Pickup Polarity and Phase Made Simple

Posted on by Matt Perkins

Seymour Duncan Psychecelic Strat set

If you have only one pickup in your guitar, feel free to ignore this article and live your life unhampered by phase and polarity issues. Everyone else, pay attention!  This is important stuff, and it might save your sanity some day, or at least your tone.

Guitar pickups are like flavours of food. Even if they are delicious on their own, they might be disgusting when combined. The goal of this article is to make sure you wind up with chocolate and peanut butter, not chocolate and onions.

Every pickup coil has two properties that affect how they will sound when they are combined with others. These properties are called phase and polarityPhase is the direction current travels through the pickup, and polarity is the direction of the magnetic field. With both properties, there are only two options. Phase can either be “top coming” or “top going”, and polarity can either be “south” or “north.”

A typical application of these principles is with single coil pickups. One interesting property of single coils is that depending on their phase and polarity, it may be possible for them to be hum cancelling when combined. Modern Fender guitars are typically wired in such a way. The key to a strong, full tone with hum cancelling is to combine single coil pickups that have both opposite phase and opposite polarity. If one pickup is north polarity, top going, the other must be south polarity, top coming. This is why most Strat middle pickups and Tele neck pickups are what is known as reverse wind, reverse polarity, or RWRP for short. With a RWRP middle pickup in a Strat, for example, you will get hum cancelling in positions 2 and 4 on a 5-way switch.

Humbuckers all operate on this principle. The two coils have opposite wind and opposite polarity. When combined, you get a fat, meaty tone and no hum. Splitting a humbucker will, of course, bring back the hum.

So, what happens when single coil pickups are mis-matched? You will either get hum or phase cancellation. We all know what hum is. Phase cancellation is what happens when two pickups interfere with each other’s frequency responses, and most people find the result to be “thin” or “hollow” sounding. When this happens, we say that the pickups are out of phase. It’s a tone you might like in certain situations, and some great players like Peter Green use an out-of-phase tone by choice. Most of the time, though, it is something we try to avoid.

For two single coil pickups to be in phase, both the magnet polarity and the wind direction have to either be identical, or opposite. In other words, two pickups with the same wind and polarity will be in phase, and so will two pickups that have opposite polarity and wind. If the two pickups have the same wind but different polarity, or the same polarity but different wind, they will be out of phase with each other.

The most common reason for two single coils to be out of phase is that one of them is wired backwards. The lead that was supposed to be connected to ground is connected to the output, and vise versa. If you get phase cancellation when combining two single coils, the easiest cure is to swap the lead wires on one of them (not both, or you will just have the same problem).

Bottom line: if you want two coils to be in phase and hum cancelling, you will need one of them – and only one of them – to be RWRP. Simple, no?

Here’s the catch …yeah, we all knew there was a catch.  Life’s never that easy.  If you’re using pickups from the same manufacturer it’s pretty straightforward to match wind and polarity. They are all designed to work together. A Seymour Duncan single coil pairs perfectly with a Seymour Duncan RWRP single coil.  Unfortunately, this is not true if you mix and match pickups from different manufacturers. One manufacturer’s idea of a standard single coil might be another’s idea of a RWRP, and vise versa.

The most common scenario in which the above comes to bear is when combining Seymour Duncan single coils and Fender single coils. It all started when Seymour decided to base his single coils on the original Fender single coils from the 1950’s, which were south, top going. At some point in the 60’s, Fender decided to change their single coils to be north, top coming. The end result is that Seymour’s regular pickups are equivalent to Fender’s RWRP, and vise versa. The only exception to this is the Antiquity Texas Hot; that’s because it’s an accurate re-creation of the “new” style of Fender pickup.

If you want this SSL-5 to coexist with a Fender middle pickup with no hum, be sure to order it RWRP.

