Throughout the evolution of the electric guitar, players have continually searched for more. More volume, more sustain, more gain, more tone. Some methods are better at achieving it than others, and some can actually hurt your sound if you’re not careful. Take for instance the pickup: early players knew that if they needed to balance out the volume from string to string, they could use the pickup’s adjustable pole pieces. If they needed a fuller sound overall, moving the pickups a little closer to the strings could help too. Frank Falbo wrote a terrific article on experimenting with pickup height here a while ago which explains how to use different pickup heights to achieve different sonic goals.
But how do you know when you’ve gone too far? As Frank says, If the pickup is too close to the string, its magnetic field can interfere with string vibration. So what does this sound like, and how do you know when it’s a problem?
The first hint is that the sustain of the string is impeded. Strike a note, preferably at the strength and volume that you would do so while actually playing a song. Listen to how it sounds throughout its entire duration. Generally, you’ll want to hear a note that starts out loud and gradually tapers off. A small amount of ‘bloom’ can sometimes be expected, especially from guitars with set neck or neck-thru construction, but there’s also a bad kind of bloom which is introduced when a pickup is set too high. It can manifest itself as a buzz or twang that takes off a short while after the note is initially sounded, or as a general ‘cloudiness’ around the note.
And listen for how the note fades out. Does it taper off naturally, in a more-or-less linear fashion? Or does the fade-out begin abruptly after a few seconds of vibration? These things can all be symptoms of the pickups being too high.
Another giveaway – and it’s related to the sustain issue – is something called a ‘wolf tone.’ Other things can cause them too, such as a loose nut, a bridge saddle that isn’t sitting straight, or even unusual interactions between the strings and the guitar’s tremolo springs. But generally a wolf tone is an unnatural overtone occurring when the string’s vibration is impeded by an outside factor. These overtones can sometimes create the audible impression of your guitar being out of tune even if an electronic tuner is telling you otherwise. And again, the way to combat them is to lower the pickup until the problem goes away. Soon you’ll find a sweet spot where the note rings to its full potential and your tone is at its best. And if you need to make up some of the gain that you lost when you lowered your pickups, you can add it in elsewhere, such as via your amp’s gain control, or a pedal like the SFX-01 Pickup Booster.