Guitars with two or three pickups
offer lots of sonic variety, but they
also introduce a particular problem that
single-pickup instruments—such as Fender
Esquires and some Les Paul Juniors—don’t
have. When you switch pickups on a multi-pickup
guitar, you can experience volume
differences between one position and
another. This can be rather annoying when
you’re in the studio or playing a gig. Just as
frustrating is when your treble strings sound
weak, but the bass strings are ridiculously
loud. In both cases, the fix can be as simple
as adjusting your pickups.
Guitarists often overlook this tweak,
either after a setup or replacing pickups.
Adjusting pickup height sounds simple, but
pickups that aren’t adjusted properly can
cause problems, which I’ll describe in detail
below. Fortunately, all these problems are
To show you how to adjust pickups
yourself, we’ll look at two guitars—a
Stratocaster and a Telecaster. Both of these
project guitars sport single-coil pickups and
both are terribly out of adjustment.
1. This Strat needs the height of its three single-coil pickups adjusted for optimum sound.
2. Our project Tele’s two single-coils also need to be adjusted for proper height.
Step 1: Gather your tools and prepare
your workspace. You only need two tools
for this project, but it’s important to use the
correct ones. Here’s what I use when adjusting
• 6" precision machinist ruler
• Phillips head screwdriver
We’ll be taking very small measurements,
so to read them you’ll need a ruler with
clear markings and good lighting in your
Step 2: Measure current pickup height.
First tune the guitar to pitch and then start
taking its current measurements. These
baseline measurements are very important
because you need to know where the pickups
are now in relation to where they should be.
Here’s how to measure a pickup’s height:
• Press the 1st string onto the last fret
and hold it down.
• Using the 6” machinist ruler, measure
the distance from the top of the pole
piece to the bottom of the 1st string.
Write down the measurement.
• Repeat this process with the 6th string,
again holding it against the last fret
and writing down the measurement.
• Now repeat the process with the
• At this point you’ll have measurements
for both the treble and bass sides of
How did our project guitars measure up?
The Strat’s bridge pickup was 6/64" on the
treble side and 8/64" on the bass side. The
middle pickup measured 8/64" on both
treble and bass sides, and the neck pickup
measured 2/64" and 4/64", respectively, for
the treble and bass sides. As we’ll see in a
moment, these distances are way off. The
project Tele was also out of whack, with its
bridge pickup measuring 4/64" and 2/64"
(treble and bass) and neck measuring 2/64"
Not only were the heights of these pickups
all over the map, the Tele’s neck pickup
was loose and wobbly. That’s a tell-tale sign
that the rubber compression tubing (which
acts like a spring) over the pickup screws
had either shrunk or was too short to begin
with. To correct it, I had to remove the
strings and pickguard, and then separate
the pickup from the guard. After installing
new tubing, I was able to adjust the pickup
without it bobbing inside the guitar.
When you finish recording the baseline
measurements on both the treble and bass
side of each pickup, you’re ready to adjust
them to their ideal specs.
3. Using a machinist ruler to measure the distance between the top of the pole piece and the bottom
of the 6th string on our project Stratocaster’s bridge pickup. This pickup is too low. 4. The bridge
pickup is set too high on our project Telecaster. 5. Adjusting a Telecaster bridge pickup. In addition
to setting its overall height, the three adjustment screws let you control the pickup’s fore and aft tilt.
For maximum sustain and power, make sure the top of the bridge pickup’s pole pieces sit parallel to
Step 3: Correct the pickup height.
There’s a lot of debate about what constitutes
“correct” pickup height, but conceptually the
goal is simple: Set the pickup height to give
your guitar optimum volume, clarity, sustain,
and treble-to-bass balance.
Setting the pickups too high doesn’t further
this cause. In fact, when Fender-style single-coil
pickups are too close to the strings, the pole
pieces—which are cylindrical magnets—will
pull the strings out of tune, causing intonation
problems and reducing sustain. If the pole
pieces are high enough, they can actually collide
with the strings, especially when you play
open chords. When a pickup is too close to
the strings, its output signal can be too hot and
overload the preamp stage in your amplifier.
Yet when the pickups are set too far away
from the strings, the result is a weak signal.
This will cause the guitar to sound thinner
and brighter than normal.
Furthermore, when the pickups aren’t balanced
correctly from the 1st to the 6th string,
the result is uneven volume as you move from
the treble to the bass strings. Fortunately, we
can prevent all these problems. The tables in
Fig. 1 show the measurements I use for each
pickup on a Strat and Tele.
Using a Phillips head screwdriver, raise
or lower the pickup by turning the adjustment
screws located on either side of the
pickup. (Some single-coils use slot-head
screws, in which case you’ll need a straight
screwdriver.) Make small adjustments and
go slowly. After each adjustment, again hold
down the 1st and 6th strings at the last fret
and take new measurements. Repeat this
process for each pickup until it matches the
corresponding specs in the tables.
Tip: Running out of screw length before
you’re done adjusting the pickups is one of
the “little surprises” that can occur when
altering pickup height. If this happens,
remove the pickguard and replace the screws
with longer ones.
Step 4: Testing—1, 2. After you adjust
the pickups to spec, it’s time for the final
test, which is to plug into your amp and
play. So you can hear the full range of
your pickups, don’t stand too close to your
amp. Instead, move back a good 10 feet
Be sure to test the pickups with the
guitar’s volume wide open. Listen carefully
to the balance between bass and treble
strings, and switch between all the positions
on your pickup selector. The goal is to
hear equal volume from each pickup, even
though the tone will change dramatically
from pickup to pickup.
These measurements are a base point to
start from, though I wouldn’t recommend
adjusting the pickups any higher. If the
pickups sound unbalanced after you’ve set
them to these specs, lower the louder pickup
to reduce its output instead of raising
the quieter one. A quarter turn can make
an audible difference, so listen carefully, and
Wrap. By following this relatively simple
procedure, you’ll probably discover that
the dynamics, sustain, clarity, and stringto-
string balance will have improved on
your Strat or Tele. Next month, we’ll tackle
another DIY project, so stay tuned.
Nashville guitar tech,
has written five guitar repair books, all
published by Mel Bay. His bestseller, Guitar
Care, Setup & Maintenance, is a detailed
guide with a forward by Bob Taylor. LeVan
welcomes questions about his PG column
or books. Drop an email to guitarservices@
aol.com or visit guitarservices.com for more
info on his guitar repair workshops..