The playability of a guitar is dependent on a few key factors like its action, the fretwork, and even the size of the strings. The action can make any guitar, regardless of quality, sound bad through fret buzz and other problems if not set up properly.
If the strings are the wrong gauge and sit too high, it also can hurt the playability of the instrument, making the guitar a lot less fun to play. Having too high of action can cause intonation problems as well, which means the guitar will sound out of tune at certain places and in-tune in other places. How your pickups are set matters a lot too due to volume control. And contrary to what some believe, they shouldn’t actually be level.
Guitar pickups should not be the same height because there needs to be more room for the lower strings on account of their thickness and increased volume. Thinner strings have a larger elliptical pattern when vibrating as well and the bridge does not allow for the same amount of clearance.
Pickup height is determined by things like string thickness, vibrational pattern, neck straightness (my guide on this), and volume. Depending on what kind of guitar you have, you’ll have a specific height for your bridge, nut, and fret clearance. That said, a lot of this ultimately comes down to the preferences of the player. We will explore everything related to pickup height in this article so stay tuned.
Why Guitar Pickups Shouldn’t Be The Same Height
1) Lower Strings Need More Space to Vibrate
Lower strings are bigger in gauge, so they need more room to vibrate over the pickup. The pickup is made with magnets, and those magnets will interfere with the natural movement of the strings if it is too high.
Offsetting the pickup slightly will not only balance out the tone but will also balance out the volume of the pickup’s output (more on how pickups work in my guide).
On the other hand, though, thinner strings tend to vibrate more erratically, or, as I said earlier, the pattern of elliptical vibration is much larger.
This means they have to be slightly further away otherwise the string will literally smack against the pickup when it’s vibrating which is obviously not desirable. This is compounded if you’re using active pickups which we’ll talk about now.
2) Active Pickups Pull On Thinner Strings More
Something I learned from the YouTuber, Ben Eller (check out his video here), is that active pickups have much stronger magnets which means they pull harder on the strings as a result. This can cause intonation issues because the magnets are interfering with the vibrations.
If you are rocking active pickups like I am, you may need to back off the pickups just a bit. You’ll know if your pickups are too close if you’re constantly struggling with intonation issues.
The pickups will naturally be closer to a larger string because the string covers more space and produces more energy than the smaller strings.
Because it does give more output the closer it is to a string, you might want to balance it by tilting the pickup. There could be other reasons your guitar sounds out of tune though including what I explained in my article about the B-string.
3) Pickup Height Determines Volume
The primary reason why pickups can’t be totally level has to do with the volume. Thicker strings are louder and thus the pickups need to account for this fact. Moreover, the bridge doesn’t offer the same amount of clearance as the nut, so you’ll need to account for that too.
This is why the neck pickup is always lower than the bridge pickup. So no, the pickups should pretty much never be level, although, some people may want them to be closer to being level for reasons that are unique to them and their playing style.
4) Everyone’s Equipment is Different
At the start of the article, I said a lot of this had to do with the player and the same thing goes for your gear. Some guitars are capable of having an incredibly low action while others are not. Some pickups need to be further away while others need to be closer.
It depends on if you have humbuckers, single coils, active pickups, or maybe P-90-style pick-ups. You could even have a piezo-style pickup that utilizes entirely different technology altogether.
5) The Strings Need More Room To Vibrate By The Neck Pickup
You’re probably noticing that some of this is getting repetitive; you should be getting the point now. As I alluded to earlier, the neck pickup is much closer to the strings so you’ll have to drop it down a bit so the strings don’t hit them.
This is clearly illustrated by the image you can see above. Notice how the bridge pickup is higher up than the neck pickup. The strings don’t vibrate and move around as much when they’re closer to the bridge too which means the pickup can be moved really close to it.
6) The Player May Request It Due To Preferences In Volume
If the player requests lower action on the higher strings and higher on the lower strings, or the strings are heavier top, lighter bottoms, then that may require a special way to set up a guitarist’s own action. For instance, I like to raise the pickups on the high-E string side because I think it sounds best that way.
I find that lower strings are incredibly loud so having the pickups account for that fact is a great way to even out the tone and volume of my playing without needing to change my technique so much.
How High Should A Guitar’s Action and Pickups Be?
The standard measurement for guitar string height is usually 4/64″ on the high-E string side and then 5/64″ on the low-E string side while measuring at the 17th fret. For an acoustic guitar, it’ll be 5/64″ on the high-E and 6/64″ on the low-E side at the 17th fret.
