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Find the best Stratocaster pickups that work for you.
Get a fresh perspective on aftermarket pickups.
Check out our pickup selection FAQ and tips!
Aftermarket pickups have been around since the 1970s, so it can be a pretty daunting task to find a pickup that will suit your needs. If you want to read up on the different pickup types I suggest you check out this article, which talks about the different pickup types, and when they are used.
A small heads up when assembling your own set of pickups is that you should consider a reverse-wound middle pickup. This will make positions 2 and 4 on the pickup selector (most often used for clean sounds) noiseless.
I will be focusing on pickup sets, as they are often calibrated to work well together, but I highly encourage you to mix and match to see which Stratocaster pickups work best for you. You might like the bridge single-coil from one set, but you prefer the neck and middle pickups from a different set. As long as it sounds good and you’re happy then that’s all that matters!
The Seymour Duncan SSL1 set manages to highlight the natural tonal qualities of a bright maple fretboard Strat without the highs getting overbearing. I found this is a great set for players that are looking to replicate the glassy, clean sounds of 80’s guitars. These pickups might also help to make a dull Strat sound a bit more lively due to their accentuated high end.
If you want to produce a Pink Floyd tone, try using an SSL-5 single-coil in the bridge paired with the neck and middle pickups of the SSL-1 set. You can check out a demo of these pickups below:
2. Bare Knuckle Boot Camp Old Guard (Best Budget Option)
When I started out in the session world the stock pickups in my guitar really didn’t cut it. I spent way too much time in the control room with the producers trying to get rid of all sorts of nasty peaks with a parametric EQ.
Something had to change, but money was tight so I knew I had to save up for a long time. But the longer I waited, the more gigs I missed out on. Because no one wants to hire a guitar player that has to spend a whole day dialing in sounds.
Luckily for me, Bare Knuckle had just come out with a budget pickup line. At that time I already had a Bare Knuckle humbucker in my Strat, but could these single coils be just as good? After a few emails with Bare Knuckle‘s very helpful customer support team, I was confident that these pickups would solve the issues I was having.
Even though they are not expensive, the Old Guards are handmade in the UK by the same people that deal with making custom pickups for high profile guitarists such as Misha Mansoor, Rabea Massaad, and many more.
When I plugged my guitar in I was very pleased with the sound. Suddenly my clean sounds no longer had a nasty low-mid bump, and the highs sounded open without being overwhelming. The midrange had a nice scooped character which could still cut through a dense mix.
This single coil set is great for players who are looking for a budget all-round Strat tone that’ll please every producer you work with. They have worked for me so far!
One of the reasons I love Seymour Duncan is because they like to tinker with pickups to the nth degree. I have talked about their DIY forum inspired 59/Custom Hybrid humbucker in this article, but that’s not the only unique pickup they made, and it’s all got to do with magnets. Let me explain.
Just when we thought we knew about all the different elements that affect guitar tone it was discovered that pickup magnets change the sound of the amplified guitar signal, just like a microphone capsule changes the sound of a microphone.
The basic rule of thumb is that Alnico 2 magnets sound the warmest, and the higher the Alnico number (most commonly Alnico 5 and 8), the more powerful and brighter the sound gets. Seymour Duncan used this principle in a very clever way.
Guitarists with Alnico 2 pickups often really love the smooth character of the high end, but sometimes they find the low end to bee a little loose.
Whereas Alnico 5 users love the tight low-end response they get, but they have to deal with a needly sounding high end. Seymour Duncan figured out that if you make a pickup with an Alnico 5 on the bass string side, and an Alnico 2 magnet on the high string side you get the best of both worlds.
This way, you get the tight and powerful response of the Alnico 5 on the low strings and the softer, smoother sound of the Alnico 2 on the high strings.
The Dimarzio Injector single coils are known for their ability to deal with high gain guitar tones. It is often found that the more high end you put into an overdriving guitar amp the more shrill it’s going to sound.
By increasing the number of wounds on the single-coil the highs get rolled off slightly, which results in a tone that still sounds clear in high gain settings without the high frequencies that chop your head off.
High-output neck pickups such as this one can really help with balancing the levels between the humbucker sounds and the single-coil sounds.
Many Stratocaster players lust after the sounds of vintage Strats from the 50s and 60s. They will go to all sorts of trouble just to get the sound they are after. The ’63 Veneer Board set is designed to work best with Strats that have a rosewood veneer fretboard.
