1) The distance we’re measuring is from the bottom of the string (pressed against the last fret) to the top of the pickup magnet. 2) The tools: a screwdriver

1) The distance we're measuring is from the bottom of the string (pressed against the last fret) to the top of the pickup magnet. 2) The tools: a screwdriver and a measuring device—which can be a precision ruler, like this StewMac String Action Gauge, or sized blocks cut from square rods of the correct height. 3) Using the String Action Gauge to measure pickup height. 4) Measuring with a precision metal ruler. 5) Using a brass block to quickly and accurately set the pickup height.

One of my all-time favorite

Stratocaster mods is also

the cheapest and most effective

mod you'll ever perform: adjusting

the height of your pickups.

All you need is a screwdriver, a

small ruler, and your ears.

Over the years at our shop,

we've received countless Strats

with descriptions like “it doesn't

sound Stratty enough" or “there's

something wrong with the pickups."

Most of the owners were

looking for a set of replacement

pickups to solve the problem.

There are good reasons to replace

a Strat's pickups—such as getting

an ultra-hot output to drive your

amp into crazy saturation. But if

you feel something is missing in

your tone, play around with the

height-adjustment screws before

buying a set of new pickups. In

most cases, our customers were

more than happy with their stock

guitars once we “sweet-spotted"

the pickups.

Many players think their Strats

come from the factory with perfectly

adjusted pickup heights and

are afraid to change them. The

goal of this column is to encourage

you to pick up a screwdriver

and play around with the adjustment

screws. Before we start, take

some low-adhesive masking tape

and stick it on both sides of the

pickup covers. With a sharp pencil,

mark the current height of the

pickup where it emerges from the

pickguard. As long as you leave

the tape on the covers, you can

always return to the old adjustments

within seconds.

To start, put a towel, a piece

of foam, or a blanket on a table

or your workbench, tune your

Strat, and then place it on the

work surface. You can use any

precision ruler to measure the

pickup height. The folks at

stewmac.com have developed

a tool called the String Action

Gauge—part #0670 (inch) and

#0670-M (metric)—that I use

and recommend for this work.

Besides measuring pickup height

with this tool, you can also measure

string height, saddle height,

nut height, saddle-slot depth,

and more—it's very versatile.

I built myself another little

helper for measuring Strat pickup

height. I found some precision

square brass rods in exactly

the heights I needed. I cut off a

small piece for each height, and

I place the bar on top of the

pickup magnets, following the

measurements detailed below.

Then all I have to do is raise the

pickup until the bar touches the

string. Better yet, if you can find

square rods made out of a magnetic

material, the pickup magnet

will hold the bar in place.

Finally, you need a screwdriver

that matches the head type and

size on your pickup-adjustment

screws. Get the right kind—flat-head

screwdrivers are not made

for Phillips screws and vice versa!

Okay, here are the specs I use

to set the heights for each Strat

pickup. These measurements

make a very good starting point

for any Strat with standard Strat


Bridge pickup
• Low-E string: 2.5 mm/0.0984"
• High-E string: 2.0 mm/0.0787"

Middle pickup
• Low-E string: 3.0 mm/0.1181"
• High-E string: 2.5 mm/0.0984"

Neck pickup
• Low-E string: 3.5 mm/0.1378"
• High-E string: 3.0 mm/0.1181"

Chances are that these

heights will work for you right

from the start, but it's important

to realize these specifications

aren't set in stone. Your

perfect pickup height depends

on the pickups themselves, your

strings, and, of course, your

playing style, your amp(s) and

outboard gear, and personal

taste. Some players like the

tone of the pickups close to the

strings, while others don't.

There are no factory specs,

and if you talk to 10 different

guitar techs, you'll hear

12 different opinions about

it. These specs are based on

my experiences and data I've

collected over the years working

on countless Stratocasters.

Surprisingly, these heights seem

to work every time.

If you have very powerful

single-coils such as Fender's Texas

Specials, you should lower the

pickup height a tad to avoid

having the magnets pull on the

strings and interfere with vibration.

This causes tuning problems

and robs sustain. If you have very

weak, vintage-flavored single-coils,

you can place them a tad

closer to the strings to boost the

output a bit. Adjust humbuckers

a tad lower than powerful single-coils,

as a starting point.

Once you've adjusted all three

pickups using the specs in this

column, play your guitar for a

while with the same amp settings

as before to get a first impression

of your Strat's new tone. If

you're completely satisfied, great.

Leave the new settings alone and

you're done. If you feel that your

Strat sounds better than before,

but you still miss that certain

something, it's time for some

sweet-spotting fun. More about

this next month.

Dirk Wacker lives in

Germany and is fascinated

by anything related to old

Fender guitars and amps.

He plays country, rockabilly,

and surf music in two

bands, works regularly as a

session musician for a local studio, and writes

for several guitar mags. He's also a hardcore

guitar and amp DIY-er who runs an extensive

website—singlecoil.com—on the subject.