This isn’t really a big deal, as long as you’re prepared for it. Let’s say, for example, you are replacing the bridge pickup in your Fender Strat with a SSL-5 Custom Staggered (great choice by the way!), but you’ve decided you want to keep the stock Fender middle and neck pickups.  Since you want your notch position tone to be hum canceling and in phase, you will want to make sure your SSL-5 has the opposite wind and polarity of your Fender middle pickup. This means you will be needing an RWRP SSL-5. It might seem weird to order an RWRP pickup for the bridge, but if you want it to hum cancel with that Fender single coil, that’s what you’ll have to do. Either that, or you can just replace all the pickups with Duncans … it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

I know this isn’t an easy to understand topic, but hopefully this article helped. If you have any questions about phase and polarity, please do post them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them. You can also contact the tone wizards at Seymour Duncan Customer Support; they will be happy to help you get it all sorted out.

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  • Alex

    I got a switch on my strat to flip my in between positions out of phase and I really like it. I can get a lot of Brian May, Peter Green and even a couple of Hendrix tones with it like Freedom and Night Bird Flying. Granted I don’t know if he used out of phase for those ones.

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    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Perkins/543081101 Matt Perkins

      Nice! I myself have a phase flip switch in my Epiphone Dot, which basically adds a second type of middle position tone. I can do in phase middle, which is round and mellow, or out-of-phase middle, which is plucky and quite Strat-like. I’ve never tried a phase flip switch in a Strat though – good idea.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/northlander30 Ian Campbell

    I am currently having this exact issue with my Strat! I have a Lonestar
    Strat which is an H-S-S pup configuration. It came with a Seymour Duncan
    SHPG1 Pearly Gates Plus humbucker in the bridge. The Plus was supposed
    to designate that it was slightly hotter than the regular Pearly Gates
    of which it is. It was designed to be paired up with Fender’s Texas
    Special singles in the mid and neck and is wired to Fender’s specs. I
    recently replaced the SHPG1 bucker with a Seymour Duncan SH6 Duncan
    Distortion. Now I Have that out of phase tinny hollow sound which in
    certain applications it really doesn’t sound that bad, but it is too
    weak in the output. Now Do I reverse the ground and lead wire on the mid
    pup to resolve this?

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    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Perkins/543081101 Matt Perkins

      I love those Lonestar Strats! The PG+ is a great pickup in a Strat.

      To answer your question, there are a few ways to fix your problem, but reversing the wires on the middle pickup isn’t one of them. That will actually make things worse, as it will also mess up the phase of your neck-mid position.

      I would start with swapping the green and black wires of the SH-6 and see if that works. The one thing to note with this solution is that the SH-6 screw coil (the one closest to the bridge) will be the one that gets used when split. People generally prefer the tone of the slug coil for splitting since it’s a little less spiky, but that’s a personal preference thing.

      If that doesn’t work for you, you may need to flip the magnet in the SH-6, or replace the neck and middle pickups with Duncans.

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    • Shannon Gaudio

      Matt nailed in his response, by flipping the leads, green to hot and black to ground will change the dominant coil and change the EQ of the pickup

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  • Steve

    I just got a Pearly Gates Plus off ebay but when wired up same as the Lonestar the bridge and mid Fender pickup was out of phase, were the PGP in the actual Lonestar totally wired different to ones available off the shelf.

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  • Diego

    What happend when the out of phase is because of the opposite magnet polarity and same wire direction.
    I have this problem and changed the white and black position, the out of phase now is correct but the Bridge pickup alone does not sound the same as when it was out of phase with the middele position pickup. The combination now is not out of phase but it does not sound nice as the bridge alone is not nice.

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  • mld

    I have a Modern Player Tele Plus. It’s configured HSS (all of the pups are “Modern Tele” branded and I cannot tell specs beyond that).

    I was thinking of replacing all three with all Seymour Duncans:
    SH-4 JB
    SSL-5 Staggered
    STR-2 Hot Rhythm

    Would these all work as stock, off the shelf purchases? Or would I need to work with SD for different phase/polarity?

