Poor little pink guitar! This American Vintage ’56 Stratocaster was torn open a half-dozen times.

The Fender Stratocaster is perhaps the most popular electric guitar of all time. So why have so many people altered the pickup design since the instrument’s 1954 debut?

Many players—even Strat fanatics—have a love/hate relationship with the guitar’s pickups, and pickup modifications are almost as old as the model itself. The pickups in early models employed alnico 3 magnets, but louder, brighter alnico 5s became standard within a few years. Subsequent departures include higher-output bridge pickups for fatter, less shrill lead tones, hum-cancelling designs, and non-staggered magnets to accommodate modern string tastes and flatter neck radiuses.

Still, many players swear by the original design, and for this roundup, we went the ultra-vintage route. We asked participants to submit period-correct pickup sets based on these criteria:

• Traditional materials and structure.

• Traditional number of winds.

• Alnico 5 magnets.

• Formvar-coated wire. (Formvar is the resin film that insulates the copper wire on traditional Strat pickups.)

• Staggered magnets—that is, magnets of varied height in relation to the strings, as found on vintage Strat pickups. (Whether staggered magnets are desirable for modern players is a subject in itself. See the “Is It Better to Stagger or Be Straight” sidebar.)

Like much music gear from a half-century ago, old Strat pickups are like snowflakes: No two are exactly alike.

There really isn’t much to a Strat pickup: just coated copper wire, a bobbin to wrap it around, six little magnets, and the insulated wires that link the pickup to the guitar’s circuitry. Yet there’s much room for variation within those narrow parameters. Extra winds of wire produce a hotter pickup. Degaussing (demagnetizing) the magnets yields a softer, smoother tone reminiscent of an old pickup. Different grades of alnico yield different tones. Even two “strictly vintage” pickups can sound quite different.

Players seeking vintage Strat pickups have many options—far more than covered here! When selecting participants, we chose companies not represented in our last major pickup roundup, which included models from DiMarzio, Fralin, GFS, Gibson, Harmonic Designs, Lollar, and Seymour Duncan. This time around, our lovely contestants are from Fender’s Custom Shop and four smaller companies: Amalfitano, Klein, Manlius, and Mojotone.

Spoiler Alert
Might as well say it up front: I like all five of these sets. That may sound like a timid editor scared of making enemies, but it happens to be true. Each is lovingly handmade from quality, period-correct materials. If you passed me an old Strat with any of these beneath the pickup covers and told me they were original, I’d have no reason to doubt you. I’d perform and record with any of these sets without hesitation. Every single pickups sounds authentically “old Strat,” and any of these sets would provide a major upgrade for, say, an entry-level Fender Squier Stratocaster or inexpensive Strat-style guitars from other manufacturers.

Each set looks authentically vintage, from the period-correct bobbins to the wax-coated cloth push-back wire. In fact, I don’t even discuss physical appearance in the individual write-ups. Same with the workmanship—every pickup appears perfectly well made, which is why each set receives an identical build-quality rating.

Still, there are meaningful variations between models, and with luck, my observations can steer you to the model that best suits your needs and tastes. But don’t expect us to declare which model sounds the “most vintage.” Like much music gear from a half-century ago, old Strat pickups are like snowflakes: No two are exactly alike.