The Fender Stratocaster is one of the iconic and top-selling electric guitars in the musical industry. The traditional Stratocaster that was first released and is still present today is their classic three single-coil pickup configuration.
Fender has been one of the top electric guitar manufacturers over the years. The company has gained this title mainly due to its determination to provide guitarists with top-quality instruments that satisfy their needs.
Not all musicians specialize in a single musical genre. As a result, Fender has released Stratocasters models with other pickup configurations besides their original SSS configuration, which incorporates humbuckers and single coils.
Each pickup generates a distinct sound from the other, and every pickup configuration can enhance your comfort and performance in playing a particular genre, which we will tackle later on.
This article will discuss what single-coils and humbuckers are, including their distinctions and pros and cons. We will also dive into all pickup configurations featured in Stratocaster models, the sound they generate, and the genre they excellently complement.
What Are Pickups?
Many musicians refer to the Stratocaster’s pickup as its soul. The type of pickup your guitar features dictate the kind of tones you generate. You can effortlessly change your Stratocaster’s sound by modifying its pickups without buying a new guitar.
If you are the type of guitarist who frequently wants to alter the tones of your Stratocaster, having a different set of pickups on hand is an excellent idea.
It’s possible to change the pickups yourself, especially since numerous online tutorials can guide you through the process. However, caution must always be observed when doing so to prevent any unwanted instances.
Always keep in mind that you are dealing with electrical work here. If ever you are struggling or worried about damaging your Stratocaster, you can always ask for assistance at your local instrument shop or an experienced luthier, just to be sure.
How Do Pickups Function?
The most basic overview of a pickup is that it is a magnet. A magnetic field is produced by wrapping the magnets with several thousand turns of precisely tuned copper wire. The magnet’s poles, or the rounded metal components you see on pickups, concentrate your pickup’s magnetic field.
This process transforms your pickups into a transducer that converts sound waves into electrical signals, then into sound waves again. Your Stratocaster’s steel strings become magnetic due to the poles on its pickups. As a result, the magnetic field moves along with the strings’ motion when you strummer or pluck them.
The pickup then delivers that current to your amp, broadcasting it as audible. Another alternative is to bypass open air and record the vibrations only from the pickups by using a patch cable to direct the current into the equipment.
As complex as pickups work, looking for the right one that fits your preferred sound is simple. The kind of pickup varies depending on how their internal magnets direct the sound waves from the strings, which they amplify.
What Are Single-Coil Pickups?
The first pickups made for electric guitars were single coils. They are the ones that are typically found on Fenders Stratocasters and their replica versions. These types of pickups are long, thin ovals enclosed in plastic and covered in magnetic circles that align with how the strings on your guitar are laid out on the body.
Single-coil magnets are made of magnetized steel or a magnetic alloy, typically neodymium, cobalt, or alnico. However, if you are searching for an inexpensive alternative, you can also use a ceramic magnet.
The invention of pickups began in the 1920s and 1930s when drums and guitars were highly popular. Guitar manufacturers tinkered with electricity, intending to explore methods of amplifying sounds from the electric guitar. They tried using a microphone but failed. Hence, the invention of single coils emerged.
Depending on your preferred sound, this pickup can be positioned anywhere on your Stratocaster. Single coils are commonly mounted around the center of the guitar’s body.
If you’ve heard about double coils, they’re exactly as they sound—they are simply two single coils placed next to one another that utilize two transmuters rather than one to pick up your strings’ vibrations. They sound identical to single coils but are much louder.
Pros Of Single-Coil Pickups
Single coils are renowned for being able to produce clear tones. They can also generate sharp, distinct notes because their vibration sensors are not enclosed, which causes them to snap the vibration of your guitar strings.
Since the sound enters the transmuter immediately after being played, there is no time for it to gather resonance or any other factors that might cause it to sound different from the note you play.
Single-coil pickups can simplify your playing experience with effects like distortion and delay. You can try these effects using humbuckers; however, single-coils will allow you to hear these effects more clearly. In the end, it all comes down to tone clarity because single-coil tones are exact and precise.
The notes played are so distinct from one another that the layers of effects are more audible when subjected to more significant distortion. The different layers that each note and variation create when you play with single-coil pickups make a tremendous gritty, crunchy sound that will surely complement your playing style.
Single-coil pickups focus more on the frequencies of your plucked strings because of their design, which is another distinction from humbuckers. The notes don’t turn sharp or flat from the frequency you have it tuned to, and it doesn’t silence any of the tones you play, making them more receptive to the center tone of the notes you’re playing.
Your single-coil pickups allow you to hear every nuance of your playing and can precisely amplify what you play. Your bends, slides, fingerstyle, and techniques are all captured in exact detail by single coils.
Cons Of Single-Coil Pickups
Single-coil pickups are like antennae because their components are exposed to the air. This is the reason why these pickups amplify other sounds besides the sound of your guitar.
Suppose you aren’t using your guitar, and yet you hear humming or buzzing from being amplified; it is possibly caused by your single-coils pickups attracting other sound vibrations—known as feedback. This can negatively impact your playing experience and affect the sound you generate.
