Chatter: Craig Anderton - Playing with Time

October 22, 2013

Pickup Height & Sustain

Fig. 1—This shows the raw signal output from three strums with the neck pickup close to the strings, then three strums with the pickup further away.
Fig. 2—The last three strums, with the pickups further from the strings, have a higher average level compared to the initial transient.
Fig. 3—The second waveform (with the pickups further from the strings) maintains a higher average level during its sustain.
IT’S TIME TO ASK THE AGE-old question: How does pickup height affect sustain? The answer may surprise you, because pickup height isn’t just about sustain, but also how level relates to a pluck or a strum’s initial transient.

I tested the neck and bridge humbuckers in a Gibson Les Paul Traditional Pro II 50s guitar. 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 recorded similar strums into Steinberg’s WaveLab digital audio editor, and although it’s impossible to get every strum exactly the same, I did enough of them to see a pattern. The illustrations excerpt the neck pickup results, as the bridge pickup results were similar.

Figure 1 shows the raw outputs with three close strums first, followed by three far strums. The level difference is obvious—the peaks are about 8dB lower with the far strums.

Figure 2 adjusts the peaks of the far strums (again, the second set of three) to the same peak level as the close strums so it’s easier to analyze the waveform. The far strum’s 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.

Figure 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. With the tail of the second, far waveform, the sustain stays louder for longer. So, you do indeed get more sustain 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 with the pickups 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.

Bottom line: 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,well, Craig Anderton—gear-content superstar, educator, and musician. He was recently named Executive Vice President, Evangelist at Gibson.

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