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Is there a science?

I usually set them as close to the string as I can before buzzing. Is this the right way to go about? When I had cheaper guitars with crappy pickups I'd experiment more, but I find thats the only adjustment I haven't touched on my guitars for a long time. How high do you set it for single, hums, p90's, stacked singles etc? I thought pro's had a rule of thumb they'd measure.

And for pole heights, how do you go about this?
 

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there are rule of thumbs to get you started (factory specs), but in general, listen and choose what you like / prefer.
I personally try to lower them as much as I can (opposite of you) as long as I like the sound.
It is free modification and completely reversible. One suggestion though - before adjusting measure the starting point just for reference.
i also balance the low strings and high string - so distance between strings is not the same.
and then try to balance both (all three) pickups to have same volume.

And definitely pickup height has really huge influence on the sound.
Check youtube there are a lot of videos.
One example:
Guitar PICKUP HEIGHT Vs AMP GAIN

hope this helps
 

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If the string is too close to the pickup, the magnet prevents the string from vibrating freely. I'm a big Gretsch fan, and their pickups are quite sensitive to distance from strings and pole heights. So it may help to know what guitar and pickups you're asking about.

You may want to look in the setup guide from Billy Penn of 300 Guitars. It's an excellent source (though it challenges my skill level).
 

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Use your ears, don't be afraid to experiment. I play around with every guitar I get. Just yesterday, I raised the poles on the pickup on my Guild Jetstar and it sounds so much better. On my Strat, I have the middle pickup much lower as I find it gets the most Strat-quack this way.
 

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It is good to have a reference point to begin with.

If you start with recommended factory settings/heights, you can use a stack of picks, nickels, dimes, quarters, etc. I use an automotive inspection gauge made of rubber that is used to check body panel gaps. I have used all of the other ideas.

Then start using your ears as you go up or down a dime, or a pick width. Then the adjustable pole pieces can be dealt with if needed.

There is a big difference in whether you set up the pickups for full pots, rolled down pots, at home playing volume, and stage volume.

Amp volume settings that are representative of what you will really be using can be critical. If you are the kind of player who cranks the amp and rolls down the guitar volume to achieve the tone.

It may take a while, but it can be determined.
 

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I ram my bridge pickup right up to the strings as well as I like a raw, punch overdriven tone. The neck I leave down but only to the point where the volume difference isn't to noticeable. I am only on the neck pickup though if I have accidently hit the toggle switch.

I then balance the high to low string volume difference with the pole pieces or by raising/lowering one side to balance it all.
 
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On my Strat, I have the middle pickup much lower as I find it gets the most Strat-quack this way.
.. to the point where the volume difference isn't to noticeable.
I set up a friends Strat this way too.
The middle was hotter than the other two.

I put it right down flush with PG.
Equaled out the volumes and he liked it because he no longer hit the pup while strumming.
 

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I just raise/lower the bridge and neck pickups until I like the sound and the balance between the two. Then I adjust the pole pieces to balance the volume of each string. With my Casino Coupe, it is just the pole pieces, of course.
 

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All of my guitars with three pickups I always have the middle flush with the body or the pickguard since I tend to hit it while picking. As for everything else it depends on the guitar and pickups. I have some that are closer to the strings while others are somewhat in between the strings and body. For all my active pup guitars I have them a little lower. Try out different heights to see what sounds good to your ears.
 

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I ram my bridge pickup right up to the strings as well as I like a raw, punch overdriven tone. The neck I leave down but only to the point where the volume difference isn't to noticeable. I am only on the neck pickup though if I have accidently hit the toggle switch.

I then balance the high to low string volume difference with the pole pieces or by raising/lowering one side to balance it all.
If you want "raw" then it would make more sense to lower the pickup from the strings so that theres more string movement and less compression (weaker signal).
 

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Regarding the OP, there is in fact some science to pickup height.
It's good to have a basic understanding of how pickups work before making adjustments.
That knowledge will help a person understand what is going on and why.

Science tells us current is induced in a wire when the wire is exposed to a changing magnetic field.
Key word is changing.
In the case of guitar pickups the iron (and a few other elements) in the string vibrating over the pup interacts with the magnetic fields of the pole pieces.
The interaction with the fields causes the fields to slightly fluctuate with regard to their strength and focus vectors.
It is a relatively inefficient way to expose the wire in the coils to a changing magnetic field compared to, say, a generator or a transformer but it is enough to induce some very low level alternating currents in the pickup coils.
The other scientific phenomenon that comes into play is the relationship between distance from source and field strength.
With regard to electromagnetic energy the rate of change in field strength is equal to the square of the change in distance.
The ways text books describe it is that field strength is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source.

