Balancing Pickup Output/Volume

Ok, so this will be the last thing about pickups for a while. I wanted to complete the pickup balancing advice, though.

We started by talking about balancing the output of each string so that they have an even and consistent volume.

Then we considered some of the problems that can occur if you adjust your pickups too close to the strings. I felt it was important to discuss that topic before moving on to this one: balancing the output of each of the pickups in your guitar or bass.


Balancing the pickups is key in getting your guitar or bass to sound good


Balancing pickups in a guitar or bass

It’s not rocket science. All you’re doing is listening to each pickup in isolation and setting their heights so there isn’t a big difference in volume between them.

The idea is that you can switch pickup during a gig or song, in order to get a change in tone, without any change in volume.

The tools you’ll need are a screwdriver and at least one ear.

How to balance pickup outputs

All you do is listen to each pickup in isolation before moving to the next. On the second pickup, you’re trying to replicate the volume/output level you heard on the first.

You’ll generally need to listen back and forth a number of times, adjusting each time, before you get it right.

When the second pickup is balanced, move on to the next (if there is one). Balance between the second and third pickups in the same way and, when that’s done, go back and listen to all three in succession. Still happy with the volumes?

Remember to pay attention to the string to string output too. You can make the bass or treble strings louder or quieter by raising or lower that end of the pickup more or less.

In reality, this is probably harder to explain than it is to do. Trust your ears.

The right order

I believe it’s useful (even important) to set your pickup heights in a particular order.

For most guitars and basses, I recommend you set your bridge pickup height first. When that’s ok, move on to the others.

So, for instance, with a Les Paul, set the bridge pickup height and then set the neck. For a Strat, set the bridge, then the middle, then the neck. Same bridge-first order applies to most other guitars and to basses.

The reason for doing things in this order is that the string vibration pattern is larger over the neck pickup than over the bridge. This extra vibration gives more ‘natural’ output at the neck position.

If you set your neck pickup first, it’s easy to then end up setting your bridge pickup too high in order to match its output to the neck. Going bridge-first means your neck pickup may end up being lower (further from the strings) than the bridge pickup. That's ok. As we’ve seen, we want to avoid the problems associated with pickups that are too close.

It’s worth noting that pickup manufacturers will sometimes reduce the output of pickups for use in the neck position. That’s all good, but I still recommend following this bridge-first order for balancing pickup outputs.

Do what I Tele you

No rule is complete without a nice exception.

I reverse things when I’m working on ‘traditional’ Telecasters. Then, I set the neck first.

The Tele’s neck pickup is generally pretty wimpy compared to others and, even with more string vibration/natural output, chances are it’d still end up too close to the strings if trying to match it to the bridge.

Set the neck pickup first on your standard Tele. Then, set the bridge pickup to match. This might mean dropping your bridge pickup a little lower than you’re used to seeing but it usually ends up being a better setup.

This doesn’t apply to Tele Custom or Deluxe models. Or anything with something ‘non-standard’ in the neck position.

HSH and ‘unbalanced’ pickups

Sometimes you’ll come across an instrument with two wildly different pickups that just won’t balance nicely. There are probably plenty of examples but a HSH guitar is a good example.

A guitar fitted with a neck and bridge humbucker, with a single coil between them, can be a challenge. That middle pickup’s usually got less output than those either side of it (sometimes substantially). Balancing all three might actually give you humbuckers that end-up sounding weedy because they’re too low.

I’m afraid there isn’t really a right answer. Now we’re in compromise territory. You need to prioritise the pickups that are right for the sounds/tones you want and use most frequently. On a HSH axe, that’s typically the humbuckers — you’ll set these where you want them at the expense of the middle pickup.

You’ll often find the same compromise may be needed on a HSS guitar. Or any instrument that has slightly ‘mismatched’ (not a great term but you know what I mean) pickups.

The bottom line

There’s been a lot of pickup balancing talk around these parts lately. But, if you want a good setup, this is all information that’s useful to know.

A good setup is the sum of lots of small things.

So, sweat the small things.