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How to Set Up Pickups for Maximum Tone

(Image credit: Joe Becker)

This is a lesson I've been dying to write.

You know those screws in your pickups? The ones that sit below each string? Sometimes they're hex instead of flat-head, sometimes they're on each coil, sometimes they're only on one coil. The point is, they're found on mid- to high-end guitars. They're called adjustable poles.

In my 37 years of playing, I have yet to receive a guitar that had the pickups or the poles adjusted. I've come to the conclusion that it's simply because the vast majority of people don't know what they are or how to adjust them. So that's what we're covering today. I call this setting way of them up "hot."

Here's the deal: Your pickups have magnets in them, which creates a magnetic drag on your steel-core strings. You want sustain, right? You want the string to reverberate for a long time so you can let those notes sing! Well, let's start by not letting the magnet in the pickup pull and drag on the string and slow it down when it doesn't need to.

Step one is to figure out how far away to back the pickup off the strings using the mounting screws, which control position/angle. For the bridge pickup, which is typically where all your high tones and high gains come from, you want the bass side of that pickup backed off as far away from the strings as you can get it. For the neck pickup, it's the exact reverse situation. You get all your warmth from the low strings, so back the pickup away from just the high strings.

If you have a middle pickup, you want it to remain even in height across all the strings.

There's no reason the treble side of the bridge pickup should be dragging on the strings when you're using only the neck pickup—and vice versa. For a standard Strat that doesn't have adjustable poles, you're pretty much done setting up "hot." For guitars with humbuckers (like a hum, single hum or hsh situation), the pickups are in the right position, but the poles haven't been adjusted. I recently showed this trick to my friend Thomas McRocklin (who some of you might remember from a long time ago) as he was putting his old Jems back together. He's got a new project he's working on, by the way, so stay tuned...

Think of the adjustable poles as microphones, each with a smaller magnetic drag on each string. Adjust those closer to the strings; again, the bridge pickup for the high strings and the neck pickup for the low strings. See the photos below. Note that in these examples, since these are not Strat single coils, we've backed the pickups away from the strings a little more and are solely adjusting the poles as close as they can get to the strings. The idea is get away from the BIG magnetic pulls and concentrate on the "mini" magnetic pulls as needed for each pickup position.

For the inexperienced, I suggest having the guitar plugged in to an amp while making these adjustments so you can hear the differences and adjust accordingly. Also, intonate the last fret of the low E and high E strings to make sure you have clearance when you play and you don't inadvertently cause the string to come in contact with the pole.

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