A couple of months ago, I ordered a set of new pickups for my Fender Player HSS Stratocaster. It took a bit of time for them to arrive, and then a bit longer to get them installed.
Now that they’re in the guitar, what are my First Impressions? Read on to find out.
First, A Caveat
I normally try to write these First Impressions blog posts within 48 hours of trying a new (to me) piece of gear. The whole point of these posts is to describe my out-of-the-box reaction.
For these pickups, I didn’t feel comfortable with my First Impressions after drafting them. I rarely play Strats or super Strats, and my rig is dialled in for Les Paul & Telecasters.
Although this post isn’t a comparison piece, I felt that it was important to use my other Strat as a reference for myself. That’s when I realised that I hadn’t changed the strings on that Strat for a few years (!!) (did I mention that I rarely play Strats?), which held things up until I could buy some strings.
I’m glad that I did. I feel it helped me understand how these pickups are different to what I’m used to.
I put a set of Bare Knuckle Pickups Apache single-coils (neck and middle pickups) and a Bare Knuckle Pickups Stormy Monday humbucker (bridge pickup) into a Fender Player HSS Stratocaster. They replaced the stock pickups.
Clean, the Apache single-coils have the biggest sound I’ve personally heard from a Strat pickup. Plenty of low end, and also plenty of high-end and clarity at the same time.
When it’s time to reach for overdrive, the Stormy Monday is bright and cutting in a good way. It really delivers those 80s tones that super Strats were designed to produce back in the day.
The Stormy Monday is very height-sensitive. This has prevented me (so far) from setting it at a height that matches the perceived sound level with the Apaches. Not a problem for home use, but for gigging I’d want to use a digital rig to help me compensate for the differences between the two sets of pickups.
Oh, and non-RWRP middle pickups are the way to go if you’re a position 4 player!
Table of Contents
- First, A Caveat
- What Did You Buy?
- Why Did You Buy Them?
- Why Did You Buy From Bare Knuckle Pickups?
- Why Did You Choose The Bare Knuckle Apache Pickups?
- Why Did You Choose Staggered Pole Pieces On The Apaches?
- Why Did You Choose A Non-RWRP Middle Pickup?
- How Do The Apaches Sound?
- Was Non-RWRP A Good Choice?
- Why Did You Choose The Stormy Monday For The Bridge Pickup?
- How Is The Stormy Monday As A Strat Bridge Pickup?
- Have There Been Any Challenges With The Stormy Monday?
- How Are You Dialling In Your Rig For The Stormy Monday?
- How Well Does The Stormy Monday Go With The Apaches?
- Do The Apaches And Stormy Monday Work Well In The Same Guitar?
- Mod A Player Strat, Or Buy An Off-The-Peg American Strat?
- Mods Alone Do Not Elevate A Player Strat To Custom Shop Level
- Final Thoughts
What Did You Buy?
I bought a set of Bare Knuckle Pickups’ Apache single-coils (neck and middle position) and a Stormy Monday humbucker (bridge position), to put into my Fender Player HSS Stratocaster.
The Apaches have vintage staggered pole pieces, rather than the standard flat pole pieces. The middle pickup is not a reverse-wound, reverse-polarity (RWRP for short) pickup. (That will become important later on in this post.)
I ordered them directly from Bare Knuckle Pickups’ website, using their online ordering system. I didn’t email them or phone them in advance for advice, although they did call me to discuss my choices before the pickups were built.
I also paid the (significant) premium for Bare Knuckle Pickups (BKP for short) to wire these into a pickguard at the factory. I’ll discuss that in a separate blog post.
Why Did You Buy Them?
Kristi bought me a Fender Player HSS Stratocaster for Christmas last year. I was hoping to keep that guitar stock, but I just didn’t get on with the pickups. (This is my second Fender Player Strat. Regular readers will have seen me talk about the older, green Player Strat and how much I love that guitar.)
The guitar wasn’t getting played at all. I needed to either make changes to it, or move it on.
Why Did You Buy From Bare Knuckle Pickups?
