Adjusting pickup height is one of the easiest ways to effortlessly improve your tone. We’ve all spent a fortune and countless hours chasing the ever-elusive tone in our heads. But what if we told you that there is an extremely fast, super simple, and absolutely free way to improve your guitar sound? We’re talking about adjusting your pickup height. With a few easy twists of a screwdriver, you’ll effortlessly attain the best combination of output, warmth, clarity, and balance that your pickups can deliver.
Strangely, there are still a lot of players who have never given pickup height adjustment a second thought. So we figured we should dissect the subject a bit. We’ll dig into the benefits of proper adjustment, how to adjust a wide range of the most popular pickup types, and even help you avoid some tone-wrecking pitfalls of incorrect adjustment. You may find inspiring new life from an old guitar.No matter what kind of electric guitar you play or what style you play in, read on.
“So my pickups are a little off. What’s the big deal?”
First off, let’s talk about the ‘why’ of adjusting pickup height. Whether you purchased a used guitar with an unknown past or are replacing pickups in one you already own, you’ll need to make a decision on pickup height at some point. Brand new guitars’ pickups, though often set to factory spec, aren’t dialed in to the way you play. And believe it or not, vibration and generally handling can cause pickups to move over time An improperly adjusted pickup will have a massive, negative impact on your guitar’s tone, performance, and tuning stability.
Adjusting pickup height if they are too low
There are a lot of reasons pickups end up too far down in the body of a guitar. Some include, natural movement over time, dropping them out of the way of your picking hand, and looking to reduce the output of a particularly aggressive model. Unfortunately, by attempting to solve those issues, moving the pickup’s magnets further from the strings causes new ones.
The first and most obvious is weaker output. Maybe you lowered a high-output humbucker to get a jazzier clean tone. But that lower output also translates to a thinner, weaker sound. A low pickup can also create an unacceptable tonal mismatch as you select between different pickup positions. You’d be better off to replace that punchy humbucker with a model better-suited for your style and tone.
Adjusting pickup height if they are too high
As with lowering, players often raise their pickups to attain a sonic result the pickup was never intended for. But if the issues of lowering a pickup are frustrating, the ones that accompany raising one too high are downright unacceptable.
When the magnets get that close to the strings, their magnetic field inhibits the natural motion of the strings’ vibration. Ever adjust your pickups and wonder where your sustain and definition went? This could be the culprit. Topped-out neck pickups have also been known to exert so much pull on the strings that it causes your guitar to fret out and buzz terribly.
But the most frustrating outcome of this mistake are dreaded Wolf Tones. This overloaded magnet/string interaction can cause take your sound over with added harmonic content and overtones – and not in a good way. For those who have experienced it, you know what we’re talking about. For those who haven’t, keep those pickups in check and let’s hope you never do. But if you do, dropping the pickup away from the string is all it takes to remedy the situation.
Magnets and Gaussing
Pickup magnets are magnetized via a process called gaussing – or degaussing for lowering their ferromagnetic strength. And different magnet varieties, such as alnico and ceramic, react to that process differently, giving them their unique characteristics and tone. Though there are thousands of pickups that buck the trends, the general rule is that ceramic magnets are used in higher output designs and feature a modern, tighter tonality. Different forms of alnico magnets are most readily found in vintage-style pickups and are noted for their sweeter, warmer, and more detailed tone.
Why do we bring this up? Because it’s the strength and type of the magnets that determine where the pickups should be set. And, while no two magnet types are exactly alike, they each have a range where they deliver their best tone and performance.
The best place to start for pickup height adjustment
We’ve found 3/32 of an inch (2.381mm) is a good place to start. But every pickup and guitar manufacturer has their own specifications. And getting your pickups to this ballpark setting is actually quite easy. For the most part, all you need is a screwdriver, pocket ruler, and a good playing environment.
- First: Depress the low E string at the last fret, closest to your pickups.
- Second: With the string depressed, use a machinist’s rule and measure the distance from the bottom of the string to the top of the corresponding pickup pole piece.
- Third: Raise or lower the pickup until it is at the manufacturer’s factory spec.
How to adjust the height
How to raise and lower your pickups depends on the design of the pickup. Here is a helpful how to covering a large list of today’s most popular different types.
On the vast majority of humbuckers, you’ll find a screw located at either side of the pickup. In guitars with pickup rings, the humbucker is suspended from this ring via these screws. To raise the pickup, turn the screws clockwise. To lower it, go counterclockwise.
