How to Properly Set the Pole Piece Height on Humbuckers

ErictheRed

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Many people don't seem to realize that adjusting the pole piece height in your pickups can dramatically affect your sound, so I've created this guide to shed light on how to best set the pole piece height on humbucking pickups. This simple adjustment can do wonders to improve clarity and balance the string-to-string output of your guitar. Why did I feel compelled to write this? Because...

Everyone Gets it Wrong!
Well not everyone, but I'm amazed at the amount of misinformation out there regarding setting the pole piece height on humbucker equipped guitars, even from respected manufacturers or magazines. Of course we're talking about music and personal preferences, and you may like to set your pole pieces differently than I recommend here. Even so, I hope that you find good, factual information here that can help you to make informed decisions about setting up your humbuckers.

For the thread I'm going to assume that we're working on a Gibson Les Paul, but the information here will hold true for a variety of types of guitars and humbucking pickups, as long as the humbuckers are passive and have adjustable pole pieces.


Your Guitar Should NOT Sound Muddy or Muffled
An extremely common complaint for Les Pauls, especially the neck pickup, is that they sound "muddy" and unclear. This normally leads people to start doing mods such as changing potentiometers, capacitors, and finally the pickups. However, I have NEVER encountered a Les Paul whose "mud" I couldn't clean up by following the advice in this thread. You may want to change pickups for a variety of reasons, but if you're working with a guitar from a reputable company, you should be able to correct this issue.


Wiring and Electronics
I'm not going to discuss various wiring mods or component changes here. However, I recommend using 50s wiring and 500k or 550k potentiometers in your guitars. Here's one thread about 50s wiring: https://www.mylespaul.com/threads/wiring-library.558/


Single Coils vs Humbuckers
1. Single-coil pickups generally pull much harder on the strings than humbucker pickups because of their design and geometry. This guide is NOT applicable to single coil pickups.
2. Humbuckers can be placed much closer to the strings than single coil pickups because their magnets pull the strings less. That doesn't mean that they sound best super close to the strings, though!


Important Info About Electric Guitar Strings
Here is where I think that most of the misinformation comes from. Your guitar strings are NOT created equally! Each string on your guitar is affected by the magnets underneath it much differently, and therefore, some strings naturally have more output than others! This is because only the solid "core" of the string (not the wound portion) is ferro-magnetic. The amount of output of each of your strings is dependent on the thickness of the solid core (how much ferro-magnetic material it has).

It's counter-intuitive, but the G-string is the loudest of your strings by far. This is because it's the string with the thickest core (though it has no windings, so you can consider the entire string the core). It's hard to find information regarding core thickness from all string manufacturers, but generally speaking, string output (core thickness) for most electric guitar strings goes like this:

Most Output to Least Output: G - Low E=B - A - High E ---- D.

In other words, the G-string has the most output, followed by the Low E and B strings (which are approximately tied depending on string set), then the A string, then the High E, and lastly the D string. The D string has the least output of any string by a large amount for most sets.


What NOT to Do
One of the most common recommendations out there regarding pole piece height is to follow the curvature of the neck. This seems to make sense at first; you are trying to get all of the pole pieces the same distance from the strings. Here is one picture of a pickup that does this:
Apr15_PG_CLM_Mod-Garage_Photo-2_WEB.jpg


However, we should know now that this is incorrect! It's not too far off for the three lower strings, but you will have a hugely pronounced G-string (reminiscent of a Stratocaster, and who wants that?!?) and quieter high E string if you set your pole piece heights this way.


Finally, How to Set the Pole Piece Heights on Your Guitar
Taking into account everything above, I believe that this is the best way to setup your humbuckers:

First, you probably want to lower them significantly if you're having problems with mud. You can always raise them higher up later to get more output, but lower pickups in general have more clarity. The treble side should be higher than the bass side by about 1/32". A good starting point is to set the bridge treble side to about 2/32" and the bass side to about 3/32". Now, use your ears to lower the neck pickup (which will naturally be louder at the same height, because the strings vibrate a larger distance here) so that it is at the volume that you want. If you want an approximately equal neck volume to your bridge volume, assuming that you don't have very unbalanced pickups, then the neck pickup will be significantly lower than the bridge. That's OK!

