Set Up Guide: Pickup Height
by Daniel Brooks
You can fine tune the basic tone and output of your guitar by adjusting the height of each of your pickups. It sounds like a simple thing, but any adjustment of any part of your guitar can have a considerable affect on your sound, so it’s good to keep a few realities in mind as you tweak your way toward tonal perfection.
Typically, a pickup raised higher to be closer to the strings will deliver a higher output with a more pronounced and defined high end than one positioned lower. But you will not necessarily maximize your sound by just setting the pickups as high as they’ll go. In fact, a higher setting can diminish, if not ruin, an otherwise outstanding guitar tone in a few different ways.
Your pickups and strings work according to their physical proximity to one another. As the strings vibrate, they move a fraction of an inch closer and further away from the pickups, hundreds or thousands of times per second, disrupting the pickup’s magnetic field. Each disruption induces a flow of electrons in the copper wire wound around the magnets in your pickups. The frequencies and amplitudes of that flow will change according to the pattern of disruptions, creating an amplifiable current that corresponds to the vibration of the strings. The magnetic field is stronger closer to the magnets, and as you bring the magnets and the vibrating string closer together, the disruption of the stronger part of the field induces a stronger current, creating more power for the higher-energy treble frequencies and greater volume overall.
But the interaction works both ways. A too-strong magnetic field will exert a subtle physical pull on the string that will reduce the string’s vibration and greatly shorten your sustain. Additionally, the misadjusted pickup will create a pull at only one point on the length of the string, creating false harmonic nodes that will make most of the notes on your fretboard sound slightly out-of-tune, no matter how you play them. This effect is much more pronounced with misadjusted neck pickups.
As the interaction between string and pickup becomes stronger, it exerts a much greater influence on your sound. The acoustic qualities of your guitar’s wood, hardware, and design play a diminished role in shaping your tone and timbre. It might not matter if you’re playing very loud and heavily processed, but if you’ve spent a lot of money on your dream guitar, you probably want it to make a difference in your tone. Adjust your pickups back from the strings a bit to hear your guitar. You might notice a slight drop in the output and a slightly darker tone, but if you have a good amp, or two, you can trust it to deliver plenty of volume with all of the well-developed treble you need to sound good.
Of course, you don’t want to go too far in the other direction. If your pickup is adjusted too low, you will end up amplifying a lot of noise along with your signal, especially if you’re using single coil pickups. As with all things, balance is the key to getting it right.
So, what is the optimum height for your pickups? Well, that depends on the pickup, its position on your guitar, and what you want it to do. Fender, Gibson and all of the aftermarket pickup manufacturers make a wide variety of different models with very different characteristics. Fender Lace Sensors, for example, exert no magnetic pull and can be adjusted as close to your strings as you like. The Texas Specials and Noiseless Series have a higher Gauss and work best when adjusted a good .125” away from the string.
A string vibrates with much more or less amplitude at different points along its length. The point of its maximum amplitude will vary according to where it is plucked, moving up and down the string in a pattern that requires some pretty serious math to describe accurately. For the sake of this article, let’s just say its maximum is closer to its halfway point and at its minimum is at the ends, at the bridge and at the fret or, if it’s an open string, at the nut. Because of this, you’ll probably want to adjust your bridge pickup higher than your neck pickup to be closer to the strings. You’ll also probably want to adjust the treble end of each pickup slightly higher. The thinner strings are physically further away from the pickup and, with less vibrating mass, have a slightly lesser influence on the pickup’s magnetic field.
To adjust the pickup height accurately, fret the high E and low E strings at the highest fret. Then measure the distance between the bottom of each string and the top of the magnetic pole piece beneath it. You can measure the gap using a precision 6 inch metal ruler with markings for 64ths of an inch, or a feeler gauge, for maximum accuracy.
For guitars with humbuckers, Gibson recommends a gap of 3/32nds of an inch, or .093” between the low E string and the top of the pole piece, and 2/32nds, or .0625” between the high E and the top. When I set up my Les Paul, I adjusted the neck pickup as low as it will go, flush with the mounting ring, and the bridge pickup according to their specifications. It sounds great.
Fender’s recommendations are a bit more specialized. For your reference, I’ve included their recommended heights for a variety of their single-coil pickups. You’ll notice there is no provision for each pickup position, but if you adjust each pickup to the high and low E strings fretted as high up the neck as possible, it will create a natural gradation that will work at every point on the fretboard.
As with all set up adjustments, these are merely guidelines that you can modify according to your personal preferences. Listen to your pickups when you play, keep a #1 Phillips screwdriver within reach, and feel free to tweak your pickup heights until you get it exactly where you want it.
Bass Side Treble Side
Texas Specials 8/64” (.125) 6/64” (.093)
Noiseless Series 8/64” (.125) 6/64” (.093)
Vintage Style 6/64” (.093) 5/64” (.078)
Standard Single Coil 5/64” (.078) 4/64” (.0625)