups too, because the process of removing or even trying to tighten the covers is very highly prone to accidents and coil damage. I therefore issue a disclaimer to the effect that you tighten or remove the pickup cover entirely at your own risk. I’ve damaged more than one Tele neck pickup taking the covers off (among other things, the clip tabs can catch on the outer coil windings), so please be warned that this is a very risky process.

Sometimes, clamping down the clip tabs which hold the cover in place will tighten the fit just about enough to eliminate the problem. But that won’t always work. One or two Tele neck pickups whose covers I’ve secured as tightly as possible still haven’t been immune from the dreaded noise. Only when I’ve taken the cover right off and insulated its top underside with insulating tape before refitting it has the problem finally gone away. Placing something non-metallic between the tops of the pole-pieces and the metal of the pickup cover has, for me, been the surest solution. Teles I’ve treated in this way have never had a recurrence of the so-called 'static' noise. However, it’s worth considering that placing tape between the poles and the cover may very slightly alter the tone of the neck pickup. If there was a change, you'd probably need extremely sensitive ears to notice, but it's feasible you could sense a difference.

IS THERE AN ACTUAL STATIC ISSUE WITH TELECASTERS?

I’m not saying there’s no such thing as real ‘static’ noise on Telecasters, but I haven’t experienced it, and I find it hard to see why actual static interference would afflict Telecaster scratchplates and not plates on other guitars. I’ve never had the same problem with a Strat, and generally, reports of noise problems from other Fender guitars appear more related to wiring issues and component malfunctions. Also, the scratchplate 'static' problem doesn't manifest itself at all on Teles when the bridge pickup alone is selected. If you take the neck pickup out of the live circuit, the noise stops - does for me, anyway. If the noise was being caused by some sort of static on or around the plate, surely the bridge pickup would sense it too. The Telecaster is the only guitar I’ve used which has suffered specifically from this weird ‘scratchplate scratch/pop’, but as I say, the sound itself has not for me ever been caused by the scratchplate - it's always been the pickup cover.

Whilst I’m sure this won’t diagnose a problem for every Telecaster player, the contact between neck pickup poles and cover is a very common cause of misery, and the above should help at least some people. Don't forget, though, that a metal pickup cover will always produce some noise, whatever you do. It's metal, and just like the strings, if it vibrates, the pickup's magnetic field will be disturbed by the motion, and that will reproduce as sound - whether or not you've used insulating tape inside the cover, and however tightly you've affixed the scratchplate.

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