The Best Strat Pickups For Killer Blues Tones
The pickups that you use in your guitar play a fundamental role in your tone. In fact I would argue that the type of guitar pickups that you use – as well as the design and build of those pickups – contribute more to your tone than many of the other elements of your rig with which you might be concerned.
So if you are looking to improve your tone, and you play a Fender Stratocaster or a Stratocaster type guitar – then in this article I am going to list some of the best Strat pickups for killer blues tones.
The world of guitar pickups is not easy to navigate. In recent years, manufacturers have made huge developments in pickup production, which has increased the range of pickups out there and also made them both more readily available and also more affordable. And this has resulted in a wide range of choice. The benefits of this are significant. You now have a lot of different options available, and can tailor your search accordingly to find the best Strat pickups for your set-up.
However this choice can also be somewhat overwhelming. There are a wide variety of ways that manufacturers alter their pickups. And this has resulted in there being many variations of Strat pickups that all very similar to one another. As a result, if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for, it is easy to end up with a set of pickups that are poorly suited for your set-up.
If you are new to the world of guitar pickups, or if you would like to know more about how they function, then I would recommend reading my article: ‘Which Types Of Guitar Pickups Are Right For You?’ In that article I cover pickups more broadly. Specifically, I run through some of the main elements that pickup manufacturers alter to change the sound of their pickups.
This includes the material of the magnets used in the pickups, whether the pickups have been over or underwound, and whether they have been wound by a machine, or by hand. If these concepts are new to you, I would head over there first. This will help you to better understand some of the terms that you are likely to encounter when looking for a new set of Strat pickups. And after that, you will better placed to refine your search by looking at specific sets of pickups. It is this latter point on which I will be focusing throughout the rest of this article.
Starting Your Search
As you might expect, when advertising their pickups, manufacturers don’t typically focus on the more technical elements of pickup design. Instead, they usually organise pickups into groups, based on the output of the pickup (how strong it is) and the type of tone it produces.
This is largely to make it easy for the vast majority of guitarists; many of whom don’t want to get into deep technical detail whilst trying to buy new gear. However it is also because the output and tonal characteristics of different pickups are determined by a multitude of complex factors. As such, it is not just as simple as looking at the type of magnet in the pickup, or whether the pickup is underwound or overwound.
Each of these factors is important. And they will give you a broad indication of the characteristics of the pickup. But it is how these factors combine together which ultimately affects how a pickup sounds.
As such, below I have created categories of different Strat pickups, which I hope will help to give focus to your search. These categories are similar to those offered by many of the different pickup manufacturers; though I have added in a bit more detail which I hope will help you to differentiate between the many different Strat pickups out there. Below I have added in some of the best Strat pickups for:
- Clean blues tones
- Low gain blues tones
- Texas blues tones
- British blues tones
- Heavy blues tones
In the interest of full disclosure, these categories are imperfect. And there are two reasons for this:
Firstly, there is a lot of crossover between different types of pickups and their characteristics. For example, there are Strat pickups listed below which will help you to recreate British blues tones. But some of these pickups will also be well suited for heavier, more modern tones. Likewise, there are a whole range of balanced pickup sets out there, which have the potential to span across multiple categories.
Secondly, when it comes to finding the best Strat pickups for the blues, the use of the word ‘vintage’ on the part of pickup manufacturers can be confusing. This is partly because there are so many different types of vintage pickups available. And these sets are often modelled on a specific year or decade. However I would argue that it is also because – within a blues context, the term ‘vintage’ is somewhat irrelevant.
This is because most blues guitarists are in search of what you could describe as a ‘vintage’ blues tone. The majority of famous Strat players crafted their tones with early Fender Stratocasters. And these guitars were fitted with what we would now describe as ‘vintage’ pickups. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and Rory Gallagher are just some of the many famous musicians that have used and continue to use Fender Strats that were built in the 1950s and 1960s.
As such, if you are looking for killer blues tones, it is highly likely that you are in search of a vintage sound. And so almost (if not all) of the pickups listed below could be classified as vintage style pickups. Instead then, I have decided to categorise the pickups more specifically, by focusing on the kind of tone they will help you to create.
A Note On Price
The final point to consider before we look at specific Strat pickup sets, is that of price. Normally when recommending guitar gear, I try to do so with a range of different budgets in mind. You will see however that the majority of Strat pickups I have recommended below are either boutique or in a higher price range. And I have done so intentionally.
There are a number of reasons for this, which are as follows:
Firstly, changing your pickups is not as easy as buying a new guitar pedal or even a new amp. You need to alter the electronics on your guitar, which most players will have to outsource to a guitar tech. This already adds on an extra layer of cost. It also makes it more troublesome (and potentially expensive) to make changes if you are dissatisfied with your new set of pickups.