Electric guitars will have lower action than acoustic guitars, but most big-name brands have close to the same specs for string height in a proper setup. That said, while they are close, they’re not quite the same so make sure you check your manufacturer’s website. Here’s a chart that I made for my other article. You may find it useful; I know I always refer back to it.
|Truss Rod Relief
|0.005″ – 0.010″
*Measured at the 17th fret from the bottom of each string.
|2/32″ at 12th fret (Treble Side)
2.5/32″ – 12th fret (Bass Side)
|3/32″ for Neck Pickup and 1/16″ for Bridge Pickup
– while holding down the very last fret on the guitar neck.
*Measured at Both High and Low E-String Side of the Pickup
|3/32″ Bass Side
5/64″ Treble Side
PRS, recommends the string action be set at 5/64 on the bass side and 4/64 on the treble side measured at the 12th fret. Fender recommends the action of the strings to be, depending on neck size, between 5/64 (Bass) and 4/64 (treble) for smaller necks and 4/64 (bass) and 3/64 (treble) for larger necks.
For the pickup height, you want to hold down the very last fret on the guitar neck and then measure 3/32″ for the neck pickup and then 1/16″ for the neck pickup. If you have active pickups, you may need to go up to 4/32″ and 1.5/16″ instead.
Should The Guitar’s String Action Be Even?
Like I said in my article on action setups, the action ultimately depends on the player. If the player is heavy-handed, then they need higher action. If the player is a lighter-handed player or a shredder, they need lower action to hit the notes properly.
Usually, string action is set up in such a way so as to accommodate the thicker low-end strings (E, A, and D) so it’s lower at the nut and slightly higher near the bridge.
Why Are Some Guitar Pickups Angled?
Some guitars have an angled pickup at the bridge. The closer a pickup is to the bridge, the more bass it will pick up.
The reason for the angle in the pickup placement is mainly to enhance treble response and improve note articulation. The angle also helps enhance the bass frequencies with a brighter, more even tone and to not drown out the higher frequencies.
How Do You Level Guitar Pickups?
Adjusting your pickup height is extremely easy, and for most guitars, all you need is a Phillips screwdriver.
Little by little, you can use your ears and a screwdriver to make your guitar sound the way you want. You have to use a steel ruler (the Mituyoto one) that measures all the way up to 1/64th in order to accurately measure pickup height.
Simply put, there is a magnetic field that floats above the pickup, and if your strings don’t vibrate in this field, you won’t hear a rich, full tone. If you know how to play around with this magnetic field, you’ll be able to adjust your pickups without a problem.
1) With the last fret of the string held down, use a ruler like this Mitutoyo steel Ruler to measure the height from the flat top of the pickup pole piece and the bottom of the low E string.
Measure from the bottom of the string to the top of the pickup (and make sure you’ve held the string down at the last fret). On a humbucker, it should be about 3/32, on a strat single coil, it should be about the same.
2) Next, check the high E string, it should be close to the same.
3) Lower or raise the pickup, depending on the design of the pickup, by turning the screws on the outside of the pickup. Turn them clockwise to tighten and counter-clockwise to loosen.
4) Double-check each E string to make sure your pickups are close to what they need to be.
It’s a common practice to make sure not to set humbuckers more than 4/64 (1.6mm) close to strings. With Fender-type single coils, try no more than 6/64 (2.4mm) close to the strings. For the bass pickups (and much larger strings), try not to be closer than 5/64 (2mm).
If you find yourself still wanting a bit more power, get your hands on active pickups like EMGs. I have these in my ESP Eclipse and in my Les Paul Custom and I like them a lot. Also, check out Fralin’s guide to adjusting pickup height because he has some useful diagrams there.
Important Things to Note About Pickup Height
1) Some People Do Like Level Pickups
There probably are some people who like their pickups to be level because their pick attack doesn’t allow for slanted or uneven pickups, or they want an even tone.
Either way, you are getting more treble from the neck pickup and more bass from the bridge pickup, by keeping the level of the pickup, you’ll hear bass and treble frequencies evenly.
2) Some People Want More Bass
Some people want a sound where the lower strings are much louder. They may want the pickups to be slightly uneven to produce that effect. Especially if they don’t have a bassist or they want their guitar to sound fuller.
They can keep a double humbucker slanted toward the lower strings near the bridge and the action as low as possible without imposing on the vibrations.