Now that our pickups have approximately the same volume (or whatever amount of imbalance you want), our goal is to set the string-to-string volume. This is done by adjusting the pole piece height. In order to achieve approximately equal string-to-string volume, you need to lower the pole piece of the louder strings and raise the pole pieces of the quieter strings. You probably want to start with all of the pole pieces flush with the cover (or all the same height if you don't have a covered pickup) and work from there. Or do what I do, which is to skip ahead to what I find is almost always the correct solution:

You most likely want the G-string lowest because it is naturally the loudest, and the D-string highest because it's naturally the most quiet. Therefore, I usually set up my pole pieces to roughly go (read from EADGBE, referenced to the pickup cover):



E: Lower than Flush A: Flush D: Higher than Flush G: Lower than Flush B: Flush E: Higher than Flush.

Use this as a starting point, and make small adjustments from there using your ears. When you are completely finished, you will likely have your pole piece heights set something similar to this:

Pickup+Pole-Piece+heightadjustment.png

Note that I found this image on Pinterest, and it's the only image I could find that looks close to how I set mine up. However I generally have my first three pole pieces lower than pictured, and my high E is generally a little higher. Of course, YMMV and all of that.

Edit on 3/11:
Raising and Lowering the Pickup vs Pole Pieces, and a Little on How This Works:
Based on some other threads around the forum, I've decided to add a little more info here.

Like many things (gravity, light) that have a source and propagate three dimensionally through space, magnetic fields and the strength of magnetic interaction varies according to the Inverse-Square Law with respect to distance. This means that if you double the distance between two objects, the magnetic force between them becomes 1/4 the original value (weaker by a factor of 4). If you cut the distance to a third (get three times closer), the force becomes nine times stronger! Quadruple the distance and you get a difference in magnetic force of sixteen times the original amount, etc. Clearly the magnetic field varies quite substantially with distance. If you have a pole piece set 4/32" away from a string for instance, and then raise it to 3/32" away, the string experiences a pretty significant increase in strength of the magnetic field.

Anyhow, let's imagine a pickup whose pole pieces are set flush with the slugs. In this case, the slug and pole pieces have essentially the same influence on the strings, as they are the same distance away. If you raise and lower the entire pickup, you increase or decrease the magnetic interaction with the strings in both coils of the humbucker by essentially the same amount. Move the humbucker closer to the strings and you get more output, but often less clarity, and vice versa.

When you raise an individual pole piece, you are increasing the magnetic influence of that pole piece on the string, which makes that string more loud. However the cool thing is, the increase in volume comes primarily from the coil with the adjustable pole piece! This is the coil that surrounds that pole piece, and hence the coil that is affected most strongly by it.

If you raise the pole pieces, the extra output that you get comes mostly from the adjustable coil, and so your humbucker is slightly unbalanced now. Importantly, it is NOT out of phase with the other coil. It's just a little louder, so you don't get any phasing issues. Since you can make one coil interact more strongly with your strings than the other, you can use this to achieve a slight single coil sound. In other words, more clarity and "openness," with less compression. Conversely if you want more output and compression, you can level the pole pieces and raise the entire pickup.

I hope that this guide helps you! Cheers,

ErictheRed.
 
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Rocco Crocco

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Interesting that your diagram of pole pieces resemble the same pattern as intonated saddles.




I'll give it a try. I never thought of lowering the g string saddle so much but you're right -- the g string seems loudest.
 

TXOldRedRocker

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I've taken the time to do it on 3 guitars I play a lot. I've done simple PU height on everything. But pole height is more time consuming, for me. So a guitar here and there and I'll get them all done eventually.

@ErictheRed Thanks for taking the time to put it together so well! Much appreciated.

Merry Christmas to all!
 

Michael Matyas

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If you look closely you'll see this kind of staggered height on some of the newer Fender Stratocaster pickups. Somebody finally noticed that a plain g booms like a cannon.

"If you stand one sheep on it's hind legs you will still have a sheep. If you put a flock of sheep in the same position you will have a crowd of men." --Max Beerbohm
 

Thundermtn

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I keep my pole pieces in the bathtub, just be carefull to not slip or you'll have a pole in a piece you don't want!
 

Brek

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its the internet of repeated 'facts' every topic or interest is similarly affected. some of the lore relating to one of my former hobbies 'nishikigoi' would be funny if not so serious for the welfare of the fish.
 

