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Guitar Maintenance 6 – Setting pickup heights

Setting pickup heights is one of the easiest and simple “mods” you can do to your guitar, allowing you to experiment and change the tone and output power without any expense.

Pickup height and tone

There are two extremes of pickup height: closer to the strings, or closer to the body – and everything in between. Neither extreme is better, just different. So if you are not sure which you want, take the time to experiment and see which you prefer.

Distance Close to strings Further from strings
Tone Louder, punchier, brighter, more percussive, focused, compressed Smoother, warmer, more complex and “woodier” tone, wider dynamic range, better string balance
Application Lead playing or heavy drive/distortion sounds with as little noise as possible Cleaner, more complex sounds, dynamic styles of music

Setting your pickup heights in a few easy steps

  1. Set the pickups to the maximum height possible.
  2. Balance the volumes so all switch settings have roughly the same volume
  3. Balance the bass to treble volumes on each pickup
  4. Tweak the overall height to get the specific tone you want
  5. Tweak to taste

1. Set the maximum height

Start by adjusting the neck pickup as it is usually the loudest pickup. It dictates how high the other pickups can go as it is more prone to causing problems, such as “Stratitis” (pulling the wound strings out of tune in the upper registers), fret buzz or reduced sustain.

Get the neck pickup as close as you can to the strings until you hear problems develop on the upper notes (past the 15th fret) of the thicker strings, then back it off until they disappear again. Keep the treble and bass sides level with each other for now.

Now set your middle pickup (if you have one) slightly higher than the neck pickup and the bridge pickup slightly higher than that. Immediately check that no problems have surfaced and, if they have, lower both neck and middle pickups slightly until it goes away. As with the neck pickup, keep the treble and bass sides level with each other. Now you have a starting point at maximum height.

2. Pickup to Pickup Balance

Now set the heights so the volume between pickups is balanced so that the volume stays consistent as you switch from one pickup to another.

The neck pickup is already as high as it can go, so using that as a reference, compare the volume of that with the other pickups. Play sustained chords using all six strings while you change from one single pickup to another and listen for any volume changes. Adjust the middle and bridge pickup until they are the same volume as the neck.

3. Bass to Treble Balance

Now set the bass to treble balance of each pickup by setting the selector to a single pickup and alternating between playing the bass three strings and the treble three (I use a reggae type bass-treble “skank”). If the bass side is too loud, lower the bass side screw a half turn and raise the treble side screw a half too. If the treble is louder, lower the treble side only. Then double-check pickup to pickup balance again.

4. Overall Height

Now that you have everything all set up nicely with a good balance at the maximum height possible, it’s time to set the height so that the tone and output level are what you want. To do this, lower all the pickups together, turning every screw by the same amount until you get the tone and output level that you like.

Remember, this is an entirely personal setting, and there are few “wrong” setups. As mentioned earlier, backing off the pickups will sound smoother and warmer with a “woodier” tone, as opposed to the maximum setting you started with, which is a louder, punchier, brighter and more focused tone.

5. Tone to Taste

At this point it is also possible to experiment with your pickup to pickup and treble to bass balance, depending entirely on what you want from your guitar. A common thing to do is to set the bridge pickup higher to give a volume boost for solos.

Manufacturer’s Recommendations

The manufacturer’s recommendations are just that – recommendations. It is usually a middle ground starting point from which you can feel free to deviate. I have included them here for completeness and as a rough starting point for experimentation.

Fender Single-coil Pickup Recommendations

Pickup Bass Side Treble Side
Texas Specials 8/64? 6/64?
Vintage style 6/64? 5/64?
Noiseless Series 8/64? 6/64?
Standard Single-Coil 5/64? 4/64?
Humbuckers 4/64? 4/64?
Lace Sensors As close as desired (allowing for string vibration)

Gibson Humbucker Height Recommendations

Pickup Bass Side Treble Side
Neck Pickup 3/32? 1/16?
Bridge Pickup 3/32? 1/16?