Many players, for whatever reason, have trouble bonding with the stock telecaster neck pickup sound. Typical complaints are that the sound is "muffled", "bassy", "lifeless" etc. My guess is that this perception is driven by comparison to:
1) The sound of a stock stratocaster neck pickup, which has a classic and very well-loved almost piano or bell-like tone
2) The sound of a stock telecaster bridge pickup, which generally has a very pronounced treble spike/resonance and has a punchy, "ballsy" lower-midrange
So compared to these two sounds, many guitarists wind up wishing they had something different in the neck position of their tele. You could do what Brad Paisley does for the strat tones in "She's Everything" and use a modified/custom tele with an actual Strat PU (this is a picture of Brad's WV tele)...
...but the good news is that this type of extreme customization is not necessary as there are tele neck PUs out there that already have that strat vibe.
I won't repost it on this page, but if you want to dig into the details of the differences between a tele and strat neck pickup please see the description here.
In a nutshell if you want to get a strat sound out of a tele-footprint pickup you will need a pickup with:
- No cover. Any cover made out of any material (except perhaps pure plastic) will affect the sound and detract from the overall strattiness.
- Magnetized pole pieces that are staggered (varied in height) by varying their height upwards above the bobbin (vs below as some makers do for tele necks to compensate for string volume variation).
- Thicker (lower gauge number) pickup wire: Tele neck pickups are classically wired with 43 gauge wire, while Strat pickups are classically wired with 42 gauge wire.
- Adjustable pickup height (some vintage teles don't allow this stock, but the pickguard/springs can be modified to allow it).
That is it! While these changes in design still won't (and cannot) get you 100% there (on account of the smaller bobbin size and slightly different position) they will get you really close. Usually the thicker wire is accomplished by use of a taller bobbin (hence the need for an adjustable PU height...which is just nice in any case).
Below is a running list of the most "strat-like" tele neck pickups I know of. I'll be sure to add more as I find more - if you have a favorite I don't know about please post in the comments and I'll add it!
- Fender's "Twisted Tele" pickup (available on Amazon here): These aren't designed to go to a 100% strat sound, as the neck pickup here still has a cover, for example, but these pickups of generally top of mind for many players who are looking for a strattier sound.
- Harmonic Design's "Mini-Strat neck pickup" (see their website here): Note: There are many pickups on this page, so scroll to the bottom (at the time of this posting) to find the one I'm talking about. I haven't heard this personally, but just seeing the construction and the design goals I would imagine this gets you very close.
- Fred Stuart's "Compact Wonder (CW)" (see his website here): Similar to the Harmonic Design PU, I haven't personally heard it yet as it is very niche. That said, given the 42 gauge wire construction, specs, and design goals, I would guess that they get pretty close and these are well reviewed.
- Lindy Fralin "Blues Special" neck (available from Lindy direct here): Speaking of Brad Paisley, who plays the Fralin Blues Special bridge in some of his guitars, these neck PUs should get you into more of a stratty territory (assuming you go with the uncovered version, which is stock). These also use 42 gauge wire stock, which is more strat-like.
- DiMarzio's Twang King neck (available from us here): This is one of our best selling pickups of any type, and for good reason. Its voice is much more clear than a stock tele pickup. This isn't going to get you to a true strat tone, but it will get you a clearer tele tone.