After August 1962 Fender decided to make the bottom of the fretboard match the top of the fretboard. This changed the thickness of the rosewood, which in turn caused the tone to change.
A rosewood fretboard often yields a warmer tone than a maple fretboard. But with veneer fretboards, the amount of rosewood is even smaller. These Bare Knuckle pickups are wound slightly hotter than vintage pickups from before the ’60s to compensate for the loss of body from the rosewood.
This pickup set manages to deliver a deep, full sound with a nicely pronounced high end for that awesome clean sound that has become synonymous with the Stratocaster. However, these pickups also deliver enough attitude for some absolutely killer overdriven sounds!
Lollar pickups aren’t particularly well known among most guitarists. But studio guitarists love them! These pickups are designed to sound mellow and smooth when you play softly, but absolutely spank the front end of an amp when playing hard.
This especially comes in handy in the studio because you need to be able to get a wide range of tones in a small amount of time. These pickups can sound great on funk, or R&B, but they can be just as convincing when playing some killer rock parts!
They are handmade in the USA, and that’s definitely noticeable in the price, but this is a great long term investment in your tone if you’re looking for a versatile array of sounds! If you want to hear the Lollar Blondes in action check out session hero Shawn Tubbs’ demo of his Blonde equipped s-type guitar here.
Pickup FAQ & Selection Tips
How old are single coil pickups?
The oldest single coil pickup can be dated back to the 1920’s! The simple design of a magnet with loads of copper wire wrapped around it is claimed to have been invented by George Beauchamp with the help of a certain Adolph Rickenbacker.
It is claimed that one of George’s first versions of the single coil pickup was wound with the help of a washing machine motor. After some prototyping and tweaking the Horseshoe pickup was born. The Horseshoe pickup got its name thanks to the two magnets having a U-shape.
Fast forward to 1954. The birth year of the Fender Stratocaster, and its single coil pickups. To this day, the Fender Strat is still the most famous of all single coil guitars, with a tone many have come to know and love.
Since the creation of the Strat’s pickups, the design remained the same, but don’t let that fool you. Even though they seem simple they can boast a great deal of different tonal flavors!
What’s the best pickup to use?
The truth is, there is no golden standard. Everyone is going to prefer different pickups for different things.
There are loads of ways to select a pickup. I often select guitar pickups for my Strat like a recording engineer would select a microphone for a singer.
The thing is… not every microphone will work for every singer. If I sing into the microphone used by Barbara Streisand, I can sing as hard as I can, but there’s no way I’m going to sound like Barbara Streisand!
The same applies to pickups.
An electric guitar has a unique acoustic sound, so it’s up to the guitarist to find the pickup set that best compliments the guitar’s inherent tone.
Tip: Don’t just go for the single coil that guitarist X uses.
A great way to select pickups is to listen to guitar sounds from records you really like, and figuring out what pickups the guitarist used on that record.
Let’s say that you love the tone of guitarist X. Guitarist X used bright pickups, so you decide to go for a bright single coil set.
But what if your guitar’s acoustic tone is inherently bright. Putting a bright sounding pickup in a bright sounding guitar can backfire by excessively boosting your high end, which can result in a lack of low-end content.
It might be smarter to listen to your guitar’s inherent tone, and then select a pickup that compliments that sound. A warmer single coil set can make a bright sounding Strat way more balanced, giving the tone a richer quality.
Tip: Change your mindset
Guitar players are some of the most peculiar people when it comes to dialling in a sound. Some of us believe that the screws that attach the Strat’s neck to its body have an effect on the guitar’s sound (and maybe they do?).
But in reality, most people that listen to a song will just care about whether the song as a whole sounds nice!
I have never heard my non-guitarist friends say “I really like what that hand made single coil you bought for 300 dollars did to the upper midrange of the lead guitar” when they hear me playing my Strat. Lately, I’ve been gravitating towards more of a producer mindset when dialling in tones and purchasing gear, such as pickups.
The one question I ask myself when I buy gear, such as a single-coil pickup is “Does this give me the vibe I’m looking for?” If you approach it that way, the price won’t matter as much. If a 60 dollar single coil gives you the exact vibe you’re going for then it makes no sense to purchase a 150 dollar single coil. Go for what works best for your instrument.