Adjusting strings and pickup height

Pictures of David’s Black Strat and the new Signature models seems to stir up some confusion regarding what the correct string and pickup height might be. I get a lot of questions about this so I’ll try to clear up some misconceptions.

If you look closely at David’s Black Strat or the new Signatures you’ll see that his pickups appears to have been set fairly low. The neck pickup is barely above the pickguard and the middle and bridge pickups seem to be lower than what’s recommended by Fender. The reason for this is that David’s pickguard is .120 of an inch, which is roughly twice as thick as the 1-ply plates on 50s Strats and slightly thicker than the 3-plys featured on 70’s models and newer. In other words, – using David’s setup as a reference for your 50’s Strat with a thin 1-ply plate may give you a completely different result than what you intended.

Keep in mind that David might prefer a slightly different setup than what you’re used to or prefer. In an interview with Guitarist magazine (June 1986) he reveals: “I often have the nuts lowered on my guitars, because I like the action as low as possible without buzzes and rattles“. As a rule, the pickup height is fixed to the string height but within this rule, there are many nuances based to personal taste, playing style and how you want the pickups to interact with the effects and amp. David also have different pickups on his Black Strat with different output that requires slightly different height. Personally I prefer the action a bit higher than what’s recommended.

Read more…:
- Keeping the guitar tuned
- Callaham Vintage S model bridge review

String height
Fender recommends that on a vintage style neck with a 7.25” radius, the bass strings should be 2mm off the neck (about 5/64 inch) and the treble strings 1.6mm (about 4/64 inch). Tune to pitch and measure the height between each string and the fret (not wood) on the 17th fret. Adjust the height if needed by fine tuning the height on each bridge sadle. This setup might be too low for some but it’s a good starting point for making your own adjustments. Do one string at a time and be sure to retune it between each adjustment so that you’ll see and feel the correct height. Here’s a tutorial showing the proceedure.

Having the strings too low might cause some fret buzz (this might also be caused by worn frets or a curved neck, or lack of curve) and you might find it hard to do bends etc. An action that’s too high might make it hard to play properly and the strings might also ring and vibrate too much. Find the setup that you’re comfortable with.

Every now and then you need to check the curvature of the neck. Inside each neck there’s a metal bar – the truss rod. This makes sure that the neck has the right preasure and curve. If this is out of balance you’ll get bad intonation and fret buzz. This is common and caused by temeprature changes, humidity, presure changes (going from 09 to 010 adds about 6 kilos to your neck) and it’s easy to adjust. Here’s a tutorial showing the proceedure.

Pickup height
Fender recommends that vintage style pickups (CS54, Fat 50s, CS69, SSL1, SSL5 etc) should be set slightly tilted with 2.4mm between the pole piece and the bass strings and 2mm between the pole piece and the treble strings. Measure the height by pushing down the strings on the very last fret next to the body.

- (left neck – right bridge) As you can see, the neck pickup is slightly off the pickguard on the bass side. As the strings are higher towards the bridge the middle and bridge pickup is further off the pickguard.

- (left bridge – right neck) Here’s the treble side of the pickups. You can see how they’re titled higher than on the bass side.

However, this method only works if you prefer the standard string height suggested by Fender. If you want a higher action the only way to set the correct pickup height is to use your ears. Too low and you’ll loose much of the lower frequencies and attack. Too high and the tone gets too boomy and slightly “punctured” like you’ve added too much compression. You’ll also notice ringing overtones caused by magnetic interference.

When you’ve found the sweetspot, you need to balance the output volume between all three pickups. Use a clean tone on your amp and switch between all pickups until you’ve matched the volume. Be careful that you don’t loose your self here and adjust the height too much and need to start all over again.

6 comments so far

  1. Tom from Chile says:

    Bjorn, I think I got a problem with my strings… My strings are perfectly in tune but, the E chord sounds just horrible. The problem is my 3rd string, so I detune it slighty and then the E chord sounds great!! But the D chord sounds even worse this way… Any tips? Have you encountered this problem in the past? I think intonation is OK, as I got my guitar back from the luthiere just a week ago, and checking the into. with a tuner, it says it’s okay, maybe I need to re-check…
    Do you think the 3rd string might the problem?
    Ah, also, the other chords sound just fine when the E chord sounds bad.
    Could it also be the pickups height that’s interfering with the strings ? Un-amplified, the E chord sounds fine

    Thanks in advance, I don’t know what to do, and this problem is just stressing me.

    [Hi Tom. Either the intonation is off or the neck is too curved and you need to adjust the truss rod. - Bjorn]

  2. Sean says:

    Very good article, thank you. What are your observations on performing this adjustment for an HSS strat. I have fifties style Bare Knuckles in an HSS strat (5.6 K flat magnet on the coils and 8.4 K on the humbucker) and am trying to dial them in better than my bass playing tech who installed them.

    [The same principle applies but a string and pickup setup is individual for each instrument depending on it's specs and your preferences. - Bjorn]

  3. Tom from Chile says:

    Omg, sorry Bjorn, I had no idea you had replied to my question… Sorry…
    Intonation seems to be OK, mmm if I adjust the truss rod, intonation will go off? Which side should I turn the truss rod?

    [Adjust the truss first, tune up and then set the intonation. Which way you should turn depends on the curve. If it's a downwards curve, then you should turn clockwise. - Bjorn]

  4. Kris says:

    Hi Bjorn,

    What about the EMG DG20 set. Do you have some recommendations about the pickup heights of these SA pickups?

    Thanks!

    [As close as possible to the strings. They should be set flat and about 3-4mm off the strings when you push down on the last fret. Make adjustments based on taste on how the guitar responds to the setup. - Bjorn]

  5. Craig says:

    Hi Bjorn,

    I love coming back to your site even just to enjoy your incredible knowledge of all things David. I have not seen any comments regarding what strings David (or yourself) would use, and what gauge he would “usually” use – thinking of Fender Black Strat for example. I wont be surprised if he concocts his own combinations of gauges!

    [Thanks for you kind words, Craig! David's been using a custom gauge setup of GHS strings since the Wall era. GHS even have a signature set with the setup. I'm using GHS regular .10s :) - Bjorn]

  6. Ratan says:

    Hi Bjorn

    I was reading this page (http://www.guitarnoise.com/lessons/tuning-a-floyd-rose/ ). it says that Ernie Ball Slinky strings doesnt go well with floating bridge. Which strings goes well with floating bridges ? My guitar has floating bridges

    [I haven't tried Slinky's on a floating bridge but I would assume that higher gauge strings would keep it more stable. Try Regular or above. - Bjorn]

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