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What are the differences between a telecaster neck and a stratocaster neck pickup?

Classic Telecaster and Stratocaster neck pickups sound completely different - why?  Really it comes down to design and construction choices.

So how do they sound?  I'm stereotyping heavily here, but for classically constructed/designed pickups, the following is generally true:

  • Telecaster neck sound:  Warm, bass-heavy, muffled;  Some might say "dull" or "dead" sounding
  • Stratocaster neck sound:  Bell-like, piano-like, clear;  Immediate attack

The Stratocaster neck sound is a classic found on many recordings.  The tele neck sound is definitely still used and "out there", but it is generally (and I mean that in the broadest sense) not a color used as heavily on records.  

Ok on to why they sound different - first, the similarities:

  • Both are single coil pickups, meaning they have only one bobbin around which wire is wrapped, unbroken, in one direction.
  • Both use magnetic pole pieces (the rod-like things sticking up through the middle of the pickup perpendicular to the strings).  
  • Both (typically) use the same magnet types, typically Alnico II or Alnico V.
  • Both are in more or less the same place on the guitar body.  I will update this post next time I go to Guitar Center and take a ruler to two American Standards of both type, but both pickups are more or less right where a phantom 24th fret would fall. There are maybe 2mm of difference here, if that.  I'll report back.  

Ok so why do they sound different then?  On to the differences:

  • Telecaster neck pickups have a cover.  This is the #1 reason for the difference in tone.  Any metallic cover over a pickup is going to reduce high-frequency output somewhat (see explanatory article here), and the original Tele neck pickups used nickel-plated brass, which substantially rolled off the high frequencies of the pickup.  This is somewhat similar to, but not identical to, rolling off the tone knob on your guitar.  It actually changes the high frequency resonance of the pickup as well - you cannot EQ it back or "undo it" - it is more complex than just an EQ shift alone.  
  • Telecasters use a smaller bobbin (the thing onto which the wire is wound).  Stock Telecaster bobbins are an oval approximately 2.59" x 0.57", and Stock Stratocaster bobbins are an oval approximately 2.74" x 0.69".  Since the magnets on the ends need to be in the same place on both to be under the 1st and 6th strings, that means there is substantially less room available to wind the Tele pickup with wire than the strat.  If you want a comparable output, you need a comparable number of turns of wire, so what do you do?  You use thinner wire!
  • Telecaster neck pickups use thinner wire than Stratocaster neck pickups.  Classically Teles used 43 gauge wire in the neck and Strats use 42 gauge wire in the neck.  This inverse gauge number to thickness convention may seem strange but just think speaker wire to remember this (e.g. a 10 gauge speaker wire is HUGE, a 18 gauge speaker wire is relatively puny).  For a comparable number of turns of wire, this will give the Tele pickup a higher DC resistance (or "DCR", usually measured in thousands of ohms or "K" Ohms).  
  • Telecaster neck pickups tend to have more turns of wire than Stratocaster neck pickups.  Owing to the smaller bobbin and the thinner wire, to get a higher output to match the bigger-bobbin and thicker wire bridge, you need to add more turns.  More turns = higher inductance, which leads to a lower treble resonance and lower high frequency output.  
  • Some Telecasters do not have an adjustable-height neck pickup.  This isn't a problem per se if the pickup is exactly where you would want it to be, but my guess is that most people with a fixed position telecaster neck pickup have it set lower (farther from the strings) than they would if they had an adjustable neck pickup and knew how to adjust it.  This would lead to lower output and less immediacy/warmth in the pickup (see explanation of the effect of PU height on tone here).  

If you have a Tele, and decide you would rather have a Strat-sounding neck pickup, check out our list of the most Strat-like Tele neck pickups here.

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