Ruckus

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Ok I have read and understand, but I still have one problem. I have those fake OBL pick ups that Epi put in the LP Special 2, you know, the non adjustable, clear as mud things , but the tone control is a coil splitter (push/pull) Any recommendations for cost effective pick ' em ups? I don't use my pots, they're 500 ohms, I just keep em wide open, but I do love that splitter
 

Antigua

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This is because only the solid "core" of the string (not the wound portion) is ferro-magnetic.
The windings are magnetic. This is an Elixir coated low E string.






Single Coils vs Humbuckers
1. Single-coil pickups generally pull much harder on the strings than humbucker pickups because of their design and geometry. This guide is NOT applicable to single coil pickups.
2. Humbuckers can be placed much closer to the strings than single coil pickups because their magnets pull the strings less. That doesn't mean that they sound best super close to the strings, though!
The difference is due the fact of having a steel pole piece in between the string and the magnet. Almost any pickup with steel pole pieces will have a weaker pull than one with magnets as pole pieces. All things being equal (comparing a Stag Mag to Strat pickups, or steel poled Strat pickups to humbuckers), humbuckers actually pull harder because you have twelve pole pieces per pickup instead of six.
 

ErictheRed

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The windings are magnetic. This is an Elixir coated low E string.








The difference is due the fact of having a steel pole piece in between the string and the magnet. Almost any pickup with steel pole pieces will have a weaker pull than one with magnets as pole pieces. All things being equal (comparing a Stag Mag to Strat pickups, or steel poled Strat pickups to humbuckers), humbuckers actually pull harder because you have twelve pole pieces per pickup instead of six.
You're right about the windings, and I glossed over that in the interest of simplicity. However, they are less ferro-magnetic than the core and have little affect on output.

However, a typical Strat or Tele style pickup does pull much harder on the strings than a PAF style pickup from the same distance, because of the geometry of the pickups and where the magnets are located. You could measure the strength of the pull from the same distance and see that, or use a Gauss meter, but this isn't very relevant for this guide. If you have an HSH or HSS guitar though, it might be important. I'm open to being corrected by an actual measurement, but my lab is closed these days (I'm teaching remotely and don't have access to much equipment).
 
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AJK1

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Everyone Gets it Wrong!
Well not everyone, but I'm amazed at the amount of misinformation out there regarding setting the pole piece height on humbucker equipped guitars, even from respected manufacturers or magazines. Of course we're talking about music and personal preferences, and you may like to set your pole pieces differently than I recommend here. Even so, I hope that you find good, factual information here that can help you to make informed decisions about setting up your humbuckers.

For the thread I'm going to assume that we're working on a Gibson Les Paul, but the information here will hold true for a variety of types of guitars and humbucking pickups, as long as the humbuckers are passive and have adjustable pole pieces.


Your Guitar Should NOT Sound Muddy or Muffled
An extremely common complaint for Les Pauls, especially the neck pickup, is that they sound "muddy" and unclear. This normally leads people to start doing mods such as changing potentiometers, capacitors, and finally the pickups. However, I have NEVER encountered a Les Paul whose "mud" I couldn't clean up by following the advice in this thread. You may want to change pickups for a variety of reasons, but if you're working with a guitar from a reputable company, you should be able to correct this issue.


Wiring and Electronics
I'm not going to discuss various wiring mods or component changes here. However, I recommend using 50s wiring and 500k or 550k potentiometers in your guitars. Here's one thread about 50s wiring: https://www.mylespaul.com/threads/wiring-library.558/


Single Coils vs Humbuckers
1. Single-coil pickups generally pull much harder on the strings than humbucker pickups because of their design and geometry. This guide is NOT applicable to single coil pickups.
2. Humbuckers can be placed much closer to the strings than single coil pickups because their magnets pull the strings less. That doesn't mean that they sound best super close to the strings, though!


Important Info About Electric Guitar Strings
Here is where I think that most of the misinformation comes from. Your guitar strings are NOT created equally! Each string on your guitar is affected by the magnets underneath it much differently, and therefore, some strings naturally have more output than others! This is because only the solid "core" of the string (not the wound portion) is ferro-magnetic. The amount of output of each of your strings is dependent on the thickness of the solid core.

