You might be looking for your first Stratocaster guitar. It might be time to start breathing new life into your favorite instrument.
Whatever the case might be, your guitar needs to produce a killer tone. That’s why your pickup configuration needs to be part of the overall conversation.
Strats have been part of the music lexicon for more than six decades. Even though the guitar produces a familiar charm whenever it’s played, the results are often credited to Fender’s ingenuity.
What if you could take your Strat to the next level by going with an HHS setup?
What Does HHS Strat Mean?
The three letters in front of a Fender Stratocaster (Strat) guitar represent the pickups equipped to the unit. If someone owns an HHS Strat, that means it has a humbucker, humbucker, and single-coil setup. For an HSH Strat, you’d work with a humbucker, single-coil, and humbucker.
If you were to own an HHS Strat, you’d have a single-coil pickup in the neck with two full-sized humbuckers in the bridge and middle, respectively.
This option isn’t something that would come from Fender. It would need to be a custom modification from an aftermarket update, or something specifically ordered from a custom shop.
It’s an unusual setup for a Stratocaster. Although a handful of musicians have created the format for their recording or gigs, it’s never really been a popular choice. ESP made some signature models with an HHS option, but most people don’t see the point of using a middle pickup that isn’t a single coil.
Jeff Mattson is the primary musician who receives credit for the HHS option. He played the Strat setup as the lead guitarist for Dark Star Orchestra.
How to Get Great Sound from Your HHS Strat?
Before you start playing your Strat, it’s essential to review the string gauge used for the instrument. The core tension and diameter are what determine how you need the spring claw set, which carries to the saddle heights, truss rod tension, and intonation settings.
You’ll know that the setup is working because you can play the HHS Strat consistently over hours instead of minutes. Although SRV always liked ultra-heavy strings, that doesn’t mean you need to follow the same setup.
Fat strings deliver vintage sounds with the right single-coil setup. When you’ve got double humbuckers on there, the aggressiveness could be more than you want to manage.
Once you have the strings ready, here are the other steps you’ll need to follow to get great sounds out of your HHS Strat.
■ Review the Hardware
When looking at a Strat’s hardware, you have three areas of interest to review to ensure you’re getting the best possible sound.
- The Saddles
- The Vibrato Block
- All the Springs
If you have the cheap alloys that replaced the bent steel from the pre-CBS era, you’ve got the worst tone possible for a Strat. It wouldn’t matter what pickup setup you’d use in that situation.
Steel rings clear, while stainless steel adds more brightness and attack. Fenders rarely benefit from using aluminum components.
If you use the whammy bar heavily, a brass saddle can improve your sustain while delivering thicker tones. You can add brass spring claws for even beefier tones while smoothing out the transience.
■ Swap Out the Pickups
The only way to get the classic Strat tone is to use Alnico magnets. Fender used the Alnico V slugs with beveled edges, which is the only way you can grab that vintage tone today. Without the bevels, the instrument sounds like any other out there.
If you want something softer, the Alnico III slugs are an option to consider.
Pickup upgrades should optimize your sound since the guitar already sounds fantastic. Until 1973, the slugs were staggered on the guitar. You’ll also find scatter winding on most boutique pickups to hit the right tones for the musician.
Some humbuckers are better than others when you want to upgrade your Strat.
Although the Alnico V slugs are a bit cheaper, I prefer to use the Seymour Duncan pickups when creating an HHS lineup. The high-output SJBJ-1B is what I use for my guitar, which you can grab in cream or black. It creates a versatile tone that lets you cut a bright melody, play rhythms, or experiment with a signature sound.
If you have the SSS configuration, I’d highly recommend putting this pickup for your bridge. It’ll give your tone that extra edge.
■ Wood and Finish
Some aspects of a Strat you can alter at home to create a signature sound. Others aren’t changeable because they involve the components used in the guitar’s creation.
The best Strats you can find today have an ash or alder body. If you’re lucky, you might get your hands on a mahogany body from the pre-CBS production era.
When the Strat weighs less, it tends to resonate better. Ash tonewoods create a clear and bright tone with deeper lows and a fast attack. Alder works to fatten the midrange while adding a touch of extra warmth to the sustain.
The best necks are the one-piece maple options from the Strat’s early years. Your next best option is the slab rosewood fingerboard. By the time SRV and Hendrix came long, Fender had used veneer and glue to create their signature look.
Neck size also plays a role in the guitar’s tone. Something thinner tends to add darkness to the sound, while thicker designs create something fat and substantial in the audio waves. Some people try to avoid a poly finish, but it doesn’t really matter. It should be thinly applied. If it isn’t, the notes will come out terribly.
■ Pickup Height
Your pickup height relative to the strings is crucial to the prospect of dialing in your signature tone. The only way to explore the full potential of the HHS setup is to tweak this placement option.
You might discover that your pickups sound better than ever with some slight adjustments. It’s also possible that you’ll need to immediately reverse.
Setting the pickups higher tends to increase the output level while emphasizing the treble. If you go too far, the sustain takes a hit while creating more shrillness with each note and chord.
When you go too low, the aggression disappears entirely. You’ll be getting something smooth and sweet, but often at the expense of your overall output.
