I recently received an email from one of my pickup affectionados in Germany asking a question that I realized is of ULTIMATE importance in Strat tone: “what is the best distance from the pickup to the strings for the best results?” Now that’s a question EVERYONE who owns or works on Strat’s NEEDS to know the answer to!
I need to make it clear that I am talking about real-deal vintage pickups and real-deal quality pickups like the ones made by Jason Lollar, Curtis Novak, Lindy Fralin, And myself. Those crappy Ceramic Bars glued next to steel slug things that come standard in so many Strat’s and Strat copies today cannot really be made to sound good, so a trip to the waste-basket is the only course of treatment for them.
I prefer to use a digital caliper to take measurements, but a quality luthier’s ruler will do fine if you have excellent vision! I also should mention that these measurements should be taken from the High & Low E POLE-PIECES, not the plastic cover. Okay, so with no further ado, here are my suggestions and reasons why.
Low E: 3.80mm / 0.149"
Hi E : 4.74mm / 0.186"
Often people will place the bridge pickup too high (close to the strings), with a VINTAGE set this destroys the tone, making it sound too narrow, focused, brittle, and harsh. The reason so many folks get used to placing this pickup as close as possible to the strings is because many of the currently made Strat pickups are muddy and severely lacking in the characteristic chime and sparkle we all love in a Strat! As with all truly fine Strat sets, my pickups certainly do NOT suffer from this lack of sparkle!
Low E: 4.75mm / 0.186"
Hi E : 4.13mm / 0.163"
Here, for me, it's all about making the middle pickup truly magical when combined with the neck or bridge pickup (positions 2 & 4). Yes, these measurements sound exquisite when using the middle pickup all by itself, but it REALLY brings out the glassy, airy beauty that folks crave in the "in-between" positions on a Strat!
Low E: 5.25mm / 0.207"
Hi E : 4.37mm / 0.172"
This is actually a very standard placement, and about where most Strats will come set from the factory. There are three goals here. First, we want a great "SRV" type tone that sings beautifully and does not fall apart into mud even with EXTREME amounts of gain added (think dual daisy-chained Tube Screamers). Second, we want to be able to roll the tone back a little and have a truly rewarding experience playing big Jazz chords and lines. And last, we want to ensure it blends perfectly with the middle pickup for that air and glass we mentioned.