Pickups: What Height is Right?

Pickups:  What Height is Right?

I remember trying to set up my first Fender Stratocaster properly and what a frustration it turned into!  I knew just enough to get into trouble.  I adjusted the relief in the neck, set the intonation, raised the pickups (because they sounded hotter) and polished it to a perfect shine.  After all this, I started getting buzzes that weren't there previously and the guitar would not play in tune.  My dream guitar had become a nightmare!  It took some time to figure out that the problem was the pickup height.  The magnets on the pickups were pulling the strings and causing them to rattle and not play in tune.  So I lowered the pickups.  Now the guitar did not sound good but the fret buzz and intonation issue was gone!  After a while I found the sweet spot, but not without a lot of trial and error.    

Today we are going to talk about how to get your pickups set to the proper height.

First things first, restring your guitar with some fresh strings.  Any time you are going to mess with the setup of a guitar, I would recommend changing strings first.  This way you have a clean start.

Next, get a good starting point.  Using the following recommendations you can at least get close on most guitars.  Remember that these are only starting points.  You will have to tweak them to get it right.  The measurement is taken with the bass or treble string depressed at the last fret.  Then measure from the bottom of the string to the top of the pickup.


Stratocaster Style Guitar

                                                Bass Side         Treble Side

Vintage style                          6/64"                  5/64"

American Standard            5/64"                  4/64"

Texas Specials                       8/64"                 6/64"

Humbuckers                          4/64"                 4/64"


Gibson Humbucker

                                                 Bass Side           Treble Side

Neck Pickup                       3/32"                   1/16"

Bridge Pickup                     3/32"                   1/16"


PRS Humbucker

                                              Bass Side           Treble Side

Neck Pickup                       5/64"                   3/32"

Bridge Pickup                     5/64"                   3/32"


Now that you are close, it's time to really tweak.   Start by sing the neck pickup and playing notes in the higher range near the end of the neck.  Listen for buzzing or a warbling sound.  Now raise the pickup a bit and try again.  Repeat this process until you start having issues.  Then back the pickup down just a hair until the issues go away.  For most people this is tone to have.

You are ready to repeat this process with the other pickups now.  Start with the middle pickup (if you have one) and move to the bridge.  If no problems have surfaced, you are ready to set the string to string balance.

Play on the low E and high E.  Are the volumes consistent?  If they are, great!  If not, adjust the low E down to get it right.  You may also raise the high E but it may cause issues to surface.  As a side note, I do not recommend adjusting individual pole pieces unless you are very careful in noting any changes you make.  That way you can always get back to square one.

Finally you are ready to make it your own.  Since your pickups are balanced and are as high as you can get them without causing problems, now we just need to nail the perfect tone.  You can do this by lowering all pickups by the same amount of turns on the adjustment screws.  This way the balance will stay good.  Lowering the pickups will mellow them out and warm them up.  You should also get an increase in sustain.  Since the output will be lowered, you will get more dynamic control in regards to your amp and be able to turn it up louder.  

Once you find the sweet spot, you are ready to rock!  Setting your own pickup height is very rewarding but does take some patience to get it right.  If you follow these steps, you will be a pro in no time!

To wrap it up, it is very important to remember that there is no universal setting.  You have to find your own.  When you do, you will be one step closer achieving your tone.  Good luck and enjoy!

Ben Calhoun