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Picture yourself desiring to acquire a Fender Stratocaster, as if it’s been your lifelong dream to own one. Except, when you finally get to the store, you’re confronted with different choices regarding pickups.
One of the most common scenarios involves the pickup configuration, which sometimes includes a humbucker. If you’re wondering what the difference is between these different Stratocasters, you’ve come to the right place.
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What Are The Differences Between Pickups?
We won’t go into full detail between the humbucker and the single-coil, but we will touch on the basics. For starters, the single-coil pickup is one of the first pickup designs for the electric guitar.
Single-coil pickups are known for their bright, glassy tones with tight response. But, they can present their own issues, most of which have to do with position and interference.
Humbuckers were designed to alleviate electromagnetic interference by essentially wiring a pair of single-coil pickups together with opposite polarity. The result is a tone that is much warmer, wider, with more presence in the mid-range.
Differences in tone aside, these pickup types also differ in the amount of volume that they produce. Humbuckers tend to have much more volume output than single-coil pickups can produce.
What Is The Original Stratocaster Pickup Configuration?
Since the very beginning, Fender Stratocasters have traditionally been equipped with a trio of single-coil pickups. The guitars originally came with a 3-way selector switch, though experimentation would soon change this.
During the 1960s, guitarists began toying around with the selector switch, often putting it in-between positions. The result is a sort of out-of-phase sound comprised of a combination of the adjacent pickups.
These tones became instantly iconic in their own right and are now some of the hallmark tones of the Stratocaster. This experimentation basically doubled the versatility that was already present with the guitar.
So, what began as a traditional Bridge-Middle-Neck positioning gained 2 more positions, combining:
- Bridge and middle positions
- Neck and middle positions
For most people, the original configuration of 3 single-coil pickups is part of the reason they buy a Stratocaster. But, unfortunately, this isn’t always the greatest for different scenarios.
Why Would Somebody Consider A Humbucker At The Bridge?
The problem is, sometimes, this position can become excessively shrill when playing at full blast with gain. Even slight gain can be enough to pierce the ears of your audience, causing them to go outside for relief.
Most guitarists will typically roll back the tone knob a bit to help with this shrillness. However, doing so can make the tone feel as if it is lacking a certain amount of depth.
Keep in mind that single-coil pickups aren’t necessarily the widest-sounding pickups. When you’re trying to play leads with the bridge position, you might find that your tone feels too thin.
Sure, you could dial up the gain on your distortion, but then you run into an entirely different problem. Some single-coils lose their distinct glassy tone when too much gain is present in the tone.
This might not be the biggest deal for some, as that could be their preferred tone for that musical moment. But, the majority of people buy a Stratocaster because they want that signature Stratocaster sound.
Effectively alleviating the Strat’s signature bridge tone, in turn, often works against the intended goal of buying the guitar. So, many guitarists will opt to seek out a Stratocaster with a humbucker at the bridge.
What Are The Pros Of Having A Humbucker At The Bridge?
Perhaps the biggest question on your mind at this point is what the humbucker sounds like in comparison. Does the Stratocaster still sound like a Stratocaster in the 1st and 2nd pickup selector locations?
As we mentioned before, each pickup position on the Stratocaster sounds distinct and immediately recognizable. Where the single-coils lack bottom-end depth and a hint of mid-range, a humbucker seems to add balance.
The result maintains the glassy highs of the single-coil but provides a hefty dose of lows and mids. It also seems to be much thicker and more present in sound, rather than thin and brittle.
In other words, you could say that a humbucker at the bridge provides the best of both worlds. Even the 2nd position (when combined with the middle position single-coil) has a distinct Strat sound with more character.
Using either of these positions is especially ideal when you want to play a guitar solo. What might have been an unusable position for some tones now becomes perfectly reasonable.
In some ways, the humbucker cuts the shrill highs that can often make a guitar solo unbearable to hear otherwise. Instead, it shifts the bias to be more balanced, but with a lot more girth.
Almost any style of music in the rock genre could benefit from a humbucker at the bridge. Perhaps only country players might enjoy the single-coil bridge because of its essence of steel-guitar twang.
What Are The Cons Of Having A Humbucker At The Bridge?
As with anything, having a humbucker at the bridge position can pose its own sacrifices that you must accept. Fortunately, many of these issues have become ironed out with modern guitar models, making them non-issues.
But, because it’s not uncommon to buy a used guitar, there are some things you’ll want to know. Keep in mind, while these are presented as problems, they can also be considered a superpower in their own right.
One of the things that you end up sacrificing with a humbucker at the bridge is the original sound. Sure, I did say that the humbucker sounds reminiscent of the single-coil, but it’s not the same.
There are times when you might actually prefer the thin, slightly shrill bridge pickup tone. Humbuckers usually have too much girth and mid-range presence to get that exact same sound.
The other thing that could pose a problem has to do with the output capabilities of each pickup type. Some bridge positions on humbucker Stratocasters can be far louder than every other position.
In fact, that’s partially why HSS Stratocasters likely haven’t been quite as popular as the original single-coil design. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it can act as a sort of boost pedal for guitar solos.
What If I Want The Best Of Both Worlds With My Stratocaster?
You’ve probably been told that, in life, you sometimes cannot have your own cake and eat it too. When it comes to the Stratocaster, you might actually be able to get the best of both worlds.
Most of this possibility is really going to depend on what kind of budget you’re working with. Stratocasters are available in every budget range, but the features included differ with each level.
