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Bass Neck Plate

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Bass Neck Plate

One of the simplest ways to adjust your guitar or bass can have a profound effect on its tone, and better yet, the adjustment is free and takes very little time or skill to perform. Adjust the height of your guitar or bass' pickups according to the guidelines in this article and, with a little experimentation, you can come closer to playing the tone of your fantasies (yes, the ones where you are on stage sporting tight pants and trying to stay on your feet amidst a deluge of cheering and panties-or jock straps, whatever the case may be).

How Pickup Height Changes Tone

Please follow this link to view the figures for this article. 

Pickups adjusted closer to the strings will generally produce a punchier, fuller tone with higher output. Adjust the pickups too high however, and the tone may become distorted (especially when the strings are played hard). Additionally, pickups with stronger magnetic fields can affect string vibrations when they are adjusted too high and may produce a "warbling" tone that is generally undesirable.

Pickups adjusted further away from the strings will produce a woodier tone with a better response to dynamic playing: softer attacks will produce cleaner tones and harder attacks will increase output without losing tonal definition. The slight decrease in output from lower pickups can be compensated for by adjusting your amplifier and effect settings. Of course, adjusting the pickups too low will result in an overall loss of tone and output, regardless of amp and effect settings.

Where to Start with Pickup Adjustments

The majority of pickups with plastic mounting rings are height-adjustable, you can simply turn the screws on either side of the ring to raise and lower each side of the pickup. Mounting rings with three height adjustment screws are usually for adjusting the slant of the pickup's face as well as the height. Adjust three-screw mounting rings so the plane of the pickup's face is parallel to the plane of the strings. If the pickups in your bass or guitar are not height-adjustable, remove them and place some material in their cavities to "shim" them up to the correct height (do not use ferrous material or anything that will interfere with the magnetic field or electrical signal of the pickup). Dense foam padding works well as a shim; it will press the pickup upwards like a spring, allowing you to raise and lower the pickup with the mounting screws alone, eliminating the need for different sizes of shims.

Finding your own perfect tone will require a little experimentation, but there is a good starting point from which to begin scouting out the tonal possibilities. Fret the lowest and highest strings at the last fret then adjust the pickups so they are about 1/16" to 3/32" below the strings. You may want the bridge pickup to be a little closer to the strings and the neck pickup to be a little further to accommodate the different vibration patterns at each location. Furthermore, you can lower the bass side of the pickup if you want more treble response, or lower the treble side for more bass response.

Pickups with individually-adjustable pole pieces may be further adjusted to balance their response to the different string sizes. The bigger the string, the higher the pickup's output and pickups respond more to plain strings than wound strings. The heights of pole pieces (if they are adjustable) can usually be adjusted on the face of the pickup (when the pole pieces themselves are screws) or on the back of the pickup, sometimes behind a back plate. Adjust the low E pole piece lower than the rest, the A should be slightly higher than the E and the D should be slightly higher than the A. If your guitar has a wound G string then its pole piece should be adjusted slightly higher than the D pole piece, the B should be adjusted only slightly higher than the low E pole piece and the high E should be a little higher than the B's pole piece. A plain G string's pole piece should be adjusted only slightly higher than the low E pole piece, the B should be slightly higher than the G and the high E a little higher than the B. Take a look at figure 1 and figure 2 for a visual comparison of the plain and wound G pole piece configurations. Generally, pole piece height adjustments should only be used as a means of balancing (or unbalancing, if you desire the tone) the pickup's response to the individual strings.

Finding your ideal tone by adjusting your pickups takes a little experimentation. Try out several different configurations, you can get a lot of different tones, especially if you have more than one pickup and they are wired with a blend control to mix their signals. Occasionally you will find a tone that you had not even imagined before! Thanks for reading, good luck finding your new tones.

Copyright © Anthony Olinger, Xylem Handmade Basses and Guitars 2009.

Replacing, Installing, Removing a Guitar Neck Plate

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