Do you really need better pickups in a Strat?
I will list some recommended pickup upgrade kits below for those of you who want to swap out your existing Fender or Squier Strat pickups for something else, but before I do, here's a few words about how pickups in a Stratocaster works.
Standard edition (meaning no special model) Stratocasters by both Squier and Fender have "weak" pickups by nature. The reason for this is because that's part of what gives a Strat its tonal character. In addition, "hot" pickups in a Strat is not always a good idea. What may happen is that instead of getting a "hotter" sound, this can backfire on you and amplify existing noise.
My standard advice to those who think their Strat pickups are "weak" is, have you tried a compressor pedal yet? If your answer is no, this is yet again another instance where a compressor pedal can be your best friend, because using one is a whole lot cheaper and easier than switching out pickups.
As I've said before, I recommend getting the MXR Dyna Comp and trying that out first before even considering swapping out your Strat pickups, because if it's OUTPUT or GAIN that you wanted but are otherwise satisfied with how your pickups sound, that's exactly what the compressor pedal is there for.
Legitimate reasons to get better Strat pickups
Let's say for the moment you've tried the compressor pedal but still aren't happy with the way your pickups sound and want to try something different. That's fine as long as you upgrade for the right reasons.
A list of good reasons to upgrade pickups in a Strat:
- The 60-cycle hum on the 1, 3 and 5 position setting annoys you and you want to get rid of it.
- The existing pickup set you have is either "too muddy" or "too bright" and you want something that promotes a more "even" sound.
- Even with the use of a compressor pedal, the output of the pickups still isn't good enough for your playing style and you want something "hotter".
Rich's recommended pickup sets for Strat guitars
I always recommend getting the set over buying pickups individually because you save a lot of money going that route. If you were to buy pickups individually, you'll literally spend double to triple the price, so again, you're better off just buying a whole set.
Each set below is linked, so if you want to see the price, just click on the picture.
You would think from having "custom shop" in the name that these would be really expensive, but they're surprisingly affordable. When you want that super-bright Stevie-Ray style tone, these are what you want because they're over-wound to produce that super-bite sound. These are not noiseless/hum-canceling pickups, so you'll still have the 60-cycle hum. As long as you're okay with that, the Texas Special set is a good choice.
For most of you out there, this is probably the set you want. They're affordable just like the Texas Specials, but are noiseless and a lot more "civilized" than the Specials are. You get your "hot" bridge, "warm" mid and neck without any 60-cycle hum. If you have NO IDEA which set of pickups would genuinely be a good improvement over what you have, this is the 'safest' set to go with.
The Tex-Mex pickups are similar to the Texas Specials as far as tone is concerned, but the best part is that these are really affordable. If the price of the Specials is too much but you want something really similar for literally less than half the price, the Tex-Mex is the way to go. These are not hum-canceling pickups, so you'll still get the 60-cycle hum.
This is the most expensive set of pickups on the list. They are hum-canceling and the set delivers an amazingly smooth tone, but bear in mind these are not "traditional" Strat-sounding pickups. I don't know how to describe the sound of these other than "sounding modern", meaning not vintage. If you play rock and metal, you'd probably like these.
These aren't exactly cheap either, however you are in fact getting three very distinctly different pickups with this set. "Area '58" is the neck, "Area '67" is the middle and "Area '61" is the bridge - each of which is specifically designed to maximize tonal capability for their respective positions. The Area set promotes a vintage tone and not necessarily a rock/metal sound, and yes, they're hum-canceling.
Any of the sets above is better than what you have now.