All pickups were tested at equal height, thanks to the ever-useful Stew-Mac string action gauge.
I removed as many variables as possible while testing. I auditioned and recorded every pickup in the same instrument: a shell-pink American Vintage ’56 Stratocaster with a one-piece maple neck. I set pickup height according to Fender’s official recommendations (6/64" on the bass side with the 6th string pressed against the 21st fret, and 5/64" on the treble side with the 1st string pressed against the same fret). The test guitar has a vintage-style 7.25" fretboard radius. (Many modern Strats have flatter radiuses, or even compound ones, which makes a big difference in relative string volume when combined with traditional staggered-magnet pickups, as discussed in the “Is It Better to Stagger or Be Straight?” sidebar.)
You’ll hear all five pickup-selector positions for all five sets. I concocted a short demo piece for each pickup-selector position and used the same music for each set. All these clips employ clean sounds because these most clearly reveal variations between models. But to paint a fuller picture (and relieve the monotony), there’s also a dirty clip for each set. Here I didn’t try to match performances: I just plugged into a homemade, vintage-correct Fuzz Face clone—fully cranked—and merrily wanked away. In each case, though, the distorted clip starts in position 5 (bridge pickup alone) and then switches to position 1 (neck pickup alone).
Likewise, the recording setup was identical for every pickup. I tracked all the clean clips directly into Logic Pro via a Universal Audio Apollo interface with no compression, EQ, or other effects. Input settings never varied. After all the clips were captured, I reamped each one through a Carr Skylark amp (a 12-watt, 1x12 combo amp inspired by Fender’s vintage small-format amps) in a single session. All controls were at noon and never budged. The mic was a Royer R-121, a sweet-sounding ribbon model. The mic position remained constant. Meanwhile, the dirty clips were played directly into the amp without reamping, using the same setup as for the clean sounds.
String choice is a major tonal factor, especially with staggered-magnet Strat pickups. While I was tempted to go full vintage with a period-correct set of heavy-gauge flatwounds, it seemed wiser to install a roundwound set closer to what most modern players use (though I kept things a bit vintage with an all-nickel DR Pure Blues Nickel Heavy set gauged .011–.050).
But to illustrate how staggered-magnet pickups sound with the sort of strings they were designed for, I also recorded an all-original ’63 Strat with a high-end Thomastik-Infeld flatwound set. (See the “Is It Better to Stagger or Be Straight?” sidebar.) But I didn’t compare the new pickups directly to the ones in the old Strat because there are too many other variables at play: dry old wood, a rosewood fretboard, ancient hardware, worn finish, etc.
A few more things to keep in mind while comparing pickup sounds:
• While I tried to play the demo parts as consistently as possible, there’s inevitably some variation between performances.
• Some sets come with pickup covers. Some don’t. But it’s not a big deal. If you’re retrofitting a Strat, you already have usable covers. If you desire a unique look or a color that matches an antique-looking pickguard, a stock white cover won’t help. Strat pickup covers are available in many colors, and they’re cheap—prices range from two to four dollars per cover.
• Each pickup review includes a DC resistance value, expressed in ohms. More coil winds mean more output, a hotter pickup, and a higher DCR number. There isn’t a vast range of values among the 15 tested pickups—the lowest-output one is 5.68k (that is, 5,680 ohms), while the hottest is 6.48k. Modern “overwound” Strat pickups can be far hotter: the DCR of a DiMarzio Virtual Vintage Solo is 11.17k, while the Seymour Duncan Custom Flat Strat delivers a walloping 13.3k. But even relatively small differences can be audible. We’ve included two sets of DCR values: the ones advertised, and the actual bench measurements. (That’s not to imply that anyone is being dishonest—minor unit-to-unit variation is expected.)
• Finally, be aware that pickup makers tend to be exceedingly customer-oriented. Some small companies wind to order, and even the large ones have custom shops ready to customize on request. You might ask for higher output, a different magnet type, or staggered magnets instead of straight ones, and vice-versa.
Strat’s All, Folks!
There are no losers here. Every time I switched sets, my gut reaction was, “Damn, that sounds good!” Listening back later to the test recordings only reinforces that impression.
There are many fine vintage-style Strat replacement pickups to choose from, and these five are but the tip of a massive iceberg. A couple of these sets are closest to my heart, but if another player had written this up, others might easily have come out on top. The colors vary, but the quality doesn’t.
Thanks to Fender’s Jason Farrell for loaning us our cool test guitar.
So enough preamble. Let’s hear some cool pickups!