Sorry for the clickbait-style headline. “A bass player tried this one weird trick and you won’t believe what happened next.”
Yeah, that sucks. Sorry again.
Buuuut… the fact is I meet a lot of players who don’t know that the pickups on the Fender Precision Bass are supposed to be ‘angled’.
That is, the poles under the middle strings (A and D) are supposed to be higher than the outside (E and G) poles.
The pickups will usually ship flat — their tops parallel to the pickguard and body — or get set flat somewhere along the way. After a setup, I often get asked why I’ve angled the pickups.
If you’ve read my last few thoughts on pickup heights, you’ll probably have guessed that the answer is ‘radius’.
The strings on your (properly set-up) bass will follow the radius of the fingerboard. This means the middle (A and D) strings will actually be further from the pickguard/body top than the E and G.
Set flat, the pickup will sense less of the A and D strings’ vibrations.
So we raise the middles, angling or ramping the pickups.
You can use a ruler to set each string about the same distance from the string — I generally fret that string at the last fret before measuring string-to-pickup distance.
Once that visual/ruler setting is done, however, the usual advice applies: Use your ears.
Play each string and listen to its volume. Compare it to the next one and so on. It’s often a good idea to do this in the open position and the try the same in a couple of positions to get an overall picture.
Adjust the pickup height until you have a consistent volume across all strings and so none jumps out as you play.
Personally, I frequently find that the G jumps quite a bit (or maybe it just ‘cuts’ more than the others). For this reason, I often have the G pickup pole lower than the E.
This seems counterintuitive in the same way as realising the thinner, unwound, strings on a guitar can have more output than their heavier neighbours, but there you go. Listen carefully and don’t be afraid to nudge that G pickup down a little if you feel it’s needed. And maybe it’s not needed — the important thing is to listen and find out.
What about the Jazz?
Yeah, sorry J-Bass players (or any bassist with soapbar-style pickups). You don’t get to set your 'middle string' pole height. Best you can do is to balance both ends of the pickup and let the middle take care of itself. It’s not the worst thing in the world but it’s nice to be able to have that little bit more ‘adjustability’ for balance.
Some pickups have staggered height poles to address this but not all. Oh, well.
The squished foam problem
The bane of many bass-setter-upper’s life is squished foam.
Underneath most body-mount bass pickups is a hunk of firm, spongy foam. The idea is that the foam ‘pushes back’ against the pickups as they’re screwed to the body.
Over time, though, the foam can compress and fail to push back. This means, as you try to raise one or both ends of your pickup, the screw will continue to rise but the pickup will just sit there because it’s got no pressure pushing up.
The solution is the replace the foam.
Or, very occasionally, to add additional foam.
Don’t even think about using some of that soft, crappy foam (like you get in household sponges). You need rugged, tough, lumberjack foam. That grey flimsy stuff (that’s used to cushion loads of consumer goods) is useless. It’ll be squishy and ineffective in no time.
Try searching for ’bass pickup foam’ on eBay (affiliate link) and you’ll find plenty of options.
The Bottom Line
“This bass player adjusted his pickups. What happened next will blow your mind!”
Yeah, well… Clickbait aside, it might not blow your mind but it’s definitely a useful tip if you didn’t already know it (and if your bass can do it). Give it a go.