Electric guitars are versatile instruments that can be tweaked by virtually any guitar player with moderate knowledge about how they work. This is particularly true in the case of the pickups in electric guitars.
Pickups can be swapped in and out, adjusted in height, removed completely from the guitar, or added to the design in more advanced modifications. Whether you're into modding or not, you may be wondering if the pickups are supposed to move once properly installed.
Are guitar pickups supposed to move once installed? Pickups are generally designed to move slightly if pressed on, and their height is nearly always adjustable from either end (treble strings end or bass strings end). However, if a pickup moves freely or significantly without being pressed on, it is installed incorrectly and should be fixed.
In this article, we'll discuss how pickups are designed to move and how to adjust them properly. We'll also extend the discussion to piezoelectric pickups, which are standard for acoustic guitars.
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Are Guitar Pickups Supposed To Move Once Installed?
Many guitarists, especially those new to modifying their electric guitars, may be surprised to find out that pickups move. Contrary to their initial impression, it's a normal occurrence. They likely hadn't noticed this before because they probably didn't pay much attention to the pickup before making their adjustments.
However, this happens ordinarily when the pickup is pushed while playing. If it moves on its own without any interaction on the player's part, it may have been installed incorrectly, or there may be something wrong with it. You should be concerned if, for example, you noticed that the pickup moved as you pulled the guitar from the case or when you grabbed it from the stand.
Most electric guitars are crafted in a way that allows guitarists to customize the height of the pickup. This could explain why the pickup moves as you push it or come into contact with it, for it is attached with springs on the side, which, in turn, are fastened by adjustment screws.
Related article: How Does Guitar Pickup Height Affect Tone?
What If The Pickups Are Too Loose Or Too Tight?
If the pickup is extremely loose or extremely tight, you may want to find help from an experienced luthier. This will guarantee that you will not permanently damage the pickup or the slot into which it's embedded. If you don't get the chance or find it too burdensome budget-wise to hire a professional, you may try the following tips:
- Tighten the screws that rest on the corners of the pickup to put it firmly in place.
- If they're unable to move at all, check to see if the springs you installed are too short. Springs should be longer than the adjustment screws introduced in them, as that will enable the pickup to raise or lower according to the spring's movement.
- If it wobbles too much, perhaps the pickup is not large enough to adjust to the casing. In this case, you could try wedging a piece of foam between the pickup and the casing to reduce the chances of wiggling. Be mindful that this may affect the pickup's ability to handle the strings' vibration correctly, so this should be used as a last recourse.
The instructions for proper installation will depend on the pickups and the guitar into which they're being installed. However, the above tips are practically universal.
Is It Recommended To Adjust Pickup Height?
Once installed properly, a pickup shouldn't move freely within the guitar. However, it may move a bit if pushed on. Furthermore, it should be adjustable height-wise. So yes, pickups should be able to move for proper adjustment once installed correctly.
Adjusting the height of a pickup (or multiple pickups) is usually recommended if you find issues or feel that the tone is too dimmed or too loud.
Pickups are traditionally adjusted by turning the screws on the sides, called “adjustment screws” or “height screws”. When you turn them clockwise, the pickup moves down towards the body. On the contrary, when the screwdriver turns counter-clockwise, the pickup moves towards the strings.
Pickups are electromagnetic transducers that detect the vibration from the strings and convert it into electric signals that are then reproduced by the amplifier/speaker. The closer the pickup is to the strings, the louder the signal will be as it “picks up” more from the strings' vibrations.
For jazz guitarists, separating the pickup from the strings at a greater distance may help deliver a cleaner and more defined sound. But, if you crave more power for your rock or metal piece, you may try bringing them closer together by raising the pickup a notch.
The height can be adjusted at each end of the pickup. Producing a slight angle can boost either the bass or the treble strings.
Keep in mind that some manufacturers discourage players from adjusting these features. Gibson recommends that you maintain a distance of 1.6 mm between the PAFs and the strings in both the neck and bridge, as well as the treble and bass sides of each pickup. Nevertheless, this should not stop you from trying, provided that you understand the risks.
In many cases, guitarists who are unaware of the possibility of adjusting the pickup's height may be tempted to change their pickup or send their guitar to a repair shop. Many issues with a guitar's sound may be fixed by simply adjusting the pickup's height since, in most cases, it might have sunken towards the body (which happens from frequent accidental pushes while playing), and it's not able to pick up enough vibration.
Keep in mind, though, that you may end up with further problems if you raise or lower the pickup beyond its limits, as you will conceivably end up with a very unpleasant tone or, more importantly, compromising the casing or the pickup itself.
For example, if you raise the pickup too high, magnetic interference will affect the strings' sustain, cause tuning bugs, or render unwanted overtones, especially with single-coil pickups. In the case of humbuckers, the sound will be too “boomy” and distorted. There are also side effects related to your ability to handle the strings freely, as well as constant buzzing.
On the other hand, if you lower it too much, as stated previously, you will ultimately end up losing volume. However, the shortcomings of having your pickup set too low are far fewer than if you set it too high.
What About Piezoelectric Pickups?
Piezo pickups are common for acoustic guitars and work on piezoelectric principles rather than electromagnetic principles. They're built with piezo crystals that absorb mechanical/vibrational energy and convert it into electrical (audio) signals.
While electromagnetic pickups are installed directly under the strings, most permanent piezo pickups are positioned within the body of the guitar, typically on the underside of the soundboard near the bridge.
When installing a piezo pickup into an acoustic guitar, it can be beneficial to move it around until the “sweet spot” is found between volume and tone. However, it can be difficult to move once installed and should not be moved by any external forces.
A Note On Soundhole Pickups
Soundhole pickups, which are designed for easy installation and removal, shouldn't move during a performance but can easily be added and removed for acoustic and classical guitars. Note that these pickups are electromagnetic, like the aforementioned electric guitar pickups.