My Versatile HSS Wiring Scheme

HSStitle

Guitars with one humbucker and two single coils always seem to be a compromise. The idea is to get that chimey, jangly, quack from the neck and the middle single coils and the rock and roll from the humbucker in the bridge position. The HSS (which stands for humbucker-single-single) pickup configuration gained popularity in the 80s, much like everyone’s favorite haircut, the mullet. And much liked the maligned mullet, we get, in theory, business in the front and party in the rear. This article is my take on this pickup configuration, and how I came up with a way it could work for me.

The Best of Both Worlds, Right?

Is an HSS setup the mullet of the pickup world?

Is an HSS setup the mullet of the pickup world?

On the surface, why would anyone need another pickup configuration? For many players the wonderful sound of the Strat is defined by the sound of the neck and middle single coils, and that quacky sound of them both played together, in parallel. The most-used sound of a twin humbucker guitar is that bridge pickup with the tightness and definition, especially in heavy music. If we combine these great sounds, we should have a Guitar That Rules the World.  It’s true. You can’t argue with that. That’s science*.

*That’s not science.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

The unsuspecting guitar.

The unsuspecting guitar.

Well, a lot, actually. Single coil pickups hum, and humbuckers don’t. Even if you get a reverse wound/reverse polarity single coil pickup for the middle position, there will be hum when the neck single coil is used alone, as well as when you use the middle single coil alone, and the middle single coil with the humbucker. That is three out of the five positions that have that annoying 60-cycle hum. While I can tolerate this in a Strat with three singles because the noise is always there, it’s hard for me to deal with it coming and going, especially with distortion.

Also, we have balance problems. The volume difference between single coil pickups and a humbucker can be huge. So when the humbucker is selected, sometimes there is a huge jump in volume. This was certainly a problem for many 80s era HSS guitars. They used hot humbuckers to send that guitar signal through a rack of effects. And what I didn’t like about many of the HSS guitars back then was the huge volume jump when you put that humbucker on. Oh, I also didn’t like the bright pink, yellow and green colors in the 80s too, but that is another article.

The Solution We Have Been Waiting For

This is the installed switch. It is selecting the neck pickup, a Classic Strat Stack Plus.

This is the installed switch. It is selecting the neck pickup, a Classic Strat Stack Plus.

When building a guitar using Warmoth Guitar Parts this past year, I set out to build the ultimate HSS guitar. I wanted to solve the the hum and balance problems between the pickups. I also know that I never use the middle pickup alone, even on my Strat. I love it in conjunction with the neck or bridge pickup though, so it was important for me to have.

Seymour Duncan makes noiseless Strat pickups using either a stacked or side-by-side design. I started with this idea, choosing the Classic Strat Stack Plus for the neck position. This pickup can be split, so when it is used in conjunction with another rw/rp single coil, it will cancel the hum, and give a better quacky, notchy sound. This pickup is dead silent by itself, and makes an ideal neck pickup if you like the tone but not the hum.

The middle position was something I really had to consider. It was going to be used only with the neck or bridge pickup, and never by itself. I chose a true single coil, the Seymour Duncan Five-Two. This uses Alnico II magnets for the treble strings, for a warmer tone, and the brighter Alnico V magnets for the bass strings.

The bridge humbucker I chose was the ‘59/Custom Hybrid. It is a little more powerful than most PAF-type pickups, and comes with 4-conductor wire which means the pickup can be split. This would be important because of the switching scheme used. Please check out Orpheo’s great article about splitting humbuckers.

Um, How Are You Gonna Make This All Work?

Once I got the pickups picked out, I went to work on the wiring. This is based on the fact that I don’t want any switch positions that I won’t use, and only ones I do. I don’t like having tons of options either, as it makes it harder to get to the sound I want.

I used a 5-way switch and I wanted this:

  1. Bridge Humbucker
  2. Bridge Humbucker (split) with middle
  3. Neck (split) & Bridge Humbucker (split)
  4. Neck (split) & Middle
  5. Neck
Schaller Megaswitches in different configurations.

Schaller Megaswitches in different configurations.

The big wrench in the works was that I wanted all positions to be humbucking. This can be accomplished with a Super Switch, but I had an idea. Reading more about available switches, I decided on the Schaller MegaSwitch Model E instead. This switch eliminates the center pickup being on all alone (which I never used, anyway), and instead allows the neck and the bridge together in position three, a much more useful combination to me.

