Fine-Tuning the Adjustment of Passive Humbuckers

Posted on by Adam Gotch

adjusting guitar pickups

It’s been said that the best things in life are free, and I find that saying is never more true than when applied to getting a better tone from our guitars. With so many products on the market that claim to improve guitar tone in one way or another – from fancy new picks made from exotic materials, to super-rare new old stock amplifier tubes someone discovered in a factory basement – it’s a relief to remember that we often can make just as big an impact for free with nothing more than a screwdriver and a few spare minutes.

I am, of course, referring to the ancient and noble art of pickup adjustment.

Passive magnetic guitar pickups work by detecting the velocity of string vibration and converting it to an electrical signal via Faraday’s Law of electromagnetic induction. If that reads like it was written by someone who just Googled it themselves, well… There is a lot of technical information that explains this process, much of which can be gleaned from academic resources and other SD blog articles, so I won’t repeat it here. What I will say is that our pickups “hear” string vibration through an electromagnetic field around our strings. Making adjustments to our pickups changes the shape of that field, which, in turn, changes what the pickup hears and thus, changes our tone.

There are many, many different styles and models of electric guitar pickup (which, if you’re reading the Seymour Duncan blog, should not be news to you), and they each have their own levels and methods of adjustment. For the purpose of brevity, we’ll focus specifically on fine-tuning the adjustment of the common passive humbucking pickup.

Generic Statistical Image

“You see, Sally, this line I’ve drawn here represents nothing at all.”

In a surprising figure supported by no real data whatsoever aside from my own personal hunch after having consulted nobody, it is estimated that fewer than 50% of people who own an electric are even aware that the humbuckers are adjustable, let alone make any attempt to adjust them themselves. For the other  > 50%, here is how I imagine most pickup adjustments are performed:

Guitar owner turns screws on either side of pickup, plays a few notes, declares “YEP IT’S NOT TOUCHING THE STRINGS AND IT SEEMS LOUD ENOUGH I AM DONE NOW I THINK I WANT TO HAVE TACOS FOR LUNCH.”

That would do in a pinch I suppose, but what enthusiasm our hypothetical straw man has for taco lunches, he is lacking for some key aspects of pickup adjustment. I want you to have your tone and your tacos, so what follows is my preferred, in-depth method for humbucker adjustment.

Adjusting for Balance

photo depicting screw pole adjustment

Balance in this case refers to consistent string-to-string volume. Ideally, with a balanced pickup, one can strum all six (or seven or eight) strings and hear each note ring out with even volume through an amplifier. Balanced string-to-string output is good. It makes our chords sound fuller, our runs and leads more consistent, and helps the guitar respond more evenly, like a higher-quality instrument.

Some guitars happily exhibit this trait acoustically, but even those that don’t can be adjusted so that they do through an amp, and that’s really what matters, right?

String-to-string balance is manipulated via the screw poles in the top of the pickup. Again, designs vary, but they all function about the same.

• If the pickup has flat-head screw poles, we’ll need a flat-head screwdriver.

• If the pickup has Philips-head screw poles, we’ll need a Philips screwdriver.

• If the pickup has hex key poles, we’ll need a hex key of the appropriate size.

• If the pickup has two rows of screw poles, or twice as many crammed into one row (I’m looking at you, Carvin), we’ll need a little extra patience.

• If the pickup just has two rows of non-adjustable slug poles, we need some better pickups.

The screw poles are named so because they are screws; they are screws because they’re meant to turn, and turning them is how we adjust the string-to-string balance of the pickup. Kind of like putting on pants before putting on shoes, I find it’s best to begin with this step so as to avoid messing up other adjustments we will have already made by doing it later.

So, plug in your guitar and turn them.

Tweak them just enough that the strings all sound like they’re ringing out at the same volume when each one is plucked individually. It’s fine to use a guitar amp to monitor this and trust your ears, but I prefer to use something that gives me a visual readout of the string volume (like an audio workstation or any other piece of equipment with a dB meter) as I make adjustments. I pluck a string, note what the dB meter reads, and adjust the screw pole until it matches the meter readings of the rest of the strings. This way I ensure that my adjustments are accurate and my results are not affected by any compression inherent in a particular amplifier.

image depicting the output difference in two contrasting waveforms

The blue waveform on top was recorded prior to adjustment. Note how much smaller the output differential (highlighted area) is on the green waveform, which was recorded after adjustment.

If the screw poles in the pickup were already adjusted by someone else or are all wonky for whatever reason, “reset” them by screwing them all back to a position where they’re slightly higher than level with the surface of the pickup bobbin. This way there’s plenty of room to adjust up, but also a little bit of room to adjust down without sinking the poles too far below the surface of the bobbin (which looks weird and can collect gunk over time). The goal is to find a mean depth for all the screw poles, so that none of them wind up too high or too low relative to the function of the guitar when finished.

Adjusting for Output

photo depicting pickup height adjustment

Once we’ve balanced the poles for string-to-string volume, we can adjust the overall height of the pickup for the desired output level. Output refers to the strength of the guitar’s signal from the pickups. More output = a hotter signal. This typically equates to more volume in a clean setup and more overdrive in a dirty one. Raising the pickup increases the output and lowering the pickup decreases it.

There are other incremental tonal changes that accompany this adjustment. These can range in intensity between different pickup models, but generally speaking, a pickup will sound brighter and dirtier closer to the strings and rounder, darker, and woodier further away from the strings.

I find also that pickups set lower are more responsive to picking dynamics. Whether this is a product of decreased median output and hence, more headroom, or if the lower pickup position physically provides them with a larger “window” through which can detect finer detail in string velocity, I don’t know. Whatever. It works. Practical knowledge FTW.