It's counter-intuitive, but the G-string is actually the loudest of your strings by far. This is because it's the string with the thickest core (though it has no windings, so you can consider the entire string the core). It's hard to find information regarding core thickness from all string manufacturers, but generally speaking, string output (core thickness) for most electric guitar strings goes like this:

Most Output to Least Output: G - Low E=B - A - High E ---- D.

In other words, the G-string has the most output, followed by the Low E and B strings (which are approximately tied depending on string set), then the A string, then the High E, and lastly the D string. The D string has the least output of any string by a large amount for most sets.


What NOT to Do
One of the most common recommendations out there regarding pole piece height is to follow the curvature of the neck. This seems to make sense at first; you are trying to get all of the pole pieces the same distance from the strings. Here is one picture of a pickup that does this:
View attachment 507915

However, we should know now that this is incorrect! It's not too far off for the three lower strings, but you will have a hugely pronounced G-string (reminiscent of a Stratocaster, and who wants that?!?) if you set your pole piece heights this way.


Finally, How to Set the Pole Piece Heights on Your Guitar
Taking into account everything above, I believe that this is the best way to setup your humbuckers:

First, you probably want to lower them significantly if you're having problems with mud. You can always raise them higher up later to get more output, but lower pickups in general have more clarity. The treble side should be higher than the bass side by about 1/32". A good starting point is to set the bridge treble side to about 4/64" and the bass side to about 6/64". Some like these a little higher, but I wouldn't go any higher than 3/63" treble and 5/64" bass. Now, use your ears to lower the neck pickup (which will naturally be louder at the same height) enough so that it is at the volume that you want. If you want an approximately equal neck volume to your bridge volume, assuming that you don't have very unbalanced pickups, then the neck pickup will be significantly lower than the bridge. That's OK!

Now that our pickups have approximately the same volume (or whatever amount of imbalance you want), our goal is to set the string-to-string volume. This is done by adjusting the pole piece height. In order to achieve approximately equal string-to-string volume, you need to lower the pole piece of the louder strings and raise the pole pieces of the quieter strings. You probably want to start with all of the pole pieces flush with the cover (or all the same height if you don't have a covered pickup) and work from there. Or do what I do, which is to skip ahead to what I find is almost always the correct solution:

You most likely want the G-string lowest because it is naturally the loudest, and the D-string highest because it's naturally the most quiet. Therefore, I usually set up my pole pieces to roughly go (read from EADGBE, referenced to the pickup cover):



E: Lower than Flush A: Flush D: Higher than Flush G: Lower than Flush B: Flush E: Higher than Flush.

Use this as a starting point, and make small adjustments from there using your ears. When you are completely finished, you will likely have your pole piece heights set something similar to this:

View attachment 507916
Note that I found this image on Pinterest, and it's the only image I could find that looks close to how I set mine up. However I generally have my first three pole pieces lower than pictured, and my high E is generally a little higher. Of course, YMMV and all of that.

I hope that this guide helps you! Cheers,

ErictheRed.
Yep, the image on Pinterest is how I set all my humbuckers and it works very well
 

ehb

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Good read...

I just go ahead and deck the neck when I get a new guitar or change pickups... Then go about balancing strings... I can then play a bit with overall pickup height to find the sweet....usually for me not much higher than rings. I then balance the bridge pickup. I prefer weaker output... and I found out that amps have preamps and knobs and such that can more than make up for weak pickups. ;)
 

cooljuk

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I basically rough in my humbuckers before shipping by setting the pole screws to an arch, similar to the neck radius, then sinking the G down (because it tends to be louder) and raising the high E up (because it tends to be quieter). I'll also have the neck pole screws about a turn higher than the bridge. This is just what I've learned is a decent starting point for an average.

This comes out looking pretty similar to Eric's diagram.

If I know an adjustable pickup is going into a Fender, I'll sink the B down below radius, like the G. For whatever reason (scale length? I don't know) the B string on Fenders seems to really jump out.

