PAF Pickups: How to Adjust PAF Humbucker Pickups (Perfectly!)

PAF Pickups: How to Adjust PAF Humbucker Pickups (Perfectly!)
Share this article on

How to Adjust PAF Humbucker Pickups taking into account your playing style, your guitar and gear and taking advantage of the variance you can have in a PAF.

Setting a PAF Pickup: the mistake of an specific measurement

Every guitar player that look for a vintage sound wonders how to adjust PAF humbucker pickups perfectly. And it’s a good question because in the past there’s been sort of an approach of a one-size-fits-all for pickup height adjustment. But unfortunately, it doesn’t really work as it should with a PAF. It doesn’t take into account personal preference as far as playing style and it doesn’t really take advantage of the variance that you can have in a vintage PAF and that many reproductions have in the character of the neck and bridge pickups. That character can vary from the magnets, as simple as just magnet difference or resistance difference or any number of variables that are built into a good reproduction or a vintage PAF.

So in order to get the perfect adjustment, you really have to tune the height of both of these pickups and balance them in a way that fits your playing style and fits the gear that you’re going to play through as far as amp, effects, etc. So the method we like to use takes all of that into account and will get these tuned to the right height for your playing and for that particular guitar and amp you play.

If you like vintage guitars, you have to read this article about best years for Gibson Les Paul.

Pre-adjustment Steps for adjust your PAF

Correct setup of your guitar

Before we get started with the actual adjustment, there are a few simple steps that we have to make sure are squared-away. First, you want to make sure that you have your guitar set up to your preferred action. You want to make sure that you have the strings that you prefer on the guitar. Even something as simple as pure Nickel versus Nickel-plated Steel wound strings can affect the output of the signal coming through the pickups and that’ll affect the headroom. All of these are things you want to take into account when adjusting the humbucker pickups.

Have the proper tools

Also, you want to make sure you have a steel rule of some sort. We like to use one with the millimeter scale. You can use a Stewmac or Shinwa brand. If you have a preference of using thousandths of an inch or thirty seconds of an inch use that. But we’ll provide measurements in millimeters and at the end of this article, we’ll give measurements for several of our guitars with different humbucker pickups just as a guide as to what works for us. Your measurements, as far as what your preference is, will probably vary, but this will at least be some sort of reference as to how much these can vary with guitar and pickup model so you will have a little idea of what to expect with your own guitars.

PAF of a 1960 Gibson ES-335, how to adjust the humbucker pickups.

Also, if you’re going full vintage correct, these height adjustment screws are flathead so you want to make sure you have a very good quality flathead screwdriver and use two hands when adjusting the screw. Also, we like to adjust in half-turn increments and count them, and also if we want to do larger guitar pickup adjustment we’ll count a full rotation. But keep that in your head so in case you want to double back you can do that.

You may be interested in the history of the Gibson Les Paul, its evolution from Standard to Custom.

Pole screw with covered and uncovered humbucker pickups

We prefer to have, if you’re going to have covered pickups, the pole screw crown just emerging above the top of the cover to start with. And for an uncovered pickup, we prefer to have the pole screws crown emerging just above the bobbin as a starting point. It may be after you adjust the height that you’re not going to mess with the screws but we like to keep pole screw adjustment as the final step of any pickup height adjustment.

Take note of your current height adjustment

Before you start take a measurement of the height adjustment that you already have and then you can compare that to what you get after adjusting the PAF humbucker pickups using this method. If you want to go back you can always do it.

Initial Guitar Pickup Height Adjustment

Before we get started, we will set both of these pickups to a specific height. The height is measured between the top of the pole screw crown and the bottom of the high and low E strings (1st and 6th strings).

As a starting point, let’s set the height of this bridge pickup to two millimeters between the high and low E pole screws. And for the neck pickup, let’s set the height to four millimeters. The bridge pickup tends to vary more as to what you end up with, but two millimeters is a good starting point. On the other hand, the neck pickup, for a Les Paul style of guitar, very often is pretty close to that four millimeters.

Effect of adjusting the guitar humbucker pickups height

When making this adjustment, it’s important that you understand the concept of how the change of the pickup heights affect the output, clarity and the tone of your guitar. So when we’re adjusting the neck pickup we’re thinking in these terms, lowering the pickup will increase low-end clarity and note separation, raising it will increase volume and low-end warmth, but at some point it will increase low-end boominess to a point that you may not like it. So the idea is to get a balance between output and clarity that works for your guitar and for your style.

The concept with the bridge pickup is different than the neck. The bridge concept is that lowering the pickup will reduce output and raising it increases output and power. So we intentionally start with the bridge pickup fairly high and we’re going to lower it until we feel that through playing, that we’ve lost some power that we want back. And then raise it until we’ve regained that power that we lost.

How to adjust the neck PAF pickup in a Gibson Les Paul 1959.

Take a look at this article about the best years for the Gibson SG.

Adjusting the Neck Pickup

We like to start with the neck pickup because we find that to be typically the most problematic as to where its sweet spot for clarity and output is in relation to the bridge.

