I had the pleasure of
being the tech for the PAF-style
humbucker Roundup in this
month’s issue. Always looking
for an opportunity to learn,
it was great to hear both the
differences and the surprising
similarities. For the comparisons
to be fair and scientific,
all the pickups were installed
and set at a “standard” height
of 2/32 for the bridge pickup
and 3/32 for the neck (the distance
from the bottom of the
string to the pickup cover).
While that is an excellent place
to start, I found changing the
height of the pickup could dramatically
change the feel and
tone of the pickups. Here are
some ideas to try for getting
the sound you want.
First, a generalization. The
closer the pickups are to the
strings, the louder and more
“in your face” the tone is.
Now some details. With the
pickups close, you also have
a more percussive attack,
more punch, and a little less
dynamics, meaning the sonic
difference between light picking
and hard picking is less
noticeable. Since the volume
is louder and the electrical or
circuit noise stays the same,
you also have a better signalto-
noise ratio, which can help
with noisy single-coil pickups.
One thing to watch out for is
that the magnetic field from
the pickup can encumber the
vibration of the string. This
can cut down on the natural
sustain of the instrument and
also cause the string to have
an asymmetrical vibration pattern.
You can really hear it as
you fret up the neck and the
vibration of the string oscillates
and pulls it out of tune.
In my testing, I used a strobe
light to slow down the vibration
of the string. It was very
clear that the closer pickup
pulled the string vibration
out of shape and in extreme
cases created more fret buzz
along with the inability to
play in tune. This is more
pronounced with single-coils
than with humbuckers. Raise
your Strat neck pickup really
close to the strings and you’ll
instantly hear it.
I have always used the term
“air” to describe what you get
when you lower the pickups.
Some of the quick response
is mellowed and the dynamic
range is greatly opened up. The
string will naturally vibrate
longer having the pickup magnets
further away. You can use
the polepieces, if adjustable, to
fine tune your string balance.
With the pickup lower, raising
the polepieces can bring up
the volume without the mud.
Speaking of polepieces, this is a
great trick to clean up a muddy
neck pickup. I tried taking all
the polepieces out and got a
more acoustic sound. In 1980
I lost a bet because I did not
know that you can get a little
more gain and slightly stronger
high end out of a humbucker
pickup by cutting off
the polepieces beneath the
pickup. (You know who you
How I adjust the pickups
is to start with the measurements
listed above, and then
go by ear to dial in the best
tone of each pickup individually
and also when blended
together. It is perfectly fine and
sometimes necessary to have
one side or the other closer to
the strings to achieve the best
tone and balance. Pickups do
not have to be level.
There are a few exceptions
to the “don’t raise your pickups
too high” rule. Some pickups
have a low magnetic field,
such as EMG, Kinman, DiMarzio
Virtual Vintage, and Lace
Sensors, and there’s more
leeway in terms of how close
to the strings you can position
them as a result. The next time
you’re thinking about replacing
your pickups, try adjusting
the height first instead.
You might just be amazed at
what you hear.
Gary Brawer runs Stringed Instrument
Repair in San Francisco. His
many clients include Joe Satriani,
Metallica, and Neal Schon.
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