The Seymour Duncan Custom Shop engineered the period-correct wind, aged the magnets, and color-matched the covers until Joe deemed these pickups a “spot-on” recreation.
Joe Bonamassa first laid eyes on the “Cradle Rock” Strat as a teenager at the Philadelphia Guitar Show in 1994. He purchased the then-pristine 1963 Sunburst Fender Stratocaster, and it became one of the most sentimental pieces in his collection. Named after the Rory Gallagher tune Joe recorded on his debut album, the pickups in this Strat had a distinctive powerful sound that he wanted to share with guitarists chasing this seminal tone. Crafted in the Custom Shop, the Cradle Rock Strat Set is limited to 1000 units, with Joe’s printed signature on each pickup.
Replacing key components—such as the pickups, string nut, and tuners—can turn a workhorse guitar into a killer axe!
Rather than spending a cool grand or two on a new Custom Shop or topline American Stratocaster, many guitarists opt to find a solid Mexican or Japanese Fender Strat and trick it out. Often my clients ask me how they can upgrade one of these instruments to make it gig-worthy. There are several ways to customize a budget Strat without spending a fortune. Replacing key components—such as the pickups, string nut, and tuners—can turn a workhorse guitar into a killer axe!
To illustrate this process, we'll use a 2004 Fender Mexican (MIM) Strat. When it landed on my bench, it was in great structural condition, but I knew some mods and a good setup could make it a pro-level instrument.
My first step was to sonically evaluate the guitar. Though it played well, it didn't have a lot of sustain and the stock tuners tended to drift out of tune. The single-coil pickups sounded weak and too bright, and I decided to begin the transformation by upgrading them.
Install new pickups.
The owner wanted to stick to a traditional single-coil configuration. There are dozens of great options made by independent pickup makers, as well as excellent upgrades from Fender. Based on feedback from other clients, I chose a set of Seymour Duncan Five-Two single-coils, which employ a combination of alnico 2 and alnico 5 magnets. The three treble pole pieces are made from alnico 2, which produces a warmer sound. This reduces that "ice-pick-in-the-ear" tone when you play a solo. Conversely, the three bass pole pieces are alnico 5, a magnet known for producing a bright, clear tone. This is perfect for adding clarity to rhythm parts and chord voicings. Duncan Five-Twos sound louder than traditional Strat pickups, but when adjusted properly, they offer excellent tone and balance.
Whenever I replace a trio of single-coil Strat pickups, I use a reverse-wound/reverse-polarity (RW/RP) middle pickup. In position 2 or 4 (the combined neck/middle and middle/bridge settings) of a 5-way switch, the paired pickups become humbuckers. The benefit? You cancel the 60-cycle hum that plagues single-coils, but still get that traditional Strat tone we all love.
Adjust pickup height.
Fig. 1: Measuring the gap between the pole piece and the 6th string on a Strat.
This is commonly overlooked during a setup. It's important to set the pickups at the right distance from the strings. If the pickups are adjusted too close, you can lose sustain and run into intonation problems because the magnets are pulling on the vibrating strings. But if the pickups are too low, you'll end up with a weak signal.
To adjust the pickups, I fret the 1st and 6th strings at the last fret. Then, using a 6" metal machinist ruler, I measure the gap between the top of the pole pieces to the bottom of the 1st and 6th strings (Fig. 1) Carefully turning the screws on either side of the pickup lets me raise or lower its height to my preferred measurements:
- Bridge pickup: 2/64" 1st string, 3/64" 6th string
- Middle pickup: 3/64" 1st string, 4/64" 6th string
- Neck pickup: 3/64" 1st string, 4/64" 6th string
These measurements are starting points, but I wouldn't recommend adjusting Strat pickups any higher. If a pickup is too loud relative to its mates, lower it to balance its volume. Don't bring the quieter ones closer to the strings.
Upgrade the tuners.
Fig. 2: Replacing vintage-style tuners with a set that has a higher turning ratio, like these 16:1 keys, can make it easier to tune a string quickly and accurately.
Upgrading your guitar's tuning keys requires some research. There are many excellent brands available that will retrofit a Strat, and it's important to explore all the options before you drop cash on a set that doesn't fit.
In the case of our Fender MIM Strat, I had to find a quality set that would retrofit the existing holes in the neck. The owner and I decided to use sealed Gotoh keys with a 16:1 turning ratio (Fig. 2) This ratio determines how many times you have to completely turn the button in order for the post to make one full revolution. The higher the ratio (i.e., 16:1, 18:1), the finer the tuning. Most vintage keys have a 12:1 or 14:1 turning ratio. Keys with lower turning ratios can make it frustrating to tune a string because it's so easy to jump past the desired pitch as you approach it.