Additional Considerations

While 95% of what you need to worry about during pickup adjustment is covered above, there are a few ancillary factors to be mindful of, specifically: clearance, sustain, and pickup-to-pickup balance.

photo depicting grooves in p-90 pickup from string contact

Note the grooves worn into the P-90 housing from string contact

Pickups can be raised up pretty close to the strings without actually making contact while we’re testing out the adjustment, but actual playing conditions do vary and we may find that palm mutes or heavy picking causes the string to choke out some against the pickup. This is decidedly… undesirable. It sounds bad and can cause the strings to wear grooves into the tops of your pickups over time. If this happens, lower that puppy down a hair to get it out of the way.

Passive pickups can also exert a small amount of magnetic pull on electric guitar strings. If the pickup magnet is particularly strong or set too near the strings, it can act as a dampening force on them, reducing sustain, and in extreme cases, actually cause the strings to sound out of tune. The latter is rare, and the former is usually an easy fix, so if you find that your guitar seemed to “sing” more before you adjusted the pickups, try lowering them down a little bit.

The last thing to consider is the output ratio between bridge and neck pickups. This presents something of a balancing act between getting the pickup height just right for each of them so they sound their best individually while keeping their output as complimentary as possible. I find that I prefer a slightly hotter bridge pickup compared to the neck pickup and adjust their height accordingly, but tastes differ on what makes a good ratio between bridge and neck pickup output, so again, trust your ears.

If you haven’t adjusted your pickups using something like the above method, give it a try. I guarantee it will take you less time to do than it’s taken me to write about it!

For those of you who’ve done this many times – could I be missing anything? Do you have any alternative methods? Let us know in the comments.

Written on March 18, 2013, by Adam Gotch

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  • Very helpful.All these years and I never even thought about those screws.

  • Just recently I was thinking about those screws, I tried turning them slightly, but didn’t know what it was for, so forgot about it. thanks! Definitely gonna try this.

  • Sadly I’m limited to my overall bridge pickup height due to my love of pull up floyd squeals 😛

  • Driretlan

    I’d already toyed around with them, but now I have a much better way of getting a good sound out of all my guitars. (and, thank God for Adobe Audition)

  • I tried the idea of using a audio program so I could see the difference in volume. I think it worked out pretty well, but It was making me a little nuts though because I couldn’t tell if I was plucking each string with the same amount of pressure. I think after messing with it for a while I got it close.

    • Gary Flanigan

      I got an app from the App Store for my iPad which includes an SPL meter. Very easy to use, as I have an iRig to use with my guitar and Bias for practicing. The app was $1.99….

  • I remember when I first started playing guitar and came across and article like this in guitar world. At the time it was something I never thought of adjusting, now it’s part of my habit when setting up a guitar. When setting pickup height I generally drive my amp into a distortion beyond what is usable and play a harmonic on the 12th fret of the 6th E string and adjust the height until it stops oscillating, then I repeat with the 1st string. If the poles are adjustable and flat head screws I try to keep them the same height across but keep the pattern of the screws looking like / / / Not sure if it does anything with the magnetic field like the article I read years ago said but the placebo effect is fine for my ears. I’ve never had an issue of one string sounding weaker or stronger than the others this way, (the exception being staggered non adjustable magnets on some single coils) of course the magnet type, string gauge, flatter fret board radius I use, and which direction the sun is facing, may all have something to do with it too.

  • I find that, with high gain pickups like the Dimarzio Tone Zone, the Seymour Duncan JB, the Carvin M22SD, and the Jackson J-90C, there’s a range past which you should not go, when raising the overall height of the pickup relative to the strings. Picked notes will have so much “power” that they compress dramatically, flattening the peak on the waveform, and creating a sound which “blats” to my ears. While some with weaker amps will consider this to sound “heavy”, it is a sign that the pickup is too darn close to the strings. Back them away about 3/16ths of an inch, give or take, and all four of those pickups become far more harmonically diverse and rich-sounding. Go too far down and they can be come woody and muddy, particularly the Tone Zone.

  • Francesco64

    Thanks a lot,pal! But what about single coils pickups?I bet it is the same,but… And more,I’ve read that in order to set the tuning of the strings,You have to pull them on some frets,maybe checking the harmonics,don’t know,because it is the most reliable way to tune correctly a guitar. And last thing, on the bridge,for each string ,there is a little “saddle” (that’s the way we call them in italy) with two little screws each. What are they for?There’s a way to use them correctly?Hope that all these thing are not out of topic.Thanks in advance!

    • CJ

      those screws are for setting the intonation of the bridge saddles. they’re essentially for fine tuning all the frets past the 12th fret.

      • Sammy

        Ah no., The intonation screws affect every note on your guitar by changing the length of the string. If your intonation is out, the further up the neck the note you play is, the further out it will be.

    • Jesse Tico Jamez

      If you are reffering to the little allen screws on the saddle right next to the string that most strat(and many other) bridges have, those are for setting up your strings to follow the radius of your fretboard

    • Omer Savoie

      the alen screws are for adjusting the string height, the philips screws that hold the saddles to the bridge are for your intonation, it has nothing to do with fine tuning past the twelth fret, a good intonation will make your guitar sound more in tune all over the fret board

  • Francesco64

    Uh-Oh.not to mention the screws lying orizontally behind the bridge… 😛

  • This may be a personal crusade or simply tilting at windmills due to the huge misuse of this by even some experts, but…the correct term for magnetic or acoustic or any physical attenuation of cyclical energy is “damping.” Not “dampening,” but DAMP-ing. But please know that this is a great article, and you have done a wonderful job of explaining the issue.

    • Todd

      Yes, that would be a personal crusade 🙂 It’s a noble goal to go around correcting others, … wait. No, not really, it’s just annoying.

      • Jeff Isles

        Actually, it makes people who have actual technical knowledge have greater confidence in the information being provided. Unlike idiots who say things like Todd.

        • Todd

          Whatever you say Jeff 🙂 Oh wait…no, your just a Jackass. It doesn’t really matter what you say 🙂

          • Dave Brown

            It’s “you’re a jackass”, jackass.

      • Xaqshunr

        Yeah, it must be annoying to be corrected when your wrong all the time.

        • Todd

          I wouldn’t know 🙂 But I’ll take your word for it! 🙂

          • Xaqshunr

            You are the one who complained about being annoyed, so I am sure you have an incredible amount of experience being annoyed. Not even a nice try, loser.

          • Todd

            Sadly no. (Loser) Only folks that go around correcting other folks over piddly things and folks like yourself who stick their nose in just to troll really annoy me 🙂 It seems you have vast experience in being wrong on things. But take heart, it’s a skill as …. wait no…. your just a jackass too. But to show I’m the better man I will let you have the last word 🙂

          • Xaqshunr

            A better man does not need to call someone an insulting name like jackass, but you wouldn’t know anything about being better. You just think you are. It seems you have vast experience ASSuming things about others. If I annoy you, it’s because you are an idiot. I annoy idiots, it’s a hobby of mine. Thanks for the last word……monkeytard. Now, I can sink to your level….

          • Xaqshunr

            One last word, you seem to be in a constant state of anoesis. Get help for it.

          • Sam

            I have a good method to determine who the idiot is

          • Brent Millar

            Again, it’s you’re, as in you are.
            Really, is it that hard to get it right?
            I suppose if you don’t understand the diffeence, it’s doesn’t make a difference. But most of us do and it just sounds ignorant.

          • jerk

            *you’re. You repeatedly used the wrong version of “you’re” also.

          • Xaqshunr

            You want him to write “you’re”, a contraction, instead of the correct word? Which is the possessive.

        • jerk

          *you’re. “your” is possessive. “you’re” is a contraction of ‘you’ and ‘are,’ and I’ll give you an example: “You’re using the wrong spelling”

          • Xaqshunr

            sarcasm eludes you.

      • TT

        Gary correctly, and very politely, corrected the word usage. He didn’t make fun of the guy, nor did he try to disparage him. You, on the other hand, decided to troll for trouble, and given your luck, you found it.
        Using the incorrect word changes the meaning of the message. If the intent is to get a certain message to readers or listeners, then the use of the proper word is warranted.
        People like you, who get all hot and bothered when grammar is corrected, are likely the one’s who hated to learn their own native tongue and it’s proper usage. In the US we speak a form of English called “American”. No need to get puffy and annoyed when someone politely corrects someone’s grammar. If Gary was being abusive, such as what you’re doing, then he should get called on it.
        Yet, he was not. So your comment is not called for. And, I see some others feel the same as I do.
        Thank you for playing, “Butt your the one that don’t need two fix nothing about grammer, cause you ain’t gotta be annoying me teling me I don’t speak so good English.”

        • SeymourDuncanBlog

          Easy guys – author of the blog post here – I appreciate Gary’s correction, and he IS correct. The word I should have used is “damping.”

          The two terms aren’t interchangeable and the correct one should be used – ESPECIALLY on the Seymour Duncan blog!

          • Michael Hanby

            I can’t resist; Gerhard is mostly correct, but the word is not limited to everything technical…the device in a stove’s chimney used to control exhaust airflow is also called a “damper,” indicating to me that ANY device that attenuates operation qualifies for this name.

            On a different, but related note, I’m a firm believer that if you’re not learning something new every day, you’re not paying enough attention. So, whether it’s someone very politely correcting someone’s grammar, and the recipient’s polite acknowledgement of said correction, or someone who takes time to put together such a well-written article (albeit with at least one grammatical error) on guitar tech, there is always something to learn that will improve ourselves.

            Thank you, Adam, for composing such an informative article. I enjoyed it, and understood everything without catching the error, or caring much about it once it was pointed out. The important thing is you related the material in a way I found to be entertaining and easily understood.

        • sohk13

          Thanks!!! You are absolutely right.

        • BooBoo

          When I play guitar I often dampen panties.

        • 58deluxe

          Seriously, I thought Todd was just being funny. or like me, trying. He didn’t seem to be all ‘H&B’ Anyways, we all get the big pic & the meaning. I think that all of the pickup adjusting goes hand-in hand with proper & personal action and intonation adjustments, too. The height of the neck pickup in relation to the (end) of the fretboard itself and playability high up the neck with regard to string action height. That then in turn sets the balancing the output of your neck pu height; if slightly hotter – and if that’s is your preference. It does all goes back to the fact that nothing for setup on a guitar can be “perfect”, cause of the instruments’ design its based on small compromises. But it is that small level of imperfection is what lets a players unique individuality come thru.

        • 58deluxe

          Seriously, I thought Todd was just being funny. or like me, trying. He didn’t seem to be all ‘H&B’ Anyways, we all get the big pic & the meaning. I think that all of the pickup adjusting goes hand-in hand with proper & personal action and intonation adjustments, too. The height of the neck pickup in relation to the (end) of the fretboard itself and playability high up the neck with regard to string action height. That then in turn sets the balancing the output of your neck pu height; if slightly hotter – and if that’s is your preference. It does all goes back to the fact that nothing for setup on a guitar can be “perfect”, cause of the instruments’ design its based on small compromises. But it is that small level of imperfection is what lets a players unique individuality come thru.

        • Whit

          As a general rule, one should strive to use proper grammar and spelling when discussing or correcting someone else’s usage. The possessive is “its” not with the apostrophe. The apostrophe is used in the contraction of “it is” and while this is a wee bit of an exception in that it is a possessive that does not employ the apostrophe, it’s (see what I did there?) the correct usage.

