Tuning Your Sound – Balancing Your Pickups

Think of your sound chain. By “sound chain” I mean the links all the way from you, your fingers on your guitar, the acoustic and electrical properties of your guitar – the resonance, pickups, volume/tone controls, bridge – and then on to your amplifier’s capabilities and settings, and then finally to the speaker. When you make any change to any link in this chain, you change the sound. There is a basic, intrinsic sound to your chain. This includes your normal playing style, volume, and tone, along with the standard “sound” of your amp/speaker at your normal settings. For ten years I played a Fender Nashville Telecaster.  Recently I’ve been playing a PRS Custom SE Semi-Hollow.  After a recent practice, the other guitarist, who plays a Fender Stratocaster, commented that he thought I would sound more different than I did, using the PRS versus the Fender.  In spite of change to a completely different type of guitar, I still sounded like me.

There are three places to tune your sound. You, your guitar, and your amp.

One of the often overlooked links in this chain is pickup height. Some experienced players know how great of a difference pickup height can make. They talk of pickup height in terms of finding a “sweet spot” where pickups sound their best and are most responsive and dynamic. Often, but not in any case always, this means lowering your guitars pickups. Guitar techs even apply a term, Stratitis, to the negative effects of having pickups too close to the strings on a standard Fender Stratocaster guitar.

Most electric guitars have two or more pickups, and even many of those with one pickup will have multiple switch or tone settings. Start with the bridge pickup, with the volume and tone wide open on the guitar. Set your amplifier’s tone to where it gets the flattest frequency response. (For a Fender blackface amp, this is usually with the Treble and Bass turned down and the Mids up). Fret the string at the last fret and set the pickup height according the the manufacturer’s spec; this will be the starting point. Bill Lawrence says to fit one nickel under the high E and two under the low E on a Fender Telecaster bridge pickup, then lower the pickup evenly to taste, and then adjust the height of the neck pickup to match the bridge. By the way, a U.S. nickel is about 5/64″ thick (.077″ or 1.95mm).

After setting the pickup height to factor spec, play across the strings in the middle of the neck. Play arpeggios and scales and melodies across the neck. Are the bass strings louder than the treble, or the treble strings too weak or too bright? Lower the pickup on the strongest side to even out the frequency response. Work in even increments, perhaps a quarter turn or half turn at a time. Test again. In this way, you can compensate for a bass-heavy amp or pickup by lowering the bass side of the pickup, or make up for an ice-pick treble sound by lowering the treble side of the pickup.  If lowering the bass or treble side was not enough, you can always lower the pole piece for that string. If lowering worked on the 5th or 2nd string but not on the 6th or 1st, then you can raise the pole piece for that one string.

Once you get the pickup height right for tonal balance, try lowering the entire pickup one whole screw turn and see how it affects the sound.  Do you like it better or not as much. If not as much, then raised it back., and then raise it a turn to see if you like that better.  One person I know says that his DiMarzio Air Classic pickups sound best closer to the strings.  Lace Sensors usually sound best close to the strings.  Fender single coil pickups often sound better farther away.  If lowering the pickup sounds better, then lower it another whole turn and test again.  What you want to find is the sweet spot, where the pickups are the most clear, the most balanced and the most responsive to your playing style.

Does your pickup have adjustable pole-pieces? Probably so if it’s not a Fender-style single coil pickup. Here is a way to adjust each string for best balance. Turn the volume down to where the amplified sound is only slightly louder than the acoustic sound of the guitar. It helps to have a long cable to get some separation from the amp. Again, play some arpeggios and scales and melodies across the neck, listening for strings that are lower in volume. When you hear it louder from the guitar than from the amp, you’ll know. Raise the pole piece underneath that string a quarter or half turn at a time, and then test again. Test again a stage volume, listening for a string that is too quiet in respect to the others or is too prominent.

I once had to choose between two amps. My standard gigging amp was louder, gainier, and was very bright – lots of treble. The other had a much fuller tone, more bass and midrange, and was not as loud. I chose the second for the sweet tone, but then had to deal with the fact that my sound was now too bassy and dominated by the low end. The solution? I ended up lowering the pickups on the bass side to get a more even response. This worked like a charm, and now the tone and response from string to string is very balanced. This allows me freedom of tone and volume settings on the guitar and amp, and greater flexibility in playing styles.  I can dig in on the bass strings without them completely overpowering my sound, and I can accentuate highs or lows as I see fit, just by varying my attack on the strings.