A sunk pickup can be both an aesthetic imperfection and a functional defect.
Luckily, fixing a pickup that doesn’t want to stay in his right position is pretty easy and will make your guitar experience a little better.
1. Where To Start
In order to correct the position of a misplaced pickup you first need to know how it’s mounted.
Is it body mounted or is it mounted on a pickguard or to a pickup frame.
A body mounted pickup will have mounting screws that sink directly into the body of the guitar. Think about the neck pickup of a vintage Fender Telecaster, or the iconic P90s of some Les Pauls.
If you, on the contrary, think about the pickups of a Stratocaster, with adjusting screws clearly visible on both side of each pickup, you’re imagining pickups that are directly mounted to the pickguard, which is then screwed on the body of the guitar.
In both cases, the position of the pickup is set by the position of the screws and by the presence of some elastic material that keeps the pickup in place.
You may find a number of different things under a pickup. A couple of springs, some surgical tubing or foam.
Those are responsible to push the pickup away from the mounting side and preventing them to freely move in any direction.
2. Fixing Sunk Pickguard Mounted Pickups
Starting from the easiest of cases. If you happen to find a guitar that has sunken pickups that are pickguard mounted, like most humbuckers, chances are that you are facing a very minor issue.
And if you’re able to firmly keep a screwdriver in your hand, fixing it shouldn’t represent a challenge to you.
To fix a sunken pickup in anything like a Fender guitar just turn clockwise the screw that’s on the sunken side of the pickup. It should rise to its natural position.
If it doesn’t, you’ll need to check if the screw is turning too loosely. It may indicate that the screw itself it’s not engaged in the pickup threads or that the threads are ruined.
In this case, things are not as easy as you’ll need to remove the complete pickguard and work from the inside of the guitar to reassemble everything correctly and eventually replace the ruined screw.
A worn-out thread on the pickup is something you don’t want to find, as it will require a re-threading done with professional tools.
Removing a guitar’s pickguard is not a difficult job. Still, you’ll be facing soldering points and will likely pull some wires. If you don’t feel confident and you fear ruining your precious instrument, take it to your favorite luthier.
Keep in mind that you may find a broken screw. If that’s the case, you’ll have no choice but to replace it.
You should always choose a replacement screw with the same length and thread measures, otherwise you may not be able to fix your guitar properly.
3. Fixing Sunk Body Mounted Pickups
Regulating this kind of pickup is almost as easy as regulating the pickguard mounted type. However, it requires some more attention and care to detail.
In this case, in order to rise the pickup in his cavity you will have to turn the screws counterclockwise.
All you have now is hope that the elastic material that the builder used to mount the pickup is still reasonably strong to push the pickup with some force.
If that’s not the case, you’ll need to remove the pickup and screws and replace whatever causes the pickup to no longer spring back in position.
You can find strong enough springs into ballpoint pens, which is a neat hack Finding a suitable foam may be much trickier, as the kind of foams generally used in common packaging are way too soft to properly support the pickup and prevent it to move around.
Keep in mind that this kind of pickups have holes that are not threaded and in many cases this is exactly the reason why you can find them sunken in the cavity.
If you apply pressure to a body mounted pickup, you would be able to push it into the body cavity. When pressure is released, the pickup should return back to its position thanks to the springs tension below him.
Sometimes the pickup remains stuck into the screws thread, unable to go back to the proper position.
When it happens, it’s usually enough to grab the pickup and shake it gently. Rocking it back and forth will free the pickup from the threads and it will pop back to where it’s supposed to be.
For certain guitar models, you’ll need to remove the pickguard to access a body mounted pickup’s screws.
A famous example is the neck pickup of vintage Telecasters. It’s not a difficult operation. Still, remember not to over-tighten the screws when reassembling the pickguard, as it may result in breaking it.
The good news is that, with body mounted pickups, removing a pickguard is a completely safe operation that can be done without fear of harming the guitar. Pay attention to the finishing of the top, though, as you may scratch it.
4. Worst Case Scenario
The solutions described above assume that the body of the guitar is in good overall shape. Solid body guitars don’t generally represent a problem.
You can probably smash a guitar multiple times against a rock before you’ll be able to appreciate some deformation of the body. And you’ll want to replace all of your guitar’s hardware by the time.
Hollow bodied guitars are a different beast, though.
On an archtop guitar, or an acoustic guitar with a mounted pickup, the problem may be much more serious. The top can sink and deform widely and the pickup will faithfully follow the top wherever it goes, resulting in misplacing.
Except in extreme cases, you may temporarily compensate for the top deformation by rising the pickup. Still, you should consider taking the guitar to a professional luthier to fix the underlying structural defect.
5. What To Check For
When trying to reposition a misplaced pickup, albeit being it a simple operation, you should take a number of things into consideration. You may as well take advantage of it to optimize the performance of your guitar.
First of all, consider condition of screws. They should move freely and be properly threaded.
Poor quality screws may be difficult to set up correctly and usually show premature wear on the threads, which will make the entire operation much more difficult.
Sometimes is just much easier to replace a bad screw than fighting against it.
Always remember that it should take little effort to turn any regulating screw. If you need too much strength, the screw may be stuck into the pickup or it may be already too tight.
Remember that it’s never a good idea to insist on a screw that’s already over tightened.
Never try to regulate your screws without a proper screwdriver. It may seem obvious, but it’s way too common to see screw heads that are badly mangled because someone used a screwdriver of the wrong size.
Ruining screws heads is much easier on slotted screws when compared to Phillip screws. Consider that slotted screws are usually used either on vintage models or in costly reissues.
It would be much cheaper, in the long run, to take your time to select the tool that best matches the screw. Even if it requires buying a brand new screwdriver.
If you are working with a beater guitar, you can always replace the ruined screws with something you can cheaply find at your local hardware store. Not so much if you ruin some nice Fender Custom screw!
Springs and Foam
Always check that springs or foam are in good functional condition. Foam, especially, tends to lose his properties over time. If your guitar is already quite old, it may be time to replace it altogether.
Discussing pickup height deserves its own space. Without going too much in depth, remember that if they are set too low, the output will be impaired. If they are positioned too close to the strings, the sustain of your guitar will be reduced due to magnetic pull.
Don’t expect anything major here. Still, carefully setting the heights of your pickups will help you balance volume differences between different pickups and even among different strings.
You also don’t want your strings to be placed so close to the pickup to fry on the pickup’s cover.
As a rule of thumb, consider placing the pickups 2-3mm from the string and then move them as your taste decides.
Check out this cool video on how to set height of your guitar pickups properly.
6. How To Prevent Sunk Pickups
Avoiding sunk pickups on your guitar is pretty simple, as proper maintenance and use of the guitar will almost surely prevent this issue to ever happen.
The main culprit of sunk pickups is just banging the guitar around too much. Hence, don’t hit the pickups too hard when you play. Also, always carry your guitar in a suitable rigid case or a well-padded gig bag.
Avoid to leave your guitar unattended on a stand: nobody cares about your instrument except you. People are likely to bump into things and make them fall, especially on crowded stages.
Extra lubrication of the mounting screws is not required, but beware of extremely humid environments and, generally speaking, liquids. A rusted screw will easily break and your pickup will have no more support.
With that in mind, you may want to check out the related article from this site.
I hope this article helped you manage and fix your sunk guitar pickups. If that’s the case, I’m more than happy about it. Helping fellow guitar brothers around the world is always a pleasure!
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Cheers, and rock on!