        • Whit

          If we are going to discuss grammar and spelling, consider that you wrote “one’s” for the plural, when it should be “ones” since it is neither a possessive nor a contraction. See below for an example where it is not used in a possessive.

      • Liberal in CA

        Words matter…and we all might learn something if we listen to others! Gary was polite and framed it as sharing, I thought, quite nicely. Lighten up and enjoy the coffee, or beer, or whatever it is that got spilled on my amp last night at that bar…..

      • Yerno

        Would you rather I dampen your strings or damp them? Which would annoy you more?

    • GrammyGrammar

      I agree Gary. The term is often misused.
      However, the words “damp”, “dampen”, “dampening” have many uses, and the definition is dependent on context.

      A clarification if I may. Physical attenuation of an acoustic guitar’s volume, by stuffing it with something to deaden it’s volume, can correctly be called “dampening”.
      One of the uses of the word “dampening” is to “dull, deaden, restrain, depress”.
      So if one is going to do one of those things to, say, a magnetic field, or acoustic energy, then one can use “dampening”. In that case, physical attenuation can and may be described as having a “dampening” effect.
      Another example would be; Soundproofing a car can have a “dampening” effect on external sounds by effectively decreasing their volume level as heard within the cars cabin.

      In the context of this article the writer is referring to the area of Physics.
      He is describing the effects of a magnetic field on metal guitar strings.
      The word to use in the context of physics, relating to the reduction of vibration/oscillation, is “damping”.

      To muddy the waters further, some would argue with that as well. 🙂

      • Tom Cat

        And, let me add, the opposite of dampening is drying or wicking away, depending on the context and verbage, which, by the way is a made up word used to make me sound knowledgeable. I hope this clears up the misunderstanding, or should I say, dampens the subject.

      • Allen Tomas

        I have paid a lot of money for a Dean Strattervitta.Zglide neck. I found B&G pickups made in Indonesia .B&G responded they only make them in good old U.S.A.Bridge pickup has no bite.Does not overdrive well.Neck is muddy at best.I thought it was the Amplifier so I bumped up to a VOX VT-40.MODELING AMP.Not much luck.I’m in a care facility,can’t walk,disabled.Don’t know what to do.

        • SeymourDuncanBlog

          We can’t do much about determining the origins of the pickups in your Dean, but we can help you with choosing replacement pickups (just ask)

          • Allen Tomas

            The point of this is,truth and reputation .Is Dean Zelinsky deliberately using Indonesia B&G pickups .Ruining the reputation of U.S.A. Made B&G pickups.Pickups.B&G pickups have no knowledge of any of there items made over seas??

          • Allen Tomas

            My point of this is truth and reputation. Is Dean Zelinsky deliberately using Indonesia made B&G pickups ? B&G PICKUPS CO have no knowledge of any of there items made over seas.Just U.S.A.What about me.I am crippled, disabled I have a bone disease I very little income this guitar is A blessing to me.I like the guitar but the neck pickup is muddy at best.The bridge pickup lacks bite and power output.I upgraded to a VOX VT-40 The amp helps.Look foward to hear from you.The bridge pickup is the worst.Please reply.

          • SeymourDuncanBlog

            I can’t comment about Dean, but what kind of sound are you going for?

          • Allen Tomas

            A bright ,crisp bridge pickup that can do Malsteen,Blackmore ,Tony Iomi.14 to 16k. Minimal buzz and unwanted feed back. Dark gold/black to match guitar.

          • SeymourDuncanBlog

            My choice would be a 59/Custom Hybrid or for more upper mids, a JB. You’d have to order it custom to get the gold polepieces, though.

          • Allen Tomas

            Like I said I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer.What is JB?and how much money are we talking?Are they quick connect?

          • SeymourDuncanBlog

            The JB is one of our most popular pickups. Check it out: http://www.seymourduncan.com/pickup/jb
            None of our passive pickups are quick connect. Cost varies by region. US prices are on our website.

          • Allen Tomas

            Just a question,why not just quick connect?

          • SeymourDuncanBlog

            Seymour makes pickups the way they used to be made. Also, it isn’t that difficult to solder.

          • Liberal in CA

            Popular for good reason. It sounds great and is very versatile. One lives in the bridge position of my #1 custom S-type (Keith Holland Guitars, Lost Gatos, CA). It sounds fantastic both “normal” hum-bucking mode, and coil-tapped -fantastic in single coil. The combination lets me get strat-quack perfectly and classic HB tone.

          • Allen

            I’m in contact with Brian and have sent him the details. Waiting for a price.

          • Allen Tomas

            I have found a set I f 59s.Brand new for $90.00 onsale.seymour Duncan

          • Allen

            I have found out that B&G pickups made in Indonesia are also stock in Paul Reed Smith and a few other guitars. My Dean Zelinsky STRTAVITTA Zglide is made in Indonesia. Oh well. They keep Seymour Duncan in business. I’m waiting to hear from them.

          • Allen

            I’m waiting for a reply. Brian is on the job. 15 to 17K crisp,with a bite and can mellow out tone rich.

        • EdmundBurke

          Two questions:

          1. If this is a new guitar, did you remove the plastic film on the pickup covers?

          2. If that was done, did you contact Dean Zelinsky regarding the problem with the StrettaVita? I believe they have a return policy and would be more than willing to help you out rather than have the guitar returned.

          Another item is that the guitar is a Les Paul style guitar so it should be able to do classic metal along the lines of Iommi, however both Yngwie and Blackmore used Strats with single coils so their tones will be slightly out of the ballpark for the StrettaVita.

          • Allen

            Sorry to take so long, I’m a disabled person with a bone disease. My best friend ordered and paid for the guitar. It was handed to me ready to play. I had a little 10w beginer amp.Now I have a VOX 40 modeling amp.Now I know its in the guitar.