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  • Ewan Tytler

    I’m building a “Black Strat” in stages. The Fender Gilmour signature has combination of Fender Fat 50s Neck (Presumably South, Top Going) with a Fender 69 Middle (Presumably North,Top Coming) and a SSL-5 bridge (Presumably South, Top Going). Wouldn’t this hum-cancel in positions 2 and 4? I have the Fender 69 middle installed so the standard SSL-5 would be the bridge pickup that I should buy? What is the Duncan equivalent of the Fat 50s? I was thinking of the APS-1 or SSL-1, I am on the right track?

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    • Chris Manganello

      If your CS69 middle is Fender RWRP, you’ll want your SSL-5 to be RWRP also (since Fender has reversed its meaning of RWRP). Essentially, if you want a Fender-Fender-SD setup, your middle and bridge pickups should have the same notated winding/polarity (since Fender and SD now use opposite meanings of winding/polarity). For a Fat 50s-type true single-coil, I’d look at the SD Five-Two.

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  • David

    Would it be possible to install a humbucker in the middle position of a Fender Jazzmaster?

    David did not rate this post.
  • Matthew Glasscock

    After years of playing Squires, I plan to treat myself with a MIM Fender Standard HSS Strat this year. I’ve heard nothing but good things about the MIM Strats. However, I’ve read many reviews that criticize the pickups. After doing a lot of research, I’d like to custom configure mine with Seymour Duncan pickups. I have decided on a Pearly Gates for the bridge, and I love the tone of the SSL-1s. I’d like to replace the neck and middle with a pair of SSL-1s. Am I venturing into major polarity issues that will kill my tone? Do I need one reverse wound reverse polarity (middle) and one “standard” wound and polarity for the neck? Is adding the Pearly Gates going to cause me added polarity grief or will having a bridge humbucker cure all my phasing ills?

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  • Charliehshaw

    Hello folks. I have a 90’s Amer. Fat Tele. Both the single coil in the bridge, and the humbucker in the neck are Fender pickups. Recently, I picked up another Fender DH-1 humbucker used for cheap. I’m thinking about putting it in the middle position, and with coil tap capabilities, this should render some pretty cool combinations. Is this going to work concerning that all 3 pickups have the same phase and polarity? When both humbuckers are tapped, is there a way I can reverse the phase in the middle pickup so I can get the classic ‘in between’ 2 and 4 sounds?

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  • Ken

    I have a 1962 fender strat reissue. The bridge pickup was weak sounding and I wanted to beef it up so I bought the Texas Hot Antiquity bridge pickup. I do like the sound of that pickup but when I put it in the 5th switch position it puts out a terrible sound – much thinner and more midrangy than when the original bridge pickup was in it. Will switching the black and white wires on the Antiquity help this situation?

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  • Joe

    So I could stick a Fender and a Seymour Duncan into an old probably Harmony body I’ve got and they’d hum cancel together..

    Joe did not rate this post.
  • Al

    Hi I have a telecaster whose single coil neck pickup is replaced with a SD custom custom humbucker. But problem is I found the pots are 250k so it sounds dull. What I should do to make it alive again . Issue is I am worrie if I change the pot to 500k, wouldn’t it make the Tele too bright and brittle as it shares the same volume pot or I still have fender neck pickup but I found out at some point the bridge pickup polarity has been reversed for the fender bridge pickup to match with the SD on the neck I guess . Now if I want to put the old fender neck single pup back, what implications I will have to lookout for if the bridge is still reverse phased ?

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  • Nikpoj Pusey

    hi. i bought 3 second hand fender squire pickups. how do i know whether there is one which is rwrp?

    Nikpoj Pusey did not rate this post.
  • Apo

    Hey, thanks for the article! And if I want to reverse a RWRP middle pickup to match the bridge and neck pickups (I am planing to put a dummy coil for hum cancellation to all 5 positions instead), all stock, I guess fliping the lead and ground wont do the job, right?? Can I flip the magnet on the bottom so it match in polarity too?

