Guitar pickups are often discussed in terms of their build quality, performance, and architecture. Players sometimes overlook one important aspect, which is how pickups interact with one another and work together. Their level or height is ordinarily an undervalued parameter that even manufacturers can take for granted.
Should all guitar pickups be level (at the same height)? Several manufacturers' guidelines may give the impression that pickups should have a standard height. However, there's no golden rule. In some instances, setting the neck pickup at a lower height than the bridge pickup will form a more balanced tone, but this also hinges on other string-related factors.
In this article, we'll be discussing how height affects a pickup's performance and how diversity in height may influence tonality. We'll also be discussing how to adjust the height of a guitar pickup.
As mentioned earlier, electric guitars can come with a variety of pickup configurations and height settings (even within the same model). Being able to mix and match the outputs of multiple pickups while also having the option to adjust the height of each pickup independently helps us achieve proper tone and tonal balance.
It makes sense when considering how vibration varies between strings, owing to various factors like gauge, winding material, and design/manufacturing.
Height directly applies to the distance of the pickup relative to the guitar body, which is an important factor to consider for playability. However, in terms of the pickup's role as a transducer, height also refers to the distance between a pickup or magnet pole and the strings.
Magnetic pickups work in tandem with the strings by interacting within a magnetic field. Therefore, the distance between them can ultimately define how much output signal will be produced.
In that sense, the closer they are to each other, the stronger the volume of the pickup's signal will be. However, if you bring the magnets too close to the strings, they will generate a very strong magnetic attraction to the strings and virtually alter the latter's movement. Along with the decline in clarity, the sustain and pitch will also suffer due to the magnetic interactions between the strings and pickups.
Conversely, placing the magnet poles too far from the string will yield a dimmed and thin signal, even when, theoretically, the strings move with more amplitude (strength). It should come as no surprise that the magnetic field weakens by resting farther from the strings, and it's not capable of generating enough disturbance to be transformed into an electrical current.
Given both of these issues, guitar manufacturers often suggest specific height requirements for their pickups (not too close to the strings and not too far either) to avoid ruining their signature sound. Nevertheless, it's still possible to tweak these settings.
For more information on how pickup height affects guitar tone, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• How Does Guitar Pickup Height Affect Tone?
• Does Guitar Action/String Height Affect Tone?
Why It's Useful To Set Up Pickups And Poles At Different Heights
We affirmed earlier that, by setting the neck pickup lower than the bridge pickup, you are effectively aiming for a more evened-out tone.
This is because neck pickups tend to be louder than bridge pickups. After all, they are closer to the area with the highest amplitude (the middle of the string). In contrast, the bridge pickup is placed at the strings' anchor point, in which their movement is far more restrained, resulting in a less low-end and lower volume.
Regardless, you can still try different parameters to find the sound you prefer. If you are more concerned with adding more power and razor-sharp edge to the sound, you could slightly raise the neck pickup, but be mindful of volume jumps between pickups.
In a similar trend, the pickup itself may be set up with different angles to emphasize either the treble or the bass frequencies of the guitar. It's possible to raise the height of pickups at either end. Therefore, if we need more output from the higher strings, we could raise the height at the side closest to the highest string. Conversely, if we need more volume from the lower strings (uncommon), then we could adjust the height in the opposite fashion.
Additionally, you may adjust each of the individual pole pieces and work out different arrangements. Each pole piece of an electromagnetic guitar pickup is associated with capturing the vibration of a specific string and converting it into audio.
Several guitar models feature pickups with the pole pieces adapted to account for the unwound G-string. This is because of the common contrast between a wound D and an unwound G string in terms of tonal palette.
Many experts affirm that the G string is the one with the most output and, therefore, the pole piece corresponding to that string should be the most buried one.
This makes sense when we analyze how strings are generally built. In short, the unwound strings consist of the naked core responsible for carrying most of the string's magnetic power. Since their core gauge is thicker than the preceding B string and the proceeding D string (the D string is thicker overall due to the winding material), it's to be expected that they exert a stronger influence on the magnet poles.
These, among other examples, serve as proof that it's not necessary to place all pickups at the same level, and it could actually prove detrimental if you aim at balancing out the tone.
However, the way they're adjusted ought to correspond to many factors, such as string gauge, winding, and tension. If you have high-tension strings attached, you might want to try placing the neck pickup at a similar level to the bridge pickup to compensate for the lack of amplitude.
Related My New Microphone articles:
• When To Use Bridge & Neck Pickups Together
• Bass Guitar: Bridge Pickups Vs. Neck Pickups
• Why Are Some Guitar Pickups Angled?
• Flatwound Guitar Strings Vs. Roundwound Guitar Strings
How Is A Pickup's Height Adjusted?
Generally, a pickup's height can be adjusted by turning the screws resting on each side of it, aptly named “height screws.” Turning the screws clockwise will lower the pickup towards the body, while turning them counter-clockwise will bring the pickup closer to the strings.
The height can be modified equally on both sides. You could also opt for creating a slope by making more turns on one side. This will allow you to set the tonal balance to your personal liking.
You can raise the treble side or lower the bass side if you are more inclined towards a twangy sound. On the flip side, you might wish to boost the lower frequencies, in which case you can try raising the bass side or lowering the treble side.
In the case of the poles, some pickups come with screw-type poles that are easy to adjust. Non-adjustable poles should probably not be tampered with, as they are prone to suffer irreparable damage, and the process is far more strenuous.
Adjusting the height is recommended after a long playing period. The reason is that pickups tend to move after playing and get pushed down, naturally losing the signal. It's not uncommon to listen to guitar enthusiasts claiming that they need to change their strings or their pickups due to low output when, in fact, no replacement is needed, and they only need to raise the pickup a bit.
To learn more about pickup movement, check out my article Are Guitar Pickups Supposed To Move Once Installed?
This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.