So, you’re wondering which is the best Strat pickup position? The answer is that there isn’t one pickup or pickup combination that can make every chord or riff sound awesome. The choice is ultimately determined by your playing style and what sounds best to you.
However, there are some guidelines that can help you choose the right pickup for each playing situation, especially if you’re just starting out on the guitar. Keep on reading to learn more!
You can use the table of contents below to take you to the area that interests you. Click on the little box to open it, and then click on the section of the article you want to read, or you can read from start to finish if you want the full Strat pickup experience!
What Makes Strat Pickups Special?
The Stratocaster was Fender’s first guitar to feature three pickups, with a switch to select each pickup separately. They were redesigned to give them a different sound than the Telecaster pickups, which had become popular in Country music due to their twangy sound.
Over the years, players discovered they could get “in-between” sounds by carefully “wedging” the Stratocaster’s pickup selector switch in a position that combined the neck or bridge pickup with the middle pickup to give a unique “out of phase” sound.
Eventually, Fender began making a 5-position pickup selector switch to give players a quick way of getting the extra two pickup combinations.
The Stratocaster design, like the Telecaster, angled the bridge pickup to make the E, B, and G strings more trebly sounding and give them more attack.
The sound of the Start’s pickups made the guitar a popular choice among Rock, Blues, and Metal players.
What The Different Pickup Positions Do
Here is what you need to know about the three Strat pickups and the two pickup combinations.
First, you need to understand that pickups closer to the guitar neck will sound more mellow and bass-enhanced, while pickups closer to the bridge will be more trebly.
You can get these sounds from the three Strat pickups using a 5-position pickup selector switch (refer to the diagrams below).
Bridge Pickup (Switch Position 1)
The bridge pickup gives you the brightest sound with the most attack. It is a perfect choice for playing melodies or lead sounds. This is the pickup to use if you want to cut through the band! It sounds great clean or with effect boxes.
Bridge Plus Middle Pickups (Switch Position 2)
This is the brightest and typically most out-of-phase-sounding of the two pickup combinations. It gives you that classic Dire Straits “Sultans of Swing” tone.
I use it a lot to play lead lines that have more of a laid-back flavor. It really makes your string bends sound great!
Middle Pickup (Switch Position 3)
The middle pickup typically gives you a more balanced sound. It is brighter than the neck pickup but not as bright as the bridge pickup. I often use this pickup for playing a “Hendrix-type” chord melody.
Players who find it gets in the way of their strumming or fingerpicking are more likely to use a two-pickup guitar. Guitar legend Ritchie Blackmore thinks the middle pickup is useless and lowers it down flush with the pickguard or removes it. Ritchie’s Fender Signature Strat comes with only a neck and bridge pickup.
Remember, if you remove the middle pickup, you will lose the two pickup combinations.
Neck Plus Middle Pickups (Switch Position 4)
This is the “bassy” sounding of the two pickup combinations. It has a bit of a sweet-sounding scooped-out midrange character. It’s excellent for blending fancy chords together.
I use it a lot to play jazz and jazz fusion lines. It doesn’t seem to take certain effects as well as the bridge plus middle pickup combination. For example, overdrive can make it a little “muddy.”
Neck Pickup (Switch Position 5)
The neck pickup is generally used for rhythm (chord) playing or playing melody lines that blend in well with other instruments. It puts you playing more in the background and is great for playing behind vocals.
This pickup is also excellent for playing dark-sounding distorted metal riffs, especially if you tune down! It’s my favorite Strat position for playing heavy “Black Sabbath-type” power chords!
The “Sixth And Seventh” Pickup Combinations
If you think about it, there are two more ways to combine the three pickups. These combinations require custom wiring, either by using a “super switch” or installing separate mini toggle switches.
Bridge And Neck Pickups
This combination uses the bridge and neck pickup together with the middle pickup removed from the circuit. It typically creates a sound that is somewhere between the bridge plus middle (position 2) and neck plus middle (position 4) pickup combinations.
I have a few guitars wired with the bridge and neck combination. It really makes chords “pop” when you dig into the strings with your pick.
All Three Pickups
This combination turns on all three pickups. I find this sound somewhat “understated,” especially with lead lines. If your guitar has a super switch, it’s worth adding this pickup combination, but it’s not generally used much.
Single-Coil Or Humbucker Pickups?
Humbucking pickups have a double-coil design that eliminates noise and produces a stronger signal output with more sustain and harmonics. The sound is “thicker” than a single-coil pickup, with more emphasis on bass and midrange.
Rock and Metal players often prefer Strats with humbucking pickups in two configurations.
Humbucker In Bridge Position (S-S-H)
Like single-coil pickups, there is no “best sounding” position for a humbucker in a Strat, although the bridge position is most popular because it can supercharge a guitar solo.
Keeping single coil pickups in the Neck and Middle positions retains the classic Strat tone for rhythm playing, and adding a coil tap to the humbucker can give you the best of both worlds.
Humbucker In Bridge Neck Positions (H-S-H)
Putting humbucking pickups in the Bridge and neck positions while retaining a single-coil pickup in the middle was the next logical step in the transformation of the traditional Strat design.
This makes the middle pickup the go-to for “thinner” rhythm work. Coil taps on the humbuckers can give musically usable “in-between” sounds.
Does Pickup Position Affect Tone?
Absolutely! Even the slightest change in pickup position or angle in relation to the strings will change the tone of the guitar’s sound.
Sometimes finding the right position for a pickup is a matter of trial and error. I have switched identical pickups (same model and year of production) to different positions on the same guitar with surprisingly good or bad results!
Where Should Guitar Pickups Be Placed?
The short answer is to place a guitar pickup in a location that sounds best to you! Some manufacturers make and label their pickups for specific positions, but the best location might still require some experimentation.
Things like a guitar’s wood, thickness, or shape can affect the pickup’s sound. It’s also essential to place a pickup where its tone and output will sound best with the others.
I you are thinking of replacing a single-coil pickup with a humbucker, chances are you will need to enlarge the size of the pickup cavity, which may make it more practical to go with a vertically-stacked humbucker because it is designed to fit in the space.
Checklist For Improving Pickup Tone
Here is a list of things you can do to improve the tone of the pickups on a Strat or any other guitar.
Change Guitar Strings
This is the first thing you should do before changing anything else! You might be surprised at how much a fresh set of strings or changing the string gauge to a thicker size can improve the tone of your pickups.
Move The Pickup Height
The height of your pickups in relation to the strings is crucial. Never adjust pickups higher to make them louder. Let your amplifier do the work. Every pickup has its own “sweet spot” that sounds best. Begin with the pickup set low and slowly raise it with the guitar in the playing position until you find the proper height.
Get A Setup
The guitar needs to be set up properly to get the best sound out of any pickup. A complete setup can include an adjustment of the truss rod, action (string height), bridge, and bridge saddles. Worn-out frets or a bad nut can also affect pickup tone.
Upgrade The Pickup Electronics
Cheap guitar electronics can make a good pickup sound bad! Replacing the capacitor, pots (potentiometers), pickup selector switch, and wiring can all help improve pickup tone. An incorrectly wired pickup can put it out of phase with the others. Poor soldering points are another cause of tone degradation.
Electromagnetically shielding single-coil pickups can improve their tone by reducing extraneous noise that mixes with the signal. Always be sure the amplifier is grounded correctly to minimize speaker noise.
Adjust Your Playing Style
To get the best tone out of each guitar’s pickups, you need to find the best way to finger the notes and pluck the strings. Even subtle changes in picking dynamics can change the quality of the sound coming out of a pickup.
Advantages Of A Three-Pickup Guitar
More Pickup Combinations
Three pickups on a guitar give you more control over your sound’s tone and frequency distribution. I love the sound of the middle pickup, especially for rhythm playing.
Additional Out-Of-Phase Sounds
Three pickups give you two out-of-phase sounds versus the single sound you get from a two-pickup guitar, like a Tele.
The out-of-phase sounds on a Strat are “tighter” than on a Tele because the pickups are closer together. If you like a lot of “quack” in your playing, the Strat is the way to go!
The H-S-H Pickup Configuration
A three-pickup guitar lets you have the H-S-H configuration, which has become popular on Ibanez guitars and some Fender models like the Squier StageMaster. Steve Vai made this configuration popular among Metal players with his Ibanez JEM guitar.
It gives you the best of both worlds with coil-tappable humbuckers in the bridge and neck positions and a single-coil pickup in the middle.
Disadvantages Of A Three-Pickup Guitar
Increases Electromagnetic String pull
Adding a third pickup increases the electromagnetic pull on the strings. This can make the strings harder to bend and decrease note sustain, especially if the pickups are too high or the action is too low.
More Wiring Can Compromise Pickup Tone
Wiring simplicity is best when it comes to pickup tone and its ability to reproduce harmonics. The more pickups, pots, and switches you add, the more potential you have for tone loss.
Consider the Eddie Van Halen school of thought, which uses a single pickup wired directly to a Volume control, eliminating the Tone control and pickup selector switch. Need I say more?