If you take a gamble on a cheap guitar pedal or amp, and you find that you don’t like it, you can simply return it, or sell it on. This isn’t true of guitar pickups. You can of course change them and sell them on. But first you have to go through the hassle of replacing them and rewiring the electronics etc. As such, in my opinion it is worth erring on the side of caution and quality when you are looking to upgrade your Strat pickups.
Additionally, when you buy a new set of pickups, you are essentially looking to upgrade your current guitar. And again in my opinion this has an impact on the type of pickups you should be considering. Let me explain in a bit more detail, by looking at Strats across three common price brackets:
If you have an American made Strat or a Strat of similar quality, it will already have high quality pickups. As such, it doesn’t make any sense for you to then go and buy an entry level set of pickups. Instead of upgrading your guitar, you might actually be moving further away from the tone you have in mind.
Likewise, if you have a Mexican made Strat or similar, the pickups that come with the guitar will also be high quality. They won’t be the same as those in an American made Strat. But in this situation, opting for a more expensive set of Strat pickups is a great choice. You can really improve the tone of your guitar and upgrade it to be of a similar (or perhaps better specification) than an American made Strat. And significantly, you can do this at a lower overall cost than buying a factory made American guitar.
The only situation in which I would not recommend opting for high end Strat pickups, is if you are playing a Fender Squier or similar. As noted above, it doesn’t really make sense to play a high end guitar with entry level pickups. And the opposite is true here. Firstly, there is something a little odd about the pickups in your guitar costing more than the guitar itself. More importantly though, the potential of those pickups will be somewhat stifled by the quality of the guitar.
As such, if you are in that situation – I would personally recommend either focusing on other areas of your rig (like your amp and pedals), or on spending a little bit more time saving to buy a Mexican or American made Strat, or a guitar of similar quality.
My final argument in favour of looking at higher end Strat pickups is two-fold. Firstly it is that generally speaking, the difference in price between entry level and boutique pickups is not that great. In fact it is much less than the disparity in price you are likely to encounter when looking at guitars, amps and pedals. Secondly, even high end boutique pickups are not as pricey as you might expect. In fact, most boutique manufacturers offer pickup sets for around the same price as a single boutique guitar pedal.
So with that final caveat out of the way, let’s get into it. Here are some of the best Strat pickups out there for killer blues tones:
Clean Blues Tones
If you have spent any time looking at Strat pickups, you are likely to appreciate how many varieties of ‘vintage’ pickup are out there. Vintage pickups have a number of defining characteristics, one of the most significant of which, is that they are not particularly powerful.
The pickups listed in this first category are vintage style Strat pickups. Specifically, they are pickups that have a low output. They are the weakest pickups of those included in this article. And this makes them perfect for clean and crisp blues tones. That is not to say you can’t also use them to play with an overdriven tone. But they will not be so well suited if you are looking for a heavy blues tone or if you want to push your amp into breakup at low volumes.
Instead, this type of Strat pickup will work well if you typically favour a clean tone. If you want the clear, ‘bell like’ Strat tones of early blues and rock n’roll guitarists and you are less interested in heavy blues tones, then one of the following sets could make a great addition to your rig:
- Bare Knuckle Pickups – ‘Apache’ Single Coils
- Seymour Duncan Alnico II Strat Pickups
- Fender Custom Shop ’54 Stratocaster Pickups
- Lollar Vintage Tweed Pickups
- Fralin Pickups – Real ’54s
As you can see – the majority of these Strat pickups are modelled on pickups from the 1950s. The Stratocaster was first offered for sale in 1954, and so these pickups aim to recreate the distinctive tones of those very early Strats. So if you favour the Strat tones of a blues guitarist like Robert Cray, then one of these pickup sets could make a great choice. Combined with the right amp and overdrive pedal(s) you will also be able to dial in some singing and more overdriven lead tones too.
Low Gain Blues Tones
These Strat pickups – like those listed above – are also ‘vintage’ style pickups. As above, many of these Strat pickups are modelled on Stratocasters from specific years. Here though, the majority are based more closely on guitars from the 1960s. Stratocasters made up until 1964 (after which point the company was sold to CBS) are widely celebrated as the best instruments the company manufactured. And although Leo Fender changed very little to the Strat between the early 1950s and ’60s, there were some changes made to the pickups.
The most significant of these, was the type of wire used to wind the pickup. This altered the tonal characteristics of the pickup, rather than its output. However in more recent years, pickup manufacturers have experimented with changing both the type of wire wrapped around the pickup, and also the output of the pickup.
