With its traditional triple single-coils in a neck middle bridge configuration, you might not know that there's a whole host of tone transforming options out there for your Stratocaster. So with our usual panache, we have picked out four to discuss the best Stratocaster pickups in 2023.
Despite the strat pickups' designs changing over the years many of us cling to that classic layout, and whilst Fender make a heap of high-end options to help you stand out from the crowd, they can be pretty pricey.
There are many competitive products on the market, especially in the budget regions. Some offer a typical single-coil sound and others have a little more to give, so we are going to run through a few of the best stratocaster options with you.
First in our sights, is something you may not have initially considered. The Little 59 Humbucker from Seymour Duncan is a step away from that single-coil Strat sound we are all accustomed to.
It is the company's admirable attempt at stashing a double coiled Humbucker in housing which measures up with your usual single sized set.
It is a PAF style passive pickup, which features ceramic magnets. The medium output option gives tones that are reminiscent of the iconic Gibson PAF warmth.
Its dual pickup system works a little more finely; it helps cancel out signal hum and delivers note signals which ring with individual clarity. Although we must note that it's incomparable side by side to a full-size Humbucker, it doesn't drive your amp nearly as well. That being said, it has an impressive sound all of its own.
It is wired with a 4 conductor lead wire so you can easily split it or hook up a switch. Seymour Duncan makes a neck model version too.
Why We Liked It - This brand of strat pickups allows you to give your Strat a Les Paul vibe. It is exceptionally well-made and comes from a reputable stratocaster pickups engineering brand and is versatile.
Pickup height - Everyone loves a strat sound, or at least they should do, but a simple pickup trick can give it some extra character. If you use a screwdriver to adjust the pickup height by just a few millimeters, you can hear a clear difference. Make the bass side (low strings) slightly lower than the high side; your low notes will sustain more, and the highs will have added clarity.
So we can't talk stratocaster pickups without an official fender tone option up for grabs. Despite the plethora we have chosen, the Tex-Mex set allows you to upgrade all 3 spots at once for a very reasonable price.
They are the very same set which the Jimmie Vaughn Stratocaster sport stocked. In comparison to the Fender Custom Shop, this set gives the guitar a signature vintage style high output grit whilst maintaining crystal highs with sparkling sustain. The articulation is pretty impressive given their hotter nature.
They are well-made and easy to install. You can get your hands on them with all their Stratocaster drop cap wiring accouterments for well under one hundred dollars, which is great value for money.
They are all PAF style and feature the go-to Alnico magnets found in the vintage models. The poles can be tweaked to emulate a variety of notorious Fender set-ups. If you know what you're doing, you can get a vintage stagger to die for.
Why We Liked It - Regardless of the range of custom Fender sets out there, we narrowed in on this set for their powerfully warm Texas dirt. The bridge pickup is high-resistance and pretty damn hot. The overall set-up gives great dynamic switching possibilities. Another Fender alternative is the Fender Custom Shop.
3. Wilkinson Lic Cream ST Strat Vintage Voice single-coil Pickups
Our third selection is, simply put, a low-budget choice for those with fewer options when it comes to price.
They are a reasonably well-calibrated triple set which works out as almost ten dollars apiece, making them unarguable value for money. There are, of course, many other options with similar retail prices around, but this set does a bang-up job of providing a full range of tones with good articulation and output.
For starters, the middle pickup is genuinely reverse wound reverse polarity, which some budget pickup sets neglect. They are a ceramic trio, which has good resistance settings, providing decent balance. They are perfect for a Stratocaster, and they're simple to install.
+ Ceramic pole pieces.
+ Range of tonal qualities.
Why We Liked It - These are an impressive inexpensive set with great tones, especially for ceramics. They serve up some great sonic characteristics and won't empty your wallet.
Pickup switching - The five Stratocaster pickup positions each offer a unique tone, and playing the right notes on the wrong position can take the shine off your playing. Let yourself get used to the sound of each position so you can make the right creative decisions. What you play should be enhanced by the pickup position; it should not be controlled by it.
