The Telecaster is without question a classic instrument. It has an instantly identifiable sound – especially in the bridge and middle positions. However, the neck pickup alone is slightly weaker than the bridge position. Not to say that it doesn’t sound good, because it does. In fact Seymour Duncan makes several vintage output Tele neck pickups for those who are after that traditional, sweet Tele neck sound. I have the STR-1 Vintage Rhythm in the neck of one of my Telecasters and it’s silky smooth.
However, some players need a little bit more from their neck pickup – something that can match the power of the bridge pickup with some grunt of its own. For players who have decided they want to go in that direction, there are many options.
Hot Tele Neck Pickups
The most obvious first step is to find a hotter pickup in the same style as a regular Tele neck pickup. Two obvious candidates here are the Hot for Tele, which gives you a similar sound to a vintage pickup but with boosted output, or the Hot Rails, which will provide a more humbucker-like tone with bags and bags of output – probably even more than a regular Tele bridge pickup!
You can hear the sound of a Hot Rails in the neck on a Telecaster on this video:
Changing the guitar
From here on out, we’re looking at options that might involve a modification to the guitar. Many modern Fenders actually have humbucker routing under the pickguard, into which you can fit many kinds of pickup. If not, you may have to remove a little wood – and of course you’ll need a pickguard with the right-sized hole in it!
Strat Neck Pickups
One popular option is to move over to a Strat neck pickup. Your Tele won’t look stock any more, but if you’re getting the tone you want, who cares? Obviously, going for the Strat form factor opens up an entire world of possibilities, as there are just so many Strat pickups to choose from. We can’t go into all the different options there, but I will say that many players, including the great Jerry Donahue, find that an Alnico II Pro for Strat pickup in the neck is a great match for a vintage-output Tele bridge pickup. Of course, in this size, there are also many single-coil-sized humbuckers, like the Little ’59 or Cool Rails you can use. These will give you a serious bump in output, while giving a slightly throatier tone.
Mini humbuckers are a great half-way house between a humbucker and a single coil. You get the bite of a single coil, but with the increased grunt of a humbucker – and of course, no hum. At Seymour Duncan we have several mini humbuckers, for any level of desired output.
The Vintage Hot Rod ’52 Tele from Fender comes stock with a Seymour Duncan Vintage Mini Humbucker at the neck. You can hear the great tone you get from this pickup on the following video – biting and smooth, all at the same time.
Putting a P-90 in the neck of your Tele will result in a tone that is still identifiably a single-coil sound, but louder, thicker and with very slightly reduced treble. It’s a ruder sound than you usually hear from a Tele, and it really differs from what you’d expect from that kind of guitar. With a bit of gain, there’s some real screaming leads to be had. Here’s a video of a Telecaster equipped with two P-90s:
Probably the most common change of pickup type in the Tele’s neck position is going all the way to a full-sized humbucker. There are loads of pickups to choose from and if you get a vintage-output one, you’re still going to be able to balance it well with the bridge position. I have an SH-1 ’59 Model in the neck of a telecaster and, perhaps surprisingly, there isn’t really any loss of definition.
Of course, when you embrace the possibility of putting a full-sized humbucker in a Tele, you are giving yourself an incredible number of options. There are just so many different humbuckers available, all with subtly different tones and levels of output. Just be aware that if you hear how a neck humbucker sounds in a Les Paul, it’s likely to sound significantly brighter in a Telecaster, due to the different construction, woods used and scale length.
Another benefit of using a full-sized humbucker is that you could wire a coil split to a push/pull pot on your Tele, and have access to a normal single-coil sound as well. With the right pickup, you could get very close to a standard Tele sound when the pickup is split, and have a serious boost when the humbucker mode is engaged. One way to achieve this might be to use a 59/Custom Hybrid, and wire it so that when the humbucker is split, it activates the vintage-output 59 coil.
One option worth considering, if you’re going to switch to a full-sized humbucker, is of course the P-Rails. Suddenly you have three neck pickups to choose between. A full humbucker, to give power and growl; a P-90, for attitude and definition; and a single coil, for more traditional Telecaster neck tones. Here’s a nice video demo of a P-Rails in the neck position of a Tele:
I hope this article has given you some idea as to the vast array of possibilities if you’re thinking of changing the neck pickup in your Tele. If you could have any neck pickup in your Tele, what would it be?