So if you are looking for a slightly crunchier and more aggressive blues tone, one of the following pickup sets could work well:
- Fender Custom Shop Fat ’50s Stratocaster Pickups
- Suhr V60 Pickups
- Bare Knuckle Pickups – ‘The Mother’s Milk’ Single Coils
- The Creamery – Classic ’64 Strat Pickups
- Fralin Pickups – Vintage Hot Strat Pickups
These Strat pickups are still weak compared to many of the different Strat pickups out there (and also listed below). However they have a little more bite and a different tone when compared with those listed above. This makes them a great choice if you are looking to push your amp into break up at lower volumes, or you favour a slightly crunchy tone.
Texas Blues Tones
The ‘Lonestar State’ has produced some of the most notable blues guitarists of all time. Billy Gibbons, Jimmie Vaughan, Albert Collins and Gary Clark Jr. are just some of the brilliant guitar players to have been born in Texas. Yet when it comes to beautiful Texas blues tones, for most guitarists there is just one Strat player that springs to mind. And that is Stevie Ray Vaughan.
In fact, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tone is so popular, that it has become almost synonymous with Texas blues. When guitarists state that they want a ‘Texas blues tone’, in the vast majority of cases, they are talking about a tone that that will help them to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Luckily, pickup manufacturers are aware of this fact. And so there are a wide range of different Texas style Strat pickup sets from which to choose. Some of my top recommendations here are as follows:
- Seymour Duncan Antiquity Strat Texas Hot Pickups
- Stephens Design Pickups – ‘The Mojo V’
- Van Zandt Pickups – ‘Blues Strat’ Pickups
- Fender Custom Shop Texas Special Strat Pickups
- Rio Grande Pickups – ‘Vintage Tallboy’ Strat Pickups
Stevie Ray Vaughan has a powerful guitar tone. And so these Texas Strat pickup sets are often ‘overwound’. This increases their output, and gives them a more focused midrange sound. It is this which will help you to dial in those warm and beefy Texas blues tones.
British Blues Tones
When you think of iconic British blues tones, it is likely that a Gibson Les Paul – rather than a Fender Stratocaster – springs to mind. After all, the majority of notable British players favoured the Les Paul to craft their killer blues tones. Peter Green, Jimmy Page and Paul Kossoff are just some of the famous bluesmen to favour the Les Paul. And so it is perhaps little surprise that the Les Paul remains the guitar of choice for most when it comes to crafting classic British blues tones.
Yet that does not mean that you need to rush out and buy a Les Paul just yet. Rory Gallagher, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton all crafted killer blues tones with their Fender Strats. And in fact both Beck and Clapton made the switch away from Gibson Les Pauls, having used them in the earlier stages of their careers. Each of these players has quite a different tone. And yet there are similarities which set them aside from some of the American and Texas blues players.
In my opinion, British blues tones are a little brighter and sharper than Texas blues tones. They are also a bit more biting and overdriven. So if you are looking for a slighter more aggressive blues tone, here are some of my top pickup recommendations:
- Bare Knuckle Pickups – ‘Irish Tour’ Single Coils
- Seymour Duncan Custom Shop ‘Psychedelic ’60s’ Strat Pickups
- Monty’s Guitars – Full Monty Strat Pickups
- Radioshop Pickups – ‘Evolution’ Strat Pickups
- Bare Knuckle Pickups ‘Slow Hand’ Single Coils
The Bare Knuckle pickup sets here are modelled after the tones of Rory Gallagher and Eric Clapton, respectively. So if you want to emulate the sound of either of those players, one of those sets would make a brilliant choice. The other sets are not focused on recreating the tones of a particular player. However I have included them here because they have a moderate output and a bright and snappy top end. Within the context of the right rig, these pickups will help you to dial in a range of beautiful British blues tones.
Heavy Blues Tones
Broadly speaking, single coil pickups are quite weak. This is particularly the case when you compare them with the humbucking pickups in Gibson guitars. It is for this reason that you rarely see heavy metal guitarists using Fender Stratocasters. In a blues context however – the Fender Strat makes a great choice. It will help you to dial in heavy blues tones, without going overboard into high gain rock and metal territory.
It is little surprise then, that some of the most iconic heavy blues and blues rock tones of all time were created using a Strat. Jimi Hendrix was one of the first players to use his Strat to create an array of heavy blues tones. And in doing so, he paved the way for a whole range of blues and blues rock guitarists, including Walter Trout, Eric Johnson, Robin Trower and Philip Sayce, amongst many others.
If you want to create similarly heavy tones, and are looking for pickups with a bit more power and aggression, then some of my top recommendations are as follows:
- Fralin Pickups – ‘Blues Special’ Strat Pickups
- Seymour Duncan – ‘Hot Strat’ Pickups
- Lollar Special S Series Pickups
- The Creamery – Sweet ’74
- Fender Custom Shop ’69 Pickups
Any of the above pickup sets will help you to dial in a range of killer blues tones. However if you want to recreate the heavier tones of specific players like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Johnson, you also have the option of going for a signature pickup set.
