Every now and then people come to me for advice on tone :pickup swapping, magnet swapping, wiring changes… Nevertheless, before I start to think about what might work I always ask, “did you change the height of the pickup and the pole pieces?” For many people this type of adjustment is an unknown procedure and some players are even scared to adjust the height of their pickup or pole piece.
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 sometimes you can just grab a screwdriver and do it yourself. Let’s have a look at the different tones you get with different heights of your pickup and pole pieces.
By adjusting the height of the pickup or pole piece you’re essentially changing how far the magnetic field reaches towards the strings. As a crude rule of thumb you can say the magnetic field is more intense in the vicinity of the strings. For example, if you’re into magnet swapping, take any pickup you have with an Alnico 5 magnet and swap the magnet 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’ll 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, so a magnet 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 its 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 and resulting in less output and less string pull, meaning more output and what some players even claim a more dynamic, natural feel. A strong magnet is considered by some to be like a compression pedal, and lowering the pickup a bit will keep the tone itself intact but the weakened magnetic field will give back some of the dynamics and natural feel you lose by having a strong magnet.
Sometimes after lowering the pickup to achieve the desired output you might feel that you’ve lost too much treble. You can fix this by adjusting the pole pieces. Just take a screw driver and raise each one as much as you need. 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. Since the tone is comprised of many frequencies, all you do by tilting the pickup is decrease the response of the pickup with regards to the higher or lower strings. Sometimes you can get the tone you were looking for just by playing around with the height of your pickups and pole pieces. Sometimes you need more invasive interventions to get the tone you want (i.e.: changing pots, capacitors or pickups). Either way, by exploring the effects of pickup and pole piece heights you’re giving your guitar the best possible chance to express your musical personality.