How to Optimize Your Guitar Pickup Height

Adjusting the height of your electric guitar pickups can greatly affect the sound. You may also find the overall touch sensitivity of your instrument changes as well. Properly adjusted pickups can provide a range of tones, from warm and mellow to bright and biting. And it’s really easy to do!

In this article, we will walk through the process of measuring and adjusting your guitar pickup height. Including tips and tricks for different types of pickups. Plus the importance of dialing in your personal preferences.

Why Pickup Height Matters

Pickups work with magnetic fields. This magnetic field is provided by the pickup and must be strong enough to transfer it to the strings. If the pickup is too close, it may prevent the strings from vibrating feely. A strong magnetic field can kill sustain because it pulls on the string, inhibiting natural motion. 

It can also make the string sound like it’s out of tune. And at the very worst, it might create string buzz when you play aggressively.

On the other hand, a pickup too far away won’t provide enough magnetism to create an optimal signal. Both of these scenarios affect performance and tone. So the right pickup height is of great importance! But you must also make sure the electric guitar is set up right. Things like action and neck relief will also affect the pickup height.

Guitar Pickup Magnetic Field

Further Learning: How guitar pickups work.

Measuring Your Guitar Pickup Height

The first place to start is by measuring the pickup height you currently have. It’s hard to know if the height is good if you are not even sure what it is! This is very easy to do and will give you a starting point. This will be important as it will tell you if the pickups are too close or far from the strings.

The tools needed are a pocket ruler. Yes, that’s it! Then follow these steps:

  1. Press down on the highest fret of the thickest string. Then use the ruler to measure the space between the string and pole piece. Record this reading.
  2. Repeat this procedure with the thinnest string. There is no need to do any of the other strings. Make sure to write down these 2 measurements.

The reason only two strings need to be measured is because there are only two adjustments points. One on each side of the pickup. So once we set these two strings up, they will all be where they need to.

Learn how to identify the pickups in your guitar!

Guitar Pickup Measurement

Factors That Determine Optimal Pickup Height

While there are factory specs that can be used to set pickups, there are no real optimal settings. This is because not every pickup is the same. Even the same designs can have many different results. This is due to many factors.

Magnets and Gaussing

The magnets in a guitar pickup play a crucial role in determining the tone and overall sound. The strength of the magnets is measured in gauss. Different types of magnets will have their own gauss ratings. It’s important to understand how magnets and gaussing affect the pickup’s sound. This way, you will understand why pickups need to be adjusted at all!

Ceramic and alnico magnets don’t have the same ratings. This is because they don’t react the same way to the process of gaussing. Then, there are magnets that lose their strength. This is also a big reason for the correct pickup height.

Not everyone has access to a tool that can measure the magnetic strength of the pickup. So in these cases, you must go by the sound they produce. The stronger the magnetic field, the brighter the sound will be. Check out this article by WGS for more insight!

Your Play Style

Another factor that must be considered is your play style. If you strum very hard, then the strings will vibrate differently from someone who doesn’t. This will affect the sound, but also the strength of the signal output. In this case, you may need to have a larger space between the strings and the pickup.

Alternatively, someone who plays lightly will need to have the pickup closer. This is to get the best signal output possible. But it’s also to get the best sound that the pickup can deliver. So you must keep this in mind when considering your pickup height.

Adjust Your Pickup Height to the Factory Setting

You’ve measured the current height of your pickups! And you understand the effect of magnets and gaussing on the tone and sound. The next step is to adjust the pickups to the factory setting.

These setting are the recommended starting point for adjusting pickups. They provide a good balance between tone, output, and playability.

Pickup TypeThick StringThin StringPosition
Humbucker3/32″1/16″All
Single-Coil3/32″1/16″Bridge
Single-Coil1/8″3/32″Neck, Middle
P90 1/16″1/16″Neck, Bridge

The measurements in the table are just an example. The actual measurements may vary depending on the pickups and the guitar. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that these measurements are just a rough idea of where to start. Pickups may have different factory heights depending on the guitar.

It’s also a good idea to consult the manufacturer’s specifications for your pickups before making any adjustments.

Preparing For An Adjustment

After measuring the current height of your pickups, you can begin preparing for an adjustment. This will be to suit your personal preferences and the genre of music you play. Here are some tips and tricks for making adjustments.

Tape Marker

Before doing anything, I suggest you place some tape on the sides of your pickups. Then, use a pen or pencil and draw a line at the base of the pickup on the tape. Right where it meets the pickguard or body. This way, if you begin making adjustments and don’t like what you hear, you can put it back.

Tape on a guitar pickup

Adjusting a Pickup that is Too Low

If you feel that your pickup doesn’t have a great output level, then there is a good chance it’s too low. This means that it’s too far away from the strings. In this case, you will have a thinner, weaker tone. Raising it to be closer to the strings will mean a thicker, fuller sound. But also a higher output.

The result of this will also mean that your amplifier might be pushed harder. Earlier break up or less clean headroom could be the case.

