Choosing Strat Pickups From A Les Paul-Players’ Perspective

What can I say? I love the Les Paul. The shape itself is sexy as hell. Curved and cut at the right places. The tone is awesome: fat and thundering, tight and singing, it’s really my go-to guitar! But sometimes music demands something else. You can’t eat steak ‘n chips every day, can you?! Sometimes your body craves for a simple, clean tomato salad. And that’s what a Strat is to me. Something to clean the palate, in order to enjoy a Les Paul more. I really didn’t have an idea what I wanted and it took a lot of soul searching to find out what I wanted and what I needed.

At first I thought I wanted a hot-rodded Strat with a more Les-Paulerized tone. Fatter, tighter and with more low-end. But that would just compete with my trusted Lesters! I still had steak, but now with seared potatoes instead of chips. Same old, same old. I still needed something clean. A coil-splitted Les Paul wouldn’t cut it cause that huge chunk of Mahogany would get in the way, tonally. Ash and Alder are really the way to go. Just listen to the music John Mayer plays, for example. It’s clean yet lush, warm yet very transparent. I was able to hone in on the tones I wanted. I knew the specs of the woods and I knew I liked fat necks (which would give the tone even more beef), so I needed a set of pickups that would give me clarity, sparkle, high end chime and a tone that would lend itself to going clean. Perhaps a bit of crunch, but not in a high gain way. The guitar shouldn’t tease me to play higher gain stuff.
I first ventured into the field of single coil-sized humbuckers. The Hot Rails, Cool Rails and Little ’59 were the first to be tried. The Hot Rails and Cool Rails are about as hot as your average humbucker but with a much narrower ‘sensor’ field in relation to the string. That gives these pickups a clearer, cleaner tone but with a lot of power! They were amazing, but not for what I needed. The Little ’59 was a lot closer. The high end sweetness was perfect but the mids were a bit too closed up and the lows too tight for what I was after. In other words: too much of a humbucker to be a single coil!
I contacted Seymour Duncan and their first suggestion was the SSL-5. Designed for David Gilmour, the SSL-5 is a more powerful yet true singlecoil version of the SSL-1. This gives this pickup more power, more mids and a more fluid feel versus the super-clean, clear tonal palate of the SSL-1. I installed the set and it was nice. Leads were fluid, rhythm was crunchy and harmonics popped out of the fretboard with ease. But it was still too much like a Les Paul for me. Sure, the woods were different (ash body, maple neck and fingerboard), but the power gave it the fluid feel of a Les Paul.
Could I really be wanting the super-clean, low output SSL-1?
Clearly, yes. The moment I plugged in my Alder bodied, Rosewood-board Strat with SSL-1 pickups I was sold. This was exactly what I needed. Sparkle, shimmer, warmth and lushness. And most importantly: the tone was so unique, so Stratty and so clean, it bared no resemblance with a Les Paul whatsoever. The guitar challenged me to play other kinds of music, to dip into my bag of tricks and find other means of expressing myself. The pickups wouldn’t allow long, sustaining, howling notes and the guitar itself doesn’t lend itself for that barking tone I love so much in a Les Paul.

My journey to find a Strat that works for me has been a long one, but strangely enough, the original recipe of the 50s and 60s worked for me. Just pure woods, pickups built with the originals in mind and a vintage-style six-screw trem are just what I needed to pick up this guitar and let a Les Paul stand in its rack for once. Of course, this is just my opinion, but maybe my experience can help other hardcore Les Paul players out there to find their voice in a Strat, too.

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  1. Recently I picked up the first Warmoth strat I built. It has an APS-2 neck, SSL-2 mid, and the SSL-5 bridge. The bridge is just enough hotter to work well, yet still give you a good notched tone on the in-between position. Now I prefer something like this — a little hotter bridge pickup. I like to wire the bridge pickup to the tone pot as well … it’s a simple mod that just works.

  2. How about trying the ‘Lil Screamin Demon single coil sized humbucker? I had one in a Strat I sold years ago and have been chasing that tone ever since. At full volume it had the growl of a rabbid wolf , but then backed off it was heaven singing a choir hymn.

  3. Well, I find Little 59’s and Screaming demons great for a strat… With a use of good volume pot you can do just about anything with them… And, about John Mayer tone, it’s sometimes easier nailing his sound with these small humbuckers, then with strat single coils… Some strats sound just too thin for his sound…

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