          • EdmundBurke

            I would contact Dean Zelinsky and ask them about it. Also make sure that you have the amp set properly. If you want dirt make sure the gain is up. Don’t be afraid to tweak all of the adjustments all the way in both directions to see exactly how much gain, treble, bass, etc. you have to work with. I would also try raising the bridge pickup all the way up to almost touching the strings and see what difference it makes. You wouldn’t want to leave it there obviously, but just to see if it boosts the output toward what you’re after. If it’s still weak, it may be a bad soldering joint or pot or something in which case they should fix it under warranty.

            I would give them a call and maybe even see if they’ll let you play it over the phone so they can hear it.

            QUESTIONS?
            WEB: http://www.deanzelinsky.com
            PHONE: +1.847.613.6020
            EMAIL: info@deanzelinsky.com

          • Allen

            Thankyou, raised the pickup, things got better. Then I lowered the pickup and raised the individual pole screws. Went from a 3 to a 7.

    • Liberal in CA

      Yes great article and my enthusiasm for the subject was not dampened by the use of the wrong word 😉

  • B2D

    I never thought of using a recording program to monitor output differences between strings…brilliant! I’ll try that tomorrow!

    • dvp

      Also new for me. Very good tip!

    • Rob Black

      It is a great tip

    • NoyzyBoyz

      I tried the Db meter thing and it worked just fine.

  • I used to do this back in the 80’s but then switched almost exclusively to single coils. Now that I’m playing more humbuckers I really need to start doing this again.

  • imenator

    So what about parallel axis? Are those unbalanced? If I have on of those would you say I need some better pickups? 🙂

    • Better pickups, or to drop the pickups in a more balanced guitar.

  • X24PITT13

    When I do this I usually match the pole piece height with the arc of the bridge/strings, then back the G pole down a turn or two to make up for the volume spike from wound to plain strings. This made a world of difference to my ears.

  • Smeekens

    I think players should listen to how strings sound with guitar unplugd. Than, make the desireble djustments. For example, if thiner strings, or any string, sound weaker compared to others, such pick up tunings can be useful to eliminate, minimize or balance whatever bugs ones ears. Or other stuff like setings for rithym and lead. Such adjustments are preaty simple to comprehende and to set. Most of quality gear are needles of such tunnings.

  • Rick Johnson @ FB

    The Best point of this artical is,You could Be Missing out with Poorly adjusted Pick ups…Its worth it to fine tune your AXE…Best all around mention,”Adjust all Pickups to Same output level(@wide open,of course,use Vol knob later-to suit your playing) Its a Very Basic consept choosing ANy Pkup,they shall all output the same as one another at a common Volume level(@ wide open,set up).OTHER wise,”Yea I like this pkup but theres always been some thing wrong with this one,Its really WeaK”…Guitar had never had any adjustment at all,including Neck…You can not lose with the Articals ADvise ..Owning A $160.oo Seymour Duncan “78” from the Custom shop I enjoy any reason to tech,upgrade a Guitar! THE Bottom Line Do what you want,Experiment, “Swap Pkups “Those adjustable poles on your pkups? have no fear,its made 2adjust too your taste!!!! & also Benifit ! Think of the poles as 6seperate-EQ adjustments. UP=boost/down=cut….Also,Strings vibrate in a bigger pattern at the neck pkup so its Louder.The Bridge pkup picks up less of a Patten so its closer,SOme thing else to consider dialing in your Axe….All ways strive 1rst for a unity volume with pkups on board during initial set up,its OK,add ur tweek.I sit right in that amps face,adjust-over adjust till you get a feel for where it was best…”It seemed better,about here-Yep !…
    *NOTE: The High “B” string,is a loud string,loudest of all 6strings.Consider this,if you like.For the record,Paul Gilbert agrees with this,I watched him say it..>Top”B”string<

  • Wayne Johnson

    cool

  • Jeevan

    Right on target buddy ………. 🙂

  • ARBIZA

    i bought a seymour duncan pre set pickguard you know? for my fender strat. with all single coils, all ready made. You think i should adjust it like you say in this article, or does it came preset by seymour duncan people and i should leave it alone??? i think is a good question… sometimes i feel my fender HW1 sound, lacks some ´body´ i want more bass, more meat. I play blues rock, never metal. never clean. I want a great overdrive tube sound, meaty, organic… please help

    • Omer Savoie

      you should definitely set it up, they can’t set it up from the factory since you might have your strings set higher or lower depending on your tastes, So there is no way of them knowing how to adjust things on their end.

  • bazie

    Interesting article, especially for beginners. One more thing that could be said is that it’s possible to make a humbucker sound a little brighter by turning screws so that in one coil they are lower/higher than in the other.

  • changbrose

    Thanks ! guitar through logic to fine tune and also to match the output in the pickups. Very helpful article 🙂

  • yup

    That escalated quickly.

  • Addis Solis

    In my strat i have a the same pick up for all 3 position. I dont use a balanced set.
    So i had no other way to balance out put in my pick ups other than adjusting height.

  • McLovin

    I have forever been happy with the tones of my Lone Star Strats. SD Pearly Gates Hum in the bridge and single coil Fender Texas Specials, mid and neck. My problem is the Humbucker is so much hotter than the Single Coil neck. It’s a shame I can’t switch between the 2 when soloing. Big overall volume difference. Should a height adjustment help with this issue? Or am I just S.O.L. because of the output differences between the 2 PU’s? Thanks. Very informative article.