It's always tough when you have a limited number of top spots, but, we are summing up our selection with the TRS3 Classic blues set from Tonerider, manufactured here in the USA.
The Blues Strat pickup set is a modern higher-output version of the TRS1, with the familiar 60's essential vintage tones in a cleaner driven package.
They have a hot pickup with a real punch and RWRP middle. They are all wax potted to further reduce feedback. They are easy to install and feature vintage push-back cloth wiring.
+ Great clean clarity.
+ Excellent manufacturing.
Why We Liked It - They deliver vintage blues tones with clearer signals and more bite than ever before.
Strat Pickups Buyers Guide
How Does a Pickup Actually Work?
A pickup is a type of transducer. They come in a small variety of styles but all of them function in the same way. They project their own magnetic field in order to sense the vibrations around that disturb it.
They employ permanent magnets either alnico or ferrite in nature, which are wrapped with very fine copper wire. They're generally enamel-coated, and a single magnet can be wrapped with thousands of turns of wire, referred to as winding.
In more recent years many are leaning towards ceramic pole piece options, although the ceramic versus alnico debate remains a controversial subject for most.
The stronger the magnet used the bigger the flux they create, therefore producing a greater output. High-outputs require far more winding
The magnetic pole pieces within each individual pickup are aligned for placement, directly corresponding to each of your 6 guitar strings. This is sometimes referred to as E to E placing and, although this differs slightly from guitar to guitar, most pickups are somewhat universal.
When a string is plucked the vibration is interpreted into an electric signal which is sent to a speaker which functions similarly to change the electrical signal into sound waves with audible frequencies.
A pickup, whether passive or active, requires an amplifier to project the audio input. Most guitars have at least 2, if not 3, pickups with either neck and bridge or neck middle bridge placements. A Stratocaster in particular, as previously mentioned has 3.
What is the Best Pickup for a Strat?
The classic setup for a Fender Stratocaster is a trio of single-coil PAF pickups with the phase and polarity reversed between each.
This means the middle pickup should be reverse wound so they don't affect each other's fields negatively and any hum is canceled out. This helps prevent the guitar from feeding, as single-coil pickups are very direct and are prone to picking up background electrical activity.
This set-up allows for 5-way switching, giving you a good range of vintage Strat sounds from their recognizable bright twangs to their grittier driven ends.
Typically, the bridge pickup will be wound with a higher density to give it higher output capabilities.
From today's selection, we would wager the Tex-Mex set are a great affordable option that gives you a diverse set of tones to create your own sounds.
Obviously, they won't compare with a set of Fender Custom Shop, or of Eric Johnson's but that's pretty much a given.
Can I Install a Double-Coil Pickup in my Strat?
Short answer no, not without modifying your pickup placements to accommodate a fat Strat configuration which can wreck your body if it isn't already a model suitable for an HSS setup.
However, as demonstrated with the Seymour Duncan pickup, there are humbuckers out there made to fit a single-coil slot.
We also have a soft spot for the DiMarzio DP419 Area 67 Pickup which, like the Seymour Duncan, is a humbucking coil option in a single-coil format. That gives your guitar tones some Gibson-like gumption.
A fresh set of pickups can really transform any guitar and give it a new lease of life, even if it isn't actually a Stratocaster but a Strat inspired off-brand.
Pickup installation is fairly hassle-free and the range of Strat PUP options on the market is pretty tempting, to say the least.
As long as you are familiar with the general rules of thumb regarding neck mid and bridge configurations, and have a little wiring know-how, you should find yourself a happy-shopper.
If you're looking to emulate a specific sound or genre, you might want to consider looking into some of the Fender's signature sound series sets inspired by, and even brainstormed and developed with, some of music's most notable guitarists.
Did you Know
Though the single-coil set-up hasn't changed drastically since Leo Fender introduced the Strat in 1954 many different sounds can be achieved - it's all down to the winding. Some master-wound sets can cost up-to $500.
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