Let's Talk About Pickup Height

Written by
Logan Tabor
Published on
January 21, 2021 4:52:01 PM PST January 21, 2021 4:52:01 PM PSTst, January 21, 2021 4:52:01 PM PST
It’s no secret that every aspect of how a guitar is built and calibrated plays into the overall sound of the instrument; the degree to which every screw is tightened, how thick of a finish coat is applied, the quality of the electronics, etc.   Some of these specs, we simply cannot do anything about after the guitar leaves the factory, and others we most assuredly can. One point that is often overlooked is pickup height, or the proximity of the pickup to the strings. While this is, in fact, a simple adjustment which anyone with the right sized screwdriver can make, the manufacturer’s factory setup is often left in place throughout the life of a guitar and many players spend years making tonal adjustments elsewhere in their rig.  The fact is, pickup height weighs heavily on a guitar’s overall sound and performance. 
Today, we are going to have a little chat about how pickup height affects the tone and playability of a guitar and why it’s important that we pay due attention to this spec.
We will not be discussing recommended pickup heights or adjustment techniques today, as this is meant to be used as more of a theoretical reference article. If you’d like a step-by-step breakdown of the adjustment process and basic height measurements, however, please check out our article on the basics of a guitar setup.  

How Do Pickups Work? It’s important to know, generally speaking, what your pickups are actually doing in order to understand how and why they affect tone the way they do.  In plain terms, your pickups are really just tiny antennas that take the vibrations from your guitar strings and turn them into an electrical signal. The two major components of most pickups are magnets and copper wire; the orientation of these components will vary depending upon the style of pickup at hand.  Because magnets are in the equation, there is constantly a magnetic field surrounding the guitar’s strings, and when a string vibrates the magnetic field is breached; this is what generates the small electric current that is carried from a guitar, to an amplifier, and ultimately to an ear. 
Most players are somewhat aware of this magnetic influence, which is why many assume that adjusting a pickup’s height will only affect the output or volume level of the pickup.  While this is true, many do not consider the influence this adjustment can have over tone as well.  

How High Is Too High? Higher pickups do equal higher output, but don’t we have guitar amps to boost our output?  Obviously we don’t want to send an anemic, wimpy little signal from guitar to amp, but sending too beefy of a signal isn’t exactly necessary either.  In the case of single coil pickups, raising the pickups too close to the strings will increase the high end response and can result in shrill sounds and the introduction of feedback.  Conversely, in the case of a humbucker neck pickup, raising the pickup too close to the string often results in a boomy and inarticulate sound. This is, in part, because the strings vibrate more overtop of the neck pickup than they do near the bridge.  Thus, pickup height needs to be taken into consideration not only for each guitar and for each type of pickup (humbucker, P90, strat, etc.) but also in regards to which pickup position is in question.  
A more obvious issue one could run into if their pickups are set too high is physical playing interference.  Yes, your pickups can be set so high that the magnets physically touch the strings when being played -- this will result in fret buzz, loss of sustain, and general not-goodness.  
From a more technical standpoint, it is important to remember that magnetic field we talked about in the beginning.  Your pickups do generate a magnetic field, and your strings are metal. Orienting the magnets too close to the strings will exert magnetic force upon the strings and actually interrupt their ability to vibrate as they normally would.  This can actually bend your strings out of tune, notably decrease sustain, and introduce ‘out-of-tune’ harmonics or overtones into the signal. Many have described this affect as a warbling or a sort of chorus effect after the tone; not only can this really throw your ears for a loop, but it is not considered tonally desirable.

How Low Is Too Low? The list of downfalls to having your pickup height set too low is considerably shorter than that of the pickups being set too high.  Really all you have to look out for here is moving the pickups out of the optimal operating range of the string; i.e., moving the pickups so far down that the magnetic field barely comes into contact with the string.  This will result in an anemic, thin, and illogical (for lack of a better word) guitar sound.  
The general idea is that most players don’t realize they can actually lower their pickups a considerable amount and still get quality tone.  In fact, when experimenting with lowering pickups one should expect to encounter a number of desirable tonal qualities along the way. Not only does lowering the pickups ensure that the player will not be scraping across the pickup cover every time they hit a note, but it also makes for more of a clear and articulate sound all around.  Yes, there will be a little less output but, again, we do have guitar amps to compensate for this; regardless, the loss of output is not generally drastic enough to be considered detrimental to signal strength.  
Typically, lowering a guitar’s pickups will yield a woodier and more natural sound with great playing dynamics and clarity.  This action will usually mellow out and clean up your guitar’s output which can be beneficial because it gives us more tonal control after the signal gets to our amplifier.  Raise the pickups up a bit too high and your tone will muddy up and be harder to shape with your amp. Conversely, if you lower the pickups too much, you might not have enough signal left over to ‘feed’ your amp adequately -- luckily, if your pickups are too low for optimal performance, it should be fairly obvious.  

How To Get Started
Now that we have a theoretical ceiling and floor, maybe you want to experiment with your pickup height to see if you’ve been missing out on anything your guitar has to offer.  To get started, familiarize yourself with your guitar manufacturer’s recommendations for pickup height. This is typically a good starting point because the manufacturer will have spent time tinkering already and should have some good suggestions.  Before making any actual adjustments, it’s always best to measure and record your current pickup height in case you get done tweaking and decide you prefer it the way it was originally. Making note of the actual height adjustments and any tonal qualities associated with each is key; this will potentially save you time on future pickup height adjustments, or perhaps you want to make adjustments when playing in a studio versus playing a live gig, etc.  
The trick is to have fun, and to not be afraid of “messing up.”  Raise the pickups too high on purpose to familiarize yourself with the negative effects of doing so; recess the pickups to low into the guitar to see how it can weaken your output.  This is one adjustment that has no consequences because getting back to square one is only a few turns of the screwdriver away.  
For more information on making this and many other adjustments, please see our article on basic guitar setups