How to Adjust Your Guitar Pickups for the Best Sound
By Jon Chappell
When I interviewed Eric Johnson in his Austin-based studio a few years ago, I was struck by something that at the time seemed rather mundane. With his guitar in hand, Eric talked and played, demonstrating some of his approaches to soloing. But as brilliant as that was, what caught my eye was the periodic modifications he made to the his guitar while he played. In between demonstrating the Mixolydian mode and a string-bending lick, Eric casually reached over and grabbed a small flathead screwdriver, gave the polepiece below the B string on the neck pickup of his ES-335 a quarter turn, and then kept playing. He did this as quickly and as effortlessly as you and I would tune up a slightly flat string. Here’s a guy with total control over his sound, I thought.
It occurred to me that for all the tweaking guitarists do with their tone—rolling tone controls up and down on both their guitars and amps—very few ever touch the pickups. Most guitarists I know don’t even look at the pickups and wouldn’t know if they were out of alignment even if they did. Be truthful: When’s the last time you looked at the alignment of your pickups to make sure they were still optimally placed from the strings? And do you even know what that distance should be? Your pickups are as critical to your guitar’s tone production as anything else that follows downstream, and as we know from our devotion to all things audio, there’s no place like the source to really fix a problem.
There are several ways to tweak your pickups without causing a permanent change, so there’s no reason not to have it as an option. If your tone has been lacking, or if it’s out of balance with respect to the individual strings’ outputs, consider adjusting the pickups first, before trying other, EQ-based methods. If you’ve never tweaked a pickup before, just think of Eric Johnson. He would adjust a polepiece as readily as he would roll the tone control from 9 to 8—if it were the right thing to do. Wouldn’t you like to have that kind of confidence over all your guitar’s parameters?
All pickups can adjusted with respect to their position to the strings through a simple, reversible (if necessary) turn of a screw. Whether you have single-coil, humbuckers, covered pickups or exposed polepieces, or even pickups with non-adjustable polepieces, you can always move your pickup up or down in relation to the strings. Moving a pickup up, or closer to the strings, will increase the output of the pickup (i.e., make it louder), because you’re moving the magnet and the magnetic field closer to the source (the vibrating string). This is similar to moving a microphone closer to your mouth. In a pickup, moving the magnet closer to the string causes the vibrations to increase the amplitude of the disturbance in the magnetic field, which in turn creates a stronger current at the output.
You would think, then, that moving your pickups closer, for more output, would be a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t want maximum output from their pickups? Well, the problem is that two other aspects of the sound change when you move the pickup closer to the strings. For one, the tonal balance of bass and treble shifts, because the frequency ranges don’t produce bass and treble with equal energy. The bass tends to dominate here. This phenomenon gets magnified when you put the pickup closer to the string, where things get boomy fast. The other issue is that the pickup’s magnet increases its magnetic pull on the string itself as you get the two closer together. Putting the pickup closer to the string inhibits the string’s ability to vibrate, causing the string to decay faster than normal. Not the best thing for those sustained string bends on ballads.
In addition to adjusting the overall height of the pickup to the string, consider that you can raise just one side higher than the other. For example, if your neck pickup sounds too boomy or bassy, you have two choices: You can lower the bass side of the pickup (reducing the output), or you raise the treble side (increasing its output). Either move produces the same relative effect: the treble side of the pickup will be closer to the pickup than the bass side, increasing its output relative to the bass side. Because the pickup is now on a slant, the change between the bass and treble strings will be gradual, with a linear, or straight-line, fall-off toward the bass side.
But what if you need even more precise control over the tone? For example, what if just the B string is sounding anemic, with its notes becoming buried when played against its two neighbors, the G and the high E strings? In that case, you can—if your pickups allow—adjust the individual polepieces. For this to be an option, you have to have exposed screw heads facing the strings. This isn’t an option for non-adjustable polepieces (such as those found on a classic Strat), or bar magnet pickup designs, such as many well-known models by EMG.
But if you do have adjustable polepieces (that is, with screw heads), you can try moving them up and down to get your strings in balance. Keep in mind, that as with our side-to-side example earlier, you can increase the presence of the B string in two ways: by raising the B string polepiece or by lowering both the G and high E polepieces. Once the individual strings are in balance, you can raise or lower the entire pickup, or raise or lower either side. This gives you lots of options!
If you do decide to adjust your polepieces, follow these precautions:
To Everything, Turn, Turn, Turn
Figure 1 shows a humbucker and how you turn the screws to get it to move. Most humbuckers attach to the plastic rings surrounding the pickup itself. The four corner screws hold the ring into the body, and the larger, middle side screws are used to adjust the height of the pickup. Turning the side screws clockwise raises the pickup. Turning the polepieces clockwise lowers them.
Figure 2 shows a single-coil pickup. If the pickup is attached directly into the body, turning the height-adjustment screw clockwise lowers the pickup. Though most single-coils don’t have adjustable polepieces, if yours does, turning the polepieces clockwise lowers them, just as in humbucker pickups.
Even acoustic guitar pickups can have adjustable polepieces, as shown in Figure 3. The Artec Wooden Sound Hole pickup (WSH12) features 12 polepieces, aligned as 6 pairs, for versatile tone control. Figure 4 is the Eric Johnson Signature Strat, and you can see clearly how the polepieces are staggered (that is, not all at equal height, or distance from the strings). Figure 5 shows a set of three single-coils with a humbucker. Note their basic differences: The single-coils are thinner and have non-adjustable polepieces. So it’s not just that single-coils have a single wrap of wire around a bobbin: they are also non-adjustable.
If 6 Was 9
For those of you who know to describe Jimi Hendrix’s guitar as having the strings reversed (and the modifications required to the nut and bridge), don’t forget that the pickups are also reversed, with respect to the original polepiece setup. Pickup maker Stan Hinesley recognizes that part of the Hendrix sound is this pickup reversal, and so makes an “upside down” pickup for right-handers seeking that sound. Pictured in Figure 6 is Hinesley’s EXP pickup, with hand-beveled, reverse-staggered Alnico 5 magnets. Hinesley also makes single-coils with adjustable polepieces (Figure 7), which is unusual but welcome for its versatility.
Equal Time for Fixed Polepiece Pickups
Those of you who have EMG pickups (Figure 8), or other pickups that eschew adjustable polepieces, might wonder why manufacturers make non-adjustable polepieces at all, if it robs you of an opportunity to tweak you sound. EMG feels that the whole polepiece design has problems, and that bar magnets are superior technology. In the interest of equal time, here are their thoughts on the matter, quoted from their website:
Many manufacturers will recommend how to ideally set up their pickups. They typically start from the factory setting, or provide turn-numbers assuming the screw head is flush with the pickup. Here’s one set of instructions using the turn method:
Some guitar manufacturers give measurements from the strings to the pickups, as in this example from a Carvin owner’s manual:
What’s clear here is that both approaches assume you will be adjusting your pickups. They don’t warn you that it will “void the warranty,” and they even offer their recommended setups. You should feel encouraged by this to experiment for yourself.
Even the simple act of changing your brand or type of strings (from a light set to light-top/heavy bottom) may require a pickup modification. And if you find your guitar’s tone has been uneven, lackluster, or just wanting in general, try adjusting the pickups first. Your actions are completely reversible, and you can’t hurt anything—except perhaps for the tone if you go too far, but then you can just “hit Undo” in the analog way—by reversing your screw-turning steps!
Jon Chappell has written five books in the For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing), as well as The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Digital Home Recording (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill).
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