    • KTGrosch

      Wonder if lowering the humbucker would help but I definitely understand the HOT pickup.
      Below is my 1985 MIJ Squire Strat that I bought (OK stole) from a friend for $37.50 about 2 years ago. Had the same issues with the HSS configuration and the humbucker output had to be 15K-17K.. Although they are not SD pickups, I had 2 hotrail pickups installed that really balanced out the guitar much better. The neck PU is 6.5K and the middle PU is 10K. The guitar tech I’ve used for over 25 years said he really liked them and that they retained some of the single coil sound but definitely were able to push them. Unlike a lot of Strat pickups and configurations, this middle pickup actually sounds really good in 3 position.
      Good luck. .

  • Mike Weaver

    Thanks for that. I have two guitars my son purchased new that really don’t sound like it should for what they are.

  • Mark Markguyver Gibbons

    A good overall article, except… It seems to me setting individual string height and THEN setting pickup height is completely backwards. Having a roughed-out even tone between pickups and across on the high and low “E”‘s, then setting individual string strengths seems far more logical.
    Say you set the strings individually, then find that for proper output, the p/u has to have a bit of “tilt” (higher on the high “E” side usually). All the adjustments you just did need to be redone! I say, rough set with p/u height, balance between p/u output, THEN set individual strings.

    • SeymourDuncanBlog

      You set the individual strings first to establish balanced output across the strings, and then adjust the overall pickup height to fine-tune the overall output. Doing it in reverse makes it harder to find the overall output you’re looking for because you aren’t hearing all the strings at a balanced volume.

  • kevin

    Hey ass holes, this a very helpful articat. ..go argue about stupid shit somewhere else and let the real guitarists talk about out intelligent stuff pertaining to the articat in a helpful manner…whether it’s damping or dampening we get the point..

  • Michael Jetter

    I thought we was talking about pickup adjustments. Talk about getting way off in left field. By the thanks for the tips.

  • knoxbeing

    Those screws have been calling me like Sirens off and on over the years. I feared a watery grave, so I kept my distance…but I’m sooo going after those now. If you don’t hear from me after a day, send help.

  • rezwan

    what is the solution for the pickup which is fully covered up

    • scall2

      Remove the cover. Is it a P-90?

    • SeymourDuncanBlog

      A pickup that is fully covered – I’m assuming you’re talking about one that doesn’t have a row of screws poking through? There is no individual pole adjustment for those kinds of pickups. Most often they either have two rows of non-adjustable slug poles or are active pickups constructed via a totally different method.

  • scall2

    Good Golly Miss Molly! Children,children,children,please play nice! Gary was just trying to be nice. I’m a guitar tech and I didn’t even notice the mistake because I got the essence of the article and that’s all that matters. But some people have great attention for detail and that is a good thing because without them,the world would be one helluva mess……….have a nice day gents………:)

    • Allen Tomas

      Gents is a abbreviation for gentlemen but not gramaticly correct if used in the context referring to one man.

      • scall2

        Ummmm Really? Are you a teacher or something or maybe with the grammar Cops? Oooops ! Phrase structure is incorect . Ooops incorrect spelling! Get lost dillhole

        • Allen

          Dill hole is not a word, which explains your illiteracy also lack of at least a high school education. I will decease using words beyond your comprehension . Also to apologize if your condition is the result of mental illness. YOUR choice of words pertaining to my involvement with law enforcement, shows your blatant STUPIDITY.

  • Lazy_Turtle

    Damm, the article was interesting reading but the comments were just as interesting. Great bit of advise, have already tried adjusting the pickups and mas made a bit of difference. Can only suggest try it on your / you’re guitar and see what you come out with. Cheers

  • Adam gissin

    I actually posted something about this. You did kind of miss something if I have nickel plated humbucker like on a Les Paul when I turn the screw to the right and and the screw goes down lower is that making the magnet on the other side higher? Or by turning the screw to the left is that making the magnet higher? or are the screws the actual magnets?

    • SeymourDuncanBlog

      The answer is “no” to all of the above. It’s not a see-saw. Lowering an adjustable pole piece isn’t going to affect the position of the rest.

      In a traditional humbucker, covered or not, the pole pieces are ferrous metal but not magnets themselves. The magnet is a single bar magnet positioned under the bobbin, between the bobbin and baseplate. It rests in the middle, running from end to end, between the 2 rows of pole pieces.

  • Capitán Trueno

    do not agree with using a DAW to ‘see’ the different string level: remember, the ear does not have a linear response, and a the waveform display created using an audio interface will also show some irrelevant frequencies

    http://laplayantonio.wix.com/antonioluthier

    • SeymourDuncanBlog

      The frequencies produced and displayed by a visual representation of the dry signal of an electric guitar all fall completely within human hearing range.

      In general, it’s just a visual helper. One should always trust their ears before their eyes, but blogging is a largely visual medium, so it was easier to communicate the idea using these graphics.

      • mrelwood

        The major problem is that the bobbins are adjusted for even peak volume. The plain strings have a much larger peak volume compared to the sustained volume, so when adjusted this way the plain strings will always sound lower in volume.

  • earl e mammal

    Attenuate could be used as well, ie. ‘undesirable attenuation’ ; It works well to follow the radius of the string lie and 1. tweak G string if necessary 2.set neck lower to accomodate strings vibrational arc.

  • Aashish

    Whoa. I’ve been playing for a really long time now and I did not think about, or even know about any of this. Great article! That was really informative. (y)

  • Bjorn

    Clear article! I was wondering about wich way the sides with the screws go, i see different setups.

    Screws outside, furthest from each other [: ] [ :] that i see the most.

    Both pickups’ screws closer to the bridge, [: ] [: ]

    Both closer to the neck [ :] [ :]

    Or closest to each other [ :] [: ]

    I hope u understand what i mean

    I know different positions make different timbres, and i wonder is there a best way?

    Or is it all in the ear of the guitarist, whatever he or she fancies?