According to Schaller, the switch has to be used with a rw/rp neck pickup, if you want all positions to be hum cancelling. This is a little different than a stock Strat switch and important to know when you buy the switch.

According to the diagram on Schaller’s website, this switch has seven pads. This allows automatic splits in two, three and four, and keeps the sound hum-free in those positions as well. The split Stack pickup blends well with the Five-Two true single coil, and also sounds great with the split humbucker. The pickup combinations are pretty close in volume, which is what I was going for. Even cooler, the humbucker splits to a different coil in positions two and three.

The switch has seven numbered pads, and you solder the wires like this:

Pad Wiring
1 Hot lead of middle pickup
2 Hot lead of neck pickup
3 to volume input
4 Ground
5 serial link of neck pickup
6 serial link of bridge pickup
7 Hot lead to bridge pickup

I used a 250k YJM High-Speed Volume Pot for the volume control, and a 250k for the master tone control on the neck and middle pickups. The bridge pickup got a 500k pot for the tone. This is one of the most fun and useful switching systems I have ever used, and is the best HSS wiring scheme I have come across. If you’d like to read about the process of building a guitar from Warmoth, check out my previous article.

Looks groovy but sounds groovier, baby.

Looks groovy but sounds groovier, baby.

What are your favorite pickups for an HSS guitar? Who are some of your favorite artists who use an HSS setup?

Dave Eichenberger

About Dave Eichenberger

Guitarist Dave Eichenberger composes ambient music using guitar technology and looping, yet still has time to record and perform with international jazzy soul artist Julie Black. Follow him @Zoobiedood on Twitter.
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  • efhess

    I love that man on left. A Turkish man from 80′s.

  • Zen Trall-Heiser

    Seems interesting : Can we hear the sounds you get with it ? Cheers ! m/

  • Daniel Ziegler

    Great article! I have a 90s Mexican Fat Strat that I’ve been wanting to redo with upgraded pickups.

    Can you provide the schematic you used?

    Thank you!

    • http://www.daveeichenberger.com/ Dave Eichenberger

      Actually, I didn’t use a diagram. All I had was the little chart above that tells me where the wires go on the MegaSwitch. The rest of the guitar is like a normal Strat, except one tone control is for the neck + middle, and the other is for the bridge.

      • David S.

        The Duncan site has loads of diagrams for lots of situations. If you’re reasonably confident, you can choose the one closest to what you need (if it’s not already posted) and extrapolate using what you know about signal routing.

        I’m going to wire an HH strat with hot rodded Duncans and push/pull pots for the tone knobs to split each of them when desired.

        http://www.seymourduncan.com/support/wiring-diagrams/

  • http://thefreelance.tumblr.com/ Jeff A. Taylor

    Ta-da — six way HSS set-up, including the coveted three single coil option. http://kxkguitars.com/instockSii726.html

    More down to earth, I took a Jackson Dinky with a JB in the bridge and a Jazz in a the neck and used a SuperSwitch to split the coils, resulting in a 5-way that does a reasonable single-coil quack especially the split neck.

  • mrz80

    I had a HSS Strat I built on a yardsale Jackson body/neck. I used Duncan Vintage Staggered Strats for the neck and middle, and a HB at the bridge that was basically two staggered Strat single coils married – magnet polepieces like a single coil on a plain steel baseplate. Can’t remember the brand or model of pickup any more. Anyhow, it was a pretty good match to the VSS single coils, and sounded dead-bang on for the Strat bridge tone w/o the hum. Maybe I need to build another one… hmmm… :)

  • David

    I have a HSS guitar, but I DO like the volume jump.

    I set the amp so it breaks just a little when using the single coils, so when I switch to the humbucker I can rock out with no problem and if I need a cleaner sound I roll down the volume a little and use the single coils. Is like having a channel switching on the guitar itself! :D

  • jfinester

    How about a reasonably Tele-like single-coil bridge-pickup sound? Any idea which bridge-position humbucker would give me that? With what you’ve already got, add that, and add switching to allow neck and bridge pickups together, and I’d be a happy guy!

  • tab

    Are there any wiring diagrams out there for this?