If you’re a guitarist or bassist who adjusts or sets up your own instruments, I’m about to make a sweeping statement about you, so forgive me…
Your pickups are too high.
I find that most players have realised that moving a pickup closer to the strings usually results in more output.
So we clench our fists and shout, “POWER!!!” before raising our pickup height.
But life’s not all about raw power. Adjusting your pickups too close to the strings can actually be hugely detrimental to your tone.
Your strings are ferromagnetic. They have to be in order to work effectively. Their vibration in the pickup’s magnetic field is what makes that sweet, sweet music come out of your amp. It’s a joy; a triumph of science and rock ’n’ roll.
But there’s a drawback.
As well as the strings acting on the pickup’s magnetic field, that magnetic field can also act on the string.
Adjusted too close, the magnetic field can interfere with the strings’ vibration.
If that happens, you’ve got problems. Problems like…
Loss of sustain
If the pickup’s magnet pulls on a vibrating string, it can actually kill off that vibration too quickly. You push that pickup up to get power but you sacrifice sustain because the magnetic field deadens the string vibration.
It’s not something you’d normally think of but pickup magnets can deflect the vibrating string’s pattern so much it rattles off your frets.
Honestly. Seriously. Why would I lie?
I’ve seen this tons of times. Pickups themselves can be enough to make a string buzz. If you’ve got some fret buzz that seems to defy any other explanation, try lowering your pickups. See what happens.
Weird noises, effects, and overtones
When the strings vibration is pulled out of whack, the result can be some odd noises and overtones on certain notes. These manifest in different ways but, most often, you’ll hear a warbling or chorussing effect after the note.
It’s more prevalent on Strats but you can get these ‘wolf tones’ on other instruments too.
If you’re hearing crazy stuff you can’t explain, look to your pickup height.
Tuning and intonation issues
Again, that deflected vibration pattern can do weird things to a note’s tuning. You might have strange intonation problems on some strings or in some areas.
And, if you’ve problems getting a tuner to ‘settle’ when you play a note, it could be because the string’s being pulled by the pickup.
Fixing a problem that doesn’t exist
In the olden days, players had to eke every last bit of power from their guitars in order to push an amp to overdrive. That’s one of the reasons aftermarket pickups began being offered in hotter and hotter versions.
Not so much any more.
It’s much easier to coax an amp to drive now. Most of us have more than enough gain and distortion on tap and there’s a huge choice of boost effects to give your signal an extra kick if needed.
Vintage or low-output pickups are not a problem. Quite the opposite, in fact — many of these can sound much better than their hotter cousins in lots of situations.
Same goes for adjusting pickups too high. Even if it didn’t cause a multitude of problems, it’s probably not even necessary.
So how high should a pickup be?
Hard to say… Depends… Use ears…
Yeah, I know. That’s not terribly satisfying but there are many differences between pickups and it’s pretty much impossible to give a complete chart.
As a starting point/rule-of-thumb sort of thing, though, I’d advise the following:
- Don’t set humbuckers closer than 4/64” (1.6mm)
- Don’t set Fender-type pickups closer than 6/64” (2.4mm)
- Don’t set P-Bass closer than 6/64”(2.4mm) and J-Bass closer than 5/64” (2mm)
- Other pickups will probably be somewhere around these figures, although it’s worth noting that hotter pickups can have very powerful magnets and will often need to be a lot lower.
Now, of course, these are guidelines. You might want to adjust your pickups higher, and that may be right for your instrument and pickups. Do be very aware of the issues noted above, though. It’s very rare that I go higher than these.
For measuring string-to-pickup distance, fret that string at the last fret and measure from the pickup pole to the bottom of the string.
A note on active and ‘alternative’ pickups
Active pickups — like EMGs — and pickups like the Lace Sensors operate a bit differently. They’ve lower-powered magnets and/or differently ’shaped’ magnetic fields. They don’t pull on the strings in the same way as ‘regular’ pickups and can be adjusted really close without too much of a problem.
It’s not too much of an overstatement to say you can raise these until they get in your way.
The sweet spot
It’ll exist for your guitar and pickups. Somewhere there’s a nice height that gets enough output from the strings without interfering with their vibration. It will take a bit of experimentation but it’s worth it.
Go. Use your ears. Use them, I say.
The Bottom Line
The TL;DR story on pickup height is don’t put them too close to your pickups.
However, there’s obviously a bit more nuance here and you should trust your ears. Use the figures above as a guideline for minimum string-to-pickup distance and adjust things according to what you hear.