If you want both a single-coil and a humbucker at the bridge, a coil tap is what you seek. This effectively splits the humbucker into a single-coil and sounds very similar to the original.
With a coil tap engaged, both the 1st and 2nd positions will act as if they are using a single-coil pickup. But, again, this is not a feature found on every Stratocaster available on the market.
What Kind Of Stratocasters Are Currently Available On The Market?
If you are considering the purchase of a Stratocaster, it’s best to know some of the fundamental differences between models. Most Stratocasters are identical on paper aside from a few key things.
Let’s take a brief look at what’s currently on the market with regard to both SSS and HSS Stratocasters.
Fender Player Stratocaster
If you want the most inexpensive Fender Stratocaster, the Fender Player Stratocaster (see price on Sweetwater, Amazon) is for you. These are the budget models in the company’s line of various guitars.
Part of what makes them so inexpensive is the fact that they are manufactured in Mexico. However, on paper, these Stratocasters are almost the same as some of the American models in design.
This particular Stratocaster features the classic SSS pickup configuration. All of that classic, slinky tone you know the Stratocaster for is waiting to be found here.
Fender does offer HSS versions of this exact model, but they do not come with a coil tap. But, if you’re not concerned with the 1st and 2nd single-coil positions, this isn’t a big deal.
Fender American Professional II Stratocaster HSS
For both single-coil and humbucker capabilities, consider the Fender American Professional II Stratocaster HSS (see price on Sweetwater, Amazon). This guitar is almost double the price of the Player Stratocaster, but it’s definitely worth it.
Aside from exquisite craftsmanship, the American Professional II Stratocaster HSS’s strength lies in its pickups. This is equipped with Fender’s latest V-Mod II pickups, which are designed by the legendary Tim Shaw.
When compared to the regular Stratocasters, there is almost a night-and-day difference in tone. That classic Strat tone is here, but with a silkiness that isn’t always present with budget models.
Of course, what really takes the cake here is Fender’s inclusion of a push-button coil tap in the tone knob. As you’d expect, the humbucker is thus engaged normally or as a single-coil pickup.
Unlike other HSS Stratocasters in the past, the American Professional II Stratocaster HSS has some evolutionary advantages. These differences might actually be the deciding factor in whether you choose to purchase this guitar.
Fender actually fine-tuned the humbucker’s output to match the output levels of the single-coil pickups. This means that you won’t have an excessive volume boost when engaged in the humbucker positions.
Plus, when the single-coil is engaged, the volume stays the same while in the same position.
Secondly, these pickups are so good that the single-coil sound is almost identical to that of a true single-coil. When compared side-by-side, you’ll probably have a hard time distinguishing between the two.
This Stratocaster is extremely versatile and checks all the boxes with regard to the reasons for buying an HSS Strat. Even if you’re an SSS Stratocaster purist, this guitar might make you see the value in having an HSS Stratocaster.
Squier Classic Vibe '70s Stratocaster HSS
If you didn’t know, Squier is a Fender-owned company producing Fender designs with cheaper labor for lower prices. These guitars might be inexpensive, but they are good enough for any working professional.
In a way, the Classic Vibe '70s Stratocaster HSS is very similar to the aforementioned Player Series Stratocaster. This guitar takes a vintage-inspired approach to its design with some slightly different pickups.
As such, no coil tap is present in this guitar's circuitry, and the outputs aren’t necessarily matched. But the humbucker does provide quite a bit more of a beefy girth to its bridge-position tone.
Can I Put A Humbucker/Single-Coil Pickup In My Stratocaster?
What if you already have a Stratocaster but want to change the bridge position pickup? If this is you, just know that you don’t need to buy another Stratocaster to have a different bridge pickup.
In fact, due to the modular design of Fender guitars, swapping out the bridge pickup can actually be relatively easy. Much of the difficulty will depend on whether the Stratocaster is already routed for a humbucker.
More often than not, you can purchase pre-loaded pickguards that come with the pickups already installed. Simply solder the connections to the appropriate locations, screw on the pickguard, and you’re good to go.
You can also purchase a non-loaded pickguard and affix your pickups to the pickguard on your own. This might be a viable option if you already like how your neck and middle position single-coils sound.
In the event that your Stratocaster does not have the proper routing, it’s best to go to a professional. You do not want to hack up your guitar and turn it into something unsightly that you’re embarrassed about.
A professional will ensure that the guitar has the proper cavity routing to fit the pickup (if installing a humbucker). In the event that you want to revert back to a single-coil, there should be no noticeable cosmetic differences.
The Stratocaster’s pickup actually covers quite a bit of the guitar’s face. So, even if it is a complete hack job, there’s a good chance it will remain hidden.
Still though, mangling your guitar is enough reason for somebody not to buy it if you decide to sell.
Which Is Best?
At the end of the day, the pickup combination you choose should be based on how it sounds to you. Both configurations are special in their own way, but it really depends on your own personal preferences.
If you’re more of a purist when it comes to Stratocasters, at least give an HSS Stratocaster a chance. You could find yourself pleasantly surprised.
HSS Vs SSS, Final Thoughts
Both the classic SSS and the HSS should definitely be given a try if you’re considering buying a Stratocaster. While online video demos can provide a rough idea, guitars can often sound different when playing in person.
As always, try to replicate the gear in your rig as best as possible when you do try different Stratocasters. Playing your own music will give you the best idea as to what pickup configuration works more with your style.
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