Besides the volume and tone controls, pickups provide a great and easy way to further fine-tune (pun intended!) the sound and performance of your guitar. Some pickups, like soapbar P-90s, have a set height in the body, but have adjustable pole-pieces. Single-coil (think Fender Stratocaster/Telecaster) have adjustable height, but the pole-pieces themselves cannot be manipulated. And then pickups like humbuckers offer the best of both worlds – height and pole-piece adjustment. It’s a fairly simple process that can have a massive impact on your tone, so here is how to set guitar pickup height!
Tools You’ll Need
A guitar tech kit is ideal for projects like this and many more, but all you’re really going to need are a few simple tools:
- Two screwdrivers – Phillips and flat heads
- Ruler or string action gauge (one of the most useful guitar tools available!)
Setting Guitar Pickup Height
Because every guitar, guitarist, and playing style is different, always keep in mind that guitar pickup height preference is highly subjective. They can definitely be set too far either way, but there is a lot of room to work with in the middle. Keep in mind, bass strings have more mass and thus disrupt the magnetic field more so than the treble strings.
Plug your guitar into an amp and dial in a clean tone at a conversational volume. Fret the highest fret on the high E string and set the treble side of the neck pickup to be about 1/8” below the string. Repeat the process for the treble side, setting the height to 1/16″ of the bridge pickup, and middle – if there is one. This will set a starting point that provides an even response across all pickups. Clockwise rotation raises the pickup, while a counterclockwise motion lowers it.
To make sure each pickup is balanced with one another, turn up your volume control and play up and down the high E string while switching between pickups. This should produce tonal changes, but the volume should remain consistent.
Next up is balancing the output between the bass and treble sides of each pickup. Fret on the same fret (i.e. 12th) on both the low and high E strings and alternate between each. Moving one pickup at a time, listen for variations in volume.
Lowering the bass side of the pickup an additional 1/16” or so can really help to balance out the “woofiness” of some neck pickups and make it so that they provide a balanced output. You will generally find that each pickup will be mildly angled.
Moving the pickups closer to the strings provide a hotter, more compressed output. Conversely, lowering them a bit more can provide a better dynamic response. Micro adjustments, like 1/32”, can have drastic.
Setting pickups too high can cause the magnets to pull the strings out of tune, creating a warbling effect. Setting them too low can put them too far away from the magnets – but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can tame thick bass and balance things out – which might be exactly what you’re looking for!
Tuning Pickups by Type
There are countless pickups on the market, but these are the three most common types and what makes them unique from one another in regards to how to guitar pickup height.
Most single-coil pickups can only be adjusted via the overall tilt, but the polepieces come pre-configured at different heights so as long as the action and neck relief on your guitar are correct everything should fall into place beautifully.
Humbuckers are unique in that you can adjust the height of the individual pole-pieces. With the bass/treble tilt options that the pickup itself provides this offers some unique advantages. It also means that if your particular guitar has some quirks – like the neck pickup is too thick – you can tailor the pickup response in even more detail.
There are two kinds of P-90 pickups – “soapbars” and “dogears”. Both generally have pole-pieces that can be adjusted, but while dogears can be tilted, soapbars are usually set directly into the guitar body.
As a quick reference, here are some measurement starting points to shoot for based on four popular guitar models:
|Guitar||Bass Pickup||Treble Pickup|