The replacement-pickup market continues to provide fertile ground for small-shop winders still seeking to provide that missing link between players’ dream tones and the pickups that will get them there. This month we investigate one homegrown set that blends different traditional voices for maximum versatility, and another from across the Atlantic that drills down to nuanced vintage specifications. All were tested in an ash-bodied Fender Stratocaster with a maple neck, through a tweed Deluxe and a Friedman Small Box head and 2x12 cab.
STONEWALL PICKUPS SIGNATURE STRAT SET
Scott Miller of New Hampshire-based Stonewall Pickups is rapidly earning a reputation for creative designs that are rooted in tradition, while delivering versatile and playable twists. His Signature Strat Set ($305 direct, full set; $450 in loaded pickguard, as shown) mixes complementary vintage-S flavors via an Alnico III neck pickup that measures 4.9kΩ and an Alnico V middle pickup wound to a beefier 6.1kΩ, with a stealth maneuver in the bridge position: Stonewall’s S90, an S-sized P-90 with threaded steel poles and bar magnets beneath, spec’d to around 7.5kΩ.
Amped up, it’s impressive how well this seemingly diverse trio hangs together, given that most players flip their 5-way seeking some sonic variation in the first place. The neck position is thick and rich, yet crystal clear, with a tight, punchy low end, delivering a quick road to fat SRV tones with some mild crunch dialed in on the Friedman. The middle position gets respectively Hendrixy with dirt, but also does great Mark Knopfler tones when cleaned up, while the S90 provides an outstanding cure for the perpetually thin, wimpy Strat bridge position, in a ballsy, somewhat gritty rock ’n’ roller that you could easily mistake for a Les Paul Junior with eyes closed. Great stuff, and a whole lot of useful shades from one clever set. Given the mash-up, the in-between positions aren’t entirely traditional, but they are surprisingly useable and good-sounding too.
Kudos A versatile Strat set that sounds great in each position, with a fat, gnarly bridge pickup that will win over many rockers.
HOUSE OF TONE SPECIAL S 1960 HEAVY FORMVAR
House of Tone’s proprietor Matt Bascetta is a transplanted American working in the city of Chester in the northwest of England, just south of Liverpool. A former maker of acoustic guitars and violins, Bascetta applies a keen ear to these vintage-style pickups, which are wound with the heavy Formvar insulated wire as was used in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Pickups in the House of Tone Special S 1960 Heavy Formvar Set ($209 direct for the full set, plus shipping and any duties) are all wound to approximately the same target resistance of 6.3kΩ, as were pickups back in the day, so you balance their outputs the good-old-fashioned way—by adjusting their relative mounting heights in the guitar. Each uses slightly degaussed Alnico V magnets to replicate the strength of original Strat pickups that Bascetta has examined, and this set is lightly potted to retain a lively response, while combatting more severe microphony (different levels of potting are available). All this and—ta-da!—they come in a nifty wooden presentation box.
Rammed through the test rig, the House of Tone Special S 1960 Heavy Formvar set quickly proved one of the more accurate—and enjoyable—vintage-spec Stratocaster sets I’ve had the pleasure of playing in some time. Lows were firm, bouncy, and lively, with a big, bell-like boing; midrange was meatier and gutsier than that of so many low-wind modern S sets; and highs were crisp and silky, without ever being spikey. Atop of all this, each pickup delivered a trenchant, silvery texture that was positively delectable, really ramming that “vintage” character home, and making everything I threw at them an utter delight. Sweet stuff, and at a very respectable price up against so many other acclaimed boutique Strat sets.
Kudos A luscious-sounding early ’60s style Strat set with bags of vintage character.