Effects of Pickup Height
This is the most obvious effect from changing the height of your pickups. Closer to
the strings and the pickups will be louder, further away and the volume decreases.
Signal-to-noise ratio (often abbreviated as S/N) is the ratio between the level of
the signal and the level of unwanted noise. The noise of any device is usually fixed, but
if the signal level can be strengthened, the S/N improves.
O.K. Got that out of the way. What this means to you as a guitarist is that
if you can raise the volume of the guitar (the signal), the sounds you don't want (the
noise), such as the hum from single-coil pickups or the hiss from an effects pedal is
quieter in comparison. Even simpler? Noise bad, guitar sound good... got it?
So when the pickups are closer to the strings and putting out
more volume, while the hum and hiss from your system stays at the same level, the S/N
While while the exact effect depends on the specifics of the pickups themselves
(how powerful the pickups are and how microphonic the coils are), closer to the strings,
you will usually get more punch and percussive attack, as well as an increase in
brightness. Backing off the pickups mellows out the attack, darkens the tone and you will
start hearing more of the body's tonal contribution.
If the noise level stays constant, a louder signal
will have a better signal to noise ratio.
Closer to the strings will also affect sustain more, reducing it. This is due to
the magnets of the pickups pulling on the strings themselves. You may not notice this at
all with loud, driven sounds and a guitar with lots of sustain to start with. Pickups with
low gauss (lower powered magnets) such as Kinman, EMG, Lace Sensors and most rail type
pickups do not suffer from this as much, and as such, can usually be set very close to
This leads on from the sustain issue above. When the magnets are too close
particularly with the neck and middle pickups, the pull on the string gets strong enough
to pull it out of tune, or introduce false harmonic node points.
You'll know when you have this as you get a permanent
"out-of-tune" sound and often you'll hear false "harmony" notes mixed
in with the original notes, causing beat frequencies (the "pulsing sound you hear
when two notes are slightly out of tune with each other). This also gets worse as you play
higher up the neck (which brings the strings down closer to the pickups), and will be more
pronounced on the lower, thicker strings.
This is particularly a problem with conventional single-coil
pickups, which usually have fairly strong magnets - which is why it's known as Stratitis.
However, even humbuckers with powerful magnets can have this problem. Once again, low
gauss pickups do not suffer from this problem anywhere near as much.
Pickups with lower gauss magnets do
not cause as many problems with sustain, intonation and fret buzz, and can be set closer
to the strings.
The pull from the magnets has yet another side effect - string crashing,
which causes fret buzz on guitars with lower action. The pull of the magnets changes the
vibration pattern of the strings, pulling them down closer to the frets. Aside from the
audible fret buzz, this can also affect sustain. Once again, this is not a problem with
pickups that have low gauss magnets.
I believe (not everyone agrees with me though) that when a pickup is driven harder
by moving it closer to the strings, it actually compresses the pickup's output a little,
making your quieter sounds stand out more, and cutting down a little on the level of
louder playing. This effectively compresses the signal into a smaller dynamic range. While
a little compression can be a good thing, some players have reported that this makes
string noise stand out too much for them with high gain settings.
When the pickups are set really high, they can interfere with playing, getting in
the way of plectrums and especially fingernails (for those of us who play with nails).
String to String Balance
With vintage style single-coil pickups that have staggered polepieces, the volume
levels between strings can differ substantially. This is particularly a problem with the G
string which is an unwound string in modern sets - while the vintage magnet stagger caters
for a wound string. Lowering pickups a little helps minimise this problem, evening out the
Setting the Height
It's all a Question of Balance
The secret to setting the heights properly is first setting the pickups to work
together well, with balanced volumes on all switch settings and also from bass to treble
side on the same pickup. Once this is done, the heights can be adjusted up or down
together to find the tone you are looking for. For this second part, it's useful to have a
rough idea of what you want from your instrument. There are two extremes:
|Distance from strings
||Loud, punchy, slightly compressed, percussive, focused,
||Lead playing or heavy drive/distortion sounds with as little
noise as possible
||Smoother, warmer, more character, more dynamic range,
"woodier" tone, better balance
||Cleaner sounds with more complexity and more dynamic music
While you may play a style of music that leans towards one or
the other extreme exclusively (Death Metal vs. Jazz), most players are going to need to be
a bit more flexible and settle for a balance between the two.
