The Fender Stratocaster is easily one of the best guitars ever made. When you want an electric axe on stage, in the recording studio, or at home to use, the Strat always seems to deliver.
It’s difficult to imagine some artists performing without their trademark Fender. Everyone from Buddy Holly to Eric Clapton has incorporated a Strat into their signature sounds.
Over the years, several modifications and improvements to the Stratocaster lineup have occurred, creating two distinctive eras for this guitar. You’ve got the pre-CBS and post-CBS lineup, which includes the HSS vs. SSS setup.
Is there one better than the other when you think about the pickups included with the modern Stratocaster?
Fender Stratocaster HSS vs. SSS
The Fender Stratocaster SSS is true to the original guitar design. It uses three single-coil pickups (bridge, middle, and neck) to deliver a steely, twangy tone with higher pitches. In the HSS setup, a humbucker replaces the bridge to create a deeper, more dynamic sound that works well for rock and heavy metal.
Humbuckers get their name from what they accomplish when equipped with a guitar. The pickups “buck” the hum from the instrument by canceling the interference noise generated by the coils.
This technology is so effective at what it does that you can find humbuckers in dynamic microphones to cancel the electromagnetic hum from the connection.
The first humbucking coil was invented by Electro-Voice in 1934. The Indiana-based company was a professional audio producer that focused on loudspeakers and public address equipment. In 1935, Arnold Lesti brought this technology to the guitar with a patent.
In 1938, the stacked humbucker design was granted a patent to A.F. Knoblaugh. He was creating a new piano design at the time.
By 1939, music and radio publications were printing how-to guides for readers that showed how one could create pickups using two identical coils wrapped around a self-magnetized iron core. One of them is then flipped to produce a reverse polarity and winding orientation for humbuckers.
Even then, the guitar hum wasn’t eliminated entirely. The first modern humbucker came from Seth Lover, who was employed by Gibson at the time. Ray Butts worked on a similar design simultaneously for Gretsch.
As the technology grew in its effectiveness, Gibson decided to incorporate the humbucker with its Les Paul lineup. Since then, most major brands and manufacturers have included this pickup in at least one of their series.
One of the most popular setups with a humbucker is the Fender Stratocaster HSS. Sometimes called a “Fat Strat,” the rounder tone with more low-frequency emphasis delivers a significant presence to any composition.
Considerations to Review before Converting an SSS to an HSS Strat
The primary difference between an HSS and SSS Strat is the change from a single coil to a humbucker. All the other structures remain the same within the guitar, except for some potential routing updates.
Most Strats support having a humbucker installed in the bridge position. When engaging the three-way or five-way switch, you can create different combos and sounds that produce your signature audio.
Before creating this change to add the beefiness of the humbucker, you’ll want to review four points of consideration with your guitar.
■ Will the Strat Support Humbuckers?
The bodies of some Fender Strats are already routed to receive single-coil pickups or humbuckers. You can tell if your instrument has this setup by removing the strings and carefully separating the pickguard.
Since humbucking pickups are roughly twice the size of the stock single-coils, you can tell with a visual inspection if the routes are large enough to accommodate the change.
Some manufacturers use stacked humbuckers that fit in the place of the regular pickup. Since a few designs work to reduce noise without changing the instrument’s sound, you’ll want to review the features of your selected upgrade first before investing money in the HSS conversion.
■ Match All the Pickups to Equalize the Output.
Once the humbucker is active on the Stratocaster, you’ll notice it produces a more robust sound compared to the single-coil pickups. When you create the HSS configuration, the levels of the middle and neck might be too low. You’ll want to consider grabbing a set that works together or a pickguard that comes pre-wired and mounted to even out the tone.
If that option isn’t possible, you can tweak the output from the single coils or reduce the humbucker to equalize the audio.
■ Are You Comfortable Soldering and Cutting Wires?
Some people can handle the Strat’s electronics without a second thought. If the idea of snipping the wires and soldering connections worries you, it’s better to work with a luthier or local tech who handles Fender equipment.
It can be catastrophic to cut wires too short or burn the wiring insulation when creating connections.
If you don’t have the equipment to cut and solder, the price of securing the tools could be comparable to paying a tech to complete the work for you.
Should you decide to proceed on your own, please remember to make a good drawing, show the wire, and mark the control and pickup locations before the first cut.
■ Is It Possible to Trade to an HSS Strat?
Some Strats aren’t designed for the humbucking coil. In that circumstance, you can’t update the sound without going through significant modifications.
In that instance, it might be less stressful and much cheaper to trade in your current guitar for a Strat that already has the pickup and control locations installed.
How to Add a Humbucker to a Strat
If you’re ready to convert your SSS Strat to an HSS, you’ll need to have a few tools available to finish the work at home. Once you collect the following items, the task is relatively straightforward.
- Adjustable wrench or pliers
- Needle nose pliers
- Wire strippers
- Soldering iron
- Router (if an update is necessary)
- Philips head (four-point) screwdrivers of multiple sizes.
You’ll also need to get the pickup for your guitar. Unless your instrument is already designed for this option, a new pickguard is also necessary.
Several no-name and off-brand options are available today for this upgrade. If you’re transitioning from the SSS to the HSS, I highly recommend the LAMSAM prewired Strat pickguard. It’ll make everything more manageable when you pop out the old single-coil to update your instrument’s sound.
As for the humbucker, I’m a big fan of the Seymour Duncan SH-4 JB model. It offers a more substantial high range than other designs within the brand, a bit of extra jazziness to the sound, and a straightforward attack when engaged.
Once you have everything available, here are the steps to follow to turn your SSS Stratocaster into an HSS Fat Strat.
