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Those two screws on the side of your pickup aren’t just there for decoration

 

by Craig Anderton

 

Spoiler alert: The correct answer is “it depends.” Pickup height trades off level, sustain, and attack transient, so you need to decide which characteristics you want to prioritize.

 

I think we all have a sense that changing pickup height changes the sound, but I’d never taken the time to actually quantify these changes. So, Itested the neck and bridge humbucker pickups in a Gibson Les Paul Traditional Pro II 50s guitar, and tried two different pickup height settings.

 

For the “close” position, the strings were 2mm away from the top of the pole pieces. In the “far” position, the distance was 4mm. I then recorded similar strums into Steinberg’s WaveLab digital audio editor; although it’s impossible to get every strum exactly the same, I did enough of them to see a pattern. The illustrations show the neck pickup results, because the bridge pickup results were similar.

 

 

Fig. 1: This shows the raw signal output from three strums with the rhythm pickup close to the strings, then three strums with the pickup further away.

 

It’s clear from Fig. 1 that the “close” position peak level is considerably higher than the “far” position—about 8 dB. So if what matters most is level and being able to hit an amp hard, then you want the pickups close to the strings.

 

 

Fig. 2: The last three strums, with the pickups further from the strings, have a higher average level compared to the initial transient.

 

Fig. 2 tells a different story. This screen shot shows what happens when you raise the peaks of the “far” strums (again, the second set of three) to the same peak level as the close strums, which is what would happen if you used a preamp to raise the signal level. The “far” strum initial transients aren’t as pronounced, so the waveform reaches the sustained part of the sound sooner. The waveform in the last three is “fatter” in the sense that there’s a higher average level; with the “close” waveforms, the average level drops off rapidly after the transient.

 

Based on how the pickups react, if you want a higher average level that’s less percussive while keeping transients as much out of the picture as possible (for example, to avoid overloading the input of a digital effect), this would be your preferred option.

 

Fig. 3 shows two chords ringing out, with the waveforms normalized to the same peak value and amplified equally in WaveLab so you can see the sustain more clearly.

 

 

Fig. 3: The second waveform (pickups further from strings) maintains a higher average level during its sustain.

 

With the “tail” of the second, “far” waveform, the sustain stays louder for longer. So, you do indeed get more sustain—not just a higher average level and less pronounced transients—if the pickup is further away from the strings. However, remember that the overall level is lower, so to benefit from the increased sustain, you’ll need to turn up your amp’s input control to compensate, or use a preamp.

 

ADDITIONAL CONCLUSIONS

 

The reduced transient response caused by the pickups being further away from the strings is helpful when feeding compressors, as large transients tend to “grab” the gain control mechanism to turn the signal down, which can create a “pop” as the compression kicks in. With the pickups further away, the compressor action is smoother although again, you’ll need to increase the input level to compensate for the lower pickup output.

 

Furthermore, amp sims generally don’t like transients as they consist more of “noise” than “tone,” so they don’t distort very elegantly. Reducing transients can give a less “harsh” sound at the beginning of a note or strum.

 

So the end result is that if you’ve set your pickups close to the strings, try increasing the distance. You might find this gives you an overall more consistent sound, as well as better sustain.

 

 

Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.

 

4 comments
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AJ6stringsting  |  October 11, 2014 at 12:36 am
When you lower or raise the whole pickup or just only the pole pieces, you can hear the difference. I assembled an S,S,H configured guitar, to play 1980's Metal. I put a Carvin M22SD in the bridge position, it had too treble. I lowered the poles and raised the whole pick up .... and with a few minor adjustments, the guitar was perfect. Having great tones when it comes to pickup, is like that saying about business .... " It's about location, location , location.
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Ratae Corieltauvorum  |  October 06, 2014 at 11:07 pm
Great article Craig, I started my pickup height Exodus around 12 years wit Les Pauls and BurstBuckers, finding that they were incredibly sweet pickups when lowered to level with the pickup ring at the neck and just below on the bridge, since then I've treated every pickup like an individual and tuned them for myself and sat with customers carefully working up and down with their heights and their setup. Not one customer has ever gone back to so called manufacturers recommended heights, with nearly all humbucker and single coil players setting their pickups low

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DeepEnd  |  September 30, 2014 at 12:25 pm
I know your article covers humbuckers but ideally it should touch on single coil pickups as well. onelife in the Electric Guitar Forum explained "Stratitus" to me, a phenomenon in which pickups that are too close to the strings produce various artifacts including "boomy" bass and tuning irregularities. My Fernandes Strat exhibited both. As a lifelong acoustic player, I'm somewhat new to the electric and this was news to me.
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Narcoleptigon  |  September 30, 2014 at 12:25 pm
Much respect to the venerable Craig Anderton. I've learned a lot from him over the decades.
There are some commonly accepted misconceptions about how guitar pickups function. It's hard to tell all that's going on when you adjust pickup height. Certainly, the attack becomes more pronounced as the coil is closer. The per note fundamental harmonic will also be stronger, mostly with thinner aperture, small/dense coils. Increasing distance from the coil will audibly decrease sensitivity at some point. If you raise the pole screws on a pickup and lower the coil, you are actually decreasing the per note fundamental strength. You might actually prefer less fundamental at certain pickup positions and/or strings.
The magnetic field also alters attack character. There is only so much useful magnetic power before string pull becomes an issue A field more evenly distributed over the coil should generally produce a fatter/richer attack character, as well as less string pull. If the field intersects through the coil, if can cause cancellations and signal asymmetry.
Of course, sustain will be affected by string pull. The sustain difference in the Fig. 3 graphs may just be a result of the sustain portion of the waves not being completely normalized – maybe not.
Real time, non-brick wall/look ahead compressors always have the potential of driving whatever follows them too hard. After the release fully raises the signal level, a portion of the first attack transient goes through at an increased level. There's no way around that. If I use a real-time compressor, I only use maybe 6dB gain. It depends what follows it. A transformer saturation sim like VOS Tessla PRO mkII run before an amp sim can be set to eat those initial boosted transients, or driven more to add low harmonic “meat” with the output boosted for more amp sustain, if desired.
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