Often people ask what’s the difference between the pickups on say a Mid-Level Strat against an American Standard or indeed, any other higher model guitar or pickup manufacturer – or put it another way, how come my strat doesn’t sound like a strat?
A guitar’s tone comes from many things – your fingers, good wood, good electrics, a good fret job & set-up etc etc etc. With this in mind though, the role pickups play is an important one.
There are a myriad of strat copies available, some great, some not so good. One thing many of them have in common though is the bar magnet pickup.
Look underneath this pickup taken from an old mid-level Strat copy. Whereas in the top pic you’ll see the six pole pieces are magnets, in the pickup the polepieces are steel slugs with a thick bar magnet underneath. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; P90s are built this way, as are humbuckers and a number of other types of pickup. What this does though is give a warmer tone to the pickup.
The bar magnets increase the inductance of the coils which can result in a darker though a comparatively less defined tone.
Note the difference. The ’64 Strat pickup has six staggered individual Alnico 5 pole magnets. These give the pickup more clarity, more string definition and an overall brighter attack.
Standard configuration Strat’s are known for they’re bright, defined, glassy & ‘compressed’ tone and when manufacturers cut costs by installing bar magnet pickups, those tonal features are often lost.
Take a listen to these two audio files to highlight the differences. I’ve chosen the Middle/Neck position as this is where you can often really hear the difference between bar & pole magnet in a single coil pickup. The pole-piece magnet pickup has more clarity, brightness & string definition whereas the bar magnet pickup is darker, less defined but still with a warmth. Its here that I add the often quoted line, “You can roll back on the highs for a warmer tone, but you can’t if they’re not there in the first place.”
The scatterwound nature of the custom pickup gives more ‘air’ in the tone which helps to keep the clarity and definition when overdriven whereas the cheaper bar magnet pickup with its tightly machine wound coils can often become unfocussed or muddy when overdriven.
So in answer to the question, “why does my Strat not sound like a Strat?” – Perhaps the answer is in your pickups.
(I’ll update this post with the addition of the kind of pickup you get on a cheap low-level strat – You know the ones. Manufacturers here often cut costs by even reducing the length of coil wire resulting in fewer winds. The fewer winds coupled with a cheap ceramic bar magnet often results in an overly bright pickup, or the ‘ice-pick’ sound – You’ll know it when you hear it)