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Tone Talk: Best Vintage Strat Pickups

Tone Talk: Best Vintage Strat Pickups

Posted by Matt McCracken on 22nd Dec 2021

The Stratocaster is the most popular guitar out there, and it’s never-ending admiration resonates amongst guitarists of all styles. Whether it is Funk or Heavy Metal, the Strat has been instrumental in the development of many a genre, and will no doubt continue to be in the future. But why is the Strat such a favourite? And how has it continued to maintain its popularity for nearly 70 years?

Pickup Design

We believe it’s down to the classic three pickup design, which allows for not only a wide variety of sounds, but a signature sound that’s inherent to the Strat itself. In our humble opinion the Telecaster is actually a more versatile guitar if you want something that can imitate sounds, but what the Strat has is a sound all of its own. A sound you’ll find difficult to emulate with any other type of guitar, be it a Tele or an LP.

To find out how the Strat creates its iconic tones, we delved deeper into the manufacturing history of Strat pickups…

How it’s Made

Initially introduced in 1954, the traditional Fender Strat had three single-coil pickups that were comparatively simple in terms of design, particularly for that era where it competed with Filter’Trons, PAFs, and P-90s. There are three essential parts in a Strat Pickups, the ‘bobbins’ (aka flats), six magnetic pole pieces (aka slugs), and of course, magnetic wire wraps.

Bobbins

For the most part Fender initially used vulcanised fibreboard to construct their pickup bobbins and whilst it doesn’t affect the tone in any particularly discernible way, it can help to identify the era the pickups were made. The first Strat pickups had a black fibreboard, which then changed to grey in early 1964.

Pickup Flats

Interestingly on Strat pickups the pole pieces are held into the fibreboard plates by friction alone, and this is possible because vulcanised fibreboard is such a durable material. The simplicity of this design is undoubtedly part of what makes the Strat such a popular design.

Pole Pieces

Fender also took a new approach when it came to the bobbins of their Strat pickups, creating staggered heights with their pole pieces (aka slugs) to allow for better string to string balance. Over time the diameter of the pole pieces has narrowed, creating a more focused magnetic field which delivered a brighter, tighter tone compared to earlier iterations from the 50s.

Pickup Bobbins

The type of Alnico used also changed, with Fender starting with Alnico III on the earliest Strat designs, before moving to Alnico V from 1955 onwards. The higher power of Alnico V is what separates it from earlier iterations, and gives classic guitars their sought after 'vintage' tone.

Magnetic Wire

Fender has used wire with two different types of coating, plain enamel and heavy formvar. Initially formvar was the go to for Fender coils, before the change to plain enamel in 1964. Formvar has a heavier coating than enamel, which results in a difference in sound between the two types.

Pickup Mag Wire

Windings varied greatly from era to era, with some being hotter and others being cooler, likely because they were hand wound by humans. Nowadays Fender pickups are wound by machines for consistency, but there are those that say coils sound better when wound by humans!

Five Way Switch

It’s not just how Strat pickups are made that lends the guitar its unique timbre, it’s also the way they are utilised with the guitar electrics that lets you create a myriad of usable guitar tones. The three-pickup line up offers a truly unique way for the different positions to interact with one another.

Oak Grigsby 5 Way Switch

The five way switch is the real powerhouse of Strat tone, and a huge part of how it generates its signature sound. Whereas most other guitars like LPs and Teles have a three way selector, the Strat offers an expanded sonic palette for you to play with. Allowing for combining the bridge and neck positions with the unique middle pickup, the two ‘in between’ modes offer some impressively satisfying and iconic guitar tones.

Best Strat Pickups

So now we know how the Strat generates its signature sonorant, it’s time to line up the best Strat Pickups, from budget all the way to boutique…

Tonerider City Limits Pickup Set

Tonerider City Limits Stratocaster Pickup

The Tonerider City Limits Pickup Set delivers a hotter Stratocaster sound that is unrivalled considering the price point. The neck and middle pickups emulate the ‘overwound’ 50s style pickups, more colloquially known as the ‘Texas’ sound. However the bridge pickup departs from the usual here, offering a more modern sound with a lighter gauge wire that delivers an incredibly cutting solo tone, without a harsh top end.

Artec Vintage Strat Pickup Set

Artec Vintage Strat Pickups

The Artec Vintage Pickup Set delivers a fantastic sound for an incredibly low price, punching well above their weight in terms of tone. The Bridge and Middle pickups feature staggered Alnico V magnets and all three are made to a similar spec of those bigger name brands, with fibreboard flats and braided hookup wire. They deliver clear, chime-like tones that are authentic to original vintage-spec Strat pickups.

Wilkinson Vintage 60s Pickup Set

Wilkinson Vintage 60s Strat Pickups

Another brand that overdelivers for the money, the Wilkinson Vintage 60s Stratocaster Pickups pack a serious punch! Designed to emulate classic 60s Strat pickups they offer that vintage warmth that many a guitarist desires, with sparkly cleans that dirty up nicely when pushed. This pickup set offers a rich, smooth overall tone, with slightly hotter bridge pickup to help balance the set.

Seymour Duncan SSL1 50s Strat Pickup Set

Seymour Duncan SSL1 Strat Pickups

Seymour Duncan’s SSL1 50s Strat Pickup set is about as close as you can get to vintage era pickups without some serious splurging. The level of detail that’s gone into these is frankly astonishing, with the exact same material used for the flats, period correct magnet stagger, heavy Formvar mag wire, and traditional keyed bottom plate. As you’d expect for a pickup set at this price point, these pickups deliver a bright, glassy, bell-like tone which is pure 50s Strat sound.

DiMarzio The Chopper

DiMarzio The Chopper

DiMarzio’s The Chopper is not a Vintage Strat pickup by any stretch of the imagination. But it is absolutely amazing if you want more power than the rest of the pickups on offer here. With extra power concentrated in the Mids and Lows, this pickup offers a bigger sound with a lot more crunch. Great in the bridge position, it has a twin blade construction so there are no issues with misaligned poles, or string pull problems.

Conclusion

The Strat truly is a unique proposition in the guitar world thanks to its pickup configuration. Pretty much every guitarist has one in their collection, and even Slash, known for being a lifetime Gibson user stated: ‘as far as I’m concerned and Gibson probably wouldn’t want me to say it, the Strat is, hands down, probably one of the best, most versatile guitars there is.’ Who are we to argue with that?