Can Make Picking More Cumbersome
If you like to pick in the middle of the pickguard and set your middle pickup high, it can get in the way, especially if you shred guitar or are a finger-picker.
It doesn’t bother most players, but it’s something to consider.
Beware Of Changing Pickups
One way to improve the tone of your Strat is to upgrade your pickups. I never recommend doing this with a vintage guitar, even if you keep the old ones. Unsoldering and resoldering vintage instruments can lower their value to collectors.
Pickup upgrades work best with cheap guitars that play well but don’t have a great tone or signal output.
If you’re not sure of your guitar’s value, always have it appraised or do the research yourself before making modifications!
Are You Qualified To Make Guitar Adjustments Or Modifications?
It’s great to work on your guitars, especially if you have a lot of them, but you should always be aware of your limitations.
Adjusting things like an electric guitar’s string height (action) or pickup height can be straightforward. Still, some adjustments require the proper training and experience, like adjusting a guitar’s truss rod.
When you doubt your ability to adjust, repair, or modify your guitar, it’s always best to bring it to a competent guitar technician or luthier (guitar designer & builder). You can permanently damage your guitar, and it might never play and sound right again!
Making modifications to your guitar can void its manufacturer’s warranty and cause permanent damage to the instrument. Certain modifications are irreversible, so you may be stuck with them, even if you desperately want to restore the guitar to its original condition!
I learned that the hard way over the years until I did a three-year apprenticeship in a guitar repair shop. Now I have my own home workshop with the proper training and equipment to safely maintain and repair all my instruments.
Remember: “When In Doubt, Send It Out!”
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some of the questions I get asked about guitar pickups.
If your question does not appear here, please put it in the comments, and I will get right back to you with an answer.
How Can I Make My Strat Pickup Sound Better?
The best way is to find the pickup height that gives it the sound you are looking for. Pickup height has a “sweet spot,” which can differ according to player preference.
If your Strat has low-quality pickups, consider replacing them with better ones.
If you’re in the market for great Strat pickups, check out my article on Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster Pickups – Which Set Is Best?
Does Pickup Height Affect Volume?
Yes, the higher the pickup, the stronger the signal output, which makes the pickup louder. However, never adjust your pickup height for volume. Adjust it to find the “sweet spot” that gives your guitar the best tone!
Does Pickup Height Affect Sustain?
Yes, but not necessarily in a good way. Generally, setting a pickup closer to the strings will increase a note’s sustain, but if the pickup is too high, the electromagnetic string pull could hamper sustain.
Set your pickup height for the best tone, not sustain. Change the gain setting on your amp or use an overdrive pedal to increase sustain.
What Happens If A Pickup Is Too High?
Pickups that are set too high can lose their tone and sustain. The pickup can also be in the way of your picking hand, making it difficult to play with precision. You cannot damage a pickup by setting it too high.
What Should The Pickup Height Be On A Fender Strat?
The pickup height should be set according to where it sounds and plays best. Different pickup models will have different height settings. Pickups with a lower electromagnetic pull, like Lace Sensor pickups, can generally be set higher.
It’s best to leave the pickup height settings the way they came from the factory. If you change string gauges, you may need to make a pickup height adjustment.
Why Is The Bridge Pickup Angled On A Strat?
The bridge pickup is angled closer to the E, B, and G string bridge saddles to make the higher-pitched notes sound more trebly and give them more attack.
Final Thoughts On The Best Strat Pickup Position
There is no single best Strat pickup position. It depends on the individual player’s taste and requirements. You’ll probably favor the bridge pickup position if you are a lead guitar player. If you play rhythm guitar, you’ll probably find the neck and middle pickup positions most useful.
The type of music you play can also influence your favorite pickup position. I tend to favor the bridge pickup for Rock, the middle position for Blues, the bridge and neck positions for Metal, and the in-between (neck-middle and middle-bridge) positions for Jazz.
The particular Strat model can also factor into what pickup position you like best. Various Strat models will have different pickups, body and neck woods, and hardware. Any little change in the construction or components of a Strat can change the way each pickup position sounds.
There are many things you can do to improve pickup tone, including changing guitar strings, readjusting pickup height, upgrading the pickups and their electronics, getting a guitar setup, shielding the pickups, and adjusting your playing style.
Always use the Strat pickup position that sounds best! 😊
Tell Me What You Think
Please leave a comment below if you enjoyed this article, have any questions about guitar pickups, or want to give your point of view. I will be happy to help you.
- Which pickup position do you like best on your Strat? Why?
- What have you done to improve the sound of your pickups?
- How important is it for you to have the best guitar pickups?
- Do you ever use the neck and bridge pickups in combination or all three pickups together?
- What else is on your mind?