I didn’t want to cobble a set of pickups together from individual items: I wanted to buy a matched set of pickups. Does a matched set actually make a difference? I don’t know. I still don’t 🤷♂️.
My thinking was that this guitar is already in the last chance saloon. There was only so much effort I was willing to put into turning this around, and if it didn’t work out, I’d just put the original parts back in and move it on. My hope was that a matched set of pickups would be more likely to work well together, and give this guitar the best opportunity to win me over.
Looking around, I couldn’t find any off-the-shelf HSS pickup sets for sale.
With Bare Knuckle Pickups, I could use their online shop to put together any set of pickups that I chose. There’s no explicit guarantee that this results in a matched set (if you’re mixing and matching from different BKP lines, like I did), but as the pickups are made to order, I reckoned that it couldn’t hurt to try.
One reason why I couldn’t find off-the-shelf HSS pickup sets was that shops are struggling to get new stock atm. Most pickups are imported, and Britain’s struggling badly to replenish music gear once it has been sold.
Bare Knuckle Pickups are based here in the UK. Ordering from Bare Knuckle Pickups doesn’t entirely avoid import problems (their supply chain relies on imports too), but it certainly did help.
Why Did You Choose The Bare Knuckle Apache Pickups?
I picked the Apaches because they should be different to what I already have.
I’ve already got a set of BKP 63 Veneers’ in my green Player Strat. (They’re great pickups, and a great upgrade over the stock Fender pickups imho.) I wanted to try something different, and (as far as I know) I don’t really have classic the Fender 50’s Strat sound.
Why Did You Choose Staggered Pole Pieces On The Apaches?
Bare Knuckle Pickups offer the Apaches with two choices:
- Flat pole pieces, for Strats with a modern fingerboard radius (ie, 9.5 inch radius or flatter). This is the standard build option.
- Staggered pole pieces, for Strats with a vintage fingerboard radius of 7.25 inches. This is an option you can select when ordering your pickups.
When I think of a 50’s Strat sound – especially with pickups called Apaches – the sound that comes to mind is The Shadows. I’d describe their sound as bright, plinky and very cold. A British take on the American surf sound, perhaps. That’s the sound that my parents grew up to. It is not a sound that I personally like.
Me, I strongly prefer warmer, fuller Strat sounds. When I placed the order, I was hoping that the staggered pole pieces would help fill out the low-end.
Why Did You Choose A Non-RWRP Middle Pickup?
Since sometime in the 80’s, it’s been normal for the middle pickup on a Strat to be reverse-wound, reverse-polarity (RWRP for short). This has the benefit of making positions 2 & 4 hum-cancelling.
And it’s the standard option when you order a set of Strat pickups from Bare Knuckle Pickups.
When I was doing my research into the Apache pickups, I came across a forum post where someone was saying that they preferred a non-RWRP middle pickup. In their experience, it made positions 2 & 4 sound better, because there was more clarity and more treble content than with a RWRP middle pickup.
That piqued my interested.
If there’s one complaint I’ve got about my 63 Veneers’, it’s that they sound a little too dull in position 4 (the neck and middle pickup position). The middle pickup in that set is a RWRP pickup. It’s always frustrated me, because position 4 is my choice for playing cleans.
So I figured I’d try a non-RWRP middle pickup, to find out for myself.
(Since then, Kris Barochi of Thomann posted a video on his personal YouTube channel where he also stated a preference for non-RWRP middle pickups)
How Do The Apaches Sound?
I’ve never heard Strat pickups with this much low-end before. They must be the biggest-sounding Strat pickups I’ve ever heard. Or, to put it another way, thankfully they sound nothing like The Shadows’ Strat tone that I grew up having to listen to 😀
Clean, I wouldn’t call them ‘fat’ or ‘warm’. To me, those words imply ‘dark’ or ‘muddy’, and these pickups are anything but. There’s also plenty of top-end and clarity. They don’t sound muddy at all through my rig. ‘Booming’, perhaps?
