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"
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
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
• Low-E string: 2.5 mm/0.0984"
• High-E string: 2.0 mm/0.0787"
• Low-E string: 3.0 mm/0.1181"
• High-E string: 2.5 mm/0.0984"
• 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.