How To: Adjusting Bass Pickups

Bass PickupsIn 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

Once we complete our detailed coverage on pickups we will continue our quest in helping bassists get their ideal sound by exploring other key factors that impact your sound and refining your tone. Stay with us and let us know by email or Facebook about topics you’d like us to address in future columns.

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  1. I set my pickups so the string doesn’t quite touch the pickup when I’m attacking it; I also angle them so the space between the thickest and thinnest strings is about the same. I’m sure everybody does this, too.

  2. Marcin

    quote: “The closer you get the pickup to the string, the higher the output will be from the pickup (and thus, noise).”

    Sorry, but that thing about noise is completely untrue. Pickup noise has nothing to do with pickup-to-string distance. That noise has different sources and remains pretty much constant. So moving pickups closer to the strings (and thus making the bass sound louder) makes the noise less audible, because it doesn’t get amplified as much as with pickups farther away from the strings. Of course changing the distance affects the sound, so it’s not always good to have pickups too close. And yes, magnetic field from some pickups with strong magnets can pull on the strings enough to make the pitch of a played note less clear. Doesn’t happen with actives they have weak magnets. But G&L or MusicMan-style humbucker too close to the strings can cause these problems.

  3. Low-B 5-String

    quote:”…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.”

    The force exerted by the pickups on the strings is about .01% of your lightest finger pluck, if that, so the myth’s debunking really needs to be labeled “finished”…. Ask Messrs Duncan, Bartolini, Wagner, or anyone else who DESIGNS and winds their own.

  4. Jacob

    I noticed that, the more the distance between the pickups and string, the better and clearer the sound and even louder esp the neck pickup… But for my bridge pickup, i still got problems setting it bcos i love digging in deep towards the bridge… Thus setting the bridge pickup farther causes a weak sound/output from the pickup… Still trying to balance both

  5. Iv’e got a 51 p bass single coil (fender reissue ) on my bass , and if you have the strings too close to the poles you actually get beats like when you are tuning one string to the next and it’s a bit out. This is even more pronounced if you hold a string down on say the 20th fret which brings the string down to near touching the pole. So stop banging on about myths , I don’t think it is the pull on the string of the magnet rather than the shape of the magnetic field and where the string intersects it. Very cose to the pole of a magnet the fieild lines are very close together so the string can vibrate completely in and out of the field. Higher up the field is more diffuse and the string vibrates within the field and you don’t get the beats.

    • Henke Hakansson

      Agreed, whatever you call it. There’s numerous examples of it on YT. But it’s mostly on strat guitar. If you look into a tuner, the needle or reading will waver a bit and be not steady. I have now re-checked the book “The Guitar Pickup Handbook” by Dave Hunter where he interviews a lot of pickup makers held in high regard. Both Mike Eldred (Fender), Lindy Fralin (especially), Joe Barden, Lollar states the same thing, about pickups too close to string, especially neck pickups on strats. E,A, and G string are the most prone to this, as they have the least tension. Lindy Fralin solves this by different alnico alloys in the pole pieces as well as different staggering.

      See no reason, why this isn’t applicable to bass. Call it what you want, it may or may not be magnetc string pull in the most scientific sense but they have the same effect on tuning and string. One thing Lind Fralin especially speaks about, is if magnets are really getting weaker, of if THAT’s a myth. He’s been experiencing this on a lot of P-basses where the pickup just “dies” after a decade or two. It turns out that repeated beating on top of the pole piece with a string (as you lean in and the pickup drags the string towards the pole pice, a short clack is heard!) can weaken magnets signifcantly.

      All this is is dependent on how the pickup is actually made. Magnets inside pole pieces, or at the bottom and whatnot. Ceramic or Alnico. So do NOT test your pickups wiring or hear if they are “on” with tapping a small screwdriver on top of the pole pieces all of the time. However, you do that mayeb once or twice during the basses setup lifetime. But strings can whack it out…and that we do more often.

  6. Jimmy Renfro

    I was talking to a friend about volume levels between basses when switching out. For example he was playing his musician stingray and brought his old Steinberg out as a backup, when he switched out the Steinberg was way louder and he had to adjust his amp down. I suggested he sit down with both basses and adjust the pickup on lets say the Steinberg to match the output of the musicman. Is this the right thought of what to do?

    • Henke Hakansson

      If it’s a real Steinberger (not any copy) chances are that he has EMG active pickups which are way stronger than any passive. EMGs should be set as close to strings as possible. Kind of moot, trying to get them even with Music Man pickups. No matter how close you’ll set the Music Man pickups to the strings, and no matter how far away you’ll set the EMG pickups from the strings on the Steinberger, you will not get them anywhere close to each other. And sound and noise floor will suffer badly.

  7. Henke Hakansson

    Interesting article. However, noise is not increased as you get closer to the strings. On the contrary, headroom is increased. The further away, the less output, and more noise floor, since you have to turn it up in the amp.

    This Magnetic String Pull (MSP) as being discussed is not a myth that needs to be debunked. It’s more common on electric guitars with their thin gauge strings and is an acknowledged phenomenon there. However, on bass with thick strings, you have to have a great magnetic pull for the strings to not vibrate in a regular manner. However, lately this has been discovered to happen with strong Neodymium pickups. They have incredible magnetic field and will throw off the lowest tensioned strings of a say 5 string bass, IF and only if in neck position where the strings vibrates the most. As for a bridge pickup causing any MSP that is quite out of bounce since the string is very taut and stiff right in front of the bridge. MSP won’t happen there. It is all dependent on what types of strings you got, light gauge (more prone to MSP), than heavy gauge. As well as total scale of the instrument, since shorter scale basses oscillates the strings more, given that same strings are used. I think height is different from every manufacturer and gauge of string set must be considered when setting height. A light gauge set may require different height that the heavy set of course. Adjustable pole pieces (a la G&L, DiMarzio etc) may be the solution, as different basses have different neck radius, and thus, pickup height can be set individually for each string.

    I am too, a proponent for that each of the pole pieces should reside right under each string, and not one of them should be at the outer edge of the outer strings. If there are pole pieces at alls. Rails and blades doesn’t matter.

  8. Henke Hankansson

    As it is now with all comments, especially that about noise, I think the whole lot of the article should be revised, because it contains a little bit too much factual errors. Jeff Gorham should revise, and edit it, or completely remove it.

    • Jason C.

      When the pick ups are closer to the strings you increase output while sustain is decreased. As a balance I set mine to 3mm for Bass. Factory spec. is usually is 4-5mm-ish depending on the brand or set up tech is what you’ll get when you bring it home. It is often overlooked. How I obtain this measurement is to depress the last fret and using a six inch ruler to measure the distance from the pick ups to the bottom of the string. Or you can use a 3mm allen key to slide under the strings to obtain the same results