How high should you adjust your pickups after your kit guitar assembly is complete? It makes sense to want to know after all it has the potential to have an impact on the output of your new guitar and since you have built this guitar yourself you don’t have the benefit of having this taken care of for you.
Don’t Get Put Out by Your Output
Have you ever noticed when you have picked up a guitar to test it out in a music shop (or even just trying out a friends guitar) that when you then plug another guitar into the exact same amp without adjusting the settings that the level of output can change dramatically? It's pretty common, often a humbucker will sound a lot louder than a single coil pickup for example.
This isn't a major concern, either way, you are not looking for the highest output but rather your electric guitar kit's ideal output. There is a difference and it all comes back to the strength of the signal and the amount of noise that accompanies it.
Signal to Noise Ratio
The thing to bear in mind is everyone’s equipment is different, there’s no hard and fast rule to pickup height simply because all pickups have different levels of output. Essentially you are trying to achieve an ideal signal to noise ratio. Signal-to-noise ratio (abbreviated as S/N) simply means how much output you can achieve before things start getting noisy. Think about it in terms of your car stereo, how loud can you crank the volume before things start to break up? Pickups work the same way in relation to distance from the actual strings.
The magnets in the pickups will pick up unwanted noise if you push things too far. Achieve the ideal height however and you will have more output and less noise, the perfect outcome.
Messing with Magnets
Adjusting your pickup height can have some side effects you may not have considered. There can be an actual pull from the pickups on the strings causing issues such as fret buzz…...yes that’s right fret buzz can be attributed to having your pickups too high, they are magnets after all. The other point to consider is the closer your pickups are to your strings the more the tone is completely defined by the pickups. (see our article on guitar tonewoods for a more detailed explanation). You may have shelled out and gotten top range pickups for your guitar kit and that’s fine but you may also like the tonal quality that the combination of pickup and timber your guitar is constructed from produce.
Keep Things in Balance
You truly don’t want to set your guitar kits pickups too high and cause any of the problems outlined previously. Setting your pickups too high can also effect your playing style as your picking hand may become obstructed by the bridge pickup if too close to the strings. Essentially you need to achieve a good balance and the only way to really achieve this is to set and test and then repeat the process until you have found the optimum height for your pickups.
Why is my bridge pickup on an angle?
If you own a guitar with single coil pickups you may notice that the bridge pickup is not straight up and down. The reason for this is the closer you get to the bridge the more bass driven the sound becomes. To counter this single coil bridge pickups will often be at an angle, allowing your bass magnets to be positioned slightly away from the bridge. This isn't particularly necessary for humbucking pickups but you may still notice it from time to time purely for aesthetics.
Testing and Adjusting
To start with all you are going to really need is a Phillips head screwdriver. Below are two videos outlining both Les Paul pickup height adjustment and Stratocaster pickup height adjustment.
As you can see the process is fairly straightforward but there are a couple of points to keep in mind, which I have listed below.
Make sure you are testing at a reasonable volume. (Testing at a low volume is pointless as you will have no real idea how noisy the guitar is at high levels)
Test all pickups and set your tone controls where you would normally have them set for each.
Play in a comfortable position that is natural to you.
For single coil pickups, your treble side should be slightly higher than your bass side, this provides a nice even balance of signal.
Humbuckers aren't as critical as single coil pickups when it comes to heigh adjustment. In fact, you can pretty much set your humbuckers as high as you like in most cases as long as it doesn't hinder your playing style.
Take things too far, what I mean by this is don’t just stop when you think you have nailed it. Keep adjusting until you have pushed it too far then scale back a little. This allows you to get as close to the optimal performance height of your guitar kits pickups as possible.
Adjusting your pickup height is a great way to get the very best out of your electric guitar kit but like anything to do with a guitar setup you really need to think of the bigger picture. Often when you adjust one part of a guitar you impact on another, so getting the right balance across your instrument is what will give great tonal quality to your instrument.