Let’s face it.. Most of us are gear nerds. There’s nothing like a NGD (New Gear Day). I have friends and colleagues who are always upgrading their pickups, buying new pedals, buying new guitars, or even upgrading to the latest in digital guitar processing. All of this in the quest for better tone!

I’m here to tell you that there actually are free ways to improve your tone that you should start with!  Be sure to check those out! Today, we’ll be focusing on something that’s unfortunately overlooked, yet can have one of the biggest impacts on your tone! Pickup height.

So, if you’re having issues with your tone, before you buy a whole new set of pickups, or even a new guitar, try adjusting the pickups you already have first!

Science Time

Before we start, let us understand how guitar pickups work. Put simply, pickups “hear” or “pick up” the acoustic vibrations around the strings and convert them into an electrical signal, which is then amplified into a speaker. Although there are different kinds of pickups, most use a magnet to do this conversion. The distance this magnet is from the vibrations can significantly affect the converted signal. For the sake of keeping this article simple, we’ll be focussing on Passive Humbuckers.

There’s a few things that adjusting humbucker height can do to shape your overall sound…

Signal Balance

We want all of our strings to be the same volume. Don’t we? When they are, your chords will sound more clear, notes won’t get lost in the background, and your leads will be just as present and punchy as your lower rhythm playing.

Adjusting for this will vary from pickup-to-pickup. Some pickups will have your standard flathead screws, some might have phillips, and some might have something more complicated. Shame on them…

Just in case you got these second hand and someone pretty much ruined the setup of the pickup height, let’s go ahead and reset it to standard height. You’ll want to set it so that all of the screw heads are slightly higher than the pickup. This is sort of the factory standard height.

Once you’re ready to start, you are going to adjust each screw so that each string sounds to be the same in volume. Bringing the screws up and closer to the strings is going to be louder, and bringing them down further away is going to be quieter. I know that I’m suppose to tell you “trust your ears”, but what if your ears suck or even a little bit bias to the low or high end? What I like to do is actually plug it into something that can read decibel levels and make them exactly the same. However you approach this is up to you, so long as you’re happy with the sound.

Overall Output

Once we are happy with the volume across the strings, we can focus on the total output of the humbucker. For this, we’ll be adjusting the screws on the sides of the humbucker. The overall output is referring to the actual strength in the signal of the pickups. The higher the output, the hotter the pickup will be.

To state the obvious, the closer your pickups get to the strings, the higher the output. The further away from the strings, the lower the output.

There are definitely tone shaping qualities that are affected by doing this as well. Generally, a pickup will sound brighter and dirtier closer to the strings and rounder, warmer, and darker further away from the strings. Obviously this can change per pickup, but this is a general rule.

Another important factor of this is that generally speaking, pickups will have more dynamic responsiveness and clarity farther away from the strings. If your pickups are too close to the strings, particularly strong magnets can actually reduce sustain on your guitar by actually slightly pulling them and preventing them from vibrating as much.

The last thing to consider is the neck pickup to bridge pickup ratio. You’ll want your pickups to be close in volume when you switch between them, but still retain their own sound quality. This is going to vary between pickups as well, but I always start with my bridge pickup, then work the neck pickup so that they compliment each other well.

If you’ve never adjusted your pickups before, I’d definitely recommend giving it a shot, especially if you are unhappy with the tone of one of your guitars. Of course, you may just hate the pickups themselves. After trying this out, if you still aren’t happy, check out our Guide on Changing Pickups to learn how to replace them!

Hopefully this was helpful, or at least interesting! If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out some more. We upload articles, review, guides, and more every day!

This article was written by Zac Buras, our editor located in Louisiana.

About The Author