Stratocaster Pickups: An Expert Guide
Posted on February 09 2023
If you're a guitarist, you know that shredding and riffing are only possible with a great set of pickups. Guitar pickups are what make the sounds of an electric guitar audible. Pickups are a device that uses electromagnetic induction to convert the vibrations of guitar strings into electrical signals. These signals are sent to an amplifier which boosts the volume to where an audience can hear the guitar through other instruments and vocals.
Every guitarist can appreciate the killer tones of a well-made Strat. Stratocaster pickups are an iconic part of music, from classic rock to country to the funky sounds of the 70s and 80s. If you love legendary guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Buddy Holly, or David Gilmour, you have heard the classic Stratocaster sound, even if you didn't realise it. Below, we'll break down the influence of Strat pickups since their introduction and the "Montifycations" we've come up with to provide you with a modern twist on a vintage classic.
History & Evolution of Stratocaster Pickups
Leo Fender introduced the traditional Fender Stratocaster pickup in 1954 with a simple design compared to other popular pickups. Fender's pickups consist of three components - two flatwork pieces, six magnetic slugs, and magnet wire. For such a basic design, Stratocaster pickups produce remarkably varied tones. Their tonal variety comes down to manufacturing inconsistencies, which are a part of their evolution and the methods used to create them.
From their introduction to the mid-1960s, Fender pickups were made in a black bottom vulcanised fibre flatwork design. The colour of the flats can help you determine when a Strat pickup was produced. In this case, black ones are pre-1964. Fender started with Alnico III magnets but changed to Alnico V magnets in late 1956. The magnets were hand bevelled to produce rounded edges. The wire used was a formvar wire that had a copper colour, and the pickups were fully potted with (or dipped in) hot wax to prevent unwanted additional noise.
From 1964 to the end of the 70s, Fender pickups were constructed in a grey bottom flatwork design with Alnico V magnets. The wire changed to enamel wire with a different type of insulation, and instead of using wax for potting, Fender switched to lacquer. Until the second half of the 60s, the pickup coils were hand-wound, with a human manually operating a machine. The human touch produced pickups with varying coil turns and pressures, giving Strat pickups their individually unique sounds. In 1965 Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) bought the Fender company, and the process was automated, removing the human touch and resulting in consistent sounds across the board. Leo Fender remained a consultant for the company but terminated his contract with CBS in 1969.
The design changes made by Fender before the switch to CBS that altered the sounds the pickups made include:
- The slugs: diameter was narrowed, producing a brighter, tighter tone and hand-bevelled edges were done away with.
- The magnetic alloy: changed from the weaker Alnico III to the stronger Alnico V, producing a stronger treble.
- The magnetic wire: insulation coating changed from heavy formvar to plain enamel. The thickness of the wire affects sound differently, but the material doesn't. Plain enamel is thinner, producing a brighter, weaker sound.
- Coil winding: changed from hand-wound to machine-wound. Hand-wound (also known as scatter winding) varied turns and trended towards hotter windings that cooled down in 1959, lowering the distributed capacitance and achieving a brighter, clearer tone.
- Potting: Fender typically used wax, but some had lacquer. A balance between potted and non-potted produces the vintage tone of Fender pickups.
Stratocaster's Iconic Vintage Sound
The iconic sound of Fender Stratocaster pickups can be attributed to Fender's approach to production. Leo focused on quality over quantity, innovation over consistency, and pride over cutting costs and production time. Once CBS took over, the focus shifted to mass production, automating the process and eliminating the uniqueness of human inconsistency that had given each Strat pickup produced their legendary one-of-a-kind sounds.
Aspects of Stratocaster pickups that have remained throughout their evolution are that they are a trio of single-coil passive pickups with 42 gauge magnet wire. The trio consists of pickups mounted onto the pickguard and placed at the neck, middle, and bridge. Single-coil pickups produce bright, treble-focused sounds sensitive to individual player techniques, which can be heard throughout the classic rock, country, and funk genres. Passive pickups don't require outside electricity to function–just an amp.
Before 1977 Fender only used a 3-way pickup switch which turned on just one of the three pickups. However, guitarists discovered they could balance the switch between settings to get a combination of two pickups which players coined as "out of phase". This discovery redefined the sounds of electric guitars and led to the introduction of the 5-way switch in 1977, which allowed a combination of pickups and increased the types of sounds that guitarists could get from their instruments.
'Montyfied' Stratocaster Pickups
At Monty's Guitars, we offer a vast selection of pickups from our original Montyfied recreations of vintage pickups like Stratocaster pickups to our Retro Winds and Full Monty series that add modern Montyfications to classic designs. Each set is available with a plain steel baseplate on the bridge pickup for those that prefer them.
Our original series of Fender Stratocaster pickups include the '54, '62, and '69 Strat pickup sets. This series remains true to the OG Strat designs, with the '54 and '62 having bevelled Alnico III ('54) and V ('62) magnets, scatter-wound heavy formvar wire, and partially potted pickups. While the '69 set has Alnico V magnets with no bevel, the hand-wound plain enamel wire is lacquer potted.
Our Retro Wind Stratocaster is based on the '68 Strat pickups and has a modern twist to achieve the vintage Strat tone with modern innovations for perfectly balanced pickups that are more versatile and clear. The retro wind set is partially potted with scatter-wound plain enamel wire and Alnico V magnets.
Our Full Monty Stratocaster set is another modernised set with Monty's patented "pure sonic girth" added to enhance the Strat sound. Staying as Stratty as possible, we used heavy formvar wire, Alnico V magnets, a precise wind pattern, and varied bobbin sizes to create a Stratty pickup but with much more versatility.
We love vintage tones and know collectors do too. If you're feeling nostalgic for Stratocaster pickups but craving modern versatility, Monty's has exactly what you need with our Montyfied Strat pickup sets. Experience the electric guitar the way Hendrix and Holly did, becoming one with their guitars and leaving their mark as guitar legends.