When Leo Fender created the Fender Stratocaster he definitely had one thing in mind: Modularity. Strat mods have been around as long as the Strat itself. The ability to easily swap out just about any component is one of the reasons they are so popular. In short, Strat Mods are the equivalent of what “tuning” is for Honda Civics. And the available options are just as extensive.
Lets take a look at some of today’s after-market products that could turn your Strat into your dream guitar. We start off the Strat Mods series with loaded – or pre-wired – pickguards.
Strat Mods Take Planning
A crucial step must be taken before picking the appropriate loaded pickguard for your particular guitar: A full cavity check. No, not that kind, this one is a whole lot more pleasant.
To check the routing pattern for your pickup cavity just remove the strings, and the pickguard screws. Take a peek under the hood, and make sure that what you see closely resembles the shape of the pickups you want to use. If it doesn’t match the pickup configuration of your pre-wired pickguard, some routing might be needed. If that’s the case, you might want to take your guitar to a qualified luthier. The example below will support a 3 single-coil pickup configuration. You get the idea: if the pickup fits in the hole, it’s ready to rock n’ roll. But don’t fret! There is other option that might keep you from hacking away at your axe, just keep reading.
Another thing to take into consideration is your pickguard screw holes. Different Strat models over the year have had different variations for the screw placement. If you don’t mind changing the screw positions and making new holes, this shouldn’t be much of an issue. Plus, most manufacturers have compatibility documentation; make sure you check it out before making a purchase.
In the past, swapping pickups required a good understanding of guitar electronics. Luckily those days are over! Today we count with plenty of pre-wired pickguard options that will allow you to get just about any pickup combination you can think of – provided that your routing allows it, of course. Oh, and with very little – if any – soldering skills. You can start your own collection of pre-wired pickguards, giving you many great tonal options. These are some of the main reasons why loaded pickguards are such a popular choice for Strat mods.
The Vintage Strat Tone
For those looking for a vintage tone, I recommend the Fender Original ’57/’62 Strat Loaded Pickguard by 920D Custom Shop. This is the one that I currently have installed in one of my Strats (see post pic). Reversed engineered from an all original 1963 Strat, these pickups are low output, and provide an authentic vintage Strat sound. Positions 2 and 4 are not hum-cancelling, just like the old ones. They even used the same pots and capacitors, keeping it true to the original design.
The Modern Guitar Tone
If you’re not really into the vintage vibe, maybe a modern pickup set is a better choice. The example below is the Duncan SH-4/STK-S4m/SH-2n Strat Loaded Pickguard also from 920D Custom Shop. As you can see, the tonal options in this pickguard are quite extensive. It features the Seymour Duncan JB/Jazz humbucker combo; an extremely popular pickup set. In the middle position is the STK-S4; which is a stacked single coil. This technique is used by many pickup makers to eliminate the typical single-coil hum. Some purist hate them, but I happen to like their tone. White pearl pickguard for some added bling!
If your guitar body routing doesn’t permit anything but the standard 3 single-coil configuration, you can opt for something like the Seymour Duncan SJBJ/SDBR/SL59 Loaded Pickguard. This pickguard has mini-humbuckers installed, making it possible to have a fatter tone in a smaller form factor. I have used these in the past, and they provide a very unique tone. Think of a sweet spot between single-coil and humbucker. You get a good dose of shimmering highs, and the tight bottom that only humbuckers can provide. All without any alterations to the guitar body. But If you want to go back to vintage land the split-coil switch can take you there. It also has a “7” mini-toggle that engages the neck pickup regardless of the five-way switch position. Those are some serious tone options.
The Active Guitar Tone
Of course, if you want to have a super quiet and high output setup for your Strat mods, you cannot go wrong with EMG pickups. The EMG KH21 Kirk Hammett Active Pickup Loaded Pickguard will sure satisfy your high-gain cravings with plenty of bottom end and bite. This set features a couple of EMG 81s; one of the most popular pickups for hard rock and heavy metal music. Surprisingly, the 81 seems to behave very nicely in just about any music setting.
If you find yourself missing the single coils at the neck and middle, a H/S/S version is also available. This loaded pickguard features an EMG 81 at the bridge, and a couple of EMG-S single-coils. This option remains super quiet, and you get to keep some of that Strat twang.
The Bottom Line
Loaded pickguards provide a plethora of options, are relatively easy to install, and give you the ability to transform your guitar from a sweet singer, to a screaming demon. They might not always be the cheapest route, but if purchased from a reputable source – like 920D Custom Shop – you will save yourself a lot of time. All the cables are tight and neat, all the soldering is clean and the right components are being used. The only thing you need to do is drop it in, and rock out!
Until next time,