Replace the string nut.
Fig. 3: The string nut plays an important role in a guitar's sound and performance. Most guitars sport a stock plastic nut, and replacing it with a bone nut can yield sonic benefits and improve tuning stability.
Believe it or not, the nut material makes a noticeable sonic difference. Most guitars come from the factory with a plastic string nut (Fig. 3) Plastic is easy (and cheap) to install, but it insulates the guitar from string vibration and thus negatively impacts tone and sustain.
Other materials I've seen used are graphite, bone, ivory, brass, and aluminum. Each has specific tonal properties and varying sustain, and based on years of working with guitars, here's my take on these materials: Graphite is great for keeping your guitar in tune (especially if you use a tremolo) because strings slide easily through the nut slots, but it sounds rather dead. Bone has excellent sustain and broadens the dynamic range of virtually any guitar. Ivory has good sustain and produces a warmer tone. (Of course, there are serious conservation and even legal issues surrounding the use of ivory, but that's beyond the scope of this column.) Brass and aluminum produce a bright tone but have little sustain.
Bone is always a good choice for string nuts—it's very hard, it lasts longer than plastic and graphite, and produces a sweeter tone than metal.
For this project, we decided to carve a new string nut from bone. Bone is always a good choice for string nuts—it's very hard, it lasts longer than plastic and graphite, and produces a sweeter tone than metal. You can buy pre-slotted string nuts, but I find the spacing is never quite right. I prefer to use a "Stratcut" bone blank from Allparts or Stewart-MacDonald.
Caution! When replacing a string nut, be aware that they're often glued into the nut slot from the bottom or they may be lacquered in. You want to avoid damaging the end of the fretboard facing the tuning keys when removing the nut. If you're not sure how to safely remove a nut, take your guitar to a qualified repair tech or luthier.
Carve a bone nut.
Fig. 4: Carving a new nut is an art. You need to consider string spacing, slot width and depth, and the string angle over the headstock.
Carving a string nut requires skill and patience (Fig. 4) One cut too far and you'll have to start all over again with a new nut blank. If you don't have the proper experience, training, and tools, turn this part of the project over to someone who does.
Fig. 5: The saying "measure twice, cut once" certainly applies to getting the correct string spacing on a new nut.
To see photos and read a detailed explanation of the process I use to cut a bone nut and what tools are required, read the March 2012 feature "How to Convert Your Axe to a Baritone."
Fig. 6: A nut slot needs to angle down toward the tuner, and its highest point must be right at the leading edge where the nut meets the fretboard.
Step 4 in that article explains how to carve a nut, measure string spacing (Fig. 5), and cut the string slots (Fig. 6).
Consider your moves before you make them.
Fig. 7: Gig worthy! Tricked out with 16:1 tuners, a new bone nut, and a rockin' set of replacement pickups, this imported Strat is now ready for prime time.
When upgrading the parts on your guitar, always buy quality hardware that can be installed without any major modification to your instrument. In other words, if you have to route out the body or drill new holes, it's best not to do it. The more holes, routing, or finish work you do, the less your instrument is worth. Keep the upgrades clean, simple, and reversible.
Adjusting pickup height sounds simple, but pickups that aren’t adjusted properly can cause problems.
Guitars with two or three pickups offer lots of sonic variety, but they also introduce a particular problem that single-pickup instruments—such as Fender Esquires and some Les Paul Juniors—don't have. When you switch pickups on a multi-pickup guitar, you can experience volume differences between one position and another. This can be rather annoying when you're in the studio or playing a gig. Just as frustrating is when your treble strings sound weak, but the bass strings are ridiculously loud. In both cases, the fix can be as simple as adjusting your pickups.
Guitarists often overlook this tweak, either after a setup or replacing pickups. Adjusting pickup height sounds simple, but pickups that aren't adjusted properly can cause problems, which I'll describe in detail below. Fortunately, all these problems are correctable.
1. This Strat needs the height of its three single-coil pickups adjusted for optimum sound. 2. Our project Tele's two single-coils also need to be adjusted for proper height.
Step 1: Gather your tools and prepare your workspace.
You only need two tools for this project, but it's important to use the correct ones. Here's what I use when adjusting pickups:
- 6" precision machinist ruler
- Phillips head screwdriver
Step 2: Measure current pickup height.
