Pickup height adjustment is a very simple procedure, yet not every guitarist knows about it. On the contrary, those who know how to adjust the pickup height do not even know the purpose for it—aside from the pickups to look good.
There’s a myth going around that “stock pickups” are crap and replacing them with aftermarket pickups are the way to go. Well, that may be true to some degree, but I believe it is more of a preference or marketing ploy than what it really is. Obviously, if your guitar is on the “cheap side”, don’t expect much from it. However, if your guitar is of decent quality, the stock pickup only needs tweaking to sound glorious—and besides, your stock pickups could be from one of the biggest pickup manufacturers out there.
Why Do You Need to Adjust the Pickup Height?
Here are the reasons why proper pickup height adjustment is important:
- To achieve a uniform output gain from the strings.The pickup height is adjusted to attain equal volume from all the strings. An unbalanced volume is not only unpleasant to the ears, but the intonation and tone are also severely affected.
- To achieve more accurate intonation.If your pickup—especially the neck pickup—is very close to the strings, chances are, the magnets of the pickup will pull the strings. This will result in weird noises or overtones that are quite tricky to fix if you are not familiar with this phenomenon.
- To achieve more sustain from the strings.This is closely related to number two. Magnetic pickups (also called “passive pickups”) should not be setup too high so that the strings can vibrate freely without being hampered by the magnet of the pickup. A good way to check if the sustain is being affected by the pickups is to play a note and listen to how the note decays (fades). If the note abruptly stops during decay, try lowering your pickup.
- To prevent buzzing of the strings when the pickup is set too high.When the pickups are setup very high (or close to the strings), the strings may buzz or rattle against the pickup especially when you pick hard.
Where to Adjust the Pickup Height?
There are three common pickup mountings (disregarding piezos) for electric guitars to look for and they are as follows:
- Pickups that are directly mounted on the pickguard.
Some examples of guitars with this type of pickup mounting:
- Pickups mounted on a pickup ring.
- Pickups mounted directly on the pickup cavity.
Some examples of guitars with this type of pickup mounting:
As you can see from the pictures, all of them have a common location for the adjustment screws and are obviously easy to find.
How to Adjust the Pickup Height?
Adjust your pickups one at a time. I always start with the neck pickup followed by the middle pickup and then the bridge pickup. The neck pickup is the most problematic among the pickups because of its location. As an aside, the Fender Stratocaster is said to have a syndrome called “Stratitis”. Stratitis is apparent when the neck pickup is used because it produces weird overtones that make it sound dissonant and unpleasant. The reason behind this phenomenon is that the strings vibrate at a greater distance near the neck than they are near the bridge; this is the reason why you should be wary about the neck pickup when setting it up. To illustrate my point further, look at the illustration on the left.
Before you start setting up the neck pickup, you should first lower middle and bridge pickups as far as they go so that they will not interfere with your setup.
Now, let’s get started.
List of Materials
Steps in Adjusting Pickup Height
- Press the string on the last fret and measure the distance from the pickup pole to the bottom of the string using a small ruler.
Note: Always press the string on the last fret before measuring. This is to ensure that the pickup will not be too close to the strings when you play on the last fret.
- Adjust the pickup height adjustment screw using a Phillips screwdriver. A good starting point is at the ballpark of 1/8 – 3/32 on the treble side (first string) and 5/32 – 1/8 on the bass side.
Note: As you can see in the measurement above, the pickup height on the bass side is lower than the treble side. Don’t worry, this is normal. The bass strings are compensated because of their larger mass and their lower vibration frequency.
- Plug your guitar to your amp and test your setup. You should play on the open position and ease your way up to the last fret.
Note: Remember to test your setup in the playing position.
- Adjust your pickup when necessary. Your goal here is to listen for even volume of the strings, nice sustain with no overtones and no buzzing when you pick reasonably hard.
Tip: I prefer to increase the pickup height gradually until I hear something weird; from there, I lower the pickup just a bit until it goes back to normal. That will be my optimum pickup height setup.
- When you’re done setting up the pickups individually, it’s now time to check them together. Switch your pickups in different positions but don’t forget the goal listed in step four.
- You may fine tune your adjustments until you are happy with it.
Steps in Adjusting the Pickup Poles
If your pickup has an adjustable pole, you have more flexibility in setting up your pickup. Here are the steps:
- Check the understring radius of your guitar using an understring radius gauge.
Note: It is assumed that the bridge has already been setup to match the fingerboard before doing this procedure.
- Check the radius of the pickup and adjust the the pickup poles to match the radius of the strings using a flathead screwdriver (or Allen wrench depending on the pickup). I use the understring radius tool to set the radius of the pickup poles. The understring radius gauge is a versatile tool—you can also use the front side for radius measurements.
Tip: I prefer to raise the pickups during this procedure so that the strings and the pickup can hold the understring radius tool in place; this way, I can free both of my hands when eyeballing for adjustments. Be very careful that you don’t scratch the pickup poles using this procedure.
- After radiusing your pickup poles, follow the steps in adjusting the pickup height above.
There you have it. I told you it is very easy.
However, if your guitar still doesn’t sound the way you want it to be, then I regress what I said earlier… maybe you should try installing an aftermarket pickup.
Here are some of the aftermarket pickups to check out: