On vintage Strat pickups, the greatest height discrepancy is between the 2nd- and 3rd-string magnets, as seen on this modern Fender Custom Shop model.
Is It Better to Stagger or Be Straight?Many modern Strats have “straight” pickup magnets—their height is more or less equal. Meanwhile, Strat pickups from the ’50s and ’60s (and vintage-style replicas like the sets covered here) have magnets of uneven height. The middle pair is closest to the strings, while the 5th- and 6th-string magnets are further away. The most dramatic variation is between the 2nd- and 3rd-string magnets. The former is furthest from the string, often as low as the bobbin itself, while the latter is usually tied for tallest.
There’s a good reason for this arrangement, or at least there used to be: It provided the best volume balance between strings. But back when the Strat pickup was designed, most players used heavy flatwounds with a wound 3rd string. To illustrate how a Strat would have sounded back in the day, here are some clips of an all-original 1963 model strung with big flatwounds and a wound G:
I happen to dig that sound, but it’s just not how most modern players roll. Today’s guitarists favor lighter-gauge roundwounds with an unwound 3rd for easy string bending and louder, brighter tones. Also, few modern strings are pure nickel like the ones from 60 years ago (though light-gauge, pure-nickel roundwounds are available if you’re willing to pay a bit extra). Straight magnets are likelier to produce even string volume with such modern strings.
So only weirdos who love fat flatwounds should use staggered magnets, right?
Um, no. Since the mid ’60s, countless players—everyone from Hendrix to Clapton to Gilmour—have strung staggered-magnet Strats with light roundwound sets and unwound 3rd strings. To many listeners, the resulting tones are simply how a Strat is meant to sound. (And whether they realize it or not, good players who use this recipe are almost certainly adjusting their attack from string to string to balance levels.)
In recent years, there’s been another wrinkle: flatter fretboard radiuses. (The more inches, the flatter the fretboard: 7.25" is curvier than 10".) A flatter neck brings the inside strings even closer to the middle magnets, and the D and G strings can be too loud. (Though again, sensitive players tend to compensate via touch.)
So what’s the best option? Duh—try both and see which you prefer! But as a crude rule of thumb, use staggered magnets if you worship the tones of the classic-rock Strat masters, but go straight if your guitar has a modern fretboard with a flatter radius.