Guitar setup isn’t all about action and neck relief. Properly adjusted pickup height can have an enormous positive impact on your sound. However, if they’re not right, you may end up miles from the tones you’re looking for. Too low and you’ll have a weak, thin output. Too high and you’ll actually interfere with the tuning of your guitar, as the magnets push and pull the strings, creating something known as the “warble” effect.
Pickup height adjustment is one of the easier modifications to make to your guitar, but you should still ensure you know what you’re doing before diving in and making changes.
In this KillerGuitarRigs Guide you’ll learn:
- How to adjust the height of your passive pickups
- How to adjust the height of your active pickups
- What are the different styles of pickup mount?
- Other considerations
- Troubleshooting tips
Before getting into the guide, take a look at these fast facts:
- Active and passive pickups are adjusted in the same way
- You absolutely must take reference measurements before making any changes
- Single-coil pickups don’t have adjustable pole pieces
- Non-standard pickup mounts may require professional assistance to adjust
- How to Adjust the Height of Your Passive Pickups
- How to Adjust the Height of Your Active Pickups
- Other Considerations
- What Are the Different Styles of Pickup Mount?
- Troubleshooting Tips
- Final Thoughts on Pickup Height
How to Adjust the Height of Your Passive Pickups
In principle, your guitar should come from the factory with its pickups set at the correct height for the specifications of the pups and the guitar. However, quality control varies between factories and in some cases, incorrectly set up guitars do slip through the net and may require height adjustment. It could also be the case that you’ve installed new pickups and you need to set the height all over again. Alternatively, if you’re just looking to customize your sound, a pup height adjustment can be helpful.
Before You Start
Before you get started with adjusting your pickup height, you should consider a few things. First, a clear work space is absolutely necessary. It should be flat and level with support for your guitar’s neck available.
If you have a combo or practice amp, it’s handy to have this close by, or even on your work bench. Throughout the adjustment, you will need to plug in to check the effectiveness of your adjustments. Having an amp nearby will reduce the amount of back and forward you’ll need to do.
For those making adjustments because you’re concerned about electrical issues, a common guitar tech’s tip for checking pickup output during the setup is to give a gentle tap on the pickup pole pieces with a screwdriver while plugged into the amp. If there’s output, you’ll notice a distinct thud through the amp. If there’s no output from any particular pole piece, no noise will be heard. Be careful when using this technique on single-coil pickups as the pole pieces are actually magnets.
Finally, install some fresh strings. As old strings become coated in dead skin, dirt, and oils, they acquire an amount of insulation against the magnetism of the pickups. Having new strings installed will ensure that the interaction between pickups and strings is as it should be, which will make accurate adjustment much easier.
Step 1 – Reference Points
The first step to take is to take some reference measurements. This is the most important step of all, as it will provide your fallback. If you get into a situation where you’ve made multiple adjustments and things seem to be getting worse rather than better, you can always revert to your original pickup heights and start over.
When measuring string height above the pickups, always use the highest point of the pickup and the bottom of the string. The highest point of the pickup may be a pole piece, or on a humbucker it’s likely to be the pickup cover. If screws protrude from the pickup cover, this is your point. Measurements must be taken while depressing the string at the highest fret to ensure your individual setup doesn’t affect what should be a standard measurement.
Measurements should be taken using a precision ruler, or if you have them, a pair of calipers. Choose a unit, be it mm or inches, and stick with it in order to avoid confusion later on. Remember that you’ll need to adjust at both the bass and treble sides of the pickup when raising or lowering the pickup, so be sure to take your initial reference measurements on both sides.
Step 2 – Start Adjustments
If you aren’t already plugged into the amp you’ve set up at your bench, you will need to do so. Being able to hear the difference in sound caused by your adjustments as you make them will make the procedure much easier. Select only the pickup you’re working on at the time, and only work on that one pup until you’re happy with the adjustment before moving on to other pickups.
There’s no hard and fast rule about which pickup to start on, but if you play a lot of lead lines, you might want to start on the bridge. Most players select the bridge pickup for solos. If you like your bridge pickup hot, this will mean getting it as close to the strings as possible without the sound turning into quacks and warbles. By adjusting the neck second, you already have your reference point and you’ll be able to make the neck output a bit lower by setting the pup down further. If you start on the neck and you find a sound you like, you may not have left enough headroom for the bridge, and you’ll then have to go back and readjust the neck all over again.
