Surf rock might have fallen off the pop culture radar at the moment, but it still has a cult following. It’s been especially influential in the punk and garage scenes, where you’ll sometimes hear bands use elements of the surf rock tone.
Because of this lingering popularity, there are still plenty of manufacturers making gear that perfectly captures the surf rock aesthetic. If you’re looking to upgrade the pickups on your axe to get that surfer vibe, check out the models below. Paired with the right effects, they’ll transport your tone right back to the Dick Dale era.
These are our recommendations for the 4 best pickups for surf guitars on the market:
Pickups for Surf Guitars 1: Fender Pure Vintage ’65 Strat
- Fender Pure Vintage '65 Strat Pickups
- Price: $149.99
- Price as of 10/25/2020 13:26 PDT(more info about ad)
The Strat is the classic guitar for surf rock, and these are the classic pickups you’ll find on them. The Fender Pure Vintage ’65 is a modern pickup set modeled after the vintage ones you’d find installed on the guitars in the mid-’60s. This includes both using old-school techniques in the construction and using original-era materials, like the cloth wiring, to give them that true vintage feel.
Tone-wise, you’ll love the meaty midrange you get from these pickups. The highs are crisp and clear, and the sound of the pickups pairs nicely with the whammy bar. At this price level, Fender Vintage ‘65s are also a great value, especially considering the construction quality. They’re arguably the best Strat pickups for surf.
Pickups for Surf Guitars 2: Seymour Duncan Antiquity II
- Seymour Duncan Antiquity II Strat Surfer Series Pickup from 60's Set Vintage
- Price: $265.00
- Price as of 10/25/2020 15:18 PDT(more info about ad)
If you’re looking for the pinnacle in modern surf rock tone, it’s hard to beat the Seymour Duncan Antiquity II installed in a Stratocaster. They’re a higher-output pickup than vintage single-coils and this makes them a great choice for hybrid styles and punk or garage players. They’ll give you classic surf tones but they’ll also do a lot more, and this makes the Antiquity II a very versatile choice.
Seymour Duncan hits all the vintage touches with their Antiquity II pickups (see full specs). The middle is reverse wound so it can simulate a humbucker when you put the switch in the 2nd or 4th position. They even look like they came straight out of the ‘60s, with exposed poles and an elegant off-white casing. These Antiquity II pickups are pure surf rock, inside and out.
Pickups for Surf Guitars 3: Seymour Duncan SLD-1b Danelectro Lipstick
- Seymour Duncan SLD-1b Danelectro Guitar Lipstick Tube Bridge Pickup, Nickel
- Price: $89.00
- Price as of 10/25/2020 04:44 PDT(more info about ad)
Not every surf rocker plays on a Strat. If you’re looking for vintage surf rock tones from a guitar with two single-coil pickups, like those made by Danelectro, the SLD Lipstick Pickup is your best bet. Like the pickups above, it’s built to vintage specs, so it’s a direct drop-in for any guitar built for a lipstick-style pickup (they also make a version for Strat [see it here] if you want to put it on one of those, too).
Sonically, these are definitely on the brighter end, even for a single-coil pickup, specially wound to bring out those bell-like highs you expect from a single-coil Danelectro. The mid-range isn’t especially present—depending on your amp and settings, it could end up feeling a bit flabby. In the right guitar, though, these pups will give you exactly the bright, hot tone you want for surf rock. For the money, these are among the best pickups for surf guitars around.
Pickups for Surf Guitars 4: Seymour Duncan SSL-1
- Seymour Duncan SSL1 Vintage Staggered Single Coil Pickup - (New)
- Price: $56.01
- Price as of 10/25/2020 04:44 PDT(more info about ad)
Great surf rock tone doesn’t have to be expensive. The SSL-1 is Seymour Duncan’s entry-level single-coil pickup. Don’t read “entry-level” and assume it has poor sound quality, either. This is still a Seymour Duncan pickup, which means one of the best mass-produced aftermarket pickups you can get. At its quoted price, it’s the best value you’ll find for a performance-quality surf rock pickup.
The design of the SSL-1 is modeled after the old Stratocaster pickups, specifically the middle position. Historically, this pickup was overwound and hotter than the rest, and that’s what you’ll get with the SSL-1. The high end is jangling but still has a bite, for an overall tone that gels perfectly with the typical array of surf guitar effects. This is your best option if price is a factor in your decision.
Which Surf Guitar Pickup Should You Buy?
That question is always very subjective when it comes to pickups, or anything that has to do with your personal tone. There are so many other factors involved in getting a surf rock tone that it’s hard to pinpoint any one necessary quality.
As we said in the intro, the general rule of thumb is that surf rock calls for a bright single-coil pickup, but you’ll even find players that break from this notion. The best pickup for surf guitars is the one that gets you closest to your ideal sound, and beyond that it doesn’t matter whether you get it from a lipstick pickup or a humbucker.
The reality is that, while a pickup is one major ingredient of a solid surf rock tone, it’s not the most important part. The kind of reverb and tremolo that you use are more integral to the overall sound. If you’re limited by a budget, you’ll be better served putting the bulk of it toward getting your effects pedals in order, then spend whatever’s left to upgrade your pickups.
The flip side of this is that a new pickup alone won’t suddenly turn you into Dick Dale. At the very least you’ll need to get a tremolo bridge if your guitar doesn’t have one already. If you need to get both new pickups and a new bridge, you may ultimately be better off investing in a vintage Strat that’s ready as-is than taking the half-measure of installing new pickups.
Also keep in mind that the decision isn’t always entirely up to you. The construction of your guitar will to a certain extent determine which pickups you buy. This goes beyond just whether it’s wired for single- or double-coil pups, though that’s a big part of it.
Different guitars are designed to use different sizes and shapes of single-coil pickup. Many pickup manufacturers make multiple versions of the same basic design to accommodate difference in instrument and pickguard shape. In the worst case scenario, re-shaping a pickguard to fit a pickup is much less involved than re-wiring it, but it’s easier still to buy the right one for your axe in the first place.
Hopefully this article has helped shed some light on just what goes into the perfect surf rock sound! Whatever kind of guitar you have, one of these pickups will be the right choice to get you the tone you’re looking for. Each, in its own way, can qualify as the best pickup for surf guitars. Good luck!
Micah Johnson started playing music in high school, when he taught himself the bass to join his friend’s band. He added guitar and drums during his twenties playing in local clubs, and along the way, he picked up unique, hands-on experience from hand drums to studio mixers. On Song Simian, he aims to share this knowledge from 20+ years playing and recording music. When not in gearhead mode, he enjoys photography and travel. Email him