They make my other Strat sound surprisingly dark – and I’m confident that it isn’t.
It makes for a marked contrast with the Stormy Monday in the bridge. The amount of low-end does make it a challenge to dial in the amp to suit both these and the humbucker at the same time. That said, my other Strat has a similar problem, at it has a single-coil pickup in the bridge.
The challenge with the Strat bridge position is that it naturally makes any pickup you put there sound bright and harsh. If you don’t believe me, grab a Strat and a Tele and switch back and forth between them both. You might expect the Tele to be the brighter of the two (I know I used to!) You’d be wrong.
Was Non-RWRP A Good Choice?
To my ears, yes.
Compared to the 63 Veneers in my other Player Straty, position 4 (neck and middle pickups) retains more treble. There’s also less of a volume drop too.
Why Did You Choose The Stormy Monday For The Bridge Pickup?
Honestly, it was a complete punt. I’ve not had a lot of luck with bridge humbuckers in super-Strats over the years.
Something I learned over the years that I’ve had my Marshall Origin amp: things seem to go together better when you pair bright amps with bright guitars. Similarly, if the guitar’s natural energy is in that bright ballpark, then you want to match it with a pickup whose energy is also in that exact same ballpark. That way, components are working together instead of fighting each other and trying to cancel each other out.
That’s my theory, anyway 🙂
The Stormy Monday:
- is PAF-like, but based on “brighter” 57/58-era pickups, and
- was regularly mentioned on forums as a great choice for a HSS Strat
I wanted to stick with PAF-like, because I figured it was more likely to suit my tweedy, Les Paul-voiced rig. And I wanted vintage output, because even a medium output pickup is going to slam the frontend of my rig too hard.
How Is The Stormy Monday As A Strat Bridge Pickup?
It’s a nice pickup. I like it.
To my ears, it’s got more bite and less low-end than the Polymath. And, through my rig, the Stormy Monday seems to be driving my pedals a little harder than the Polymath as well. It’s probably because of that extra bite?
(Many overdrive and distortion pedals rely on higher frequencies for their overdrive. That’s why many of them clean up so well when you roll back your guitar volume – and not so much if you’ve got a treble bleed circuit installed. They’re not just reacting to the reduced output of the guitar, but also to the reduced treble content in the guitar’s signal.)
Clean, the Stormy Monday does have plenty of warm bass. In that respect, it is as advertised. That bass, though, somewhat disappears when I bring in an overdrive, in a way that doesn’t happen with the two Apaches or (to the same extent) with the Polymath. I’m not sure what’s causing that. I just don’t have the experience to know what’s going on there.
Have There Been Any Challenges With The Stormy Monday?
The main challenge with the Stormy Monday is finding the right pickup height.
In this guitar, if I raise the Stormy Monday too high, the pickup becomes surprisingly grainy and brittle. Best avoided. I’ve had to drop the Stormy Monday down a lot to find the sweet spot, tone-wise.
(For reference, it’s still closer to the strings than I’ve got the Polymath, but a lot lower than I set PAF-like pickups in a Les Paul or PRS guitar.) I’m still tweaking the pickup height to find the ideal position. Early days, and all that.
How Are You Dialling In Your Rig For The Stormy Monday?
After a bit of experimenting, I’ve found that I’m getting good results if I setup my amp and pedals to suit a Telecaster bridge pickup first. (Maybe I’ve just got a bit more practice at that?) Once done, I then switch over to the Stormy Monday and adjust gain and volume levels and presence on the amp to suit the higher output of the humbucker.
I’m not saying that the Stormy Monday in a Strat sounds like a Telecaster bridge pickup. If that’s what you’re after, I still think the Polymath is the better choice for you.
What I am finding, though, is that the amount of low-end and lower-mid output is quite similar, and that it seems to make a good starting point for dialling in a tone that I like.
How Well Does The Stormy Monday Go With The Apaches?
Compared to the Apache pickups, the Stormy Monday sounds unbalanced, but not in the way that I expected in advance. (This isn’t a knock against the Stormy Monday, more my lack of experience with HSS Strats!)