Set the amp at a medium volume using a neutral frequency response. As the pickups get higher, listen to the way your sound changes. Once you’re happy, pick through the notes of an open chord to see what you like to hear.
If the bass dominates your chords, you can lower the pickups on that side to create a slanted or diagonal appearance. When the uppers have too much force, you can drop that end instead.
Repeat the same procedure for all three pickups in the HHS Strat setup to create something magical. Don’t forget to check the tonal differences with your spacer strings.
How to Maximize Your Strat’s Sound
One of the best features found on a Strat is the five-way switch position. It’s what gives this guitar the versatility that musicians need to approach multiple musical genres.
The five-way switch controls the pickups or combinations you want to use at any time. Since the Strat is the only three-pickup design in the lineup, you get to do more with this instrument than anything else from Fender.
The blade-type switch gets mounted diagonally on the lower portion of the pickguard. It’s on the treble side of the strings, just above the control knobs. The placement there is deliberate, making everything close enough to your picking or strumming hand to be within easy reach. It’s also far enough away that you won’t knock it out of position accidentally.
Here is what you can expect to get when you have the five-way switched engaged on your Strat.
|Position One:||The neck pickup engages when playing while the middle and bridge pickups remain disengaged.|
|Position Two:||With this switch position, you’ll have the neck and middle pickups engaged. It’s also the online one where both tone control knobs are used.|
|Position Three:||This choice gives you the middle pickup only. The neck and bridge take the day off until you swap to something else.|
|Position Four:||You’ll get to use the middle and bridge pickups in this setting as the neck remains off.|
|Position Five:||This switch setting turns on the bridge pickup while turning off the other two.|
That’s why the HHS setup is often considered to be a bit redundant. You cannot have all three pickups turned on at once.
For the first two decades of the Stratocaster’s existence, the pickup selector was a three-position switch. That meant you could engage one of the pickups, but you were never given a choice to use combos.
If you have a Strat built before 1977, the HHS debate isn’t worth having. Since you can turn on the humbucker or the single-coil pickup individually, the sounds tend to be the same.
The five-way switch was eventually developed because musicians were lodging the three-way switch between the two settings to get a partial pickup benefit. By advancing the design, it makes things a bit easier to manage for the musician.
If you want to engage an HHS Strat with all three pickups, you’ll need to install a seven-sound mod switch. That aftermarket update lets you get all three of them in parallel with the switch’s second position. In return, you’ll lose the bridge and middle pickup combination.
Are There Advantages to Updating to Humbuckers?
Humbuckers use two coils to cancel the electromagnetic interference that occurs with the guitar’s pickups. Once they’re installed, the main’s hum comes under better control.
When equipping a Strat with humbuckers, you’re pairing a coil with northern poles while the other is oriented with the southern pole positioned upward. This connects them while keeping them out of phase to prevent them from working against each other.
Depending on where you play, the alternating fields typically hum at 50 Hz to 60 Hz. If you strum a Strat without equipping humbuckers, you’d hear the pickups “singing” during quiet moments in the music.
By following these steps, you can quickly swap out the single-coil pickups with humbuckers to create an HHS Strat (or whatever other combination you prefer).
- Unpack the parts so that they’re ready to assemble. Some pickups or a new pickguard might be part of the installation.
- Assemble the pickguard to the humbuckers first. Matching them to the appropriate spot to make the following steps easier to manage. It’s better to stick with hand tools to prevent stripping out the screws or making them too tight.
- Assemble the pickguard starts while mounting the pickups to the cutouts. Use the screws and springs included with your product.
- Install the switch with the flat metal side to ensure it faces the outside.
- Take the tone and volume pots, placing them in the cutouts with the first tab pointing toward the second one.
- Start soldering everything so that the components stay put. You’ll need to use the wiring assembly instructions from Fender, the humbucker manufacturer, or both.
- Even solderless pickups for a Strat require soldering the connection from the humbucker to the guitar.
- Now, solder the tabs on the capacitor leads, the five-way switch wires, and the tabs on the pots.
- Ensure that everything is clean and uncrimped before finishing the entire assembly. It should fit on the guitar easily.
My Thoughts on Humbuckers on a Strat
Musicians can customize their Strat with whatever pickups they prefer. Although the HHS setup is relatively rare, you have the option to swap out all the electronics if that’s what is desired. Humbuckers on a Strat tend to give the guitar an edgier tone that works well for metal and heavy rock compositions.
I’m more of a fan of putting a single humbucker in the bridge with a Strat while keeping two single-coil pickups higher. That option takes away the bubble gum feelings that the SSS setup sometimes creates without sounding overly gritty.
With two humbuckers, the sounds tend to be a little dark. You can always rewire them to deliver something a bit better in the midrange.
Don’t forget to follow the color codes if you decide to do the work yourself to create an HHS Strat. Jackson has the green and red wires listed as hot, while the white and black ones are ground.
Gibson does the opposite, having the black and white wires hot.
If you have DiMarzio, the red and white wires are hot, while the black and green ones serve as the ground.
By taking these steps, you can create the beefy sound that two humbuckers bring to a conversation.