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How to set bass pickups for optimum tone

Bass Pickups
(Image credit: Future)

On your continuing quest to attain the optimal setup, you’ve probably wondered about how to best adjust the height of your pickups. I receive regular inquiries requesting “factory set-up” data, including specifications for optimal pickup height. 

As we’ve previously discussed, the adjustments required to achieve one’s best personal setup are subjective – but optimal pickup height is more objective.

There are functional aspects of pickups that make proper adjustment important if they are to deliver their best possible performance.

Since few published manufacturer guidelines related to pickup adjustment exist, I’ve consulted the chief designers and owners of Bartolini Pickups and Aero Instrument, Clyde Clark, and Larry Pollack, for their recommendations.

To begin, it’s important to recognize that a pickup’s harmonic response is influenced by its distance from the strings.

The closer a pickup is to the strings, the better its relative ability to sense the fundamental. Adjusting a pickup closer to a string will improve its bass response, while moving it further away diminishes the fundamental and bass response with it. 

Ernie Ball Music Man Stingray

Adjusting a pickup closer to a string will improve its bass response, while moving it further away diminishes the fundamental and bass response with it. (Image credit: Ernie Ball Music Man)

Reducing the distance between the top of a pickup and the strings also increases the sensing strength of a pickup exponentially. Halving a pickup’s distance from the strings can potentially increase its output by four times.

For these reasons, many pickups’ best performance is achieved by adjusting them relatively close to the strings, avoiding contact with strings when oscillating. In the case of bar magnet type pickups – those without exposed poles – it is possible to adjust pickups close to the strings. 

However, stronger magnetic fields created by many flatwork style pickups – those with exposed poles – can negatively affect string vibration when adjusted too close, reducing sustain and dampening tone. While this influence is most significant with light gauge strings, it is an important detail to consider when adjusting exposed pole pickups.  

Players who strike down when plucking, rather than across the strings may need to adjust their pickups farther from the strings to avoid collisions between strings and pickups. It is recommended that pickups be adjusted as close to the strings as possible, while avoiding string contact with the pickups when playing.  

Remember, achieving your ideal setup will sometimes require adjustments outside the expected range of typical recommendations in order to accommodate your personal playing style.