Cage Match: Vintage Output vs Hot Single Coils

I read online forums a lot and I always have to laugh to myself when I read that someone wants a chime-filled single coil sound from their hot humbucker, or when someone wonders why their Les Paul sounds nothing like their Strat. True, I didn’t know these answers when I first started, and there were no forums to ask. Wood/scale length/other factors aside, there has been a constant battle to make a Strat sound a little heavier without sacrificing the Strat tone we grew up with and drove us to buy the guitar in the first place. Is a Strat that doesn’t sound like one still a Strat? When we install a hotter pickup, what tonal factors do we give up? And what kind of pickup is better? These are the types of questions we hope to solve with this article.

Vintage output? Do you mean low output?

The SSL-1 Vintage Staggered Strat

What we mean when we describe a pickup having vintage output is a pickup made like they use to be made back when Leo Fender was still band-sawing chunks of pine into a Telecaster shape. These pickups had a lot less output than many modern pickups. When the Telecaster and Stratocaster were finally realized into production, they came with bright sounding pickups that really made the guitars stand out in music of the time. Over the years, some tweaks were made to Fender’s pickups, sometimes for production reasons ($), and sometimes for tonal reasons. However, at least in case of the Strat, there was no such concept of neck/middle/bridge pickups. They were the same in every position. Even though the strings vibrated a lot less where the bridge pickup is located didn’t bother Leo. That’s what the pickup height adjustment screws were for. Our Vintage Staggered Strat is the realization of this design. It is built like they were then. No fancy hum-cancelling or reverse polarity is needed here. Think about every classic Fender sound from the 50’s through the early 80’s (this covers a lot of players and tones). These are the sounds of lower (vintage) output single coils.

SSL-2 Vintage Flat Strat
SSL-2 Vintage Flat Strat

Within this design, there can be a few variations, though. Pickups were tweaked slightly in the 1960’s for a little less treble, and it complemented the rosewood fretboards available at the time. Sounding (and looking) a lot like our Antiquity II Surfers, they were made for the larger string gauges at the time, including a wound G string (like an acoustic guitar). The radius (curvature) of a fretboard was much smaller at the time too, and remained that way for almost two decades. These factors are all part of the formula of why the single coils of the day had a lower output, and staggered polepieces with a very specific stagger. Today’s more modern, flatter radius fretboards and smaller string gauges don’t quite sound the same with these staggered polepiece designs, so the Vintage Flat Strat was created for those that wanted the sound of the 50’s-70’s on modern instruments. Guitarists today have many choices to get the sounds (and feel) that we really are after, and should remember that every player is different and the gear available back then was pretty crude by today’s standards. But it starts with a clean & clear sounding pickup with a low enough wind that doesn’t overdrive the preamp of the amplifier, and doesn’t provide any compression. In other words, vintage output pickups are very touch-sensitive, and translate every nuance of your playing to the amp.

More is better, though. Always. Right?

This is the age old challenge: If you desire more output from your amp, you have a few choices. Add more gain via a pedal, preamp, or EQ, or add more windings to the single coil pickup to produce more current hitting the pedals and preamp in the first place. All produce different sounds. Focusing just on the pickup, a funny thing happens when you just wind more wire around a single coil: you get more output, but you start to lose the brightness and chime that brought you to choose single coils in the first place. You start to lose the touch-sensitivity (dynamics) that vintage single coils provide. This sound leaves the guitar with more lows and mids, with a compressed, singing quality that, doesn’t sound like a single coil at all. Thing is, this is just what some people want!

quarterteleRemember that the strings around the bridge vibrate a lot less than around the neck pickup. Hotter single coils were designed first to combat this problem (like in the Custom Flat Strat).  By adding more windings, the thickness of the sound counteracted the extreme highs of the normal bridge pickup, and let solos (which were becoming more popular in music) stand out more. Pickups like the Quarter Pound for Tele were developed, to get the fat, thick sound of a P-90 out of an otherwise stock Telecaster. Suddenly Strat and Tele players could mimic other, thicker sounding guitars by just changing pickups. Soon, pickups like the Hot Strat were wound even hotter than many humbuckers at the time, which provided singing, smooth overdrive to Strat players who couldn’t compete before.

There is a limit though. Only so much wire will fit on the bobbin, and just because you can fit more doesn’t always mean it sounds good. There comes a time when you have to give up on the idea that you want a single coil at all, and must consider a P-90 or humbucker as a better choice if you need more power and still need clarity. Also, don’t forget that the more power a single coil has, the more hum you will hear.

Are both horses dead?

When using single coils, you have to figure out what works for you, period. Consider your guitar, your amp, your pedals, your experience, and the sound you are after. You will almost certainly find the output level that is the right balance of touch-sensitivity, output, and tone. Currently, I am in love with the Classic Strat Stack Plus and the Five Two, both pickups that have a more vintage output with some modern twists. I combine those with a higher output humbucker in the bridge. Your choices would and should be different.


What is your perfect balance between power and output? What players have the ultimate Strat tone?




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1 Comment

  1. I like my strats with a pearly gates at the bridge and vintage pickups at the middle and neck. It gives a pretty good balance especially when I use the neck and bridge together.

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