Someone that loves to play the neck all the time clean might want that low-end body and girth that you would get from the pickup closer to the strings. But the way we like to play, we like to have as much clarity as we can get out of the neck pickup so we use it as a counterpoint to the bridge and know that we’ve got really good note separation. And this is one thing that PAF’s really shine at, is clarity in the low end but it really requires you have it adjusted properly to get that.

This is really a preliminary adjustment. We’re going to play with the volume and tone up high, all the way, and we’re going to play open notes on the high and low E while we make adjustments and just open notes on the other strings to get it to where we’re feeling like we’re getting the right balance and output and clarity and all that.

If you raise to much the neck pickup you may lose some clarity, particularly in the low end, that we want. So if that happens you go back and lower a bit. Then you find the sweet pot where you have clarity, a high output and low end.

Once you get your basic adjustment in for the neck pickup of the guitar and we’ll move on to the bridge.

Adjusting the Bridge Pickup

Now we’re going to go on to the bridge. Having it too close to the strings can drive your amp too hard and you have a problem with headroom with the amp and although it’ll add body to the tone of the high strings at some point it can get harsh. And there’s a balance as far as power and output of these. So the concept with this is lower it until you’ve lost power that you want back and then raise it until you’ve gained that regained that lost power. So let’s get on with that again volume and tone knobs all at full.

The goal is that the guitar pickup is fairly clear, good output and not harsh.

So now we’ve got the rough adjustment for the bridge pickup. Now is the time to compare it to the guitar neck pickup and there’s any guess as to what you’re gonna get at this point.

Do you know the top failures of Gibson: the ugliest, weirdest and most unknown guitars?

Balancing the neck and bridge humbucker pickup positions

Both guitar pickups have to balance and what we’re listening to now is we want to make sure that we’re getting a balance mainly in output and if we’re going to adjust that we have to decide does it make sense to raise the bridge or lower the neck or raise the neck?

As we said, the adjustment we already done were basic. Now we have to check again comparing not only the output, also the tone of both PAF pickups and we have to balance them.

How to set up the height of a bridge humbucker pickup of a Gibson Les Paul.

If the bridge has lower ouput, we can lower the neck pickup increasing the clarity and decreasing the output, that’s going to even it out with the bridge. If you raise the bridge pickup you get a little more punch. You also can do both things, raise the bridge pickup and lower the neck pickup

Play phrases and chords and open notes throughout doing it and we’ll decide whether or not we’re going to adjust the bridge or neck.

Once we’ve got this fine-tuned the way we want it, kind of a final test with this is you play all positions.

Adjusting the middle position

If you want to further tweak it you can affect the middle position tone by what the balance is in height between the bridge and neck pickup. Raising the bridge a bit will brighten it up or lowering the neck pickup a touch will it make a little chimier.

Don’t miss all the information about Golden Years of Gibson: Ted McCarty Era!

Fine-Tuning Individual String Balance

So we’ve got the height, we like the way it’s dialed in. The question is, is there any individual guitar string that we want to adjust the output of. Now, you can understand why the humbucker pickups come with pole screw.

The concept now is if you want to affect string balance you want to raise individual pole screws or lower them to affect that. And raising the pole screw will increase volume and increase treble a touch and lowering it will reduce volume and reduce treble a little bit.

The pole screws tend to be a little more of a bitey sound, so you might find one string is a little too dominant or not dominant enough and then you want to adjust the pole screws. And with that half a turn, it can make a difference even a quarter turn can make a difference. So small adjustments to the pole screws will be worth the effort if you think you need it. Very often though we find we don’t so we’re pretty happy with the way this is.

Some heights for reference

GuitarNeck High ENeck Low EBridge High EBridge Low E
Les Paul4 mm4.5 mm3 mm3 mm
Les Paul4.25 mm4.25 mm2 mm2.5 mm
Les Paul3.5 mm4 mm2 mm2 mm
Les Paul3 mm3.25 mm2 mm2.5 mm
ES-3354.25 mm5 mm2 mm1.5 mm
ES-3354 mm4.5 mm2 mm2.5 mm
ES-3354 mm4 mm2 mm1.5 mm
ES-3354 mm4.5 mm2 mm2.5 mm

Final thoughts about when and how to adjust PAF humbucker pickups

We may have to adjust the PAF humbucker pickup height with with any change of our setup. For instance, if we switch to round core pure Nickel, that’s going to affect the output of the lower strings and I may have to adjust the pickup height.

So any change to your setup you may find that you need to tweak this a bit. You may also change your style and decide that a guitar will shine in the neck pickup, and you tweak for a bit more output out of it. On the other side you may want that other guitar shines in the bridge pickup.

We hope that our method was useful for you. We think that it really helps you dial in specific guitar’s pickup combination to your need and we think that really you have to approach it that way. That they’re individual guitars and the pickups that really have to be tuned to what you want out of that guitar.

You also may be interested in the best free online virtual guitar amp simulators for laptops.

Share this article on

Ronnie Ronston

Ronnie is a musician with vast experience. He has two solo albums released. Also, he has done work as a composer and session musician for various artists. In addition, Ronnie has won the award for best Band and best guitarist of the 3rd Latin American Beatle week, thanks to which he went to play in Liverpool. While in England he lived there as a musician. He has also played a season with "Dios Salve A La Reina" (God Save The Queen), one of the most successful Queen tribute band.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *