How Do The Tone Controls Of The Stratocaster Work?

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Written By Sarah Barlow

Chief Music Officer

Guitarists of all skill levels will need to learn how tone controls on a new electric guitar work, especially if you have a Stratocaster. If you are a beginner, it will generally take a few playing sessions before you can adequately understand and familiarize yourself with every setting and control. It’s just the same as how everyone isn’t born walking; one will take time to learn how to walk.

In this article, I will discuss in detail the function and proper usage of each knob, switch, and control featured in the iconic Fender Stratocaster. Learning to combine each control and setting will enable you to generate various unique tones necessary for becoming a better guitarist.

Basic Information About The Fender Stratocaster

Let us first discuss the functionality of each knob, switch, and control. Knowing these components’ purpose is crucial before learning how to use them to understand their applications correctly. 

The Fender Stratocaster has three main control types: pickup selector, tone control, and volume control. The primary function of a pickup selector on your Stratocaster is that it enables you to use the neck, middle, and bridge pickup individually or in combination. 

Two-tone controls are featured in the Stratocaster, which allows you to regulate the brightness of the tones you generate. The middle pickup is adjusted by the lower tone control, while the upper tone control adjusts the neck pickup. 

Another component of the Stratocaster that can impact the brightness of your tones is its volume control. As the name implies, it lets you adjust your electric guitar’s overall volume. Generally, you generate the brightest and loudest tones when the volume control is set to the fullest. On the other hand, if it is placed on the lowest, the tones you will generate will likely be quieter and less bright. 

Pickup Selectors

The first control we are going to discuss is the pickup selector. The Fender Stratocaster usually features its signature three single-coil pickups, one near the neck, the other near the bridge, and one between them. Although these three pickups are the same single-coil pickups, their placement causes them to differ in sound. 

The single coil at the neck generates a warmer and more mellow tone than the bridge and middle pickup. On the other hand, the bridge pickup produces a brighter and sharper tone, while the middle pickup produces a balanced combination of both tones. This makes it important to learn about your pickup positions. A pickup selector is used to change between each pickup position. 

Fender Stratocasters feature a five-position blade-type switch corresponding to the five available pickup positions, which is more challenging compared to a simple three-way pickup selector switch. 

Pickup selectors enable guitarists to activate two pickups simultaneously. Additionally, it offers more versatility to its users when it comes to achieving the tone you want. For instance, if you’re finding the middle pickup too warm and the bridge pickup too sharp, you can activate both pickups using the pickup selector to get a more balanced tone.

Fender Stratocaster Five-Way Pickup Selector Positions

The iconic Fender Stratocaster’s 5-way pickup selector is one of its most valuable features. It enables you to generate distinctive tones, which are fantastic and euphonious. 

Here are the corresponding pickups activated by the Stratocaster’s pickup selector at each position.

  • Position 1: Bridge pickup is only activated.
  • Position 2: Combination of both the Bbridge and Middle pickups is activated.
  • Position 3: Middle pickup is only activated. 
  • Position 4: Combination of both the Middle and Neck pickup is activated.
  • Position 5: Neck pickup is only activated.

Which Pickup Position Should You Use?

Choosing which pickup to use depends highly on the tones you want to produce. If you are after bright tones complimenting treble frequencies, your best choice is to use pickup positions 1 and 2. On the contrary, pickup positions 4 and 5 are your best bet if you desire a tone with more bass and a mellower sound. Pickup position 3 is the pickup you’ll want to activate if you wish to generate the most balanced tone among all five pickup positions.  

Furthermore, pickup positions 1 and 2 that makes use of the bridge pickup are ideally utilized for lead guitar playing and producing more overdrive or distorted tones. The primary reason behind this is that these pickup positions (1 and 2) offer more life to the sounds you generate and enable guitarists to cut through the mix more. 

For a warmer tone on rhythm guitar roles, players utilize pickup positions 4 and 5, which activate the neck pickup. This pickup primarily produces cleaner tones whose brightness and harshness are manageable. 

In choosing which pickup position to use, there aren’t rules you necessarily need to follow. It is still your electric guitar; therefore, what should weigh most is your personal preference. A great advice is to explore and try every pickup position to determine which among them best compliments your playing. 

