The Philosophy of the Fat Strat: Single Coils and Humbuckers At Peace

Posted on by Matt Perkins

fender hss with seymour duncans
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.

fat strat pickups- humbucker Full Shred

The SH-10 Full Shred might seem like a strange choice to match with vintage single coils, but the output is very close when split.

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.

Stratocaster with a humbucker in the bridgeSo, 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.

Written on October 22, 2012, by Matt Perkins

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Comments (22)

  • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

    I had a little 59 in the bridge, along with two stock mid 80s tokai singlecoils. The volume was pretty even. Sounded good, but the notch position was thin as hell. Finally i put the original bridge singlecoil back again to get that natural overall stratfeeling, and now every position works.

    • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

      The little 59 might have been out of phase with your single coils. You might try it again and switch the hot/ground of the 59.

  • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

    I personally dislike having to compromise, so my strat isn’t very versatile, just a classic setup with vintage style single coils. I just own guitars that are all suited really well to a particular task. I have a guitar with really hot humbuckers for metal. I have a guitar with the more classic ’59 vintage humbuckers for a more classic tone and I have a tele for those tones you can only get from a tele. My most versatile guitar is a PRS SE with JB and Jazz combo, works for all things if I can only use one guitar in a live situation. Recording though I pick the right guitar for the job.

  • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

    Thank you for that “liberating realization”… your electronic explanation is perfect and this means, obviously, that one must get more guitars! LoL!

    In my opinion, there are two ways to go:
    1) you are in the studio -> never compromise your sound/tone quality;
    2) you are playing live -> never compromise you performance quality.

    Having this said, use a S-S-S in the studio for all the real Strat sounds and an H-S-S live with balanced outputs, compromising that “4” position, but without having to go beserk on output levels.

    That’s the way I’d go.

    But I’m sure some other will work out solutions with volume or clean boost pedals.
    If it works for you, it’s THE right way.

  • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

    I disagree that you can’t have both … Just need an extra volume pot wired into the output to control the volume difference and add resistance when running in full hum. I have this setup with a JB and works for me.

    • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

      Extra pot is fed from the hum out and then feeds into the main volume pot* … Coil Cut goes straight to the main volume pot.

    • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

      Think the point was meant without making such mods….

      Otherwise, sure you could make any of a number of changes/mods…parts additions, etc….

      You could simply use a volume pedal too. That’s why the mighty Boa thinks he meant basically without making other such changes.

  • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

    I’ve been using an HSS Strat for as long as I’ve been playing guitar, and I love the versitility of it, even without coil splitting for the humbucker. I find that rolling back the volume and low end a bit when using the humbucker, and cutting the high end on the single coils, helps you balance out the output without ever touching your amp. I know I’m EXTREMELY over-simplifying this, but this has been my tactic.

  • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

    Hi i’ve been searching high and low for the right pickup for the bridge on my Strat ultra. It is loaded with the Lace Sensor package that came with the guitar. The clean and bluesy tones are great. It is tele wired so the mid position is neck/bridge. The humbucker has a 3 way tap switch to access either coil or full humbucker. Great versatility but when I used it in humbucker on drive it just comes up flat. I’m not looking for a shred tone. Just looking for a very smooth full drive tone. Not over saturated (ie full shred) in the realms of Tom Sholtz, Neal Schon. I do understand they play mostly larger (Les Paul) bodies and this is of course is a Strat Does anyone have an opinion? The pearly Gates was cloes but then my rig is more complex than a twin with extra drive. Just don’t want to throw my money away. Thanks for your time

  • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

    thanks for the article. strangely, neither my blade rh-2 or my musicman 25ann. seem to have any issues in delivering either sound

  • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

    I hate singles. Just Humbuckers. Like EVH.

  • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

    Lemme tell y’all a story ’bout a man named Jed . . . What Jed did was to match the bridgiest coil of the HSS H to his single coils. It wasn’t perfect, but he could get get it pretty close as long as he didn’t go for weed burners in the middle and neck positions. He wired the neck, middle and bridge-ward coil of the humbucker like a regular five position strat, and, lo, it sounded pretty dammed straty. B-b-b-but what about the humbucker? Why have it if you only use one coil? Well, Jed had very little book learnin’, but he warn’t no dummy. Jed had never understood what good that third knob was on his strat. He almost never used the tone controls on his strats because he had never really figured out what they did. So, what he did was to hook up the tone control next to the volume control as a garden variety 250K tone control on the overall output of the guitar. He removed the other tone control, drilled out the hole and installed a honkin’ 4PDT vacuum cleaner switch which he purchased especially for its huge bat handle. This switch he wired to leave the guitar conventionally strat-wired in one position. In the other position, the switch kicked in the other humbucker coil and ran the humbucker past the five-position switch to the top of the volume control. This switch he dubbed the “blow” switch. So basically, with that switch, he could select between a very stratty-sounding strat and a one-pickup humbucking weed burner, a la Eddie Van. Yes, the level went up when he switched to the straight humbucker, but that was usually the point of a screamin’ solo anyway. And when he switched back to strat mode, the five position switch was right where he had left it. One of his baby sister’s tweenie girlfriends from school suggested that to be, like, rilly, rilly, totally authentic he should bypass even the volume control in “blow mode” and run the ‘bucker straight to the amp, but by that time he was used to it as-was and didn’t want to take it apart again. So anyway . . .

  • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

    Is quite late to reply, but as this article was so helpful I want to share my thoughts. I’ve made a HSS from a previous SSS Am Special. What I did is to setup the guitar as a traditional SSS with the humbucker splitted. The neck and middle pickups are Texas Special, so I installed a SD Custom Custom on the bridge, is double output than the Texas and share similar midrangey flavour. I left stock volume and tone controls.

    What I did differently is to install a 3PDT switch that get rid of the SSS setup just giving me the humbucker sound alone, also bypassing the tone control to avoid muddiness. This switch can work as a booster too, doubling the output immediately.

    I am petty happy as the split coil works nice alone or in notch position, so I still have my lovely SSS with the addition of a powerful HB if I need, from Hank Marvin to Van Halen just with a toggle!

    • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

      Hey man, can I contact you for questions?
      I really liked your idea, and would like to replicate.

      • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

        Aye, of course. I don’t know if you can get my email from this board, if not I can give it to you and share my diagrams.

        I thought a way to improve the setup including a triple shot ring, although that idea is on hold at the moment.

        I’m happy to help!

  • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

    I have 2 ideas, Matt – One comes straight from Seymour Duncan’s Strat wiring pages, it’s called “Auto-Split” – Using a mini-sized or full-sized Humbucker, you can wire the 5-way switch so that you have Bridge ‘bucker on position “1”, and the SPLIT sound (one coil of the ‘bucker, plus middle), on the “2” position.
    My other idea, you gave me by explaining output differences, is to TILT the bridge ‘bucker (WOULD HAVE TO BE A “MINI”) at a 45 deg. angle, toward the Middle pickup, so ONE coil will be LOWER than the OTHER, thereby having one coil at a lower output to match the middle, yet would still give the “Full ‘bucker” sound, when selecting Bridge pickup only!

  • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

    Does anybody have a wiring diagram with a split coil humbucker connected to a push/pull pot? Would that cause any phase problems? I’d like to keep my switching normal but add lil 59 split coil.

  • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

    Hi, I’m a notch type of guy. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough, but I can’t find anything about polarity en winding to make sure my notch sound is any good. I want to load a 3 pup telecaster with hot rails in the bridge, an SSL-1 in the middle and a Big T ( by Lindy Fralin ) in the neck position. If I wire it up for auto-split, then what kind of SSL-1 should I get for the best notch sound? Regular or RWRP?

  • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

    Uncle Ralph . Jed is so sexy but I think he was on meth

  • Matt Perkins 7 years ago

    Hi, Will seymour duncan hot rail in the bridge can be paired with stk s6 in middle and stk s7 in neck… Going to replace my stock pick ups of fender stratocaster..plz suggest

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