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  • Serg

    Great article! Does this mean that, if I just tape 2 Jazz Bass pickups (that come as a set from Seymour Duncan) and put them toghether in a humbucker slot – they’ll sound as a humbucker should – with strong signal and noise cancelling?

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  • Jeff johns

    If I were to do a bare knuckle mother’s milk in my neck, a seymour vintage staggered in the middle and an antiquity humbucker in the bridge, how would I order those? Polarity wise

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  • marcello

    Hi! Is there any way to find out the wind direction on a pickup? To find out the polarity, i use a compass…thanks!

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    • Aloysius Bear

      Yep – use a 50ua ammeter. Connect the pickup leads to the ammeter =ve and -ve terminals and pass an iron object like a screwdriver over the poles of the pickup. If the needle deflects clockwise, ie in a positive direction, then the lead connected to the +ve side of the ammeter is the hot lead. If it deflects anti clockwise, it’s the ground lead.

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    • checktense

      Use a dual trace oscilloscope. You also can pluck a string and see the phase differences too – one coil per channel. Scopes are so cheap these days, but so useful. Mine’s about 50 years old, but still in daily use.

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  • Evan Jones

    I have just bought a ’97 California ‘Fat Tele’. It has the stock Tex Mex bridge pickup and a fender humbucker in the neck position. The neck humbucker has been replaced with a single core Seth Lover. It sounds awesome when either of those pickups are soloed but the middle position sounds thin and nasal. I suspect it is out of phase. Can I just reverse the wires from the bridge PU to cure the problem?

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  • Fitzliputzli

    Hi! I’ve just combined 2 Fender TX specs in neck and middle with a Seymour Duncan twang banger in bridge position of a strat (I’ve always found those TX specs being too weak in the bridge position). But bridge/middle combination sounds thin and out of phase, now. To get this right I guess I’ll simply change the wires of the SD (black being hot, white ground), right? But the remaining big question is: there is a wire going from the SD pickup to its copper plate. Do I have to change this as well? …thanks!

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    • SeymourDuncanBlog

      The wires you want to switch on the Seymour Duncan pickup to correct the phase are the black and the green, and that’s all you should need to do.

      SeymourDuncanBlog did not rate this post.
      • Fitzliputzli

        Thanks! No green wire on the twang banger, though. I assume you talk about the white one. I was just wondering about the copper plate ground, wich is special on this particular Pickup-type. When I swap just the two wires, the copper plate is no longer grounded. Is this correct?

        Fitzliputzli did not rate this post.
        • SeymourDuncanBlog

          Oops, sorry! For some reason I had humbucker on the brain.

          You’re correct. Swap the white and back wires where they connect to the other components inside your guitar, and yes, you will want to switch which side the ground to the baseplate is on as well. Apologies for the confusion.

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          • Fitzliputzli

            Thanks! I’ve found out myself, meanwhile. Baseplate ist correctly re-grounded now. Everything sounds great! The twang banger is phantastic b.t.w. In bridge pos it twangs like a tele and combined with tx spec middle I have the perfect classic Dire Straits sound. Killer!

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          • SeymourDuncanBlog

            Glad you got it sorted out & are happy with the pickup!

            SeymourDuncanBlog did not rate this post.
  • Nico Viergever

    I built my own Strat about 35 years ago. The neck pu is a Fender X1, the middle pu a B.Lawrence L250 Stacked Humbucker. The bridge pu is the fabulous SD Quarterpond.
    First I was not happy with the sound combining bridge and middle. Then I noticed that the polarity of the L250 was different from the other two. That gave me the idea of an extended humbucker
    I switched the phase of the L250 and added switches to switch the standard parallel wiring to serial.
    Now I have lots of options, most sounding great. E.g. I like the standard parallel bridge/middle setting. But the bridge parallel to middle/neck serial is great as well.
    Mind you, the built in pre-amp also makes things happen.

    Every now and then my daughter wants to play with a cleaner, thinner tones. So there is also a phase switch for the L260. Even more options…

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  • Tam Manly

    Howdy, I am guitar repairman & player, do quite a bit of electronics work and had a pickup rewound recently that has me a bit baffled. What I wanted was an “offset” bridge position humbucker with 1 coil around 7K Ohms and the other 2.5K Ohms, RWRP on the 7K coil since I tap into that to play with a single-coil on the bridge. I don’t do rewinds so sent this out to be done.

    I haven’t put it in the guitar yet but what I got was around 6.9K Ohms on the full humbucker (both coils together). What baffles me is that checking both coils individually (since it is 4 conductor wiring) one reads around 5.85K Ohms and the other about 2.9K Ohms. The stronger coil is obviously a little underwound from what I asked for and the weaker coil slightly overwound (although I have no problem with that since I don’t tap into that one anyway).

    What I don’t understand is the 2 coils connected together should read about (5.85K + 2.9K Ohms = 8.75K Ohms) BUT my multi-tester reads 6.9K Ohms total for the humbucker. Am I not understanding something here? What’s up with that? Thank you in advance!

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    • SeymourDuncanBlog

      The answer to your question is very difficult to know without knowing first your bobbin dimensions, wire diameter, and number of winds for each coil.

      Did you have it made by Seymour Duncan?

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      • Tam Manly

        Thanks for the response, no it was not an SD rewind. The real test though is how it sounds, will try to remember to post that too, but any theory on what’s going on here would help me understand. I’m guessing that these other factors like bobbin & wire can effect the overall Ohms rating when combining the coils. In other words the sum of the 2 parts individually does not necessarily equal the 2 parts combined, and it can be considerably less. Sounds like some marriages, mine in fact.

        One other comment is that Dimarzio has a DP-156 (“Humbucker from Hell” which is very misleading by the way) that is not hot at all but rather designed for the neck. Ohms rating on individual coils is very low and slightly offset like about 2.5K & maybe 3.35K Ohms more or less) but it is the sweetest sounding neck position humbucker I’ve ever heard, even tapped it has plenty of output from either coil which I wouldn’t have expected at all, sounds like an old Strat in fact.

        Anyway thanks again, Seymour Duncan makes some awesome pickups too, no doubt about that. Any light you can shed on my original question would help, and thanks again in advance!

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        • SeymourDuncanBlog

          Well, you’re right that the total DC resistance of a pickup is not just a product of the individual resistance of each coil.

          Another thing to consider is that DC resistance is not the only factor when determining the total signal output of a pickup. It’s a handy reference most of the time, but like your example, it can be misleading with certain designs where it can make you think a pickup will have much more, or much less, output than it actually does.

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          • Tam Manly

            Thanks man, you know more than I do on this but I’m hearing you loud & clear here. I agree it’s an artistic endeavor to hit that sweet spot on the sound, very very tricky. Depends on a lot of factors, not the least of which is the amp. I have an old early 70’s Twin Reverb that just about everything sounds good through. On the humbuckers, the PAF is close to my favorite on the bridge. I picked up an old generic copy Stat quite a few years ago, pickups were foreign and very inexpensive but sounded unbelievably sweet. Ohms were around 9K which I thought would have been way too high for anything but the bridge but they were so damn good I bought the guitar just for those pickups, plenty of treble & bass, plus low magnetic pull on strings, no “wolf” sounds. Hey, thank you!!!

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          • SeymourDuncanBlog

            Glad we could help! Thanks for participating.

            SeymourDuncanBlog did not rate this post.
  • William Lewis

    I have a telecaster with a 3 position switch, a neck humbucker & a bridge single coil. I am getting the out of phase sound from the middle position and wished this would have explained how to deal with it better. The humbucker is from Rose Pickups and the bridge is a Duncan Designed from Squier. I am extremely happy with how they sound apart, not if I can get to the point where they sound decent together it would be even better. Anyone got a suggestion?

