What’s the Optimum Guitar Pickup Height?
By Anderton |
Those two screws on the side of your pickup aren’t just there for decoration
by Craig Anderton
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.
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.