Are you letting your pickup height keep you from the tone you've been trying to get all along? There’s a lot to consider when setting your pickup height, and most of us don’t really have a system we use or any real rhyme or reason on where to start. Every guitar is different so simply giving you a height measurement from the poles/screws to the strings isn’t applicable for every scenario.
Variables like string gauge, wood type, and bridge saddle material can all result in dramatically different tones, even if the pickup heights are the same. That's why it's so important to have a PROCESS to follow instead of blindly following blanket advice or specific measurements.
Here's an easy 5-step process I use when adjusting every guitar that comes through the Lambertones shop. The best part is that this doesn't require any fancy measuring tools or complicated industry tricks.
Step 1: Raise Your Pups!
I prefer to start with the bridge pickup first, and here’s why. Most industry-standard pickup height setting techniques involve setting the neck pickup height first. This is crucially flawed because it removes the ability to control the volume output differential between the bridge pickup and the neck pickup.
You could set your neck "perfect" and then never be able to get enough output of your bridge pickup so it sounds wimpy and thin in comparison, and that's the last thing you want for a bridge pickup.
So with that important note out of the way, start by fretting the highest fret with one finger (if you have 22 frets you will “fret” or “bar” that entire 22nd fret and look between the bottom of the strings and the top of the poles/screws).
While fretting your highest fret, turn the bridge height adjustment screws clockwise until it is as close to the strings as possible AS LONG AS you can pluck any string hard without any string touching the poles (single coils) or screws (humbuckers). If a string touches a pole or screw you’ve gone too far, and you need to lower it down just a tad.
Step 2: Drop, Listen, Micro-adjust the Bridge
Drop the pickups on the treble side 1-3 full turns. Give it a listen through your rig the way you like it set up and micro-adjust from there! i.e. If the bass is too pungent or aggressive, lower the bass side down a full turn.
If the treble seems flabby or soft it’s time to raise that side of your pickup up a little bit! Setting pickup height is a game of millimeters, so once you’d done the initial height setup described above don’t make a lot of adjustments without listening to and analyzing what tones you’re getting.
It’s time to move to the next pickup, and in that example, we’ll say its the neck pickup (but don’t worry, if you have a middle pickup you can treat it the exact same way and then continue on to the neck after making your adjustments to the middle).
Here’s the key difference in setting pickup height for a neck/middle pickup vs the bridge pickup. Usually, the bridge pickup position is desired to be of equal volume output or even a little louder in comparison to the other pickup positions.
So before you start making any wild angled adjustments we want to adjust the OVERALL pickup height of the neck to not overpower the bridge pickup.
Step 3: A/B Volume Output
Put your switch into the bridge position and give a good strum on a G chord (that’s what I use), then move the selector switch to your neck position and strum the same chord.
Analyze with your ears if the neck pickup was louder or softer in comparison to the bridge pickup. (Personally, I like my neck pickup about 10% softer than the bridge, but this is completely subjective).
Step 4: Adjust Bridge vs Neck Volume Output
If the neck is too loud, then turn those pickup height adjustment screws counterclockwise and drop it down a full turn.
Listen again, switching back and forth between the two positions and make another adjustment, but try to ONLY listen to overall volume output and NOT the EQ, we’ll get there I promise! Oh hey, we’re there!
Step 5: Micro-adjust the Neck
Once you are happy with the overall neck pickup volume output in comparison to the bridge pickup it’s time to micro-adjust each height adjustment screw to get the tonal frequencies you want.
Typically, (this is subjective as well but I’m giving you my personal pickup height journey) the neck’s bass side can sometimes be a little too boomy or thick in comparison to the treble.
I don’t want a colossal EQ curve shift between my neck and bridge pickup positions, so I like to drop the neck bass side height adjustment screw down (counterclockwise) a full turn and raise the treble side height adjustment screw up (clockwise). Done!
Once again, this is a game of millimeters, and if you’re following this guide it’s likely you’re experiencing a lot of different tonal possibilities just by raising and lowering your guitar pickups alone. The most important thing is to do this through your own rig, set to the way you like it, and let your ears do the work.
Adjust a little, listen a lot.