If you want to sound like Jimi Hendrix, there are a number of great options. Seymour Duncan Custom Shop offer a set of Jimi Hendrix Stratocaster Pickups, which would make a great choice. However the Klein Pickups ‘1969 Epic Series Stratocaster Pickups‘ or the Stephens Designs – ‘Fat Red House’ Pickups could also work very well.
To recreate the soaring lead tones of Eric Johnson, the Fender Eric Johnson Signature Pickups would make a brilliant choice. These Strat pickups are very closely modelled on those that Johnson has used throughout his career. As such, each pickup in the set is voiced slightly differently. The neck is based on a ’54 Strat pickup, and the middle pickup on a ’63 Strat pickup. The bridge pickup on the other hand is more powerful. So if you want a balanced and versatile pickup set that will help you dial in a range of different blues tones, this could work well.
Narrowing Your Search
At this stage, you might understandably be feeling somewhat overwhelmed. After all, there are still a lot of options from which to choose, even in this curated list.
If that is the case, then I would recommend going through a process of elimination to help focus your search. All of the Strat pickups listed in this article have the potential to sound brilliant. And so you have to be very discerning about exactly what you want from a new set of pickups.
The key here is to take time to fully consider not only the type of tone that you want to create, but also how your pickups fit more broadly within the context of your rig. This will help you to avoid the two key mistakes that many guitarists make when looking at new pickups. These are as follows:
Firstly, when buying new pickups, many guitarists don’t fully consider the range of tones they might want to create. Instead they end up focusing on achieving a very specific sound. And they do so without considering the broader range of tones they might also want to produce.
For example, a lot of players want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. And so they fit their guitars with Texas style Strat pickups. This makes sense. Yet what a lot of guitarists fail to appreciate, is that opting for this type of pickup will fundamentally change their tone. It will make them sound more like Stevie Ray Vaughan, all of the time. For many players, this is their aim. Others however, are likely to feel limited. They may feel that they can only play with a particular kind of tone, when in actual fact they are looking for a broader range of blues tones.
So before you go for any of the pickup sets listed above, take time to fully consider the kind of tones you want to create. And the good news here, is that if you do want to create a very specific tone, you do not need to rely solely on your pickups. This brings me to my second point:
When choosing new pickups, a lot of guitarists fail to take a holistic view of their set-up. They often forget about or underestimate the impact that their amp, pedals and guitar have on their tone. And this either leads them to place too much emphasis on their new pickups, or to overlook potential gains to their tone they can achieve without changing their pickups.
The pickups that you use have a profound impact on your tone. Yet so does your amp, your pedals, your guitar, the speakers in your amp, and so on. The tone that you produce is a result of all of these different factors. And it is important to recognise this point for two reasons:
The first is to avoid disappointment. If you fit your Strat with a set of Eric Johnson Signature pickups, and yet the rest of your rig is totally different to Johnson’s, the likelihood that you will recreate his specific tone is relatively slim. I don’t say this to put you off. In fact quite the opposite! I want you to make the right buying decisions and to avoid frustration and disappointment. And one of the best ways to achieve this, is to constantly think about your personal playing context, and where a set of new pickups fits within that context.
The second, is to capitalise on quick wins. You don’t need to opt for a particular type of pickup to create a specific tone. You can also use your amp and pedals. Let’s take a player like Rory Gallagher, for example. Gallagher has a sharp and biting blues tone. If you want to recreate his tone, all of the time, then opting for a treble intensive set of Strat pickups would work very well.
However if you only want to create his tone on occasion, opting for those kind of pickups is probably not a good idea. And this is where your amp and pedals can make a big difference. You can crank the treble on your amp, and use a treble booster pedal, as Gallagher did. Doing so will help you to create a similar fiery tone, without having to make such dramatic changes to your guitar.
Some Closing Thoughts…
Understanding these ideas is empowering. It immediately gives you focus. And this makes it easier and more enjoyable to decide what will work for you.
Of course, deciding on the final set of pickups won’t be an easy process. And as a final point, it is worth noting, that the suggestions listed throughout are by no means exhaustive. There are a huge variety of Strat pickups out there. And many of these will help you to create killer blues tones. To compile them all in a single article would be impractical, and most likely impossible. After all, pickup manufacturers continue to improve upon their existing designs, as well as release new pickup sets.
As such, I would recommend treating the information outlined here as a guide. Use it to help focus your search. Look for the characteristics that are important to you. Use this, in combination with some of the recommended brands and manufacturers, and it will ensure you choose the right Strat pickups for your set-up.
Good luck! And if there is anything at all I can help with, or if you have any questions, just pop them in the comments below or send me an email on [email protected] and I’m happy to help!
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