Know Your Strat Pickups

Bob Leggitt | Wednesday, 30 November 2011 |

If you've landed on this page whilst searching for impartial info on any of the following Stratocaster pickups, you can find specific reviews on the links below...

Original mid 1990s Fender Custom Shop American '50s Strat Pickups (now CS54s)
Fender Custom Shop Texas Special Strat Pickups
Fender '57 & '62 Vintage Stratocaster Pickups (Original pre-1998 Reissue)
Seymour Duncan APS-1 (Alnico II Pro) Strat Pickups
1980s Fender Japan one-piece 'Vintage Reissue' Stratocaster Pickups

If, however, it's a general overview you're after, please read on...

Most guitarists recognise that pickups can make or break a guitar. But what exactly are the make or break factors? Well, for this piece I’m going to look at the most widely copied and popular electric guitar design of all time – the Fender Stratocaster. There have now been so many models that it would be almost impossible to pin down a reliable review for each one. But across all those different variants of Strat, the standard and design of the pickups has always served as a good indicator of general quality. In my experience, checking what sort of pickups are installed gives a good idea as to the instrument's price bracket. It can also indicate whether or not the guitar has been interfered with, and perhaps hint at how truthful/na├»ve a seller is being about what's really being sold.

I’m going to dismiss humbuckers, Lace Sensors and the like for this piece (see my '87 Strat Plus article for info on the original Lace Sensor). Partly because the article’s length would spiral out of control, but also because it’s pretty obvious with non-traditional Strat pickups what the deal is. People can generally see that a Lace Sensor is a Lace Sensor, and that a humbucker is worthy of specific attention. So, focusing purely on those slim single coils with six little metal dots poking through the pickup covers, here’s a run-down on the basics of classic format Stratocaster pickups…

TRADITIONAL

In many cases, traditional Strat pickups are also referred to as ‘vintage’. However, I would include in this category any pickup which predates Fender’s switch to moulded bobbins (so prior to 1980), or is specifically made as a replica of a pre-1980 unit.

The traditional Strat pickup has a separate bottom plate and a separate top plate, made from vulcanised fibre. Before the coil is wound, the only thing holding the plates together is the set of six magnetic pole-pieces. The image below shows how this arrangement looks before the coil is wound. This is a mid 1960s-style Strat pickup assembly with light grey fibre top and bottom plates, and staggered-height pole-pieces. Until the mid ‘60s, the top and bottom plates were black. In the late ‘60s the light grey plates were replaced with dark grey ones. The poles were staggered, incidentally, to compensate for the volume differences in the individual strings.


The magnetic poles are made of an aluminium/nickel/cobalt composite known as alnico. The standard strength for the magnets is alnico V (V as in five). Lower strength magnets such as alnico II are used in some vintage replicas. Lower strength alnico creates less pull on the strings and a mellower tone with less top end brilliance. Debates have lingered with regard to whether Fender themselves ever at any point used alnico II magnets on vintage Strats. Some say they did; others say that the low strength of some vintage Strat pole magnets is purely down to the way time and usage has affected them over the decades, and that they all started out in life as alnico Vs (UPDATE: Fender now acknowledge on their website that lower strength alnico pickups were used).

Alnico is greyish and fairly dull, rather than bright and shiny silver. Shiny silver poles usually indicate that a ceramic bar magnet has been employed – more on that in due course. This difference in pole appearance is something which can be observed even on a fully assembled guitar with the pickup covers in situ.

The hair-fine, insulated coil wire is wound directly onto the pole-pieces for a total of somewhere between approx 7,500 and 8,750 wraps, depending on the period from which the pickup hails. Old 1950s pickups tend to have more than 8,000 windings (often considerably more), whereas late 1970s pickups will have significantly fewer. More windings equates to a fatter sound and higher output. Fewer windings gives a higher fidelity with more glassy treble, and lower output. The number of windings on very old Strat pickups was down to a combination of inaccurate mechanical monitoring and human discretion, and could therefore vary widely from one unit to the next. Fender’s Texas Special bridge pickup is a good example of a unit which follows traditional spec, but has increased windings for a pokier, fatter tone.

The pre-CBS Fender pickups were dipped in molten wax to solidify the coil windings. Windings which are able to vibrate can create a ‘microphonic’ pickup, which squeals uncontrollably at stage or rehearsal volume. Through most of the CBS era, Strat pickups were not wax dipped – supposedly because the insulation on the coil wire being used could not withstand the high temperatures. However, as time went on, winding methods were improved, so that the coil tension was higher and more uniform, and the likelihood of inherently loose windings was minimised.

The photo below shows a 1993-dated Seymour Duncan SSL-1 Vintage Staggered Strat pickup. This is modelled on a 1950s Fender unit and very closely follows the spec of the originals, including the type and insulation gauge of ‘formvar’ coil wire, the staggered alnico V magnets, the black fibre top and bottom plates, the thorough wax saturation for a solid coil, and the cloth-coated connection wire. Quality is very high, and the output is accepted as a precise rendition of the classic 1950s Strat pickup tone.