As with virtually any guitar adjustments, always make sure the guitar is tuned to pitch
before you start. There are good reasons for this - trust me.
From the Neck Down
First make sure that the neck pickup is not causing any major problems, such as
Stratitis, fret buzz or affecting the sustain too badly. You start with the neck pickup as
it is more prone to causing these problems than the other positions. The easiest way to
approach this is adjust it up until it starts causing problems, then back it off slightly
until they clear up again. Keep the treble and bass sides level with each other for now.
To check for these problems, play the last frets on the fingerboard (closest to the body)
and specifically the lower thicker strings - which have more mass to be affected by the
magnets. The low E string played at the 21st/22nd fret is always a good indicator of
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 the neck and middle pickups
slightly until it goes away. As with the neck pickup, keep the treble and bass sides level
with each other for now. Now you should have your rough starting point.
Pickup to Pickup Balance
Now it's time to set the heights so that the volume between pickups is balanced to
taste. In most situations, you don't want your volume to change too much when you switch
from one pickup to another. One exception to this is if you want a volume and drive boost
from the bridge pickup when used alone for solos - then you will set this one pickup to be
louder than the others. Even then, it's useful to start with all the pickups at a similar
output level, and then raise the bridge pickup to taste after the initial setting.
all the pickups have the same power output, and are set to the same distance from the
strings, the neck pickup will always be the loudest pickup, followed by the middle, with
the bridge pickup being the quietest. This is not due to the pickups themselves, but
rather that the strings are less constrained the further from the bridge they are, able to
vibrate freely. This is also why the tone changes, becoming bassier further from the
bridge and why the neck pickup is more prone to Stratitis. Many modern sets of pickups
have a more powerful bridge pickup to help balance bridge to neck levels.
- Play full chords using all six strings and sustain them while
you change from one single pickup to another and listen for any volume jumps or drops.
- Avoid all the two pickup sounds for now (such as switch
position 2 & 4 on a Strat and the middle position on a Les Paul).
- Adjust pickup heights by turning screws one full turn at a
time on both screws belonging to a pickup. Remember your neck and middle pickup heights
should already be as close to the strings as possible, so lower whichever one of the two
- Finally raise or lower the bridge pickup to balance levels
with the other two.
Bass to Treble Balance
To set the bass to treble balance, use the following method:
- Set the selector to a single pickup, and alternate between
playing the bass three strings and the treble three. I use a reggae type bass-treble
"skank", but single notes could work just as well.
- If the bass side is too loud (most likely), 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.
- Once you have done this with all the pickups, do a quick final
check of pickup to pickup balance again.
Tone to Taste
Now that you have everything all set up nicely with an optimum balance and maximum
height possible, it's time to set the height so that the tone and output level are what
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.
As mentioned in the first part of this article, backing off
the pickups will sound smoother and warmer with a "woodier" tone. The tone will
have more character, complexity and dynamic range, as well as having better string to
string volume balance.
It is also possible to experiment with your pickup to pickup
and treble to bass balance at this point, depending entirely on what you want from your
guitar. Remember, this is an entirely personal setting, and there are few
The manufacturer's recommendations are just that - recommendations. It is
usually a middle ground starting point from which you can feel free to deviate. In fact,
Fender's recommendations do not even take into account the pickup position. I have
included them here for completeness and a rough starting guide.
|Fender Single-coil Pickup Recommendations
||As close as desired (allowing for string
|Gibson Humbucker Height Recommendations