    Do i need to take special precautions, whit soldering them in or is there no such thing as in or out of phase, with various positions?

    Thanks a lot!

    Regards, Bjorn

    • mrelwood

      Good question! Generally, the pickup sounds slightly warmer and fatter when the adjustable polepieces are closer to the neck. But the orientation becomes very relevant if your pickup has two different sounding coils (several DiMarzios for example), or especially when splitting a pickup.

      1) When split, the coil without adjustments will always have a bad string balance, so it’s usually best to have the adjustable coil as the active one. Also, the position matters quite a bit, so if you’re after a Strat/Tele pickup sound, be sure that the active coil is closer to the neck on both bridge and neck pickups.

      2) A humbucker with different sounding coils (for example DiMarzio Bluesbucker) can sound very different when rotated . Here also, often the adjustable coil towards neck yields a warmer and thicker sound. If both coils are adjustable, you should find out how that individual pickup behaves. DiMarzio Steve’s Special for example has a warmer sound when the cable exits the pickup closer to the neck.

      I always have the neck pickup screws towards the neck for a great split sound. I do have my bridge pickups both ways though; both humbuckers split to the furthest coils has a cool Telecaster-like sound. And the rear coil alone is great with higher overdrive, makes for a very distinct difference when split vs humbucker. But for milder overdrive and a Strat-like bridge pickup sound, the front coil is better. Also, the front coil sounds better together with a middle single coil.

      • mrelwood

        The orientation of the pickup doesn’t affect the phase or polarity. Out-of-phase is done with the wiring, so you can try different orientations without even opening the control cavity.

        When soldering the wires, you just have to know which are + and -. But when splitting, you have to know those for both coils in order to get the coil you want. Easy fix though: if the humbucker splits to a wrong coil, just make the coil splitting switch take the coils’ connection wire (the two wires that are connected together) to the pickup’s + instead of ground. Or vice versa.

  • Six_String_Fling

    I can’t believe no one has mentioned that the higher the screw is, the more clear, and trebley (not real trebley, but somewhat more so) that string will sound. The opposite is true with lowering the screw(s). So if you can’t get your pup high enough because you get the ‘woofing’ sound, or clicky picking sound, lower the pup a tad bit and then raise the screws in the same amount you just lowered it. Then viola, you will get about the same output without the ‘woofing’ sound. You might even be able to go a little higher with raising the screw. You just have to tweak until you get what sound you want. It is there, you just have to find it.

    • SeymourDuncanBlog

      This is true. Generally, the further above the bobbin you raise the pole, the brighter the string above that pole will sound. I considered this secondary to adjusting string-to-string volume, however, as using the poles to adjust the brightness of individual strings can result in a pickup that sounds very uneven in volume across the strings. Especially if you’re new to making these sorts of adjustments, as are the folks this article is aimed at.

      • Six_String_Fling

        True, that’s why I specifically stated “lower the pup a tad bit and then raise the screws in the same amount you just lowered it ” and that “You just have to tweak until you get what sound you want.” Finding good tone takes some time, but you got to start sometime if you want to learn. Nothing teaches you better than the mistakes you make. So I suggest to the newbies go test it to see what you like, set them every which way you can and listen, and hope you mess up. This way you can learn. And, hey, if you get lost just lower everything back flush and start all over. If you take measurements along the way, and write down what sounds good, you may not have to go back as far as you think!

  • Richard Lavigne

    Some people need to get over themselves.

  • David

    My Nazgül gives a very annoying hum when high volume. It disappears when I touch the pickup with my fingers. What could it be? I have another guitar and it doesn’t have this issue.

    • SeymourDuncanBlog

      These pickups should be hum-free. It sounds like something isn’t grounded right, so check those connections.

      • Eltham Jones

        If the hum disappears because he’s touching a metal part of the pickup connected to ground I’d be more inclined to suspect that the guitar is properly grounded but not properly screened (shielded)

  • jimsreynolds

    Good article and great to see this kind of knowledge out in the wild! Wanted to throw in a couple of things, from my own experiences:

    1) The strings move (oscillate) more above the neck pickup than they do the bridge pickup. This makes for more volume naturally at the neck pickup. To balance neck and bridge evenly, you must sometimes drop the neck pickup a little lower than the bridge … even more so if you want the bridge louder. This effect is partly negated by the output differences between neck and bridge pickups but is worth being aware of.

    2) While trying to balance off your levels, use a channel on your amp that is clean (and/or adjust the gain) but just starting to break up. That way, it is easier to hear which strings are louder …. they distort more. Also, when you strum a chord (slowly) you can hear more clearly when the whole chord is balanced.

    3) Personally, I prefer to adjust the pickup height first before the screws. I set the overall brightness/compression of the pickup before I level off the strings. Personally, I tend to prefer the pickups back off a little these days to improve the dynamics. Also, on some pickups (e.g. P90s) the pole piece adjustments can make quite a big difference when the pickup height is in the ‘sweet spot’. Just my preference but worth considering.

    4) I do this on all guitars with adjustment but the ones that really love it are the ones with P90s. A balanced P90 set a little lower than typical is a thing of beauty. It completely changed the way I felt about a Les Paul Jr-type I had with them – from a thrashy munter to quite the tone monster.

    Essay out !

  • Draconian Saint

    Along with using a DAW as mentioned Peterson’s Strobosoft deluxe has a spectrum analyzer that will indicate DB output for each string when played independent of one another. Also on iPad if you have an audio interface you can plug into; there are several DB meter apps that can be used to set screw pole height.

  • Mic Helevaltan

    I don’t know if Duncan’s pickups are best ones, or only “one of the many”.

