The traditional pickup configuration for a Stratocaster involves three single-coil pickups, one each in the neck, middle, and bridge position. While single-coil pickups have a crisp attack that complements the already bright tone of a Strat, going with a humbucker pickup instead can add a new dimension to your sound, rounding out and warming up the tone.
Of course, tone is a very personal matter and there are no strict rules about which pickups can be used for which styles, but it’s generally true that players in the metal, rock, and jazz or blues styles will find the mellowing effect of a humbucker on a Strat to be the most in keeping with their ideal tone. And so . . . here are our recommendations for the 4 best humbuckers for Strat guitars.
Seymour Duncan Hot Rails
The Hot Rails from Seymour Duncan was designed specifically to fit on a Stratocaster and still deliver a classic humbucker tone. It’s the most powerful passive pickup in their Strat lineup, giving you great sound on chords and single-note lines alike. It’s wax potted to eliminate feedback and has a powerful ceramic magnet that gives you the crunchy overdrive, heavy output, and midrange harmonics that work perfectly for both classic rock players and guitarists in more hard-driving styles, like metal. The Hot Rails (see full specs) have a great combination of punchy attack and strong sustain, with sublime distortion at higher gain levels. It’s easily among the best Strat pickups on the market.
Fender Hot Noiseless
Fender designed this pickup on request from Jeff Beck, who wanted a pickup that could give him better dynamics and more sound than a single-coil. The Hot Noiseless pickups deliver; with their crunchy overdrive, fat tone, and punchy attack, these pickups are excellent for blues players. Played clean, it brings out the musicality of your lines and is incredibly sensitive to your picking, with a crystal clear and shimmering tone. The versatility of this pickup also makes it great for people who want to play in a variety of styles, whether it’s jazz, funk, or hard rock. These should be on anyone’s list of the best humbuckers for Strat guitars.
DiMarzio DP218 Super Distortion
This bridge pickup is based on the original DiMarzio Super Distortion, trimmed down to fit on a Stratocaster without any modification. It has 4-conductor wiring that lets you choose between parallel or split-coil modes and uses a ceramic magnet for ultimate power output. This is a pickup (see full specs) designed for crunchy distortion, and is best utilized by guitarists in the metal and hard rock styles. The tone is a bit brighter than a traditional humbucker, though still warmer than a single-coil, a nice middle-ground if you want some warmth but still like your highs to shimmer. Hands down, these are among the best humbuckers for Strat on the market.
Bill Lawrence L250 Stacked Humbucker
The L250 humbuckers from Bill Lawrence are a fantastic value, letting you upgrade your pickups for just over $50. The classic design is relatively unchanged from the pickups of the 1960s. Like the DiMarzio, these are great for overdrive tones, giving you a lot of grit and power, but these also work great when you’re playing clean, letting you get glassy, transparent sound out of your Stratocaster. These pickups have been prized for the breadth and clarity of the sound since their original release, and continue to deliver it consistently with the modern models—easily one of the best Strat pickups period.
Traditional humbuckers have different dimensions than single-coil pickups and are routed differently into the guitar. A Stratocaster can be altered to use the same humbuckers that would go on a Les Paul, for example, but these modifications can be costly and sometimes cause damage to the structure of the instrument.
The advantages of a humbucker-style pickup (especially the elimination of the 60-cycle hum that’s common in single-coil designs) prompted engineers to design the stacked humbucker in the 1970s. This design uses wound coils with opposing poles to cancel the 60-cycle hum like a traditional humbucker, but with the coils stacked vertically rather than being side by side. This allows players of Fenders and other guitars designed for single-coil pickups to take advantage of humbucking technology. Though they don’t sound exactly like a PAF pickup, for most guitarists it’s the best way to get a noiseless pickup without the risk of damaging your Strat.
The original guitars to use humbuckers were the high-end Gibson models of the 1950s, which were designed with two pickups: one on the neck and one at the bridge. Fenders like the Stratocaster, on the other hand, use a three pickup design—still at the neck and bridge, but with an added pickup in the middle. If you’re installing humbuckers in all three positions on your Strat, you can use the same design of pickup in the middle position as you use in the neck, with a different pickup design for the bridge.
Most pickups are made in different versions for these different positions, so if you’re not getting a whole set, make sure you’re paying attention to which style you’re buying. A bridge pickup in the neck position won’t blow out your guitar, but it also won’t give you quite the sound you’re looking for.
The Best Humbuckers for Strat – Magnet Materials
The early humbuckers used Alnico magnets, and this is generally still the standard today. Made of an alloy of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt, Alnico magnets are renowned for their musicality, but are also more expensive. Stacked humbuckers, on the other hand, are more likely to use ceramic magnets. Typically made from ferrites (often iron oxides) ceramic magnets have a stronger magnetic field. They cost less than Alnico magnets and also take up less space, making them perfect for the size constraints of a stacked humbucker. This is why a lot of the best Strat pickups use ceramic magnets.
Of course, we’re well-aware that ceramic magnets have gotten a bad reputation in pickups, but this is mostly because of the fact that they’re often used in low-quality designs. This ultimately has less to do with the quality of the magnets than it does with the other components used to make the pickup. Ceramic magnets are not inherently lower quality than Alnico; in fact, they’re useful in high output pickups and can create powerful distortion and a clearer high end than Alnico. The use of a ceramic magnet will give you a slightly hotter sound with more output in the treble, making ceramic magnets great for players in the hard rock, blues, or metal styles.