There are two methods of adjustment you can follow. First, you can use manufacturer’s recommended settings and adjust directly to those numbers, or you can do everything by ear to see what sounds good to you. If you’re going to use the manufacturer’s recommended settings, you can check the measurements recommended for some of the most popular guitar styles in the table below.
|3/32” (0.093”, 2.38mm) on the bass side, 2/32” (1/16”, 0.0625”, 1.98mm) on the treble
|Tele - Humbucker
|4/64" (1.6 mm) on the bass side, 4/64" (1.6 mm) on the treble
|Tele - Single Coil
|6/64" (2.4 mm) on the bass side, 5/64" (2 mm) on the treble
|1/16" on the neck, 3/32" on the bridge
|PRS - Humbucker/SoapBar
|3/32" on the bass side, 5/64" on the treble
|PRS - Single Coil
|4/32" on the bass side, 2.5/32” (neck) / 3.5/32” (middle) / 2/32” (bridge) on the treble
If you’re opting to adjust by ear, as you did for your measurements, start by fretting the 6th string (low E) at the highest fret. You’ll then need to raise the pickup you’re working on towards the string. Bring the pickup as high as you can get it without touching the strings. This will sound terrible at first, but you’ll be lowering away from the strings to set your height. If you play the low E open with the pickups at the max height, you’ll almost certainly hear the warbling created by the magnetism of the pickups interacting with the steel strings. You’ll also likely hear an unpleasant quacking type tone. The aim is to adjust down until the warbling and quacking stops.
If you normally play using a pick, use a pick while adjusting. The same goes if you normally play with your thumb or fingerstyle, use your fingers to get the most accurate representation of the tone you’re looking for.
Repeat the above for the treble side, remembering to make notes of measurements when you like the tone you’re getting.
Step 3 – Test the Results
Test the sound by playing each string open. If you’re happy with the sound of the open strings, play some scales up and down the neck, as well as some chords. Experiment with different tone and volume settings to ensure you’re happy with the entire range of sound from the pickup. For any further adjustments, go ahead and make them, again noting the measurements. If you’re following the manufacturer’s recommendations and aren’t quite satisfied with the sound, go ahead and make some slight adjustments to those heights to see if you find the tone you like. If the output is weak, move the pickup closer to the strings. For outputs that are too brash and that you want to make it more mellow, set it lower.
When you’re satisfied with your bridge pickup, it will be time to move on to the neck pickup. Before jumping into any adjustments, you should try to find out whether you have a matched pair of pickups, or whether your pickups have different outputs. In some cases, pickups will be identical in both positions, but the neck will be set further from the strings than the bridge pickup to reduce output. Alternatively, if your guitar is equipped with a lower output neck pickup, chances are the recommended height is the same as the bridge, and the output is handled entirely by the pickup winding.
If you’re not sure if there’s any difference between your pickups, take the final measurements from your bridge pickup and set the neck to an identical height. If you find that the output is too similar, slightly lower the neck pickup to mellow out the sound.
Once you’re happy with the sound of the pickups when played from the bench, it will be time to pick up your guitar and put it through its paces. If you have a better quality amp, plug in and play through that before putting your tools away. If you usually play though a pedal board, you should test both with and without that. The goal is to ensure you’re happy with the results of your adjustments on both dry signals and with FX.
How to Adjust the Height of Your Active Pickups
If your play a guitar with active electronic pickups, fortunately the adjustment advice provided above still applies. If you’re planning to adjust your active pickups because you’re concerned about the output level, you should ideally check the batteries before making any changes.
Most active pickups use a 9v battery to provide power. Try changing it out for a fresh cell and test again. If output is better, there’s no need to adjust. However, if you’re still not happy with your output and you’ve confirmed the battery isn’t the issue, follow the guidance for passive pickups.
As you’re making adjustments to the pickup height, you might also notice that the pickups are angled. Note that the angle of the pickup in the case of a single-coil should be parallel with the body of the guitar, or for a humbucker, with the body or the pickup ring. If the pickup falls outside of these parameters, the magnetic field they produce won’t be at the optimum angle for capturing the movement of the strings.
Pole Piece Adjustment
The vast majority of single-coil pickups don’t allow for adjustments to individual pole pieces. However, most humbuckers do. The pole pieces should only be adjusted in extreme circumstances. For example, you have one string that won’t sound right, no matter what adjustments you make. This adjustment should only be performed after all other setup and pickup height adjustments have been completed, and any movements made should be tiny. As with adjustment of the whole pickup, make sure you take a reference measurement before starting in case you need to revert.
What Are the Different Styles of Pickup Mount?