For humbuckers that are mounted directly into the body, the process is similar, but clockwise lowers the pickup and counterclockwise raises it.
Strat pickups are adjusted a lot like humbuckers. Turning the mounting screws on either side of the pickup will raise and lower them to taste. Also, like ring-mounted humbuckers, be sure and not lower them too much or you risk dropping them into the pickup cavity.
Standard Telecasters are not as simple as the previous two. But it’s still a matter of turning a few screws. A Tele bridge pickup is suspended by three adjustment screws from a metal bridge plate. The two closest to the bridge balance the pickup from right to left, while the other screw is vital for keeping the surface of the pickup even with the strings.
Tele neck pickups come in two varieties. If the pickup is suspended from a pickguard, you’re in luck! Simply adjust it the way you would a Strat single-coil. But if yours is direct-mounted, you’ll have to remove the guitar’s pickguard to access its adjustment screws. And be sure not to put the pickguard back on before you know you’re happy, or you’ll be pulling it right back off again.
Adjusting these popular pickups isn’t as straightforward. However, it is still possible and can be done with the tools you already have. Jazzmaster pickup screws are mainly for mounting, not adjusting. They rely on support – often a foam strip – placed underneath in the pickup cavity to push the pickups to the correct height. By adjusting the amount of foam in the cavity, you’re able to determine the height of the pickup.
A Fender Jaguar’s pickups are adjusted very similarly to a Jazzmaster. However, many players have taken advantage of their unique mounting system and placed standard ink pen springs around the pickups’ mounting screws. This simple mod is a great way to get easier, more precise adjustment from this style of pickup.
P90s come in two common forms, soapbars and dog-ears, each requiring different techniques to adjust. The soapbar models share many similarities to Jazzmaster pickups, but have their mounting screws located down the middle of the pickup cover. Like the Jazzmaster pickups, these screws hold the pickup in place. It’s the foam or springs installed under the pickup that offers what adjustment is available.
Dog-ear P90’s are one of the few electric guitar pickup designs that don’t offer a way to raise and lower the whole pickup. If you want to get adventurous, there are spacers available that sit between the pickup and the body of the guitar, allowing them to sit a bit higher. But it isn’t an exact science.
Luckily, P90s – as well as humbucking pickups – have a trick up their sleeves. While you can’t easily adjust the whole pickup’s height, you can adjust the individual pole pieces under each string. A good screwdriver is often all it takes to nail the pickup’s sweet spot while also fine-tuning your string-to-string balance to perfection. Think of it as a customizable version of the staggered pole pieces you’ll find on many vintage and vintage-style Fender single-coils.
Now take it one step further and dial in your preferences
Now that your pickups are adjusted to factory spec, we’ll bet it’s already playing and sounding better! It’s time to go a step further and dial it in to your personal preferences. It’s all up to you now!
- First: Select the pickup setting where you will be spending most of your time. Play for a few minutes, paying careful attention to the balance between lows, highs, and how hard our pickup is hitting your amp.
- Second: Using the directions above, raise or lower both sides of your pickup together to achieve the signal strength you desire.
- Third: Raise or lower each side of the pickup individually (if possible) until you hear the perfect blend of your higher and lower strings.
- Fourth: Repeat the process on each of the guitar’s pickups. During this step, always refer back to the output level of the first pickup you adjusted. This will help avoid drastic output changes when toggling between switch positions.
Final notes to remember on pickup height adjustment
While there may seem to be a lot to remember, the actual adjustment process is a piece of cake. The hardest – and most vital – part is learning to trust your own ears and playing style. It’s also important to remember that you have to play by the rules of the pickup you have. You’ll never make an active Blackout humbucker sound like an Antiquity Strat set. But you will be surprised with how many tones are inside your pickups and how much better your guitar will perform.
If this is your first time adjusting your own pickup height, don’t worry. It may take a few tries to get it where you want. And, unlike soldering or a host of other mods, this one is easy to fix. So don’t be afraid to dig right in. Finally, remember that tone is a combination of a universe of different mechanical, and intangible elements, making each guitar unique. So give each of your instruments’ pickup adjustment the time it deserves, and you’ll be well rewarded.
Not comfortable with working on your guitar? We always recommend having an authorized luthier take care of the work. But if you do like working on your own guitars, you’ll love SeymourDuncan.com’s deep selection of wiring diagrams, tech tips, and tonal know how. And as always, visit the Knowledge Base to find info on anything you need. We’d love to help you turn your guitar into the versatile tone machine it deserves to be.