Getting Five Sounds from Two Humbuckers

I recently built myself a Tele-style guitar from parts. I used a vintage white Swamp Ash body from Warmoth, the neck from my 10-year-old USA Fender Telecaster and hardware from… well, mostly from eBay actually.

I already have a Telecaster with an STR-1 Vintage Rhythm pickup in the neck position and an APTL-3JD Jerry Donahue Lead in the bridge position, so I’m well covered for the classic Tele tone. With this guitar I wanted to power things up a bit. In particular I knew I wanted a full-sized humbucker in the neck and something in the bridge to give a mixture of old-school Tele tone and classic rock roar.

After consulting the Tone Wizard and spending rather a long time listening to audio samples of pickups, I decided to go with a 59 Model humbucker at the neck position, and a Little ’59 for Tele at the bridge. I’ll be reviewing the sound of the Little 59 for Tele, along with the Strat version, in a future article. This article is about wiring!

I ordered both pickups with four-conductor wiring as I wanted to give myself the ability to combine coils as I saw fit. My aim was to use a super switch to give me five usable sounds, with the caveat that I wanted them to all be hum-cancelling. This meant no true single-coil tones would be possible, but I still hoped to create a little extra versatility.

The original wiring diagram I used was as follows (click for a larger version):

The positions on the switch, going from bridge to neck, are wired to give the following sounds:

1. Bridge humbucker alone
2. One coil from bridge, one coil from neck, wired in series
3. Neck and bridge humbuckers togeter
4. One coil from bridge, one coil from neck, wired in parallel
5. Neck humbucker alone

This gave me five hum-cancelling sounds. However within a day or so I just wasn’t happy with position four. The trouble was that it was about half the volume of all the other positions. This was, of course, because all the other positions have two coils wired in series somewhere in the signal path, but this one didn’t.

I don’t mind having a little volume drop on certain configurations if the tone is good, but this was playing havoc with my sound. In order to get any overdrive on that position, the gain would have to be set so high that switching to any other position sent me into high-gain metal territory. I soon felt myself skipping over that position as a matter of course whenever I was mucking around with the guitar.

As well as being too quiet, it wasn’t different enough to position two. In fact it sounded almost exactly the same, just with less volume. It just wasn’t a sound I was ever going to use.

So I set about trying to think of another sound I could use. I quickly ruled out wiring one of the existing humbuckers in parallel as I’d have the same volume problem. And wiring them both in parallel then connecting them together in series just wasn’t going to be feasible with the way the super switch was wired.

In the end, I decided to try an experiment. What if I was to re-create position two by wiring a coil from each pickup in series, but modify the tone somehow? The first thing that sprung to mind was that I could wire a capacitor in parallel with the coil from the neck pickup. This should, in theory, allow the treble frequencies from the bridge pickup through, but cancel out those from the neck pickup. I didn’t really know how it would sound, so I decided to give it a try.

Here’s the diagram I came up with (only connections to the five-way switch are shown; everything else stays the same):

Rather than solder it all up, put the guitar back together and then decide I didn’t like it, I decided to test it first. So before I changed any wiring, I connected some leads with crocodile clips to the switch, in parallel with the neck coil. These leads dangled out of the guitar and allowed me to compare the normal position two sound against the sound when I connected the capacitor. It also allowed me to try out all the different values of capacitor I had lying around. It’s a good job I did this, as the initial value I pulled out of thin air for the capacitor was 0.033uF, which turned out to be too high, muddying the signal immensely. In the end I settled on a 0.01uF capacitor. It changes the sound subtly, but noticeably, altering the tone to something half way between a Strat’s “quack” and a jazzbox.

So now I have my five sounds from two humbuckers, all humbucking, and all worth having. What interesting wiring schemes have you come up with?

About Richard Irons

Richard has been playing for over 20 years and modding his guitars (sometimes pointlessly) for nearly as long. His particular specialty is wiring. Well, no, his specialty is talking about wiring.
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  • http://twitter.com/ZoobieDood Dave Eichenberger

    I do a similar thing with position 2 being the inside coils of both HB, and position 4 being the outside coils. I believe to do this and be in-phase you have to flip the magnet on one pickup and reverse the hot and ground on the other.

  • Milo

    With a Ernie Ball Gamechanger guitar, you can experiment with as many pickup combinations as you can dream of. Some of the less obvious ones sound AWESOME, with consistent output levels.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.benford.18 Benford Guitars

    Which super switch did you use?

  • J. Clancy Ferrill

    Very cool info, thanks! One of the easier mods to do to any strat style guitar is to physically swap the middle and neck pickup in the pickguard but don’t alter the wiring. This effectively makes the middle position on the switch the neck pickup. (middle pickup is where the neck pickup was) This gives you an previously unobtainable combination of the bridge and neck pickup together when switched to the in between neck and middle position (position 2 in a 5 way switch) The classic strat “nasal” tone is still present in position 4 on the switch because that is still the neck and middle pickup together. This leaves the final position on the switch (position 5) as the middle pickup by itself which is a sound that is not widely used. So to review; you get the bridge alone in pos.1, Bridge AND neck in pos. 2, Neck alone in pos. 3, Neck AND middle in pos. 4, Middle alone in pos. 5. Having the ability to use both the neck and the bridge pickups simultaneously gives a very cool humbucker type sound! The beauty of this mod is that you do not disconnect any wires and there is no soldering required. Just 15 minutes with a screwdriver and you are good to go. This makes restoring the original setup a breeze also. I urge anyone with a strat or strat style guitar to check this one out!

  • http://profiles.google.com/tottinge Tim Ottinger

    Any sound files capturing the five variations?

  • Xerophthalmic

    I first read about this arrangement of two coils in series with a cap shunting one coil to ground on the Guitarnuts forum. The post was made by member Borsanova; you can read about it there. Someone else may have put forth the idea prior to this. AFAIK Borsanova deserves credit for being the first person to share the idea on the internet. I recommend reading those original Guitarnuts forum posts!