Many guitarists will buy a guitar and be happy with it as it comes: strings, set up, pickups, the lot. However, many people choose to replace their guitar’s pickups and by doing so, bring a whole new lease of life to their guitar.
But hang on? Surely, stock pickups (or ‘pups’ as they’re affectionately called) are just fine?
Well, not entirely. Often manufacturers – especially on budget Stratocaster copies – keep their costs down by using cheaper pups. But here’s the thing: it’s possible to overhaul the quality of sound on an inexpensive Strat completely, by replacing the pickups with a better set.
Although some Stratocasters include one humbucker at the bridge, most use just single-coils. This is largely owing to their versatility and their classic, twangy tone. However, not all pups are made equal. One set will produce a completely different sound to another.
At a Glance: Our Choice of the Best Strat Pickups on the Market
- Seymour Duncan Hot Rails
- Fender Custom Shop Texas Special
- Lace Sensor Blue-Silver-Red 3-Pack S-S-S
- Seymour Duncan STK-S4S Classic Stack
- Wilkinson Lic Cream ST Vintage Voice
- EMG SA Activ
Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon.
- What is a Single-Coil Pickup?
- Buyer’s Guide – Key Considerations
- Product Round-up & Mini Reviews
What is a Single-Coil Pickup?
Single-coils were the first kind of electric guitar pickup, and are still extremely popular today – renowned for their bright, punchy tone. People describe them as having more ‘bite’ than humbuckers, which usually have a thick, smooth tone. Although often accompanied by a hum, some guitarists think it offers them an authentic, 50s guitar sound. Many single-coil pickups now use techniques like stacking an extra coil, effectively making it work like a humbucker to eliminate the buzz.
How do they work, exactly? Pickups are magnetic transducers which are slotted into your guitar’s body, capturing sound vibrations and turning them into signals. Magnetic poles are positioned beneath each string, and the coil is wrapped around these magnets, producing and conducting an electric current. The size of the coil determines the strength of the current, which is what results in either a medium or high output (or ‘gain’).
Buyer’s Guide – Key Considerations
Normal vs. Stacked
Standard single-coil pups have just one set of magnets and circuitry. Stacked ones have two, ‘stacked’ on top of each other. Because they’re on top of each other, it looks from the outside like they’re single-coils, but actually, they work like humbuckers as one is wired out of phase with the other, to cancel out any humming sounds. Because they’re on top of each other, they do manage to maintain clarity and brightness, but might be a little less ‘twangy’ than normal ones. This is a worthwhile sacrifice if you are desperate to reduce the hum.
Style of Music
Are you looking to play heavy metal, blues-rock or bright country music?
If it’s heavy metal, it’s essential to go for something with a high gain, as this gives you clarity and precision as well as a louder signal. Overwound or coated coils will do, or you could consider an active single-coil. Blues-rock is often more reliant on dynamics, so a medium output combined with alnico magnets makes sense. Bright, country music is reliant on ‘twang,’ so the simplest pickups you can find make the most sense here, to maintain the classic tone of the originals.
Alnico vs. Ceramic
‘Alnico’ magnets made of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt were common in guitars in the 50s and 60s, offering a classic tone. These are still popular today amongst those seeking a vintage, warm tone. Ceramic pups have also been popular since the ’70s and have a higher output, giving them clarity and a stronger sound and are cheaper than alnico magnets.
Active vs. Passive
Most pups have passive circuitry. These don’t require batteries, using the magnets to produce electric currents in the coils and generally creating a medium gain. If you’re looking for a classic, single-coil tone, passive circuitry is the obvious choice. Active pups have a far higher output, making them better suited to shred-guitar or other heavy genres. They require batteries, which might be a drawback to some people, and also have less of a dynamic range than those with passive circuitry.
Product Round-up & Mini Reviews
Seymour Duncan Hot Rails
The Seymour Duncan Hot Rails Set is made of strong, ceramic magnets and has overwound coils to produce a high gain, big tone. Offering the perfect tone for rock and heavy metal, with their punchy, in-your-face sound, they also have dual blade construction which means that even heavily bent strings will get full pickup coverage. Wax potted, which eliminates the risk of microphonic feedback and makes them an even stronger option for those who like to play loud, these pups are designed to fit a Strat and work to transform it into a completely different, heavy rock instrument. On the pricey side, but not in comparison to buying a whole new guitar.
Not suited to those who want the classic, vintage tones, the Hot Rails will be perfect for guitarists who like the shape and style of a Strat, but require the heavier sound of Jackson or Ibanez guitars.
- High gain gives it the perfect tone for rock and heavy metal.
- Strong ceramic magnet and overwound coils deliver a big, balanced sound.
- Dual blade construction provides the ultimate string coverage.
- Quite expensive.
- Offers less dynamic control than traditional single-coil pickups.
Fender Custom Shop Texas Special
Many think the Fender Custom Shop Texas Special is the best Stratocaster pickup available. These will be more suited to those who play blues or rock and uses alnico magnets to offer a classic, warm sound – but the magnet wire is coated in enamel to increase the gain, giving you the best of both worlds. The Texas Special single-coils use staggered pole pieces to ensure that the output is balanced across the strings, and there’s a reverse-wound middle pickup to reduce the hum that you often get with classic single-coils.
The vintage style in both looks and tone makes them perfect for those wishing to emulate the sounds of Stevie Ray Vaughan, while the reduced hum and increased gain make them less problematic than older pickups. The tone’s quite mid-heavy, which might not suit all players or those looking for the ultimate in versatility.
