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 are, Billy.)
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.