What Are Humbuckers?
Seth Lover, an engineer of Gibson guitars, alongside Seymour Duncan, created humbuckers in the 1950s by mounting a pair of single-coil pickups side by side, switching one of the magnets’ polarities, and wiring the coils in series—leading to the creation of humbuckers. These are double-up single-coil pickups with additional noise-canceling features.
Pros Of Humbucker Pickups
Minimizes Environmental Interference
Humbuckers were explicitly designed to dampen any vibrations from external sources near your pickups, similar to how balancing an audio cable does.
With humbuckers, the hum or distortion you’ll hear in the middle of your notes is likely negligible, if not zero. This feature is excellent, especially if the rest of your Stratocaster isn’t great at canceling feedback.
Thicker And Warmer Sound
Humbuckers capture the vibrations of string plucks as they reverberate through the body of the guitar, which enables them to generate warmer and fuller tones.
These pickups make the notes more rounded and fuller by folding in the tiny harmonies on either side of the tone, frequently featuring them on hollow-bodied electric guitars and instruments.
Guitarists specializing in playing both jazz and heavy metal genres have embraced the humbucker’s more expansive range of tones; humbuckers’ emphasis on the midrange makes them suitable for non-distortion-based effects like overdriving a tube amp.
Since humbuckers are designed with two pickups, you get the power of two single-coil pickups.
Humbuckers also provide you the advantage of playing with a higher output providing you with overall control over the sound you intend to generate.
Electric guitars typically have volume controls for each set of pickups: the bridge, the center of the body, and the pickups close to the neck. However, humbuckers offer a broader volume range, giving you more control over the variety of inputs you can use.
Humbuckers allow you to hear the differences between their input tones more clearly than single coils because they block out external interference. Doing so lets you learn which combinations complement your tastes best.
Cons Of Humbucker Pickups
Less Clearer Sound
Even though humbuckers are preferred over single coils because of their hum-canceling and feedback capabilities, it is also the reason why some guitarists favor single coils over them.
The humbucker muffles the clarity of every tone you generate, even if it won’t swallow them whole. If you like to incorporate a lot of harmonics in your playing, these pickups aren’t the best option because a humbucker will dull the chime effect that a single-coil pickup produces.
What Are Pickup Configurations?
Electric guitars feature at least one pickup. The majority, though, either have two or three pickups which may be a combination of the three types or all of the same kind (single-coil, P90, and humbucker).
You can achieve various tones by using different pickup types. At the same time, you can change between pickups using a pickup selector switch or blade.
What Are The Effects Of Each Pickup Position?
The neck pickup emphasizes low-frequency or bass sounds. It frequently has a softer and mellower sound and is generally used for rhythm guitar.
The bridge pickup emphasizes high-frequency or treble sounds. It usually has a brighter and crispier sound and is typically used for lead guitar roles.
The middle pickup widens the tones you can access in your playing. They usually sound neutral without treble and work excellently for rhythm, so they are often combined with the neck or bridge pickup.
In short, the middle pickup produces a perfectly balanced mixture of the sounds generated by the neck and bridge pickup.
Pickup Configuration Terminology
Before we tackle the different pickup configurations Stratocaster models have, I will summarize the basic terminologies you might encounter as we go on.
Single coils are referred to as S in the pickup configuration.
Humbuckers are referred to as H in the pickup configuration.
Note: The sequence of letters used in a pickup configuration begins from the bridge to the neck. For instance, if your electric guitar has an HSS pickup configuration, its bridge pickup is a Humbucker, while its middle and neck pickups are single coils.
What Pickup Configurations Do Fender And Squier Stratocasters Feature?
Three Single-Coil Pickup Configuration (SSS)
The three single-coil pickup configuration is the traditional and standard pickup featured in most Fender Stratocasters. Compared to other configurations, this provides the user with more versatility by adding a single coil in the middle.
In addition, instead of utilizing three-tone pickups, you will be able to access five, including:
- Bridge Pickup only
- Bridge and Middle Pickup Combination
- Middle Pickup only
- Middle and Neck Pickup Combination
- Neck Pickup only
Pros And Cons Of SSS Configurations
|Excellent for producing clean tones
|Single-coils at bridge position may sound thin or weak
|Fender’s signature warm and bright tones
|Unideal for playing heavier rock and metal genres
|The single-coils at the bridge position is ideal for playing clean genres like pop, funk, R&B, country, etc.
|Humming and buzzing feedback
|Traditional Stratocaster configuration
Humbucker (Bridge) and Humbucker (Neck) Configurations (HH)
The HH pickup configuration is only featured in two Fender and Squier Stratocasters series—the Squier Contemporary and Fender Boxer Stratocaster series.
This pickup configuration only utilizes two humbuckers, one at the bridge and the other at the neck. As a result, the tones you generate with this configuration are warmer and thicker, which is ideal for distorted tones because there won’t be a single coil at the bridge and neck that can produce any humming noises.
