Have you ever wondered why there’s a difference in volume levels between the neck and bridge pickup?
Is this ‘normal,’ and what can you do about it?
Luckily, my post will explain the neck and bridge pickup relationship in terms of volume. Also, I will offer my guide to solving uneven pickup output. Let’s get started.
Why does the neck pickup sound louder than the bridge?
With guitars in general, the neck pickup naturally sounds louder because it is mounted closer to the string’s peak vibrations giving it more output and volume. Secondly, the bridge pickup sounds brighter than the neck hence why it sounds brighter and less pronounced.
The long Answer
As mentioned above, it is very common for the neck pickup to sound louder than the bridge. So don’t fret about it (see what I did there!)
This happens naturally with electric guitars for a common reason.
Let me explain. Essentially, the neck pickup is positioned closer to the strings ‘peak’ vibrations resulting in a louder output than the bridge pickup. In comparison, the bridge pickup is positioned closer to the saddle where the vibrations are less prominent, resulting in a weaker output.
My handy graphic below demonstrates how string vibration affects the pickups’ output concerning their position on a guitar.
Why The Neck Pickup Has More Output/Volume
As you can see from the graphic, the neck pickup receives ‘stronger’ string vibrations which is why the neck pickup emits more output (volume.) Resulting in slightly more volume compared to the bridge pickup.
Furthermore, the neck pickup sounds naturally thicker and warmer, contributing to this audio illusion of increased volume when switching to the neck.
Hence why there’s no reason to scratch your head wondering why your bridge pickup sounds so ‘weak’ and ‘broken.’ This is just physics at work here.
Guitar manufacturers have understood this concept for a long time. Therefore, to compensate for uneven volumes between each pickup.
There are a few methods guitar manufacturers undertake to even out the volume between pickups…
- Raise the height of the bridge pickup
- Lower the height of the neck pickup
Or, wind the bridge pickup with additional copper coil as more copper wounds = more output.
The other practice is to add a ‘hotter’ ceramic magnet in the bridge pickup (hotter magnet = more output.)
Hoe to Fix Uneven Neck Pickup Volume
When switching between pickups, they should all sound reasonably even in volume. There should be slightly more volume in the neck pickup, which is to be expected (as mentioned above.)
However, if your neck pickup sounds much louder compared to the bridge?
Here’s what you can do…
- Raise the height of the bridge pickup – increase volume/output
- Lower the height of the neck pickup – lower volume/output
How to Adjust Pickup Height
- Philips screwdriver
- Measurement ruler
Adjusting pickups height is pretty straightforward. First, you need to locate both pickup height adjustment screws (one for each opposing side.)
Whether your pickups are single coils, humbuckers, P90s, etc. They can be located by the side of the pickup casing. However, some guitars have height adjustment screws on the back of the guitar (Danelectro guitars.)
Once located, use your Philips screwdriver to make the required adjustments…
- To Raise Pickup – Turn screws clockwise
- To lower Pickup – Turn screws anti-clockwise
Remember to evenly raise the bass and treble side of the pickup. You want to avoid having an uneven bass/treble output for that individual pickup.
Keep in mind that lowering or raising your pickups too much can negatively affect your guitar’s output, tone, and playability. I have covered all these issues later in the post.
How to Determine Correct Pickup Height
Now all guitars come installed with different pickups. Therefore, I can not give a definitive pickup height measurement that covers every type of guitar (no one size fits all here.)
Here’s are some handy video tutorials on adjusting pickup height on common pickup types.
Consult Guitar Manufacturing Pickup Height Specifications
First, check your guitar manufacturer’s pickup height recommendations and cross-reference each guitar’s pickup height using a ruler.
This ensures that your pickups are at the appropriate range and checks whether an individual pickup is the root cause of the uneven volume.
Use Your Ears
The first step is to adopt a clean tone with no effects or signal modifiers.
Next, make the slight pickup height adjustments making small height adjustments. (use a measurement ruler to be more accurate.)
The next step is to test the volume levels on each pickup and see if each pickup produces an even output.
Make the adjustments until you ‘fine tune’ an even volume with good dynamics and tone without causing unwanted tone and playability issues (explained later in the post.)
Now, It would make sense to explain how pickup height affects volume.
How Pickup Height Affects Volume
Interestingly, guitar pickups function as small antenna stations. They receive string vibrations and convert this mechanical energy into an electrical signal.
This signal is carried through the electronics, guitar cable, then amplified back as sound waves for our ears to process.
In their simplest form, pickups create a magnetic field produced by the pickup’s pole pieces. The strength of the magnetic field depends on the distance of the pole pieces to the strings.
Therefore, adjusting the distance of the magnetic field alters not just the volume/output potential but also tone.
So what does this mean In theory? Well, raising the pickup closer to the string (magnetic field) increases the volume and output potential.
Whereas lowering the pickup decreases the distance and strength of the magnetic field. Therefore, it reduces the volume/output of the guitar.