- Alnico 5 magnets with enamel coated wire to produce an increased gain.
- Staggered pole pieces ensure a balanced output.
- Reverse-wound middle pickup reduces hum.
- Quite expensive.
- Mid-heavy tones might not suit all players.
Lace Sensor Blue-Silver-Red 3-Pack S-S-S
The Lace Sensor Blue-Silver-Red single-coils are a versatile set of pups which offer a fat, punchy output and use low energy magnets that give you increased sustain. They’re color-coded red, silver and blue, with the red one suited to the bridge position, the silver to the middle and the blue to the neck position. The red one has a higher gain than the others, giving it a full, powerful sound. The silver one has a pronounced midrange as well as quite a high gain, and the blue pickup has a lower gain, giving it a warm tone that’s ideal for the neck position.
Like the Texas set, there’s a reverse-wound middle pickup to reduce hum, and like both of the sets already mentioned, the Blue-Silver-Red pups are suited to a Strat.
It’s perfect for those who require a Strat’s renowned versatility with Gilmour-esque sustain. It will be less suited to those looking to completely transform their guitar into a heavy metal instrument.
- Reads a larger proportion of the string than other pups, while picking up less outside noise interference.
- Lower energy magnets, leading to an increase in sustain.
- Includes CD with wiring diagrams.
- Inappropriate for guitars that aren’t Strats.
- Even with the CD to help, it can be a bit tricky fitting these.
Seymour Duncan STK-S4S Classic Stack
Another Strat-specific set, the Seymour Duncan STK-S4S, are stacked, meaning we do not need to deal with unwanted humming. Although stacked, this set also has adjustable wiring, giving us the option to make them back into ‘true’ single-coils. Even when the ‘true’ single-coil option is chosen, the mid-pickup retains hum reducing qualities, enabling you to quickly eliminate any hum by using the neck or bridge pickup in conjunction with the middle one. They have a traditional tone, thanks to their Alcino magnets, and will be well-suited to those looking for the classic, vintage tone of a ’50s Strat but without the hum.
It will be less suited to players who like the ’50s hum, or to those looking for a high-output, heavy sound.
- Alcino magnets offer a warm, vintage tone.
- Pretuned ‘negative hum’ is injected into the circuit, reducing the hum while remaining single-coil.
- Comes with a cable that can be split to allow for true single-coil mode, while still silencing hum when pups are used in conjunction with the middle pickup.
- Not a particularly high output, so won’t suit heavier genres.
- These pickups can be a bit tricky to install.
Wilkinson Lic Cream ST Vintage Voice
The Wilkinson Lic Cream ST Vintage Voice is a very affordable set of ceramic single-coils, offering a clear, strong sound that will suit heavier players. This has staggered pole-pieces, making the output well-balanced across the strings and the set also comes with mounting screws and springs, making it easy to take on as a DIY job. Ceramic magnets often give you less dynamic control than alnico alternatives but are perfect for those interested in playing loud.
Even though these are relatively inexpensive, the Wilkinson ST Vintage Voice pickups give out a quality, clean sound that will give your Strat a new punchiness. Less suited to those who require dynamic versatility, or advanced hum-reducing technology.
- Extremely budget-friendly.
- Ceramic magnets give them a clear, strong sound.
- Come with mounting screws and springs.
- Comes with screws and springs, installation is quite fiddly.
- There’s less dynamic control than with alnico magnets.
EMG SA Active
The EMG SA is the only active ones in this list. This gives them a high output, which produces fantastic sustain and harmonics. The set is loaded with Alnico magnets, enabling them to maintain a classic, vintage sound while being louder than traditional pickups. There’s internal shielding to reduce any hum, and there’s a high mid-range response to bring out the guitar’s natural frequencies. The clarity that the EMG SA set brings makes it perfect for players who require precision and consistent dynamics. They also come with a Quik-connect header and cable, making installation easy to do without visiting a professional.
The EMG SA Active pups might not be suited to those who require the exact vintage tone of ’50s guitars, but to those who want something with more clarity, this is the set you’ve been looking for.
- Quik-connect header and cable make installation easy.
- Alnico magnets offer a vintage, smooth sound.
- Active, encouraging a higher output.
- Active, requiring a battery.
- Mid-range heavy sound isn’t as versatile as some other pup sets.
As you can see, the single-coils you choose will largely depend on the styles of music you play and exactly how you wish to adjust your guitar.
If it’s the case that you’ve got a Strat copy, and are wishing to enhance the quality of your sound, the Lace Sensor Blue-Silver-Red is a high quality, versatile set that’s a little pricey but will make your guitar sound like one at least twice the price. If you’re on more of a budget, the Wilkinson Lic Cream ST Vintage Voice will also boost your sound, though these also make your output significantly louder, which might not be what you want.
Those who do want it loud, you also have the choice of the active EMG SA set or the Seymour Duncan Hot Rails. The Hot Rails have ceramic magnets, to boost the output, while the EMG SA preserve a more classic tone with their alnico poles.
Those looking for a vintage tone can find it with the Fender Custom Shop Strat Texas Special set, which uses alnico magnets to achieve a vintage sound, staggered pole pieces to maintain consistency and also includes a hum-reducing middle pickup. If you’re looking for the ultimate in quietness, the stacked Seymour Duncan STK-S4S work like humbuckers to eliminate the hum.
Whichever of these sets of pups is suited to your Strat; we’re confident that it will change your sound significantly! Let us know how you get on 🙂
Featured image: Zsolt Palatinus