Fine-Tuning the Adjustment of Passive Humbuckers

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 adjustmentBalance 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 adjustmentOnce 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.

Photo illustrating optimal pickup height

This medium-output (9 kΩ) bridge pickup is nice and close to deliver a good punch, but a higher-output pickup would probably need to be lowered to prevent string-pull.

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.

photo of guitar

See the subtle emphasis on the bridge pickup in this picture? That’s known in the industry as “bad photography.”

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.

Adam Gotch

About Adam Gotch

Adam Gotch is the guitarist for the instrumental nerd-beer-thrash outfit Devils of Belgrade (listn.to/devilsofbelgrade). He possesses many fine talents and is alarmingly handsome. You should follow his advice to the letter in all things.
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  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.corry.39 Steven Corry

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

  • http://twitter.com/TijmenHelder T ✱

    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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dougmurraythrash Doug Murray

    Sadly I’m limited to my overall bridge pickup height due to my love of pull up floyd squeals :-P

  • 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)

  • http://www.facebook.com/garyodrechsel Gary Drechsel

    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….

  • http://twitter.com/RockStarEddie Eddie

    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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eeikenberry Eric Eikenberry

    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… :-P

  • http://www.facebook.com/gary.vogel Gary Vogel

    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

          • 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.”

    • 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. :)

  • 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!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jim.szymanski.13 Jim Szymanski

    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? :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/benjaminduffy Benjamin Duffy

      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.