First tune the guitar to pitch and then start taking its current measurements. These baseline measurements are very important because you need to know where the pickups are now in relation to where they should be.
Here's how to measure a pickup's height:
- Press the 1st string onto the last fret and hold it down.
- Using the 6" machinist ruler, measure the distance from the top of the pole piece to the bottom of the 1st string. Write down the measurement.
- Repeat this process with the 6th string, again holding it against the last fret and writing down the measurement.
- Now repeat the process with the remaining pickup(s).
- At this point you'll have measurements for both the treble and bass sides of each pickup.
How did our project guitars measure up?
The Strat's bridge pickup was 6/64" on the treble side and 8/64" on the bass side. The middle pickup measured 8/64" on both treble and bass sides, and the neck pickup measured 2/64" and 4/64", respectively, for the treble and bass sides. As we'll see in a moment, these distances are way off. The project Tele was also out of whack, with its bridge pickup measuring 4/64" and 2/64" (treble and bass) and neck measuring 2/64" and 4/64".
Not only were the heights of these pickups all over the map, the Tele's neck pickup was loose and wobbly. That's a tell-tale sign that the rubber compression tubing (which acts like a spring) over the pickup screws had either shrunk or was too short to begin with. To correct it, I had to remove the strings and pickguard, and then separate the pickup from the guard. After installing new tubing, I was able to adjust the pickup without it bobbing inside the guitar.
When you finish recording the baseline measurements on both the treble and bass side of each pickup, you're ready to adjust them to their ideal specs.
3. Using a machinist ruler to measure the distance between the top of the pole piece and the bottom of the 6th string on our project Stratocaster's bridge pickup. This pickup is too low. 4. The bridge pickup is set too high on our project Telecaster. 5. Adjusting a Telecaster bridge pickup. In addition to setting its overall height, the three adjustment screws let you control the pickup's fore and aft tilt. For maximum sustain and power, make sure the top of the bridge pickup's pole pieces sit parallel to the strings.
Step 3: Correct the pickup height.
There's a lot of debate about what constitutes "correct" pickup height, but conceptually the goal is simple: Set the pickup height to give your guitar optimum volume, clarity, sustain, and treble-to-bass balance.
Setting the pickups too high doesn't further this cause. In fact, when Fender-style single-coil pickups are too close to the strings, the pole pieces—which are cylindrical magnets—will pull the strings out of tune, causing intonation problems and reducing sustain. If the pole pieces are high enough, they can actually collide with the strings, especially when you play open chords. When a pickup is too close to the strings, its output signal can be too hot and overload the preamp stage in your amplifier.
Yet when the pickups are set too far away from the strings, the result is a weak signal. This will cause the guitar to sound thinner and brighter than normal.
Furthermore, when the pickups aren't balanced correctly from the 1st to the 6th string, the result is uneven volume as you move from the treble to the bass strings. Fortunately, we can prevent all these problems. The tables in Fig. 1 show the measurements I use for each pickup on a Strat and Tele.
Using a Phillips head screwdriver, raise or lower the pickup by turning the adjustment screws located on either side of the pickup. (Some single-coils use slot-head screws, in which case you'll need a straight screwdriver.) Make small adjustments and go slowly. After each adjustment, again hold down the 1st and 6th strings at the last fret and take new measurements. Repeat this process for each pickup until it matches the corresponding specs in the tables.
Tip: Running out of screw length before you're done adjusting the pickups is one of the "little surprises" that can occur when altering pickup height. If this happens, remove the pickguard and replace the screws with longer ones.
Step 4: Testing—1, 2.
After you adjust the pickups to spec, it's time for the final test, which is to plug into your amp and play. So you can hear the full range of your pickups, don't stand too close to your amp. Instead, move back a good 10 feet or more.
Be sure to test the pickups with the guitar's volume wide open. Listen carefully to the balance between bass and treble strings, and switch between all the positions on your pickup selector. The goal is to hear equal volume from each pickup, even though the tone will change dramatically from pickup to pickup.
These measurements are a base point to start from, though I wouldn't recommend adjusting the pickups any higher. If the pickups sound unbalanced after you've set them to these specs, lower the louder pickup to reduce its output instead of raising the quieter one. A quarter turn can make an audible difference, so listen carefully, and be patient.
By following this relatively simple procedure, you'll probably discover that the dynamics, sustain, clarity, and stringto- string balance will have improved on your Strat or Tele. Next month, we'll tackle another DIY project, so stay tuned.