Of course, that's all just roughing it in. The whole pickup and each pole piece should really be adjusted for each unique combination or strings/pickup/guitar/rig/player. ...and some pickups/rigs are far more sensitive to adjustment than others. Some rigs just have a distinct character that dominates the voice and swapping whole pickups, or even whole guitars, makes little difference in the final sound, compared to other rigs.
 

ehb

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The whole pickup and each pole piece should really be adjusted for each or unique combination strings/pickup/guitar/rig/player.
Nailed it.
Each link in the chain contributes. Sum of parts.

Pedals are not 100% transparent, nor speakers, not a damn thing is 100% fidelity....

One slight alteration will be expanded as it moves through the chain because everything alters in some form...

There are eng/prods out there that will run a signal through certain jug gear in their rack because of what it does with controls neutral.

I have always found it interesting the changes with a speaker change, jug change, string change, pick change, pickup change, etc.. Hell, move rig and player to a different room and it can go from righteous to mondo suckage in a flash. Wearing my slider munky hat, I’ve had to really think in some rooms, I generally beat the room but it wasn’t easy and was a team effort with players changing their EQs as per my ‘suggestions’... There are some truly bad rooms out there that cam make any righteous tweaks null and void.

Soooo, Any change can further warp the ∆fidelity in either direction....string alloys can dick the balance up...or make it better...

Guitars are cool...a system of systems.... if pickups could slide (yep, I know been done), folks might be amazed at how a slight movement in either direction can make a huge difference in output spectrum. Always thought the bridge pickup should have been nudged a touch away from bridge on Lesters....will lose some content but will gain content... Spectrum content nodes on a skrang in a Rez skrang system...

So many cool pieces to a cool puzzle...
 

ducmike

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@ErictheRed Thanks for this info.

I have struggled for 3.5 years to get my 17 Trad sounding its best. I almost sold it, but decided to research new pickups. I found this thread in my research, and figured I would give it a try.

I had the pups really low to get rid of the mud, but that really killed the output of the bridge, and the neck was still muddy.

I started by adjusting the pole screws to your advice, and then raised the bridge until I heard the output I was after, then adjusted the neck. ended up at the 2/32 treb 3/32 bass on the bridge when I checked. Then I tweaked the poles a little more to balance the string to string volume, and bam, there it is.

The LP just sounded thin and anemic compared to my Santana (I know very different gits), so it sat unplayed most of the time. Now it will get used a lot more. The neck still isn't perfect alone, but close enough and sounds great in the middle position. There is magic in that Santana neck pup, probably due to the 2 extra frets.
 

ErictheRed

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@ErictheRed Thanks for this info.

I have struggled for 3.5 years to get my 17 Trad sounding its best. I almost sold it, but decided to research new pickups. I found this thread in my research, and figured I would give it a try.

I had the pups really low to get rid of the mud, but that really killed the output of the bridge, and the neck was still muddy.

I started by adjusting the pole screws to your advice, and then raised the bridge until I heard the output I was after, then adjusted the neck. ended up at the 2/32 treb 3/32 bass on the bridge when I checked. Then I tweaked the poles a little more to balance the string to string volume, and bam, there it is.

The LP just sounded thin and anemic compared to my Santana (I know very different gits), so it sat unplayed most of the time. Now it will get used a lot more. The neck still isn't perfect alone, but close enough and sounds great in the middle position. There is magic in that Santana neck pup, probably due to the 2 extra frets.
I'm glad that I could help!
 

Classicplayer

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Of course, that's all just roughing it in. The whole pickup and each pole piece should really be adjusted for each unique combination or strings/pickup/guitar/rig/player. ...and some pickups/rigs are far more sensitive to adjustment than others. Some rigs just have a distinct character that dominates the voice and swapping whole pickups, or even whole guitars, makes little difference in the final sound, compared to other rigs.

I found this to be true of my rig when using both of my Les Pauls; one with Seths and the other BB 1 and 2. Through an Orange Dark Terror and single V30 closed-back cab, there is an identifiable and quite similar tone (signature) from either Les Paul. My bridge pickup is set for 4/64” treble side and 8/64” on the bass side. Both guitar's neck pups are adjusted to suit my taste for that thin Jimmy Page tone when playing the bridge or middle position. Pole pieces on the pickups have not been tweaked because they sound the way I want them to sound as is. The neck Seth, BB 1, and a prior ‘59 Duncan neck all had no appreciable improvement on tone, keeping the Seth and BB 1 low in relation to the bridge pup, gives me what want in fairly decent neck tone.

