Why do some new guitars have pickups at all different heights? Have you ever wondered why one side of a pickup is really low and the other is slanted really high? We’ll get the low-down on pickup height and learn how to adjust your pickups to the best height. Many guitarists never consider adjusting pickup height but it is critically important for sound, and easy to do!
Electric guitar pickups work through magnetism, converting string vibration into an electric signal, which is sent to your amp. The magnetic field collects string vibration, so the further away from the strings, the weaker the field and the lower the sound output. Adjusting pickup height creates the optimal overall sound. Too far away, and your pickups aren't living up to their potential. Too close, and you can get sound artifacts with 'wave-like' volume as the magnets disrupt string vibration.
Conventional internet wisdom is to have the pickups 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch from the strings while notes are fretted (some people recommend 1/16 inch), with the heavier strings having the greater distance. This is actually a decent guideline, but many guitar techs stop here - with this forgotten factor tossed aside in the conversation: How do the pickups sound? Is the volume level and uniform? Uniform string volume trumps stock height suggestions every time. Your ears should be the final judge!
Many new guitars do not usually have the pickups properly adjusted! This is true even with guitars that supposedly come with a 'factory setup', whatever that is these days. There is no rhyme or reason if one pickup is lower than the other, or if one side is slanted lower than the other side. The only thing that matters is whether the sound output is balanced or optimal. In a normal situation the pickup will be fairly level looking, but there are times when balancing the sound output one pickup end may be at a different height. Proper adjustment and sound is what we’ll address here!
Testing Your Pickups for Optimal Overall Sound
Balanced overall sound means the bass strings (E,A,D) should be about same volume as the treble strings (G,B,E). This is subject to personal preference but most people will want their strings to all be nearly level in volume.
To check, plug the guitar into a good clean signal with all of your effects turned off (especially compression, chorus, and distortion!). Play an individual string, a single note and let it ring. Then check the next string and compare. Are they about the same volume? You may also optionally check this with fretted notes 12th fret or higher, just be consistent as you move from string to string. Continue checking the rest of the strings, they should be of uniform volume. Now check your other pickups with this same process. If certain strings are louder than others within the same pickup, you'll need to adjust the pickup in the next step.
Adjusting the Pickups
Now that you know what to listen for, it’s time to actually adjust your pickups. It couldn’t be easier!
Tools required: your ears, a screwdriver, and optional ruler. If aren't sure you have good musical ears or are a new player, have a friend help you. Grab a small screwdriver and find the screw that raises and lowers the pickup. Most humbucking pickups have four mounting screws, and then two other screws located on the long ends of the pickup which adjust height (see PRS image). While listening for uniform string volume, turn the height screw to raise and lower the given end of the pickup until you hear equal string volume.
(PRS Yellow Santana with humbuckers, notice adjustment screws in middle of each end)
Remember, we want a uniform sound result, not necessarily a uniform pickup height. As mentioned, a good guideline is 1/8 to 1/4 inch, but let your ears be the judge. The process is the same for single coil pickups, except single coil pickups usually are mounted inside a cut-out, not in a pickup mounting ring. Just look for the height screws on the long sides of the pickup and repeat the above steps. Last, there are some pickups that are mounted without height adjustment, direct-mounted to the body. If you have this version (less
common), you’ll usually have to settle for the manufacturer’s stock height unless you have them customized.
Expect a very balanced sound with the above technique. If you still have one string that is way out of balance and adjusting one side wont help, you may have to replace the pickup. This is unusual, and nearly non-existent on name-brand pickups. Most traditional pickups can be made very uniform in volume with a few turns of a screw.
Conventional Wisdom About Height
Now that you know about level volume, you can decide how close to the strings your want your pickups to be. Technically the closer the better, with a couple considerations. Since sound output is produced in the pickups' magnetic field, pickups should be close to the strings because output drops with distance. The further away from the strings, the weaker the magnetic field. Since typical guitar wisdom can range from 1/16 inch to 1/4 inch, we feel you can't go wrong with 1/8 inch as a guideline, knowing your ears are the final judge. Getting too close to the string can add unwanted artifacts, overtones and even wavering of the strong as the magnet affects the string movement. You are pushing the envelope at 1/16 inch distance, especially if you use a whammy bar or play upper registers often. But in some cases this could be ideal.
(Telecaster with rather low pickups in need of adjustment)
If your pickups are 3/8 inch or more from the strings, there is probably something wrong as you are likely not accessing their potential. Keep all of this in mind as you adjust your pickups for amazing sound.
Follow this procedure and guidelines above, and you can have your guitar singing in less than 20 minutes of string tweaking!
(For even more on pickups and fine tuning sound ideas, see Part 2)
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