Keep in mind there is a TON of physics at work here. My explanation only scratches the surface.
What If Happens If Pickups Are set Too high?
Adjusting your pickups too high can compromise the tone and playability of all electric guitars.
Essentially if your guitar’s strings are too close to the pole pieces, It can interfere with the string’s vibration and ability to freely oscillate.
The common issues problem are…
Tuning and Intonation Issues
If the pole pieces (magnets) are too close to the strings made from metal. It can compromise the string’s ability to freely vibrate.
Essentially, the magnets will constantly ‘push and pull’ on the strings knocking them out of tune and interfere with intonation.
Sure, raising the pickup height will result in a louder and stronger output.
However, the drawback is your guitar’s sound will be negatively affected.
Raising the pickup too high can cause ‘fret buzz’, which is another annoyance and drawback to the sound of your guitar.
The second issue directly relates to tone. Pickups that are raised too high can cause weird and funky ‘overtones,’ which is not a desirable sound you want to hear.
Suppose you pluck an individual string with a clean tone and closely listen to its vibration.
A ‘warbling’ sound is a clear indication that the magnetism of the pole pieces is pushing and pulling the strings causing a strange ringing sound. The solution would be to evenly raise the pickup to remove this issue.
What Happens If Pickups Are Set Too Low
The problem with lowering your pickups too low is that it causes unwanted effects concerning tone and performance.
Decreasing the pickup’s magnetic field too far in relation to the strings hinders its ability to produce ‘rich’ and ‘dynamic’ ‘overtones.’
Essentially, the guitar will sound pretty ‘flat’ and ‘lifeless’ because the lack of space between the pole pieces and string causes the vibration to deaden. Leading to a pretty weak and flat-sounding pickup.
Can Pickup Height Effect Sustain?
The short answer is yes. Not only does adjusting pickup height alter the guitar’s volume (as mentioned above), but it also saps sweet sustain along with it.
‘Sustain sap’ occurs if you excessively lower your pickups because the distance of the strings is further away from the pickup’s magnetic field. Resulting in a weaker and less prominent signal.
Therefore, the rule of thumb is not to excessively lower your pickups. This results in a noticeable drop in volume, sustain, and output.
On the other hand, players make the classic mistake of adjusting their pickups too high.
Thinking that they will get more output, sustain, and dynamics. However, doing so can cause a host of unwanted guitar issues (mentioned above.)
When adjusting pickup height, the general rule of thumb is to find the ‘sweet spot’ with your guitar in terms of volume, response, and your playing style.
Do Humbucker Covers Change Tone?
Humbucker covers are there for a solid reason. They primarily shield your exposed double-coils from dirt, grime, and sweat (nasty!)
They also serve as an aesthetic appeal. However, there is a debate raging in the guitar community whether exposed vs. covered affects tone.
Well, In my opinion, yes, uncovered humbuckers sound fractionally brighter with a bit more clarity and definition.
This is ideal if you are a lead player and want to squeeze and pronounce the tone of every note. Not to mention they look much cooler in my opinion (I am a Slash fan after all.)
The theory is that uncovered humbuckers are exposed to air, allowing them to pickup up more string vibrations resulting in a fractional increase in articulation.
On the other hand, covered humbuckers serve better at protecting your coils. However, players debate they sound fractionally ‘warmer’ compared to exposed humbuckers.
This is all just opinion, but a good idea would be to experiment and see yourself. Also, choose what aesthetically appeals to you more.
If you want to delve into this debate more. I have covered this topic in my post “covered vs. uncovered pickups” (you can read this post here)
Why Some Pickups Are Angled/Slanted
Have you ever noticed the slanted bridge pickup on a Stratocaster, Telecaster, and other guitars? Well, there’s a good reason for the angled design.
The reason is that the angle squeezes more high frequencies and low frequencies from that specific pickup.
As mentioned above, the closer the pickup is to the saddle, the brighter it sounds, and the higher up the neck, the warmer it sounds.
Therefore, the angle is there to achieve simultaneously additional treble and lows. This gives the angled pickup a more even and balanced sound.
As we know, the bridge pickup with single pickups (especially single-coils) sounds super bright and articulate. The angle provides additional bass whilst also adding high frequencies to offer a more balanced and ‘tighter’ tone.
Some players prefer the angled design because they argue it provides a slightly better bass response, especially when plucking/digging into the thicker low strings.
Whereas straight single-pickup sounds a little more ‘tinny’ and ‘articulate. However, some players prefer maximum brightness for their ideal tone, whether shimmering cleans or piercing articulate notes.
Keep in mind the angled design is totally a ‘personal choice’ to the player as there is no ‘right or wrong’ choice when it comes to tone. Whatever sounds best to you is the right choice, whether it’s angled vs. straight.
I have an article all about this topic if you want to know who was responsible for the angled design. (You can read this post here!)