In response to the my last column on bass pickups (Bass Pickups: A Guide to Formulating Your Sound) we received a request from a reader to cover the topic of setting up pickup height.
Because everyone plays differently and every bass is different – even when comparing two similar models from the same company – there is no black and white rule pertaining to setting your pickup height. That said, this column will walk you through the general principles and techniques of setting up your pickups, and considerations you should make when doing so.
Each manufacturer should have some recommended settings for their pickups. Review the manufacturer recommendations, but keep in mind: where the pickups should be set is entirely up to you.
Most pickups are mounted with a few screws, usually on the top (E-string side on a 4-string bass) and bottom (G-string side on a 4-string bass). Usually, the pickup cavity is routed a little deeper to allow for adjustment, should you decide to lower your pickups. Underneath the pickups, there is some sort of widget to push your pickups toward the strings. This is usually in the form of a spring.
The screws are usually passed through the spring. So when you tighten these screws, you tighten the spring and thus lower the pickups, and vice-versa. Since there are two screws to tighten, you can adjust each side of the pickup to different heights, giving you options on why sort of tone and balance you want (i.e. E-string heavy, G-string heavy or equally balanced). Most players want their settings to be equally balanced, with the G-string and E-string having the same amount of volume in the output.
The closer you get the pickup to the string, the higher the output will be from the pickup (and thus, noise). Pickups are magnetic, and your strings are metallic. Because of this, some people suggest that the closer you adjust the pickup toward the string, the more chance you have that the pickup’s magnetic field will cause your strings to contract and expand, forcing them out of tune. Such believers further suggest that some pickups (brands, types, and magnetic materials) are more susceptible to this. I, being the skeptic I am, do not completely buy this.
I believe there are variables that are much more likely to cause your strings to go out of tune, such as temperature and barometric pressure changes, scale length, and of course, playing! With that being said, modifications have been made along the course of history to try to combat the “magnetic field” theory. This purported myth has not been completely been debunked, and quite frankly, may never be.
The best way to find the right pickup setting for you is trial and error. Every musician plays differently, and is looking for different tone. You need to try different settings to seek the balance and tone you desire.
If all else fails, and you find yourself lost, track down the manufacturer’s website (for both the bass and the pickups) for some recommended settings, and start over.
Photo by Yannic STAUDT