The Philosophy of the Fat Strat: Single Coils and Humbuckers At Peace
Some people call them HSS Strats. Others call them Fat Strats. Some people don’t care for them, others don’t know what they’d do without them. Either way, you can’t deny the appeal of a guitar that combines the feel and mechanics of a Strat with the chunky kick of a bridge position humbucker.
And yet, by stuffing a big humbucker into the bridge position of a Strat, we are making a compromise. Even if you can’t stand it on it’s own, that bridge single coil is a big part of the essential character of a Strat, thanks to the “notch position” it shares with the middle pickup. That quacky tone is a favourite of many Strat lovers, and they insist that their fat friend be able to crank it out. There’s also the issue of output; specifically the difference in output between the neck and middle singles and the bridge humbucker. Many Strat players want a steady, even level of output across all switch positions, and having a powerful ‘bucker in the bridge throws a wrench in the works.
I’ve owned a Fat Strat as my #1 guitar for over half my life now. I’ve enjoyed its charms, but also suffered its annoying quirks. I’ve lamented the loss of the notch position quack. I’ve cursed the loss of output going from bridge to neck. I’ve had many pickups in and out of that guitar, and done many crazy mad science wiring schemes to force it to submit to my will. Finally, one day, I came to a simple and liberating realization – a moment of clarity, if you will. Here it is:
You can have good notch position tone, or you can have matching output levels. You can’t have both. Choose one and live with it.
As soon as I accepted this basic truth, I chose my path and set up my pickups accordingly. I’ve been at peace and harmony with my Fat Strat ever since.
Perhaps some more explanation is in order. Here’s the thing: for a notch position tone to work, you need to split the humbucker, and you need one coil of the humbucker to be close in output to the middle pickup. For matching output to work, you need the single coils to be close in output to the whole humbucker. See the distinction there? This is why you can’t have it both ways. If you match your single coils to the split humbucker, they won’t be as powerful as the full humbucker. If you match your single coils to the full humbucker, they will overpower the split humbucker.
If you don’t like this, maybe a Fat Strat isn’t for you. Such is life. If, however, you are ready to commit to one path and choose your pickups accordingly, read on.
If you want good notch position tone: This is the path I chose with my Fat Strat. I love that notch position tone. You and I are interested in matching the output of the single coils with the split humbucker, which means you will need a humbucker wound to approximately double the wind of your middle single coil. That way, each individual coil will play nice with the middle.
Take a look at the tone chart, starting with the Strat pickups. You’ll notice that most vintage-style single coils, including the Vintage Staggered and Alnico 2 Pro Staggered, are wound between 6k and 7k. Now check the chart again for humbuckers wound to double that value: around 12 – 14k. A quick perusal of the options reveals that Seymour makes quite a few ‘buckers that are in that range: the Custom, Custom Custom, Custom 5, and Full Shred are all right on the money. You might be safe if you go a bit higher to the JB, Duncan Distortion, or Original Parallel Axis as well.
Do keep in mind, of course, that DC resistance is only one factor in the tone and output of a pickup. It’s good enough as a rough guideline for our purposes though. We don’t need clinical accuracy – we just want the split humbucker to be reasonably close in output to the middle single coil.
If you want matching output levels: The first thing you need to understand about this approach is pretty much any full-on humbucker will be hotter than a vintage output single coil. Yes, this includes the lower output humbuckers, and yes, this is true even if the DC resistance is the same or close to the same. A humbucker has a much stronger and wider magnetic field than a single coil, which translates to a significantly more powerful pickup. This means you’re going to be looking at getting, at minimum, moderate output singles for the neck and middle.
In general, a vintage output humbucker like the 59 or the Pearly Gates will match pretty well with a moderate output single coil, like the Custom Staggered. If you want to go with a hotter humbucker like anything in the Custom series, you’re going to need a pretty potent single coil to keep up, like a Quarter Pound Staggered or Hot for Strat. You might want to even consider going with a single-sized humbucker to make your neck and middle positions just as fat and powerful as your bridge pickup. The Little 59 and the Cool Rails will match well with a moderate bridge ‘bucker, while the Hot Rails will hang with pretty much any high-output pickup.
So, which one are you: a notch position fan, or a matching levels fan? I know there are a lot of Fat Strat owners out there, and I know many of you have already figured out this essential truth. Either that, or you think I’m a heretic. Whatever you think, please let me know in the comments. I’m very curious what pickup combinations work for you.