My Versatile HSS Wiring Scheme

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 Stack Plus Strat 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?

Join the Conversation


  1. 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!

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. As for the rest of the wiring like a normal Strat, is this a normal single coil strat, or an HSS strat? Thanks–I just want to make sure I am looking at the correct diagram.

  2. 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… 🙂

  3. 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! 😀

  4. 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!

  5. Looks like a great setup. Question about your Five-Two middle pickup: Did you install a standard version or a rw/rp version? Thanks!

  6. A bit of curiosity. Are there setups where the neck pickup is a humbucker while middle and bridge’s are single coils. I like the warm sound of a humbucker for rhythm and singles for lead playing

  7. Using this set up as a guide, what pickups would you recommend for a hotter / metal oriented sound?

  8. This is interesting but I’ve got two questions: Are the serial links above both red/white pairs? Also which pickup needs to be RWRP?

    1. Yes, the links are re/white pairs. Here, the bridge needs to be RW/RP. Or, you can reverse the hot & ground and flip the magnet in the pickup.

      1. Just a small correction to my question. Regarding the stack (neck pickup) the serial link is just the red wire. This pickup has one less lead than a real humbucker.

  9. Hi there, really cool guitar and PU/wiring there.
    I would like to wire my guitar that way too: I would like to know if this wiring scheme could work with a (300k) tone pot for all 3 pickups.
    Or would I need a stacked tone knob?

    1. You can try different values and see what works for you. My 250/250/500k worked for me, as the bridge pickup got its own tone knob.

  10. Hi, Could you put the schematics??
    I only have one volume pot and one tone pot. Could it work for me ??

  11. I would like to know if it’s possible to wire the humbucker (bridge) Duncan Custom to a 500k volume and the two single coils (neck & middle-rw/rp) Quarter Pound Staggered(s) to a 250k volume, while using either a 500k or 250k as a master tone? I have both E and S Model Megaswitches available (could you recommend the best choice to use?) Middle pickup used alone is not a must for me, although, if there is a wiring option with the above inquiry… that would be great too. Thanks.

    1. If you are not splitting the humbucker, a regular S switch should work. You also should have no problems using different value volume pots for each type of pickup. For diagrams, check out the diagrams on our site, or post this question on our User Group Forum if you don’t see the the diagram you need.

  12. Hi! Cool Wiring!! Is there a similar a wiring scheme that could work with both of the neck and middle pickups true single coils and a humbucker split? with only one tone and one volume?

    1. The problem with one tone is deciding 250k or 500k- 250k would be better for the singles, and 500k would be better for the humbuckers. You could do this with a Super Switch though, instead of a MegaSwitch, or a standard switch with a push/pull pot. I’d pose this question on our User Group Forum, for the fastest drawings of custom circuits.

  13. This seems like a great scheme. I am a first timer experimenting on a squire and have the following parts. E Megaswitch, JB PU, Bill Lawrence S2 (middle position) PU and the original squire PUs. I’m shooting for a HSS config that uses these parts. I have volume and tone pots + 500K.
    1. Is it possible to create this config with the parts I have. The S2 PU doesn’t split.
    2. are the volume levels too different between the S2, the JB and the squire PU’s
    I don’t see any diags on Seymour Duncan site with volume + 2 tone controls. Am I missing something?

  14. The question about the tone controls still has been unanswered to date. If you have two tone controls plus a volume control and have one of the tone controls (500K) for the bridge pu only, how do you wire the 250k pot for the master tone control on the neck and middle pickups? Since you are not using, in this case, the middle pu alone I assume you could just wire the neck pu to the wiper of the 250K tone pot and one end of the pot to ground. Not sure this is what the author meant in the article. An explanation would be very helpful.

    1. Thanks for the question! Here’s our standard wiring for strat 5-way switch:

      To connect the 250k tone 1 pot to the neck and neck/middle positions, you would connect the tone pot to B3.
      This will have the tone control in circuit for these 2 positions.

      To connect the 500k tone 2 pot to the bridge you would connect to B1.
      This is similar to the other connection in that this tone control will still have influence over the middle pickup when mixed with the bridge.

      With this wiring, the middle pickup has no tone control in the middle position.

      You can jumper B3 to B2 to have the tone 1 control active whenever the neck and middle pickups are selected.
      This will give you the option of using tone 1 or 2 when the middle pickup is mixed with the bridge.

      I recommend our strat switch wiring articles for a bit more understanding of the connections and switching possibilities:

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