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    • SeymourDuncanBlog

      You should be able to swap the wires on the bridge pickup, which would reverse its polarity relative to your neck humbucker and correct your phase issue in the middle position. This will not affect how either pickup sounds on its own.

      SeymourDuncanBlog did not rate this post.
      • William Barnett-Lewis

        I thought that would be probably the case but wanted to hear it first. Once I did, I so and it now works correctly. Thank you.

        William Barnett-Lewis did not rate this post.
        • SeymourDuncanBlog

          Glad we could help!

          SeymourDuncanBlog did not rate this post.
      • Thomas Cornelio

        Exactly which wires do I swap with what? Have the same problem

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        • SeymourDuncanBlog

          If you have the same pickup configuration as the other person with this question, there should only be 2 wires (and a bare ground wire) coming off your single coil. Swap what the other two wires (usually the black and the white) are connected to inside the guitar, and this should solve the phase issue.

          SeymourDuncanBlog did not rate this post.
  • Franklin S Burgett

    I have a Mexican made strat and I installed 2 fender Noiseless pickups on the neck and middle, I left the original bridge hum bucker pickup. Now the 4th and 5th position are too loud, too trebly and the 4th position is creating a lot of hum. any suggestions on what to do about this would be deeply appreciated !!!

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  • fyerfytr

    I have a 2006 american std strat with 5 position switch and I think I ordered the ssl-5 by mistake. I guess I should have purchased the rwrp model for the bridge. I have a custom shop 69 in the neck and a fender rwrp middle with the ssl 5 in the bridge with leads reversed. Do I need a sd rwrp for the middle position? It sounds thin on position 2 and 4.


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    • SeymourDuncanBlog

      It sounds like your middle pickup is out of phase with your neck and bridge pickup. You should be able to correct this by switching the leads coming from the middle pickup.

      SeymourDuncanBlog did not rate this post.
      • fyerfytr

        I’ll give this a shot thanks!!

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      • fyerfytr

        That totally fixed it thank you so much. Love the sound of the Ssl-5!

        Now I want more SD’s!

        fyerfytr did not rate this post.
  • Marcelo Rolandi

    I’ve recently purchased a SD Five-Two RWRP middle PU, to put it on my Tele guitar. I intend to combine it with a set of Fender Vintage Noiseless PUs. Wich would be the best way to do this? Thanks.

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    • SeymourDuncanBlog

      I would replace the switch with a conventional 5-way, and wire it up just like a Strat. Usually, if the pickups are traditional single coil and they are combined with a rw/rp, they cancel most of the hum. However, with the Fender pickups, I am not sure if they are wired the same way ours are. You might have to wire it up and see how much hum is canceled (if any). The Five Two is one of my favorites, btw.

      SeymourDuncanBlog did not rate this post.
  • http://www.eastcoastwendy.weebly.ca Gwendolyn Zupans

    Hello Seymour, I am a bit baffled, wondering if you might be able to clarify… I opened a Mexican Fender Strat (Feb.3, 2000 stamped w/ 3 active p/ups) and inside, beside the 5-way is another pickup casing installed (!) Though it has no internal bobbin or windings, it is active and affected by vol, and tone at each position of the 5 way. There are two magnets at either end, so I guess it is for the polarity and possibly to reduce the hum… I may have fell asleep in class so I don`t have any better answer. Might you help? Big thank you! Wendy

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    • SeymourDuncanBlog

      Most likely, this is a ‘dummy’ pickup, which Fender has used in various models throughout the years to reduce hum. They used them in the Fender Elite Strats in the 1980’s. You Strat should be quieter than most Strats with it!

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      • http://www.eastcoastwendy.weebly.ca Gwendolyn Zupans

        Thank you for taking the time to answer so quickly. This strat is quieter than others so it does curb that hum. …cool !!! Have a nice day!

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