Part 3: Guitar Pickup Height
What is a guitar pickup?
A guitar pickup is the device under your guitar strings that "picks up" the strings' vibrations, and converts them into a signal. That signal is then sent to the guitar output jack into the amplification source that converts that signal into an audible sound.
What is Guitar Pickup Height?
Pickup height is the distance between the top of your guitar pickup to the bottom of the guitar strings. This distance greatly effects the way the strings interact with the magnetic field generated by your guitar pickups. The greater the distance, the weaker the output. Weaker output equals thinner tone.
What is a humbucker?
A "humbucker" is a type of guitar pickup composed of two single coil pickups. By combining two coils, the "hum" of a single coil is canceled. The result is a noiseless and powerful guitar pickup with fatter tone.
I’ve bought guitars off the shelf that didn’t need any pickup adjustment whatsoever. Those guitars are few a far between in my opinion. Some guys will even skip adjusting the pickup height and go straight for a completely new set of pickups.This was pretty common practice ten years ago. I myself have done that with several of my electric guitars, but its not necessary most times.
In recent years, guitar manufacturers have taken notice of this and decided to make some changes. Therefore, most guitars today have pretty decent pickups installed right from the factory.
Do yourself a favor and try adjusting your pickup height before you go the drastic route of installing a new set of pickups. A couple of mm’s in either direction can improve the tone of your guitars pickups. (If you still aren’t satisfied after doing that, head over to my Guitar Hacks section and read the Pickup Magnet Hack .)
Adjusting your pickup height is done via two screws (phillips head for modern, flat head for vintage) on either side of the pickup. (Some models like the Gretsch in the bottom right corner of the above gallery have a phillips head screw in each corner, totaling four screws).
I recommend having the guitar plugged into your amp or whatever means of amplification you have. (I personally like to use my in ear monitors plugged in to my Line 6 HD500x). You will be listening for small changes in output and tone, so the louder the better.
Your ideal pickup height is a matter of preference. Some of you will prefer to back the pickup away from the strings for a thinner tone. Some of you will prefer your pickup be as close to the strings as possible for a fatter more aggressive tone. You can’t go wrong, just pick what you think sounds the best.
Important Note: When approaching your ideal height , 1/ 4 turn in either direction can produce significant change in your tone. This is a good thing.
Tools You'll Need:
1. Phillips head screwdriver (Small)
2. Flat head screwdriver (Small)
Some Tips Before You Start:
Special Note: Some guitarists prefer to have the neck pickup much lower than the Bridge pickup. This is because the Neck position is the bassier/muddier of the two positions.
Farther from strings = Less Bass, More Treble.
Closer to strings = More Bass, Less Treble.
Try to count the turns you make to each pickup screw. It will help later on.
Pro Tip 2:
If you are having trouble getting the right neck pickup tone, back it all the way down and raise it a few turns at a time, checking the tone after each adjustment. Sometimes I find it necessary to have the bass side (low E side) lower than the treble side (high e side).
Step by Step Guitar Pickup Height Instructions:
Use your screwdriver on both screws pickup screws. Turn counter clockwise until the pole pieces of your pickup are within a 1/8 inch of touching the strings. (This is pretty close to the sweet spot. We’ll work within this space to get the ideal height.
Depress each string at the highest fret (20 or 24) and check that the pole pieces are not touching the strings. Play your guitar now and assess the tone. If you like the tone you can stop here. If you think it can get better continue adjusting the pickup higher or lower until you are happy with the tone.
Repeat Steps 1 and 2 for the Neck Pickup. If you find, like many guitarist, that your neck pickup is too muddy I have a special hack for that here (Dark Neck Pickup Hack).
For now you will probably want to lower the pickup because that will add clarity and lessen the bass.
Congratulations, you optimized your pickup height. You are now ready for the last part of your guitar setup, Intonation.
If you still want more out of your pickups tone, there is another way to easily fine tune their tone. The pole pieces (individual bolts or metal cylinders under each string) are usually adjustable. They are mounted in wax and can be pushed or screwed up or down to customize the tone of each string.
Some pole pieces have an allen head bolts, others are just metal cylinders that can be pushed or pulled by pressing on them. The pole pieces can be moved closer to the strings(resulting in more treble/less bass) or they can be pushed farther from the strings (resulting in less treble/more bass). The closer they pole piece is to the string, the louder that string will be compared to the others. I do this on most of my guitars. You can get dramatic results if you invest the time.