What I want to be able to do with a Stratocaster seems to vary along with the seasons. The only common factor is that I dislike single-coil pickups. Don’t get me wrong: I love the tone and feel of single-coil pickups, their transparency, intimacy and pick attack, irrespective of how much distortion I put on them, or if I play them squeaky clean. When I get a single-coil pickup humming properly, they feel way more expressive and natural and more “me” than humbuckers. But notice how I snuck in a bad pun there? Single-coils are too damned noisy for my taste. In fact, they’re noisy enough that there is just no way I’ll ever play vanilla single-coils in any sort of studio or live setting. It’s annoying enough when noodling around at home. Whatever sacrifices that are required in order to buck the hum, I’d gladly make.
After the extremely successful experiment with the Super Distortion T in my Telecaster, I wanted to do something similar for my Stratocaster. The Fender Hot Noiseless set I had before was very nice and I would recommend it to anyone, but I just can’t get a Stratocaster bridge pickup to sound good. They’re always too hard, too spanky, harsh, too focused, not fluffy enough. The adjectives get increasingly creative as I go along. At first I thought it was my HS-3 that acted up, but it seems to be endemic to the guitar design. (Or perhaps to the fact that I’m a ditz and tend to dial all my sounds in using my Les Paul as a reference and then completely forget that Fenders are totally different beasts altogether.) At the same time, I also wanted to experiment with a different neck pickup. I don’t have as much of a problem with the Stratocaster neck position. It’s a lot warmer and smoother and it is a hell of a lot easier to get it to sound good. But it doesn’t offer up much of anything in comparison with the middle position except for warmth, and I can add that by clever manipulation of the tone control.
Moving the story along at a brisker pace: Super Distortion = given from get-go. Super Distortion full-size = no look good on Stratocaster, need slanted bridge pickup. (Nick = picky.) Decision: Super Distortion S. Mid pickup = not Fender Hot Noiseless, color no match. DiMarzio = good. HS-3, HS-4 = already tried, no like so much. Area 58 = better EQ curve than Area 61 or 67. (Note: Area T on Telecaster = very good!!) Neck = Air Norton S. Sound like flying motorcycle = cool. Association with “John” and “progressive music” = very good!! Guitar pickup shopping = crap shoot. Buy, then try, then regret, then buy anew if don’t like. Note to self: next time, ask man in store to solder. Save time + grey hair on skull.
But seriously: the Super Distortion S/Area 58/Air Norton S is a wonderfully flexible pickup combination in a Stratocaster. The Super Dist tames the worst part of the Stratocaster bridge pickup high end, and adds plenty of hair and fatness to the tone to boot. It sounds good even with a clean sound. Then you switch on the distortion and it just screams! I cannot believe just how differently the S behaves from the T model. The S has a completely different bass response, it has a sort of roar that had me wonder if it had grown horns, a set neck and a Tune-O-Matic bridge when I wasn’t looking. If the Telecaster with a Super Dist is a rocker chick, then the Stratocaster with a Super Dist is a metal broad. Nothing extreme, just a cool girl in jeans and a leather jacket and an Iron Maiden shirt.
The Air Norton is perhaps a bit too reserved at the top end for clean sounds. It does sound like a humbucker with the tone control rolled down a bit – woman tone right out of the box. (A lot of feminine references tonight for some strange reason…) If you for some reason would want to play jazz on a Stratocaster, this pickup could be just the thing for you! But damn if it doesn’t sing with distortion! It’s got that fluid, almost vocal quality that makes me come back to it again and again.
Finally, there’s the Area 58: a humbucking pickup with a single-coil look, single-coil feel and single-coil response. It is just as glassy as I want in a Fender-style pickup. Truth be told, I love this new DiMarzio set of mine, but I’ve had more than one thought of getting a second Stratocaster, something red with a rosewood board, just so that I can put three Area 58s in it. And .013 strings with a wound G. And generous use of the tremolo bar. Don’t forget the horn-rimmed glasses!
So how do these three pickups work together? Well, admittedly, there is a bit of an output imbalance between the middle single-coil and the two outer humbuckers. This will be more pronounced the less distortion you play with. (The other guitar player in my former band never liked his Duncan Everything Axe set for this very reason.) I knew this going in, but then I seldom play totally clean anyway. Even my clean sounds are slightly dirty, and that makes this work. Dial in a slightly overdriven sound with the middle pickup and you will get a whole lot more dirt and balls when selecting either of the other two. It’s basically a channel switcher right there in your guitar!
I tend to look at the set as two in one, or even three in one. When playing distorted, it is a marvelous combination of a screaming treble pickup and a smooth bass pickup. I can’t wait until I can modify my Stratocaster so I can engage both simultaneously, Gibson-style. When playing more traditional rock/blues stuff, you can get a whole range of tones just by selecting any of the three pickups. And if you want the classic Fender tones, there’s the 2nd, 3rd and 4th positions on the selector switch. The in-between sounds are perhaps not as quacky as a true single-coil combination, but they do get awfully close. Even without any funky wiring schemes.
Recommendations: Super Dist/Area 58/Air Norton for maximum flexibility. Super Dist/Area 58/Area 58 if you lean more towards traditional Fender values but just want that extra oomph in the bridge position.
Negatives: My Stratocaster, Telecaster and Les Paul are all looking at my SG funny now. She’s the only one of the sisters that doesn’t have DiMarzios. Yet.