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Optimizing your Pickup’s Tone, Part 1: Strat Style Guitars

My Custom Made Kinal Tele
December 19, 2016
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Optimizing your Pickup’s Tone, Part 1: Strat Style Guitars

Maybe you are installing a nice new set of pickup’s or wanting to get the most out of your stock ones: most likely, you are going to need to adjust the pickup heights. A delicate balancing act is required to harvest the maximum yield out of your simple (in concept), yet complex (in variables) transduction devices without destroying the strings ability to vibrate freely.

If you purchased a set of Reilander pickups recently, you’ll notice that there are no recommended pickup heights included in our box or on the website. Far too often, people take what a manufacturer provides as a guideline and turn it into a ‘rule’. People tend to rely on what they see as a measurement or how much spare change they can fit between the string and the coil as an absolute, instead of a frame of reference. The fact of the matter is that no two guitars or pickups are the same, thus no two setups should be the same.

So, today I’m going to let you in on a little secret that’s only known by the most elite of luthiers and techs.

Are you ready?

You’re supposed to use your ears more than your eyes to set pickup heights.

That’s right, those measurements supplied with most pickups are nothing more than a reference point: a point of origin to start from. All final fine tuning should be done with your ears.

In this article, I’m going to discuss my preferred method of setting pickup heights on a Strat style guitar. The objective is to guide you into getting each pickup in its respective ‘sweet spot’ (every pickup has one) to achieve a full bodied, rich tone that optimally characterizes each switch position. First things first… Take those manufacturer supplied pickup heights, crumple them up, and toss ‘em in the trash!

Set up for your setup

Before you start adjusting the height of each individual pickup, you are going to want to make sure that nothing will manipulate what your ears will perceive. If your pickups are too high before you start, their magnetic field can actually drag the string and cause it to vibrate abnormally. We don’t want this, so we need to drop all three pickups down so that the top of the cover sits just above the pick guard. Approximately 1/16”.

This will ensure that any adjacent pickups aren’t manipulating the strings vibrations while we dial in the objective pickup.

As stated earlier, we are using our ears, so plug your guitar in and set your amp to your favorite clean setting.

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Neck Pickup

The neck pickup is the most important of the three, as the middle and bridge pickups will be set in relation to the neck pickup. Raise the pickup ½ turn on the bass side and strum. Raise the pickup ½ turn on the treble side and strum again. Repeat this process until you get a nice, full bodied, rich tone. Once at this point, you are in the ‘zone’ and will want to switch to ¼ turns. What you’re listening for is a full fundamental tone without any sharp, ice-picky attack. If you experience ‘Strat-itis’ (an unnatural sounding oscillation within the fundamental tone) you have raised the pickup to the point where the magnetic field has begun to manipulate the vibration. You have passed the sweet spot and will have to lower the pickup for a re-do.

Once you are dialed in, fine tune the treble and bass side independently of each other. Use 1/8th turn increments to achieve a good string to string balance. Play the guitar, use the full length of the neck. You should experience rich tone with an even output from treble to bass. If the attack on the treble side is sharp, but the tone is not thin overall, lower the treble side slightly. If the bass side sounds loose or flubby, lower it slightly until it tightens up. There should not be any sharp peaks in the attack, no strange oscillations, and no thin tones. Remember, the slightest adjustment can make a huge change when you are in the zone. Be patient and take your time… it will be worth it.

Bridge pickup

Once you have your neck pickup dialed-in, you will want to move to the bridge pickup. We are going to adjust the bridge in much the same way as the neck. First thing’s first: move your selector switch to the bridge position. Use ½ turns until your output is close to the same in volume as the neck pickup.

Once there, switch to 1/4 turns to again dial into the sweet spot, fine tune, and balance the string to string output. Again, pay close attention for oscillations and/or unwanted anomalies.

Middle Pickup

Now that you have the neck and bridge pickups perfected, it is time to move on to the middle pickup. In my many years, I have come across two main types of Strat people… Those who LOVE the middle position and those who think the middle pickup to be useless by itself. Regardless of whether you are a lover or a hater of the number 3 switch position, how you set this pickup will be crucial to your guitars overall tone. You see, this pickup affects not one, but three of your switch positions.

For this pickup, set your switch to the number 2 position (neck/mid). You are going to adjust this pickup in small increments just like the other two, but instead of trying to match the output, you are trying to achieve the amount of ‘Strat quack’ (a unique harmonic phasing attributed to the start’s pickup locations) that suits your taste. If you like plenty of quack, your middle pickup will generally be sitting a little lower than the other two. If you prefer having a minimal amount of quack, the middle pickup will be an approximate average of the heights of the bridge and neck pickups. Once you have the desired amount of quack, switch to the middle pickup alone and fine tune the bass and treble sides for string to string balance.

Testing

Time to see if all your hard work has paid off! Start playing, switching between all five switch positions. Play chords. Play individual notes. Play some melodic phrases. Play up the neck, down the neck and across the strings. Noodle around. If all went well, you should hear five distinct tonal characters with a relatively even output and an even string to string balance across the board. That’s all there is to it.

Own you Tone! Until next time!

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Mike Reilander
Mike Reilander
Michael has 20+ years experience in electronics, and has been commercially producing guitar pickups since 2008.

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