The ramifications of the above are:

Higher pups (closer to strings) will create a hotter signal with accentuated lows and sometimes reduced sustain due to magnet pull.
Lower pups will create a softer, chimy vintage style signal with reduced lows.
On Strats a high setting can sometimes reduce the signature Strat "quack" in positions 2 & 4 and replace it with honk.
Low settings can enhance note definition, articulation and dynamic range.

When taken to extremes, too high can induce extraneous noise (rattles and boominess).
When playing chugga-chugga riffs while doing some palm muting a too high setting can result in a "blap" sound if you push too hard with the palm and the string touches the poles.
It can also decrease the ability to get your guitar to clean up with a volume roll off.

When taken to extremes, too low can result in very low volume and thin sterile tone.

When making adjustments, less is usually more.

If you are reasonably happy with the sound of your guitar you probably shouldn't fuck with it.

I run all my guitars about stock or roughly equivalent.
Not high, not low.
My adjustments are usually to find balance between pups.
I also usually tilt my pups slightly at the bridge.
On a Strat I will often have the high E lower than the low E because the bridge pup on a Strat can often be in want of thicker lows.
On a Les Paul I usually reverse that because Les Pauls can get quite boomy and inarticulate if you aren't careful.
 

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If you want "raw" then it would make more sense to lower the pickup from the strings so that theres more string movement and less compression (weaker signal).
I find getting it up increases the signal strength running to you average amp and gets me the tone I want. Going lower causes it to start sounding weaker and then anemic for the same setup. Raw might be the wrong description.
 

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I set up a friends Strat this way too.
The middle was hotter than the other two.

I put it right down flush with PG.
Equaled out the volumes and he liked it because he no longer hit the pup while strumming.
Thats a crazy difference in volume. Smacking the middle pickup is one of the thins I hate about strats along with their bridge and the fact the strings are so close to the body.
 

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1) Whatever the science dictates, reality dictates that the player will need some minimum amount of room for their pick/fingers.
2) Disturbance of the magnetic field will be commensurate with the strength of the field, and the strength of the thing disturbing it. So heavy gauge strings may be fine with a greater distance than light gauge strings.
3) Distance will alter whether the pickup is able to successfully sense high frequencies with reasonable sensitivity, since they won't produce string-wiggles of appreciable amplitude.
 

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...The ramifications of the above are:

Higher pups (closer to strings) will create a hotter signal with accentuated lows and sometimes reduced sustain due to magnet pull....

Lower pups will create a softer, chimy vintage style signal with reduced lows...

When taken to extremes, too high can induce extraneous noise (rattles and boominess).

When taken to extremes, too low can result in very low volume and thin sterile tone...

Thanks for this... this is exactly what I needed someone to explain :)

Sent from my SM-G900W8 using Tapatalk
 

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If the string is too close to the pickup, the magnet prevents the string from vibrating freely.
That's the received wisdom, however it's going to depend on the "tug" of the pickup and the gauge of the string.

Think of it this way: imagine a 50ft rope, as thick as your wrist, stretched tight between two points. "Pluck" that rope and now try and make it stop vibrating using only pressure applied with your index finger at one point. Chances are pretty darn good that the rope will keep vibrating for a while, despite the applied pressure. Okay, now pluck a .009 gauge high E and put your index finger on it. Chances are pretty darn good it will come to a dead halt, milliseconds after you touch it.

Most polepieces are not going to be so strong that they exert significant tug on anything but the very thinnest-gauge strings, unless the string-to-polepiece distance is so slender as to practically prevent picking. Besides, once you plug in and the amplifier volume exerts a little vibrational stimulation of its own on the guitar body, the influence of that physical vibration of the body will be stronger than the polepieces. The amp will tell the string "Keep moving!" much louder than the pickup will say "Sit still!".

As well, consider the case of "horseshoe" pickups, that place magnets below and above the strings, with a narrow space between. If pickups' magnetic tug on strings killed sustain, those pickups ought to result in strings that decay mere moments after you pick the strings. Instead, horseshoes seem to have much more sustain than regular pickups, which is why slide players love 'em.

Bottom line: Adjust height for tone, but don't think you're adjusting for sustain. (I might make an exception for the low-impedance pickups on the Les Paul Recording and similar. My recollection is those suckers have some serious magnets.)
 
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