Every now and then people come to me for advice on tone. Pickup swapping, magnet swapping, a change in wiring; all is possible. Nevertheless, before I start to think on what might work I always ask: did you change the height of the pickup and the polepieces? For many people adjusting the height of the pickup or the polepiece is an unknown procedure and some players are even scared to adjust the height of their pickup or polepiece!
I understand the fear of making irreparable damage, but to get the most out of your guitar and to get a full grasp of the tonal possibilities of your guitar, there’s little option besides grabbing a screwdriver and doing it yourself. I will try to explain the different tones you get with different heights of your pickup and polepieces as well as why softening the highs or tightening the lows of your tone by slanting the pickup perpendicular to the strings.
By adjusting the height of the pickup or polepiece you are essentially changing how far the magnetic field reaches towards the strings. As a crude rule of thumb you can say that the more intense the magnetic field is in the vicinity of the strings. The stronger the magnetic field the tighter you will experience the sound of your guitar. Just take any pickup you have with an alnico 5 and swap out the alnico 5 for an alnico 2 (the same magnet you’ll find in the Alnico II Pro). Because the magnet is weaker you lose some output and you will also experience a bit more ‘sag’ and warmth: your lows will be emphasized and will be simultaneously a bit less tight resulting in overall more ‘sag’ in your tone. Some pickups are completely designed to have a specific magnet and as a result a mag swap will absolutely not work to reduce (or boost) the sag, but some other pickups take mag swapping extremely well.
An easy way to see how your pickup will react if it’s magnetic field were to be reduced would be to simply lower the pickup. The magnet will be situated lower in the pickup cavity softening the magnetic field near the strings, resulting in less output, less string pull (the pulling effect the magnet has on the string cannot and should not be negated) meaning more output and some players even claim a more dynamic, natural feel. A strong magnet is considered by some to be like a compression pedal always ‘on’ and lowering the pickup a bit will keep the tone in tact for a huge part but the weakened magnetic field gives it back some of the dynamics and natural feel you lose by having a strong magnet.
Sometimes the loss of treble after having lowered the pickup to the desired output level is just too much. By adjusting the polepieces this can be solved, too. Just take a screw driver and raise the polepieces as much as you need (or as much as possible). This is nothing more but a small extension of the magnetic field towards the string, but the effect can be immense.
The careful reader will have no trouble making their own conclusions right now about tilting the pickup to soften the treble or stiffening up the lows of the pickup in general. Since the tone is comprised out of many frequencies, all you do by tilting the pickup is decreasing the response of the pickup with regards to the higher or lower strings. It’s not that the high strings only produce high frequencies and the low strings only produce low frequencies. In order to cancel the unwanted frequencies more invasive measures have to be taken, such as changing the height of the entire pickup, magnet swapping, etc etc.
Sometimes you can get the tone you were looking for just by playing around with the height of your pickups and polepieces. Sometimes you need more invasive interventions to get the tone you want. Either way, I feel that not exploring the tones you get by changing the heights leaves you dead in the water since you don’t get a full grasp of all the tones your pickups, guitar, and ultimately you are capable off.