In my case the amp/speaker signature plays a big part of how each of my Les Pauls ultimately sounds. No amount of tweaking yet has changed the rig's signature; which is best described as plenty of lows, and mids, sometimes at the expense of the highs. It's slightly more amp/speaker influenced than a guitar/pickup combination is. So, for me, in having determined this, no pickups or drastic pickup tweaking will alter these relationships. I have learned to make what I have, work for me - and in the process, learned a lot about how to turn disadvantages into workable tones.

A topic somewhat related to this is..just how your playing technique can determine how your tone can be shaped. But that's for another thread, sometime.

classicplayer
 

mhr900ss

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Hi all: Lots of really great comments already. I've read "then just adjust the pole pieces by ear and all is well" so many times on so many forums and YouTube videos with no real references on how to do this. This is what has worked for me for about 40 years when I'm starting from scratch:

I start by setting the pickup bobbin or cover heights, not pole pieces, relative to the strings about 3mm on the low E side and about 2mm on the high E side. I then turn the tone pots to 10 and the volume pots to 0 and crank the amp up loud and clean. Starting with the bridge pup, I turn the volume to around 1 and lightly pluck the strings so that they have to work to make a sound. When doing this, it's really obvious which strings are loud and which ones are not. A really light pluck will not generate any amp sound at all.

At this low guitar output, I tweak the pole pieces until they all respond at roughly the same volume to the same, consistent (as possible) soft pluck. I then pluck harder and gauge the response; sometimes a little more tweaking is needed to balance the volume. I then turn the volume pot up to around 4 and again, pluck lightly and listen for varying volume responses. Generally I only need to do this once at the low guitar volume output. Repeat for the neck pup and all is good.

I concur that generally, the pole pieces end up in roughly at the same relative heights as shown in earlier diagrams in this thread. I use light strings so the high E and B pole pieces are a little higher than in the diagrams even with the pup height a little higher on the treble side.
 
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Classicplayer

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As I stated before, I have yet to tweak a pole piece when dialing in my pickups. I do set the pickups for balance using the height adjustment screws. In looking at my Burstbucker neck pup, the pole pieces are set almost as in the diagram that Eric posted above. It's curious though, because Gibson must have adjusted the poles, not I. The bridge Burstbucker II shows equal pole piece heights and again I've not touched those, either.

Does Gibson tune each pickup before it's mounted in their Les Paul models? In any event, I have both my Les Pauls' pickups dialed in for pickup height that will give me the best tone and volume string to string that I prefer. If I determine that one string is not balanced volume-wise, I tweak the height screw on the appropriate end and listen to the strings on the opposite side to make sure volume is the same. If not, I then adjust the opposite height screw until balance is restored. This has usually worked out with a minimum of fussing. I've also had to tweak my amp's controls to “refine” even further, but only if needed.

classicplayer
 

ErictheRed

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Hi all: Lots of really great comments already. I've read "then just adjust the pole pieces by ear and all is well" so many times on so many forums and YouTube videos with no real references on how to do this. This is what has worked for me for about 40 years when I'm starting from scratch:

I start by setting the pickup bobbin or cover heights, not pole pieces, relative to the strings about 3mm on the low E side and about 2mm on the high E side. I then turn the tone pots to 10 and the volume pots to 0 and crank the amp up loud and clean. Starting with the bridge pup, I turn the volume to around 1 and lightly pluck the strings so that they have to work to make a sound. When doing this, it's really obvious which strings are loud and which ones are not. A really light pluck will not generate any amp sound at all.

At this low guitar output, I tweak the pole pieces until they all respond at roughly the same volume to the same, consistent (as possible) soft pluck. I then pluck harder and gauge the response; sometimes a little more tweaking is needed to balance the volume. I then turn the volume pot up to around 4 and again, pluck lightly and listen for varying volume responses. Generally I only need to do this once at the low guitar volume output. Repeat for the neck pup and all is good.

I concur that generally, the pole pieces end up in roughly at the same relative heights as shown in earlier diagrams in this thread. I use light strings so the high E and B pole pieces are a little higher than in the diagrams even with the pup height a little higher on the treble side.
Great tip to start setting the heights at lower volume settings of the guitar, as that can definitely make smaller changes easier to differentiate!
 


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