In 1974 the staggered pole-pieces were switched for a set of flush poles – still made from alnico V. Other than this, the methods remained the same. Separate fibre top and bottom plate, and coil wound directly onto the magnetic poles. Whilst these pickups are not usually described by aficionados as ‘vintage’, they still have traditional construction. By this time, connection wire was plastic-coated, with cloth having been dropped in the late 1960s.

ONE-PIECE PLASTIC

At the end of the 1970s, a new construction was developed, with a one-piece moulded bobbin made from plastic. Flush-height alnico V pole-pieces were inserted into holes in the moulded bobbin, and the coil was then wound onto the plastic rather than directly onto the poles. From the beginning of the 1980s, these moulded plastic alnico V pickups became the standard for American-made Fender Strats. The biggest drawback with plastic bobbins was that they couldn’t take the temperatures involved in wax-dipping, and so could not have their windings solidified like the pickups on pre-CBS guitars. This was okay if the coils were wound tight, to a high standard, as was the case on US-made Fender Strats. However, on subsequent budget instruments where coil winding was a less predictable affair, nothing could be done about a ‘microphonic’ pickup. At least with a fibre-based construction, a ‘microphonic’ coil could be fixed by an owner able to wax-dip the pickup. The new plastic construction meant that a ‘microphonic’ pickup was much more likely to end up in the bin.

The photo below shows a moulded plastic bobbin without the coil windings. This comes from an early 1990s Japanese Fender Strat. Note the shiny, bright pole-pieces, which are of the non-magnetic variety. When complete, this pickup would have a ceramic bar magnet attached underneath, touching the bottom of the poles and thus magnetising them. You can see how some typical ceramic pickups (Japanese vs Korean) looked from underneath in my Truth About Early Korean Squier Strats article. Other variants of the ceramic Strat pickup (particularly on Squier guitars and some Mexican Fenders) had similar chromed, non-magnetic poles, but extending down below the base and magnetised from each side by two ceramic bars, rather than one. Some ceramic Strat pickups, such as those used on the Squier Deluxe Strats of the mid to late '90s, had staggered non-magnetic poles, rather than flush.



An American Standard pickup from the same period as the one depicted above would instead feature magnetised alnico V poles (duller grey), so no bar magnet would be required. The bobbin itself, however, would look broadly the same. Note that until 1995, the export market Japanese vintage reissue Fender Strats used alnico poles (staggered if in keeping with the model to be replicated). From late 1995, some export models were fitted with ceramics. The pickups on early Fender/Squier Japan reissues, including most of the JV series, had traditional construction with a fibre top and bottom plate, but from 1985, moulded plastic bobbins were used on MIJ reissues. Most will find it impossible to tell the plastic bobbin alnicos from the traditional fibre-bobbin alnicos without dismantling the guitar. The American vintage reissue Strats always featured pre-CBS type pickups with traditional construction, including cloth connection wire, although the design has been changed quite markedly since the 1980s versions.

The ceramic pickup (non-magnetic poles plus bar magnet) has a different tone from the classic alnico. With windings like for like, the ceramic will usually have a thicker, less ‘Stratty’ sound with a chunkier midrange and less definition. To my ear, much of the personality of the Strat is lost with this type of pickup. If they’re competently (tightly) wound, they’re very usable and some may even prefer them to alnicos. But diehard Strat fans will almost certainly prefer alnicos – they’re the ones with that pure, searing tone made famous by the true legends of electric guitar.

It tends to be that more expensive Strats have featured alnico pole pickups, whereas the less expensive ones have featured non-magnetic poles plus a bar magnet. However, there are notable exceptions. The early Japanese Squiers, for instance, were (in terms of price at least) budget guitars, but featured fully traditional, US-made, pre-CBS type alnico Vs. Equally, some third party pickups for Strats have over the years been quite expensive, but featured a bar magnet plus non-magnetic poles construction. Typically though, if the pickups are stock, shiny poles mean a cheaper Strat - dull grey poles mean a more expensive one.

For the final photo, I’ve shown a home-wound pickup which differs slightly from the standard Fender unit, but still keeps the important Strat characteristics. Before winding, I reduced the height of the coil area slightly (by pushing down the top plate) so the coil would fill out a little wider. I ‘overwound’ the pickup with about 9,000 wraps, to fatten the tone. I also wound unevenly to simulate the randomness of very early Strat pickups. This roughens the sound. The pickup was then wax-dipped. However, because the coil was so wide, there was a high risk of damaging it when fitting the pickup cover. For this reason I enclosed the coil with a layer of tape.



If you're interested in a historical account of how the aftermarket pickups business grew and established itself, you might like to have a look at my Rise of the Retrofit Pickup article.

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