Tone Control

The Fender Stratocaster is equipped with two-tone controls whose primary function is to control treble frequencies to be amplified by your amplifier. Treble frequencies are high-end frequencies that provide your tone its brightness and sharpness, as well as enable the notes to be heard more clearly apart from one another. They make the sounds you generate more crisp and clear. If your Stratocaster’s tone is too harsh and mellow for your hearing, then your best action to reduce this is to adjust the tone control to lower the treble frequencies.

What Is The Function Of The Stratocaster’s Two-Tone Control?

The two-tone control on the Fender Stratocaster is divided into two control components. The upper tone control knob is used to modify the neck pickup’s tone, while the bottom tone control knob adjusts the middle pickup’s tone. It’s only when your middle or neck pickups are activated that the tone controls make a difference. Therefore, you won’t hear a difference if you only engage the bridge pickup and start fiddling with the tone controls. The neck and the middle pickup can adjust your Stratocaster’s tone sharpness when they are activated individually or simultaneously via their two-tone control.

Pros Of Two-Tone Controls

If you’re using the neck pickup and want to make it sound more mellow, you can simply roll down the upper tone controls on your Stratocaster. The same applies when you intend to make your middle pickup sound more mellow. 

Your Stratocaster’s two-tone control may also be used when you’re using pickup position four on its pickup selector to activate both the middle and neck pickup. This is true if you want to retain your neck pickup’s treble at its highest setting and aim to reduce your middle pickup’s sharpness. Generally, the two-tone control enhances your Stratocaster’s versatility.

Why Isn’t The Bridge Pickup Equipped With Tone Control?

The bridge pickup isn’t equipped with its own tone control because of the way the pickups are electronically wired to their tone controls. However, there are still methods that allow you to have tone control for the bridge pickup, such as rewiring your Stratocaster. 

Suppose you get your electric guitar equipped with a tone control for the bridge pickup, in that case, it is advisable to have an experienced guitar luthier do it for you. 

Volume Control

As the name suggests, the volume control adjusts the volume of the signal your Stratocaster generates. This control is advantageous for your playing sessions and performances, especially because it allows you to change the volume of your Stratocaster without touching your amplifier. 

Although it isn’t often discussed, volume control may also alter the tones you produce, besides having the ability to change your Stratocaster’s volume, but this feature tends to be an indirect effect. 

If you lower the volume, you’ll lose some treble frequencies, which will lessen the brightness and sharpness of your tones similar to how changing the tone controls changes the sound of your guitar.

Tremolo Arm 

Fender Stratocasters have its own tremolo arm, sometimes referred to as the whammy bar or “trem.” Although many disregard it as a control, the tremolo arm is a highly beneficial feature Stratocasters have. It allows you to change the pitch of the tones by simply pulling up or pushing down on the arm. It functions pretty simply. 

The pitch sharpens whenever you pull the tremolo arm up because it tightens the strings. Contrarily, the pitch flattens when you press down on the tremolo arm because the strings loosen up. 

Main Takeaway

The Fender Stratocaster features three main control types: pickup selector, tone control, and volume control. The 5-way pickup selector enables you to activate the neck, middle, and bridge pickup individually or in combination. 

The two-tone controls regulate the brightness of the tones you produce. The middle pickup can be adjusted by the lower tone control, while the upper tone control adjusts the neck pickup. 

Your Stratocaster’s tones can also be impacted by the volume control, which enables you to change your electric guitar’s overall volume. If you set the volume control to its fullest, the tones you generate will be the brightest and loudest. Contrarily, the tones become quieter and less bright if it is decreased. 

The last control, which is frequently disregarded, is the Stratocaster’s Tremolo arm. It simply alters the pitch of your tones depending on whether you pull or press down on it. Pulling up Tremolo’s arm sharpens the pitch of your tone, while pressing down on it flattens your tone’s pitch. 

Overall, learning the functionality of the controls your Stratocaster features is highly advantageous in your growth as a guitarist. It enables you to achieve your desired tones and is placed there by one of the best manufacturers of electric guitars — Fender, for a reason. Therefore, explore and experiment with these controls for a much more enjoyable and effortless playing experience.