Many strat fanatics like me would have likely wondered, at some point in their existences, about how would their life be if their guitar had a different pickup configuration.
Don’t feel bad. This doesn’t count as being unfaithful to your strat.
It’s human nature, we are designed to fancy what we can’t have.
But can’t we have it?
Unless you are a strong believer in guitar monogamy, there’s a chance you are thinking about adding a different kind of pickup into your relationship.
Here’s a short take on this topic:
SSS is the standard pickup configuration for a Strat. Its main selling point is the tone of the 2nd and 4th switch positions. An HSS Strat is great for those who want a warmer darker bridge pickup with more output. The HSH config is the most versatile one, especially if the humbuckers are coil splittable.
If you want to dive deeper into the topic, and you are not afraid of being tempted into desiring a new start, in this article I will talk about the 3 most popular pickup configurations of this model.
After that, I will discuss some other alternatives, and finally, I will give you my opinion on the matter and so recommendations.
Are you ready to get started?
Down to the basics: Single coils vs humbucking pickups
Just to level the playfield, let’s talk briefly about the actual differences between the 2 most popular kinds of pickups out there.
If you already know what I’m about to say here, please skip to the next section.
Single-coil pickups were the original design introduced for the first iterations of the electric guitar.
Truly a change in paradigm for the music industry, but with an annoying flaw that persists until today:
The dreaded 60-cycle hum.
Because this is not a post about it, I will leave all the technical details aside, and I will just describe what it is.
As the name implies, this hum is a drone sound natural to the design of this kind of pickup that many players hate. There’s not much you can do about it, and it’s pretty much part of the character of vintage single-coils.
Well, to be honest, I lied about that there’s not much to do about it. You can add an extra coil to the design to cancel that noise out. To buck that hum.
Do you see where I’m getting at?
Adding another bobbin to a pickup makes what was later named generally a humbucker pickup.
But the thing is that apart from preventing the annoying drone tone, humbuckers have a completely different tone and character.
By looking for a way to eliminate that annoyance, pickup makers opened the door to a completely new sound for guitars.
To give you a short description of both these kinds of pickups, let’s say the following:
Single-coils have a low output (they hit the amp at a lower volume), sound bright and clear.
Humbuckers have a high output (they hit the amp hotter), sound warm, darker, and in some cases muddier.
The SSS Stratocaster
The SSS Strat is the original and most common configuration available.
Most purists will stick with this setup, as it is the most vintage and period correct sounding.
In my opinion, the greatest thing about having 3 single-coils in a guitar (and a 5-way pickup switch) is the access to the 2nd and 4th positions of this switch.
Both these switch states merge the output of the middle pickup with the bridge and neck pickups respectively.
By activating 2 pickups you get rid of the 60-cycle hum, so this could be a nice “killswitch” when not playing, instead of just rolling down the instrument’s volume.
However, the main thing about these positions is the tone.
In my head, these are the most characteristic, classic strat sounds.
The second position sounds sharp but controlled, ideal for funky rhythms, while the fourth position is a brighter, but still round version of the neck tone.
The HSS Stratocaster
An HSS Stratocaster, as the name implies, replaces the single-coil in the bridge with a humbucker.
This config is also referred to by some players as a hot rod Stratocaster.
A guitar with this kind of configuration will often times be considered a super strat, however, in my opinion, I don’t think this is a correct nomenclature in every case.
I consider super strats more modern sounding and with 21st century quality of life hardware upgrades such as locking tuners, compound radiuses, asymmetric neck shapes, etc.
In opposition with this definition of super strat, you could have a perfectly vintage specced instrument, with a vintage humbucker in the bridge position.
I wouldn’t consider that a super strat.
But what’s the actual gain of the added humbucker?
Well, for players like me that usually find the bridge position of a strat just too sharp, the warmer darker tone of a humbucker might be a nicer alternative.
The drawback here is that the higher output of a humbucker will, in some cases, be hard to blend, and to volume match with the middle and neck single-coils.
You also let go of the classic 2nd switch position, however, you gain a blended humbucker with the middle single-coil alternative that also has its subscribers.
A nice touch many HSS strats is the option to coil-tap (turn off one of the bobbins) the humbucker, leaving you with a tone that’s similar to the one of a regular single-coil pickup.
It’s not the real deal, though, but it’s a nice extra color to have in your palette.
The HSH Stratocaster
The HSH Stratocaster is yet another very popular alternative.
In this case, you have humbuckers in the bridge and neck, and a single coil in the middle position.
My opinion is that this configuration has a lot more to do with an HH super strat, than with a regular Stratocaster.
I consider the middle pickup just as an added feature to both bridge and neck humbuckers.
A perk to allow for a 5-way switch, with approximations to the aforementioned 2nd and 4th positions.
Add to this combo the ability to coil tap both these humbuckers and you will have more sounds than you’ll ever need (or remember to use) packed in a single guitar.
What it takes to add a humbucker to a Stratocaster
Although strats are frontloaded, which means, the pickups are mounted to the pickguard instead of being attached to the body, you will still need to make sure the body has the correct cavities to fit humbuckers.
You can check that by removing the pickguard and taking a look into what it was hiding.
If your guitar is factory routed for single coils, you will have to remove some wood to fit them.
As a side note, if your guitar is routed for a bridge humbucker, a slanted single-coil (the standard orientation for strats) will not naturally fit that cavity and will require some extra space.
Here is a complete guide to hot-rodding a strat from Fender:
Should you add a humbucker to your Strat?
My conservative ass tells me NO, you should leave your SSS strat as perfect as it is.
However, my pragmatic brain argues that if you are really not using that bridge single-coil pickup, and you think that a humbucker would better suit your needs why not give it a try?
Converting an HSS strat to a SSS is possible.
On the other hand, if your budget allows it, I consider that both an HSS strat or super strat, and a regular strat are 2 different enough guitars to have in your collection.
Don’t forget about single-coil sized humbuckers
Another interesting alternative if you want to experiment with humbuckers in your strat, without having to remove any material from its body is to resort to single-coil-sized humbuckers.
Do they sound 100% like “real” humbuckers?
Will they take you closer to the tone you have in your head? Probably.
You should give them a try if that’s possible.
Have you thought of a P90?
If you are looking for a fresher, unique sound, please give P90s a chance.
I’m not saying they’re something new and unheard of, but they are overlooked by many players.
Think of them as a step between single-coils and humbuckers, a mix of the warmth from the latter, with the punch and cut of the former.
Although P90s have their own particular shape and dimensions, you could easily find humbucker-sized P90s from most reputable brands to try on your guitar if it’s routed for that kind of pickup.
Here in GearAficionado I don’t like making the hard choices for you.
I always encourage you to try out the gear and to feel and hear for yourself the differences between alternatives.
In this case, the contrasting would be rather easy to do in any guitar store, since SSS, HSS, and HSH are ubiquitous.
My insight into the matter, however, is that the more humbuckers a strat has, if they are coil splittable, the more versatile the instrument gets.
However, a broad selection of alternative tones, such as the one an HSH strat with coil-tapping could provide you might induce choice paralysis.
So take into consideration how often you would be using each of these available sounds to make your final decision.
Hello there, my name is Ramiro and I’ve been playing guitar for almost 20 years. I’m obsessed with everything gear-related and I thought it might be worth sharing it. From guitars, pedals, amps, and synths to studio gear and production tips, I hope you find what I post here useful, and I’ll try my best to keep it entertaining also.