Adjusting a Pickup that is Too High

If the pickup is too high, then there are many things that could be happening. First, the string might sound like it’s out of tune when you play. There might also be some string buzzing when you dig into them harder.

Performance wise, this will mean a very hot output that might be too powerful for your music style. It could also mean the sound is too bass heavy and thick. Lowering the pickup would back off the output and provide a brighter sound.

There is also what’s called Wolf tones. This is a sound that introduces harmonics that are not pleasing to the ear. It’s almost like a cloudiness around the note. This is a result of a string being too close to the pickup.

How to Adjust Pickup Height 

Different types of pickups may have unique optimal heights. And they may require specific methods for adjusting that height. You will need either a Phillips or flat head screwdriver for these adjustments. Here is a breakdown of how to adjust the height for some common pickup types.

Guitar Pickup Adjustment

Humbucker 

Humbuckers typically have adjustment screws located at the base of the pickups. Right near the pole pieces on either side. If the electric guitar used pickup rings, then use a screwdriver to turn the change screws clockwise to raise them. Or counter-clockwise to lower the pickups.

If there are no rings and the pickups are mounted to the body, then it’s the opposite. Turn them counter-clockwise to raise. And clockwise to lower. Just use caution when lowering them. At some point, the screw threads will run out. The pickup will then drop into the body cavity of the guitar.

Stratocaster Single-coils 

Stratocaster single-coils also have screws located at the base of the pickups. The process is similar to humbuckers. Use a screwdriver to turn the adjustment screws clockwise to raise the pickups. And counter-clockwise to lower them.

Telecaster Single-coil 

Configuring a standard Telecaster may seem complex, but it’s actually not! All you need is to twist a few screws. For the bridge pickup, you’ll need three adjustment screws. They are attached to a metal bridge plate. The two closest to the bridge aid in balancing the pickup from right to left. While the other screw keeps it level with the strings. Some of the pickups are angled.

When it comes to neck pickups, you need to hope you have the easy-to-adjust style! If your guitar has one mounted from a pickguard, you are good to go! Just adjust it as you would a Stratocaster single-coil! 

However, if your guitar has body mounting, you’ll need to unscrew and remove the pickguard. This is the only way to access its adjustment screws. It’s not hard, but it’s an extra step. You won’t even need to slacken the strings to do it. And make sure you are happy before putting the guard back on!

Jazzmaster Single-coils 

The Jazzmaster single-coil pickups are not as easy to adjust. They have screws, but those are for mounting. The height is set by foam pieces that go behind the pickup. This is what pushes them up. So if you want to set the height, you need to remove or add foam behind the pickup.

Jaguar Single-coils 

The Jaguar pickups are similar to the Jazzmaster. There is foam in behind them that sets the height. Some people have realized that using springs is also possible. If they are placed under the screws on the opposite side, you can get a more precise setting.

P90 Single-coil 

The soapbar P90 pickups have adjustment screws towards the center of the assembly. They are both mounting and adjustment screws and compress either foam or springs to set the right height.

Dog-ear P90s

These pickups don’t have a way to raise or lower the entire unit. The pole piece screws are adjustable and can be raised or lowered for fine adjustments. But what if you need large adjustments? In this case, you will need to purchase shims. These shims go under the pickup and raise it to where you need it. Then use the pole pieces to fine-tune the adjustment.

Dialing in Your Preferences

After making the adjustments to your pickups, it’s important to dial in your tone. This involves fine-tuning the pickups to suit your personal needs. This is the genre of music you play, the amplifier settings, and even the string thickness. Here are some tips for dialing in your preferences:

  1. Play the guitar and listen closely to the sound. Take note of any areas that you feel could be improved, such as a lack of bass or treble, or any humming or buzzing sounds.
  2. Make small adjustments to the pickups! Such as raising or lowering them, and listening to the changes in the sound.
  3. Make sure to switch between the pickups and factor in level changes. If the neck and bridge are radically different, one could end up becoming a boost!
  4. Experiment with different amplifier settings. Adjusting the tone and volume controls to see how these changes affect the overall sound.
  5. Try playing in different rooms or venues to see how the room acoustics affect the sound.
  6. Be patient and take your time. Dialing in your preferences is a process! It could take several adjustments and experimentation before you achieve the desired sound.

It’s important to remember that everyone’s sound is different! There really is no one correct setting for the pickups. The goal is to find the setting that produces the best sound for you and your playing style.

Conclusion

If this is your first time adjusting your pickups, don’t sweat it. You won’t ruin your guitar or lose any of the tones. To return to the start, use our tape technique. Otherwise, work at it. You will find that you can unlock sounds you might not have known were possible.

It can take a bit of time to find the setting that is just right, but it will come. Try and have some fun with it and learn what you can. As you get more familiar with it, you will be making more adjustments than you thought you would need!

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Don East

My name is Don East, I'm the editor for Killer Rig. I've been playing guitar for over 20 years and have designed and manufactured products like guitar amps, effects pedals, and more. Over the years I have played in many bands and have a deep love for quality gear. I am an electrical engineer and have a passion for music gear, and now want to share what I know with the community!