    But when I need to understand something more of my sound possibilities, Seymour Duncan gives me the answers i need, and many others..
    With ultra-easy-explanations, even if english is not my mother language.
    So thank you so much for your Job.
    Now excuse me, I have to go, I’ve some waveform to compare 😉

  • Skyline UK

    I play mostly lead guitar and find I always have to heighten the screw poles of the top two strings (E, B), otherwise when playing a phrase that goes onto those strings from the others I feel a slight drop in volume which I hate. My excellent guitar tech adjusts them to be all equal (with a decibel metre) but I find equal isn’t right for me! It could be something to do with hearing loss over the years, but I don’t think so. Strats are a nightmare for this – they all seem (to me) to have a massive drop off in volume on the top two strings, and oddly the non-adjustable poles on a Strat are usually factory set LOWER for some reason. Ah, the mysteries of life eh……!

    • Liberal in CA

      Good point – there are lots of reasons why what is even on the meter might sound different to your ears when you are actually wailing away. A big one is your touch, which will be different than anyone else. The meter is a good start (and using the computer or phone app is brilliant – hadn’t thought of that but we all have a phone/tablet/laptop with us almost all the time). Play some random stuff, listen, adjust, repeat until you have that tone-happy grin.

  • Rob Andrews

    Nice little article and thanks for sharing! My method is to get the pup height first in relation to the 1st and 6th, then do the individual strings. Another thing I’ve been doing lately is setting the 1st and 6th screws close to ‘slug’ height. I am liking the results a whole lot better than when I used to hike up the pole pieces!

  • Bob Szejk

    Any opinions on whether the pups should be adjusted with open strings or capo’ed?…and at which fret? As I recall, Fender recommends the 17th fret, but that creates quite a volume imbalance between the pups when playing open chords. Thoughts?

  • Larry LJ Pitre

    None of the pole adjustments are possible on Fishman Fluency pickups, which sound great direct from the factory… 2015 technology, not 1950’s!

  • Balkan Boy

    Never adjusted string-to-string volume… funny, never though of that possibility on PUs. I just accepted sound it as it is and level height for good output.

    .

  • ROD

    ive got 59s in my Lp AND THE BALANCE BETWEEN NECK AND BRIDGE WAS WAY OUT, THE NECK OUTPUT WAS MUCH HIGHER THAN THE BRIDGE UNTIL I LOWERED NECK AND RAISED BRIDGE PICK UP JUST A TAD,
    I FIND THAT TONE SENSITIVITY AND OUTPUT DISPARITY IS INDICATIVE OF QUALITY PICKUPS.LESS IS MORE WHEN IT COMES TO ADJUSTMENT OF POLE PIECES OR GENERAL PICKUP HEIGHT!!

  • Olly

    Good article, but I was missing some tricks like adjusting the little 59 which has 2 rows of screw poles. Because of that, this pickup has of course more possiblities to be finetuned. On the higher strings (b,e) this baby (bridge) can tend to have some kind of single coil harshness. So it would be interresting if I can smooth that out by tweaking the screw poles on the neck side,

  • Whit

    One simple recommendation you left out is strings. Do the pickup adjustments with a decent relatively fresh set of strings. Better dynamics, intonation etc

  • Six_String_Fling

    I know what I’m getting ready to say, many of you will not believe it, but all I can tell you is to try it. That is, I find the way the screw head is facing when combined with the desired height can have a slight effect on how notes sound when played. When the screws are facing like this:

    [ – – – – – – ]

    The sound is more solid. And when you face the screws something like this:

    [ / / / ]

    Or this:

    [ / / / ]

    The sound will be a tad bit more airy. It’s hard to describe. But keep in mind, to test this you need to make sure that your distance from string to screw is pretty much the same one way as it is the other. It can be done, it just takes some tweaking. But I suggest give this a try and you may hear the difference, or you may not. We all perceive sound differently, but inherently the same.

    • mrelwood

      You know what, Six_String_Fling. I’ve played guitar for 27 years (18 professionally), guitar tech for about 15 years, and also worked as a recording/sound engineer for 14 years. I’m a gear head, and annoyingly demanding about how my gear sounds like. Still, this was news to me just a year or so ago. I beat myself up for not coming to think about it earlier.
      I can assure you there is a small, but notable difference in the attack of the note depending on wether the flathead screw poles are rotated horizontally or vertically. That is a good catch!

      Vertically (across the string) the attack is the sharpest, and horizontally (along the string) the attack is smoother. This is a good way to further adjust for sound differences between strings. In one of my guitars the B string is loud with this one pickup no matter how deep the pole is screwed in relation to the others. Turning the slot along the string finally made the difference manageable.

      • Six_String_Fling

        That’s it, the attack! I was drawing a blank last night and I couldn’t think how to put it. But it is the attack!

        Like you, what I’ve noticed is that when the screws are turned vertical, or at a slight angle vertical, the attack has this sharper, kind of grittier sound to it. I find it very pleasing and just adds this little bit of nastiness to it. Also, I find this adds a nice touch when you have the gain set lower on your amp, to more of crunch setting, as It adds a little bit flair that almost makes it sound like your playing with a little more gain than what you are really using.

        Where as when the screw slot is running horizontal, the sound is somewhat smoother, and has a fuller sounding attack.

        I never see anyone talking about this when they are blogging about adjusting pickups. So I thought I would share. Thanks for sharing your experience.

        • Eugene

          Thank you!! this gas made me eager to try when im home!!!!!!

          • Six_String_Fling

            It’s well worth the effort, and you just have to tweak it to your liking.

  • Bill Fallon

    Let’s stay on topic. I would rather spend my time reading more opinions and ideas on the guitar. Learning about the guitar is more interesting and helpful for growing musically. Should I need English lessons, I’m sure there are tons of internet blogs on that and I’d bet ZERO of them break out in to a discussion about guitar tone enhancement. Just say’in. That’s a slang term. Just say’in again.