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setting the height of active pickups

Having just fitted some EMG active pickups for a customer, I thought I’d share a few tips on setting the height of active pickups.

What are active pickups?

Active pickups use a powered circuit or ‘preamp’ to generate a signal (which is why they usually require a 9V battery). Most active pickups still employ a wire-wrapped magnet (like passive pickups) but they use far fewer winds of wire. This results in lower output which is then boosted by the preamp to give a high output, almost completely noiseless signal. Well-known manufacturers of active pickups include EMG, Seymour Duncan and Fishman.

active pickups

Pickup height is measured while holding the high and low E strings down at the last fret.

But where is that ‘sweet spot’ and how do you find it? (Spoiler: there is no ‘correct’ pickup height!)

Here are a few things to think about when setting the height of active pickups. They’re only guidelines—optimum pickup height will vary from player to player, guitar to guitar and pickup to pickup:

1. Hold your guitar in playing position, and play it, when adjusting pickup height.

Listen to the difference your adjustments are making and let your ears be your guide. This goes for any pickup, active or passive. 

height of active pickups

2. Active pickups can sit much closer to the strings than passive pickups.

This is because they exert much less magnetic pull on the strings. EMG recommends you start with your pickups about 1/8” (3mm) from the strings and then lower/raise from there.

3. The bridge pickup will typically sit closer to the strings than the neck pickup.

Many players set the neck pickup roughly level with the top of the fretboard and the bridge pickup as close to the strings as possible without (i) the strings touching them when fretted at the highest frets and (ii) your pick hitting them when playing.

4. If you use a tremolo, you may need a little more distance between strings and pickup.

When you depress the tremolo and the strings slacken, they can touch the top of the pickups. You may experience a similar issue when palm muting or if you ‘dig in’ hard when plucking strings. This illustrates how playing style enters the equation and why ‘factory spec’ won’t be right for everyone.

5. Setting pickup height lower on the bass side than on the treble side is less important with active pickups.

Pickup height is set slightly lower on the bass side with passive pickups. This is because the greater mass of the bass strings acts more strongly on the magnetic field emanating from the pickup. However, this is generally not a problem with active pickups because they have a much weaker magnetic field. 

Finally, as with any type of pickup aim for balance when setting the heights of more than one active pickup. ‘Balance’ does not mean they have to be equal in volume. But when you change from one pickup to the other, there shouldn’t be an excessive loss of or gain in volume. Played together, they should blend nicely to achieve the sound you’re looking for. Check this playing clean and with distortion and find the happy medium.

need help installing pickups?

If you’ve just bought that set of pickups you’ve always wanted, but haven’t got round to installing them yet, we can help.

We give discounts for installing multiple pickups or other components, so the more you do the cheaper it gets.