The HH pickup configuration often comes with a three-way pickup selector to provide you with three different tones, including:
- Bridge Pickup only (brightest and clearest tones)
- Bridge and Neck Pickup combination (balanced tone)
- Neck Pickup only (warmest and mellower tones)
Pros And Cons Of HH Configurations
|The electronics look spacious because of having only two pickups
|Not versatile compared to having three pickups
|Ideal for playing at a higher gain
|Not ideal for getting clear tones
|Simple to operate
|Lacks brightness and clarity of tones
Humbucker (Bridge), Single-coil (Middle), and Single-coil (Neck) Configurations (HSS)
The HSS pickup configuration is the most used pickup configuration in Fender Stratocasters, next to SSS. Due to their versatility, this configuration is featured in various electric guitars such as Ibanez. It features a Humbucker at the bridge and a Single-coil at the middle and neck.
The HSS pickup configuration generally utilizes a five-way selector switch to provide the following tones.
- Bridge pickup only (humbucker)
- Bridge and middle pickup combination (humbucker and single-coil)
- Middle pickup only (single-coil)
- Neck and middle pickup combination (two single-coils)
- Neck pickup only (single-coil)
You can also apply numerous variations with an HSS pickup configuration. However, the most commonly utilized modifications are at position number 2 (bridge and middle pickup combination), where only one of the coils of the bridge humbucker, typically its outer coil, is combined with the single middle coil to produce a brighter and thinner tone.
The HSS pickup configuration is highly beneficial, especially for expanding your musical style range and playing with clean and distorted amplifier settings.
The humbucker at the bridge position is ideal for using high gain because it can significantly maintain the clarity and brightness of your tones rather than if the humbucker is placed at the neck position. It also has hum-canceling features that single-coils don’t have, especially when playing with distortion.
Single coils at the neck and middle position are excellent because they offer greater clarity and brightness that contribute to generating cleaner tones.
Some HSS pickup configurations with their humbucker coil-tapped may enhance your guitar’s functionality and performance. It helps your coil-tapped humbucker sound like a single-coil, making your HSS-configured Stratocaster sound similar to an SSS Stratocaster.
However, the primary drawback is that your Stratocaster becomes more challenging to operate and makes its appearance seem unorganized compared to an HH configuration.
In addition, in an HH pickup configuration, a coil-tapped/split causes you to lose that warm humbucker neck. But, some players may not find this modification useful compared to a single-coil neck.
Pros And Cons Of HSS Configuration
|Humbucker at bridge position is excellent for gain
|Slightly crowded appearance (compared to SSS Stratocasters)
|Single-coils generate cleaner tones
|Warmth lost at the neck position
|Ideal for a wide range of music styles
|Challenging to operate faster because of its 5-way switch
Humbucker (Bridge), Single-coils (Middle), Humbucker (Neck) (HSH)
The least common pickup configuration used in Fender Stratocasters is the HSH configuration. This setup has a humbucker on both the bridge and neck position and a single coil in the middle.
The Fender Player Stratocaster series is the only model featuring this pickup configuration.
The HSH pickup configuration usually includes a five-way pickup selector. However, there are a few options for how the selector is organized. Here is how they are arranged in a Stratocaster:
- Bridge pickup only (humbucker)
- bridge pickup inside coil (humbucker) and middle pickup (single-coils) combination
- Middle pickup only (single-coils)
- Middle pickup (single-coils) and neck pickup outside coil (humbucker) combination
- Neck pickup only (humbucker)
The benefit of this pickup arrangement is that it offers you more single-coil-style tones in positions 2 and 4. Still, the disadvantage is that it prevents you from combining the humbucker and single-coils pickups for a more well-rounded sound.
The HSH pickup configuration is the most complex of all the configurations featured in the Fender Stratocaster.
Concerning its appearance, this pickup arrangement looks crowded because of the two humbuckers, especially when compared to the HH configuration. The humbucker may also be coil-split, making them challenging to operate yet dramatically expanding your Stratocaster’s usability.
The single coils in the middle position are perfect for producing clean tones, while the humbucker at the bridge works excellently for distorted tones. Compared to an HSS configuration, the HSH offers warmer tones at the neck position.
The HSH pickup configuration provides the most dynamic range and can create the difference between the brightest and warmest tones.
Pros And Cons Of HSH Configurations
|Excellent for playing metal/high-gain tones
|May look crowded when compared to an HH configuration
|Most versatile pickup configuration compared to the others
|Loss of some brightness at the neck position
|Provides users with the most dynamic range of tones
|Complex to operate
How Does The Sound Change On A Stratocaster With Or Without Humbucker?
As discussed above, the traditional three-single-coil pickup configuration (SSS) differs from an HH, HSS, and HSH pickup configuration, especially in the tones they generate and the genres they complement.
The single coils at the bridge position are the best pickup configuration for a more comprehensive dynamic range from brightness to warmness. Single coils initially generate a bright sound, which is enhanced when placed at the bridge. Choosing a different pickup position gives you the most flexibility in terms of warmth to brightness.
A humbucker pickup in the bridge position works best for high-gain settings. This position is highly chosen for high-gain settings to offer brightness. It also provides fullness to your tone and has less feedback than a single coil. As a result, your tones become thicker and beefier-sounding that excellently work for heavy rock and metal.