On most Strat-style guitars, you’ll find that all three of the pickups are mounted directly to the pickguard. Resistance to the screws and cushioning from the pickguard itself is provided by rubber inserts or springs, depending on the exact make and model. When adjusting pickups on a Strat-style guitar, be sure you don’t loosen them too much, as they can come completely off the mounting screw.
On Telecaster-style guitars, the neck pickup is mounted to the pickguard in a similar fashion to Stratocaster-style guitars, but the bridge pickup is actually affixed to the bridge itself.
Les Paul Style
On Les Paul (and vintage SG)-style guitars, the humbucker pickups are mounted within a pickup ring, which is effectively a mounting bracket. The pickup ring is then attached to the guitar, leaving the pickup floating within it.
On modern SG-style guitars, you’ll find that pickups are mounted in the pickguard as they are with Stratocaster guitars. On these pickups, as well as those of most Les Paul, Tele, and Strat Style Guitars, to raise the height of the pickup, you tighten the screw (turn it clockwise).
Super Strat Style
Many “Super Strat” manufacturers, such as Ibanez, make their guitars with pickups that mount directly into the body of the guitar, in the base of the cavity. This is effectively a reverse mounting compared to the others above. Spring tension tries to push these pickups upwards, so to raise the height, you loosen the screw.
Making pickup height adjustments is a relatively simple task, but as with anything in life, not everything always goes according to plan
What to Do If the Adjustment Screws Do Nothing
When you’re turning the adjustment screws for your pickups, it should be quite obvious if the height is moving up or down. However, in the event that nothing happens after turning the screw, there are a couple of potential issues:
- Your pickup may have fallen off the screw
- The rubber insert (if used) may have lost elasticity
- The spring (if used) may have broken or is missing
If the pickup has fallen completely off one or both screws, this should be fairly apparent before you even turn them, as it will move freely within the constraints of the pickguard or pickup ring. In any case, you’ll need to remove the pickguard entirely in order to remount the pickup back in the screw seats.
If it’s a case of missing or broken springs or rubber, try to replace with like-for-like components to ensure a proper fit and the correct tension. Stores like StewMac carry a wide range of sizes and styles for all guitar types.
What to Do If Your Pickup Fell into the Cavity
If you loosen excessively during your adjustments, the pickup may fall into the electronics cavity. As bad as that may sound, it hasn’t actually gone far and recovering it is straightforward. To start the recovery process, you’ll want to remove your strings to allow for easier access. Remove the pickguard and locate any loose screws and springs. If you can’t find the screw or spring, there’s a good chance it’s stuck to the pickup magnet.
Reseat the spring over the screw and mount the pickup into the pickguard or pickup ring. Replace the pickguard and strings, then continue with your adjustments, being careful to avoid over-loosening again.
What If My Pickups Have Non-standard Mounting?
The vast majority of modern guitars are designed with the ability to adjust pickup height. However, particularly on older instruments, there are some non-standard mountings that require alternative methods for adjustment. I’ll point out at this point that if you’re working on a vintage instrument of any particular value, be it monetary or sentimental, it might be a good idea to have a luthier or guitar tech make pup-height adjustments for you to prevent accidental, irreversible damage.
Some of the Gibson and Epiphone hollow-body electrics are great examples of non-standard pickup mounting. Some of the Epiphone Emperor models, for example, use a floating arrangement for their pickups, with mounting points on the pickguard and on the fretboard. To adjust this type of pickup, you need to make physical modifications (read bends) to the mounting brackets themselves. Accuracy is a real issue when it comes to adjusting this type of pickup and it’s definitely best left to a professional.
Another Epiphone hollow body, the Casino, has a pickup mounting arrangement that makes it difficult to adjust. Because of the lack of a center block, these guitars have their pickups mounted directly to the body using a pickup ring. There are, however, no adjustment screws. The only feasible way to increase the height of these pickups is to install shims in the ring, but this isn’t an accurate way to adjust height and little can be done to lower the pups away from the strings if that’s what is required.
Final Thoughts on Pickup Height
Pickups are effectively your guitar’s microphone, and much like a microphone, the distance from the audio source dictates the tone and volume. Strings that are far away from the pickup will have a warm, mellow sound, with low noise and volume. When pickups are brought closer to the strings, they get hotter and brighter, which really helps to cut through a mix.
Knowing how to make adjustments to your pickup is a skill that all guitarists should learn. It’s just as important as any other element of guitar set up and shouldn’t be shied away from. If you always remember to get your reference measurements, the worst that can happen is you have to start over from scratch later on.
Finally, you might find that adjusting your pickup height gives you the sound you’ve been looking for and cures any GAS you may have been experiencing.
Main image courtesy of Nenad Stojkovic on Flickr