Pick Ups for Strats
Let's start on the cool side and warm up as we go along. First up is a calibrated set of GFS Pro Tube Lipsticks (gold $32.95 each, black $30.95, silver £29.95). Putting Dano-style lipstick pickups on a Strat is a well-tried modification. The most famous exponent was SRV with the Charlie Wirz special he used to such chilling effect on Tin Pan Alley, Couldn’t Stand The Weather and Love Struck Baby. There’s a problem with old Danelectro pickups like Stevie’s: they’re wider than Fenders, so the pickguard will need to be cut and the body routed. GFS’s lipsticks, on the other hand, will drop right in. They’re wound with plain enamel wire and Alnico II magnets; the bridge pickup ohms out at 8K, the hum-cancelling RWRP middle pickup is 6K and the neck reads a vintage 5.9K.
This nicely-balanced set nails the super-clear, glassy, bell-like tone that I remember from those SRV tracks. It’s a very detailed, hi-fi sound that twangs and chimes. Your Strat will still sound Stratty, but also brighter, ethereal and more transparent. Each pickup will also have its own personality, and the in-between settings are simply sublime.
Next up is a pair of Strat sets promising 'P90' tone – Rio Grande’s Dirty Harry (£79 each, £199 set) and Vintage Vibe's SP-90 SW ($155 set or $60 each). Like the Fralin Steel Pole these all have bar magnets on the base and height-adjustable steel screw polepieces. I started with the Rio Grandes and was a little surprised that they ohmed out at just over 13K. They’re hot stuff, but they’re also dark-sounding. Whenever you install a set of overwound pickups on a stock Fender-type guitar, it’s worthwhile swapping the volume pot for a 500K or even a 1M. A 250K could never do these Rio Grandes justice. Their tone is extremely fat and the treble content is more akin to a humbucker than a true P90, without sounding nasal. Each pickup is distinct and they certainly do a fantastic job of overdriving a valve amp, but the clean tones are impressive too, producing a sound that falls somewhere between a vintage Strat and a big jazzbox.
The Vintage Vibe set was graded from 9.9K to 8.3, which is far closer to a set of stock P90s, and they sound much closer to the real thing – but the real shock is just how close they get. They’re chewy and thick and dripping with harmonics, but still gritty and aggressive enough to retain that all-important bite. Imagine a revved-up Strat tone with a clear, woody texture and all the sharp edges knocked off. These pickups will turn your S-type into a killer bottleneck axe. Pure class, and you can swap the magnets to customise them, too.
The classic Strat mod is loading them with humbuckers. The Seymour Duncan Everything Axe set (£199.95) included an SJBJ-1b JB Jr for the bridge, an SDBR-1n Duckbucker for the middle and an SL59-1n Little ’59 for the neck. These aren’t ultra-hot humbuckers, more hot vintage. The bridge has a snarling grunt and the neck is smoother and more open. SD recommends a 250K volume pot, but they still sounded slightly dark with a 1M pot, although no more so than regular PAFs.
The Duckbucker is also hum-cancelling but it’s designed to produce a single coil tone. The treble content is consistent with the other two, which is certainly for the best. If you’re looking for a classic rock sound with S-type looks and features, this set is ideal. The in-between settings still sound Stratty and you can still split the coils for a bewildering range of tones.
Last up is a ceramic 'metal set' – the DiMarzio Tone Zone DP189 for the bridge, Fast Track 1 DP181 for the middle and Air Norton DP180 for the neck (£67 each). This well-balanced set is brighter and more powerful than the Seymour Duncans. Although it seems twice as loud, the Fat Track 1 is closer to a trad S-type tone than the Duckbucker. The Tone Zone is very contemporary with great solidity for powerchords and lead duties, and plenty of pinched harmonics. The Air Norton is darker and smoother and, like its siblings, it still sounds excellent when you clean things up by turning your guitar’s volume down.
That’s it for T-type and S-types. Next time, we’ll be investigating the options for guitars with PAF and P90 routs.