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Tone Tip: Pickup Heights

Dave Hunter | 09.10.2008

Most players are aware of the fact that adjusting your

pickup height will affect your guitar’s output, but fewer tend to realize the ways in which such adjustments can affect your tone, too. The instruction you most often encounter is that, in order to achieve the hottest sound possible from the pickups that are already in your guitar, you need to lift the pickups themselves as high as you can get them, short of raising them to a point where the magnetic field starts to exert pull on the strings and interfere with their ability to vibrate freely (which is heard as a slightly dissonant, atonal sound, like an out-of-tune harmonic that follows the root note). There’s a lot more to pickup height adjustment than merely maximizing volume, however, and a little consideration of the other variables will give you a new tweaking tool in your tone arsenal.

Let’s look at the issue from the flipside: lower your pickups down into the body a little more than is considered standard. That is, position them further away from the strings, and you can be sure of giving the strings plenty of unencumbered air to vibrate in. The result of this is in part, of course, a little less output. But whether you play a Les Paul StandardSG SpecialLes Paul Junior, or other model, most Gibson guitars have pickups that produce a fat, beefy signal anyway—even the more vintage-styled lower gain humbuckers and P-90s—so that a slight decrease in output isn’t a problem for many players. And you can always get more gain and volume by adjusting your amplifier and any booster or overdrive-type pedals in your sound chain to compensate. What you do often achieve, though, is a tone that’s woodier and more resonant, with greater dynamics and touch sensitivity and a “livelier” feel to the playing response. Pick lightly and it’s clean yet warm; dig in harder and you get increased drive and output, but without a big sacrifice in note definition and clarity. (Of course, all of this needs to be done within reason, and tweaked and tested gradually; lowering your pickups to extremes will obviously result in weak output and a loss of tone.)

Note that adjustable polepieces are generally not intended for height adjustments to achieve changes in overall output level or tone, but are mainly provided as a facility for achieving good string-to-string balance, and are usually best adjusted to follow the curve of your guitar’s fretboard. “Dog-ear” style P-90 pickups occasionally prove the exception to this rule. Since these pickups have no means of overall height adjustment, you might occasionally need to raise the polepieces to achieve a little more output, or lower them further into the coil to soften the sound, although mounting-ring “shims” can be used to lift the entire pickup unit a little closer to the strings when more extreme adjustments are required.

Any adjustment of pickup height in two-pickup guitars needs to give some consideration to balancing the output between the bridge and neck pickups, too. In most cases, the neck pickup is positioned a little lower than the bridge pickup, because the broader vibrational arch of the plucked string over the neck pickup, which is closer to the center of the strings’ length, already makes for a greater output and beefier sound. Many Gibson models come with calibrated pickup sets that account for these natural differences in pickup position, however, such as the 490R and 490T humbuckers in the Modern Classics set, so differences in pickup heights on contemporary models don’t need to be quite as extreme as might have been required to balance the pickups in vintage guitars, which often had similar or randomly selected output strengths.

None of the suggestions here in Tone Tips are “bad/better/best” directives. Different approaches suit different playing styles and tonal preferences. It’s best to experiment with different heights and see what works for you. Measuring between the top of the pickups and the bottom of the strings, with the strings depressed at the last fret, the best advice is to start with a gap of 1/16 inch between bridge pickup and strings and 3/32 inch between neck pickup and strings, and this makes a good general base from which to launch your own experiments. If you really do want more drive and intensity for a hot, compressed crunch to lead sound at all times, you might want your pickups a little closer to the strings, within reason. If you want more balance, air, warmth, and definition, along with less mud, chances are that moving them a little further away might do it for you. Play around with it for yourself—it’s the easiest “mod” you can do—and remember to experiment with your amp and pedal settings as you do so, because a new pickup height adjustment might require you to find some new preferred settings on other gear to achieve your ideal tone.