Before I ordered the pickups, I was worried that there’d be a problem with finding a bridge humbucker that balanced well with two single-coils. I’d read a few forum discussions about how Fender had to design the Shawbucker 1 for their HSS Strats to match the lower output of their single coil pickups. (There’s also a Shawbucker 2 for HH Strats.)
In the room, through the exact same rig, the two Apaches sound much louder than the Stormy Monday does in the bridge. I was expecting that to be the other way around! It’s an auditory illusion caused by the extra bass (I think), because the Stormy Monday certainly overdrives my overdrive pedal far more than the Apaches can.
(For reference, my Charvel – another HSS super-Strat – doesn’t have the same perceived volume difference. The two passive EMG single-coils sound about the same loudness as the Polymath in the bridge.)
That raises a related question …
Do The Apaches And Stormy Monday Work Well In The Same Guitar?
That’s a tough one. Both pickup types sound great on their own, but when I switch between single-coil and humbucker, there’s two immediate challenges to overcome:
- a perceived loudness difference between the single coils (loud) and the humbucker (not so loud)
- the different amounts of bass when switching between the single coils (lots of bass) and the humbucker (not so much bass) when using overdrive pedals
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to adjust the height of the Apaches and Stormy Monday to eliminate the first issue. I’ve had to dial in each type of pickup – especially the Stormy Monday – for its own sound quality first and foremost. So there’s that.
That second issue is probably down to me going with the staggered poles rather than the flat poles. It might be causing the first issue too? I don’t have the experience to say.
Playing at home, do these differences really matter? Probably not. While it’s annoying, we can tweak amp and pedal settings when switching back and forth. One of the things I’m really enjoying about the Marshall DSL20HR is that it’s very quick and easy to dial in/out more low-mids just by adjusting the volume and gain knobs.
And, honestly, on their own, each type of pickup sounds fantastic. I wouldn’t want to give up the big sound of the Apaches when playing clean, nor the cutting tone of the Stormy Monday when reaching for overdrive and distortion.
If I was gigging these pickups in the same guitar, I’d want to be playing through a digital rig, and have dedicated patches for the Apaches and the Stormy Monday. I think that’d make it a lot easier to balance out the differences, especially mid-song.
Mod A Player Strat, Or Buy An Off-The-Peg American Strat?
When you add up the price of the original guitar, plus the pickups, the pre-wired pickguard, and installation on top, you’re getting up to (if not beyond) the recommended retail price of a Fender American Performer HSS. (The American Performer SSS is a nice guitar. If I was gigging Strats, the American Performer would probably be my Strat of choice.)
Were these mods worth the cost? For me, the answer is ‘yes’.
- It has transformed a dud into a great instrument. This guitar is now my go-to Strat. That’s one hell of a transformation!
- No stock Fender is going to sound quite like this guitar. We mod guitars partly to address things we don’t like, and partly to personalise them. I’ve now got a guitar that’s got its own thing going on. It’s a little different.
- It makes other things possible. The nice thing about modding a cheaper guitar is that the cost is spread out; you don’t have to find all the money in one go. That helped me get the money together for my Fender Tweed Deluxe amp in the summer.
Mods Alone Do Not Elevate A Player Strat To Custom Shop Level
If you’re thinking of doing something similar, just be aware of the limitations. I don’t want to give the impression that you can turn one of Fender’s cheapest guitars into something that can compare to one of Fender’s most expensive guitars.
I’ve taken my green Player Strat (fitted with the BKP 63 Veneers’) into the shop, to A/B with a Custom Stop Strat. As much as I love my green Player Strat, it wasn’t even close.
Mods are always a gamble. Just because the new parts are objectively better than the stock parts, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll like the results.
In this case, that gamble really paid off for me.
Dexter has gone from being a disappointment (just like its namesake) to being my favourite Strat atm. These new pickups are a big part of that. I’m looking forward to seeing how I make use of them over the coming years.