- Each pickup has a specific phase. You’ll need to make sure yours are correct before installing a new pickup. This information comes from the combination of magnetic polarity and winding direction. The Strat single-coil pickups are designed by default to work with other guitars, but this issue changes with a humbucker. It always helps to take the time to equalize.
- Set up your work area. It’s easier to complete the SSS to HSS conversion by using a table.
- Unpack all the parts so that you can finish the assembly work. If you have a new pickguard that needs to get installed, you’ll want to have the owner’s manual or manufacturer’s instructions available to have a successful experience.
- The easiest way to gain access to the pickguard on your instrument is to unwind the strings from the tuner so that they loosen naturally. You might need to cut them off, depending on your setup.
- Place masking tape around the pickguard.
- Unscrew all the pickguard screws on your instrument. Once they’re all wobbly, you can gently lift the assembly. The extended fretboard on some Strats overlaps the pickguard, interfering with its removal. You might need to loosen the neck joint or a few screws to get everything out safely.
- It’s usually easier to assemble the pickguard with the humbucker pickup first. Match it with the spot on your product to get a great fit. It’s always better to use the hand tools in your collection to prevent accidental damage. If you’re keeping the current pickguard, you’ll need to identify the wires you’re replacing. Taking a photo of the setup eliminates any confusion.
- With a single-coil pickup, you should see two wires. One is connected to the switch, while the other goes to the casing of the volume pot or another potentiometer. The humbucker often has one large wire with five smaller ones inside. The colors are variable by the manufacturer, but they’re usually red, green, white, black, and red. You’ll need to connect them to the appropriate places and solder them for a secure connection point.
- If you have a solderless humbucker getting added to your Strat, you’ll still need to solder the connection to the guitar’s wiring. When you’d rather save some time on this upgrade, it’ll be easier to use plugin wires.
- The next step is to solder the tabs found on the capacitor leads. You’ll follow that work with soldering the pot tabs and the wires that work with your switch that transitions between the different pickups. If you need to shorten the wires, be careful about taking away too much material. It’s better to leave them alone if you’re not confident in what you can create.
- Check to see if everything is in working condition. Place the pickguard face up, plug in the jack, and turn on your amp. The volume knob needs to be double-checked to ensure it isn’t on zero.
- If you have a small Allen key, tap each pickup according to the switch position. If everything is working as it should be, you’ll hear a booming sound coming through the amplifier when tapping the magnets.
- Place the pickguard back onto the guitar. You’ll need to verify that the wires run freely through the electronics cavity in the body. Once you’re satisfied that everything is secure, you can screw the pickguard into place.
- The final step is to restring the Strat and tune it. Set the desired pickup height to get the most out of your new humbucker.
It’s not that hard to update an SSS Strat to an HSS Strat. Fender created a simple and elegant design to keep the build process straightforward for mass production. Since that effort produced an extremely modular option, you can modify the instrument without much difficulty.
Are There Advantages to Sticking with the SSS Strat Setup?
When you play an SSS Strat, the typical design features an alder body and a maple neck. Depending on the model selected, you can sometimes choose between a pau ferro or a maple fingerboard.
Fender offers single-coils that come with the standard two-tone, one-volume layout that works with a five-way selector switch (it’s a three-way switch for older models). As for the bridge, it uses a dual-point synced tremolo system with the Player series. The Standard series doesn’t offer this option.
If you have a SSS Strat, you’ll find that it works well for most genres. It handles jazz, country, blues, and rock without hesitation. Although this version doesn’t offer as much support for punk or heavier metal, it can still put together some reasonable crunch and distortion when routed through some pedals.
When playing the SSS setup, you’ll get the classic Stratocaster sounds from SRV, Clapton, and Hendrix. It doesn’t give you something thick and crunchy.
The SSS is considered the traditional model. You’ll find the bridge is bright, offering a vintage tone that sounds fantastic in most rock and jazz genres. The classic tonal palette between the middle and the bridge produces the trademarked twang. You might consider adding a Floyd Rose trem for your Strat to add some extra versatility if the humbucker doesn’t seem like the best upgrade.
Final Thoughts on the HSS vs. SSS Strat Debate
The work required to modify a Fender Stratocaster SSS setup to an HSS with a humbucker can be extensive. Some musicians opt to stick with the single-coil cavity instead of routing a different design into the instrument.
If you want to stick with a single-coil cavity while having an HSS Strat, you have four options available.
|Stacks:||This option uses a double coil that’s stacked vertically instead of horizontally. The sound is similar to what a Strat already offers, although the noise cancelation benefits will be significantly better.|
|Rails:||You can use this configuration to put the side with the dual on its side to reduce the overall size by 50%. You’ll get the sound and noise improvements, but the tone isn’t as deep as it would be with the standard humbucker installation.|
|Reverse-Wound:||Installing this alternative mimics the humbucker effect will sticking to the single design. It winds the middle pickup in the opposite direction to cancel the triggered noise when the neck or bridge activates.|
|Rail and Stack:||This hybrid humbucker option delivers four single coils to have a high-output installation on a Strat. It still offers an authentic sound that feels like a Fender while getting the extra depth and rumble within your targeted frequencies.|
I’d recommend looking at amps or pedals if you don’t want to go through the work of converting an SSS to an HSS Strat.
I like to use the JHS Pedals Bonsai 9-Way Screamer to add more beef and attack to my SSS Strat. It uses a simple knob design to switch through the different sounds, offering something vintage, classic, and rare all in the same investment.
Once you’ve selected the sound, you can customize drive, tone, and volume to create a signature playing experience. I especially like how it replicates the 808. It’s usable and enjoyable without putting stress on your budget.
The HHS Strat delivers rock tones with more of an emphasis on power. With the SSS Stratocaster, the goal is to have tight precision. Choose what works best for your playing style.