Electric guitars may seem simple to a non-player, but there’s so much to learn that once you really dig in, it can feel a bit overwhelming.
Something that often stumps a lot of new players is the pickups and their corresponding tone knobs.
In this article I’ll try and lay it all out on the table for you in simple terms, so you can really wrap your head around what those controls do, and how you can use them to get the best possible sound out of your Stratocaster.
For the purposes of this guide, we’ll be talking about a standard Fender Stratocaster, with no modifications or custom build specs.
But before we get on to the tone knobs, let’s look at what they control – the pickups.
Table of Contents
- Stratocaster Pickups Explained
- The ‘In-Betweens’
- Stratocaster Knobs Explained
Stratocaster Pickups Explained
Pickups work by translating the vibration of a string into an electric signal that eventually becomes a sound. This is done by an electromagnetic field that captures the vibrations from the string.
The electromagnetic field is generated from the pickup. Pickups are essentially a magnet wrapped in a few thousand turns of copper wire. When the string vibrates, the electromagnetic field is affected, thus producing the sound.
The Stratocaster has three pickups in different locations: the bridge pickup, the middle pickup, and the neck pickup. Which pickup (or combination of pickups) is selected will determine the tonal properties of the sound it picks up.
The Bridge Pickup (Position 1)
The bridge pickup is – surprise surprise – the one located nearest the bridge of the guitar. It’s usually angled to slant gently down, closer to the bridge, as it nears the control knobs. This is done for tonal reasons. It gives the higher strings, the E, B, and G, more treble and attack.
The bridge pickup is also the one that gives all strings more of a trebly sound. This is because of its positioning closer to the bridge, where the strings are at their most taut. This causes a ‘tighter’ vibration, and a higher, sharper, more treble-focused sound as a result.
The bridge position is often used for lead lines, or when a player wants a clear melody to cut through the mix of the whole band. It is also often used in country music for that sharp, twangy sound.
The Middle Pickup (Position 3)
The middle pickup is essentially a ‘best-of-both-worlds’ situation. It gives a balanced tone with an equal distribution of both high and low-end frequencies.
Because of this middle-ground stance, many players find it unnecessary and some even opt to lower it or remove it entirely from their guitar. Some fingerstyle players also find that it physically gets in the way of their playing.
But this isn’t the case for everyone. Many adore its well-balanced sound, and when used in conjunction with the bridge and neck pickups, it is a powerful tool that offers that extra bit of control over one’s tone.
The Neck Pickup (Position 5)
Finally, the neck pickup. Positioned close to the neck, this pickup is right in the middle of where the strings will experience ‘peak vibration.’ What this means is that essentially, the pickup is in the location where the strings have the most slack in them.
Whereas up by the nut and right down by the bridge, the strings are closest to their fixed points. Over the neck pickup, they are furthest from those points, and therefore ‘looser,’ meaning they have more room to vibrate. In turn, the neck pickup is often credited with being the loudest pickup.
Although this is true in terms of what we hear, it’s not technically accurate. The neck pickup is not made to be louder or hotter than the others, it just benefits from its position. Coupled with that, it also adds warmth and fatness to any notes it picks up, thanks once again to the ‘extra’ vibrations generated by the strings in that area.
The neck pickup is often used for bass-heavy, loud, and background parts that don’t need to cut through the mix but instead want to add to it. Rhythm players often use the neck pickup for chords that sound full and rich without dominating the band.
But of course, if you’ve ever played a strat, you will be thinking about the in-between positions available through the pickup selector switch.
Up until 1977, Fender only used a 3-way switch on their Stratocasters. It wasn’t long before many guitarists figured out that you could balance that switch between the 1st and 2nd, and 2nd and 3rd positions, creating two new pickup selections that were a combination of the neck and the bridge with the middle pickup.
After the introduction of the 5-way switch, finding these positions became a whole lot easier; using the 2nd or 4th position is a valid and popular creative choice. These ‘out-of-phase’ sounds generated by the combination of using two pickups at once opened up more tonal options.
The Bridge-and-Middle Position (Position 2)
Often thought of as the most out-of-phase sounding position, this combination can take that sharp edge off the highs that the bridge position is famous for. This gives a tone that is clear and cutting, without being too sharp or abrasive.
Think Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing; a cool, understated sound that still stands out but retains some subtlety.
The Neck-and-Middle Position (Position 4)
This position is perfect for edging close to a softer, bassy tone, but without committing entirely to the boost in volume and low-end that full use of the neck pickup can bring.
Often used in jazz bands for exotic chords, and softer, gentler songs, this position allows you to find a happy medium between all mids and all bass.
Perfect for a rhythm part that you don’t want to sink too deeply into the mix, or an understated melody that noodles in the background.
Stratocaster Knobs Explained
So now you know how your pickups work, how do you tweak them further? Well, the answer lies in the control knobs next to the selector switch.
One of them is very obvious – volume. You shouldn’t need any coaching on how to use that, as I expect it’s already cranked all the way up!
The tone knobs, however, can be slightly more mysterious.
For ease, in this guide, we’ll refer to the tone knobs as ‘tone 1’ and ‘tone 2.’
Tone 1 is the one closest to the pickup switch, the tone 2 is the one furthest away, closer to the input jack.
Tone 1 Control Knob
This tone knob controls how much treble frequency is sent to your amplifier when the pickup selector is set to receive from the neck pickup (positions 4 and 5).
Adjusting the tone all the way up will allow the maximum amount of treble frequency signals through the pickup and to the amp, thereby changing the tone and sound of what you’re playing. It’s a great way to modify the ‘bassiness’ of what you play when using the neck pickup.
Tone 2 Control Knob
This tone knob controls how much treble frequency is sent to your amp when the middle pickup is selected (positions 2, 3, and 4).
The same rule applies to this control knob as with Tone 1 – it will only allow you to modify the amount of treble frequencies that the amp receives. Although that may seem limiting, there are three pickup positions in which you can use this tone control, so a fair amount of customization is possible.
For most strats, this is the closest you can get to limiting the amount of treble coming through when using a bridge-adjacent pickup selection.
Tone Control for the Bridge Pickup
Most strats do not come with a dedicated tone control for the bridge pickup. Unfortunately, that’s the way they were designed and for the most part, they’ve stuck with that for the majority of the Stratocaster’s life.
There are simple modifications you can make to allow tone 2 to also control the treble on the bridge pickup, which involves soldering a wire to patch across the pickup terminals, but we won’t cover that here.
There was also a short run of American Standard Stratocasters made in the 1990s where a dedicated tone control knob was implemented.
When it comes to questions of tone and sonic qualities, there is no right or wrong answer, or definitive dos and don’ts. The best advice for learning about your Strat’s tonal capabilities is to simply experiment and find out!
Try all the different pickup positions, and go crazy with the tone knobs in all of them. There is a massive array of tones out there for you to discover, and the pickups and tone knobs are just the start of the journey. There’s string gauge, speaker size, effects pedals, etc…
Just play around, see what kind of crazy sounds you can cook up, and have fun!