DIY Tone Upgrade: Swapping Strat Pickups!
We're constantly on the hunt for tone upgrades here in Andy's Corner-- and we've always said that changing your pickups is one of the easiest ways to change your tone for the better. Replacing pickups is easier than you think-- today we're going to take a quick look at what's involved in the process of replacing pickups in a Strat that has standard/conventional strat wiring. If you're a badass at electronics, then this is way beneath you-- but if you're nerd-curious and want to start doing some of your own work on your own guitars, read on.
Disclaimer: We’re operating under the assumption that if you’re going to be trying this, you have an understanding of the basics of soldering—if you don’t, there are plenty of tutorials available online to get you up to speed; you’re going to want to be comfortable with a soldering iron before you start this project. When I started soldering, I bought a circuit board and a bunch of random components to solder and desolder over and over until I had nailed my technique enough to be comfortable taking a risk on my own actual gear. You'll also want to have some basic fluency with schematics, which is, again, something you can very easily pick up by some simple web browsing. Hopefully we can get to covering this stuff in future installments, but for now-- you've got a little responsibility to bring a little know-how to the table. :)
Some Basic Stuff You’re Gonna Wanna Have Onhand:
• Soldering Iron (20w if you’re a soldering newbie! 40w if you’re a soldering master!) and solder!
• Phillips head screwdriver
• Soft cloth that is roughly the size of the guitar
• Wire cutters (with wire stripper a plus!)
• Optional: multimeter, tweezers, string, winder, masking tape, positive attitude!
• Not optional: safety glasses. Don’t be a hero. Protect your eyes. Weird stuff happens when you least expect it.
Before you get started—make sure that you choose a suitable working area. You want your instrument to be secure and you don’t want the finish picking up any scratches. Several companies sell all-in-one work stations for just such a purpose, but you can also use a more DIY method to create a place to work that will protect your instrument and keep it stable. Make sure that there’s no debris on the surface that might scratch the finish. You’ll also want plenty of horizontal space for your tools and hardware—working in too tight a space often results in scratches or spilled screws. Give yourself plenty of room and give your guitar plenty of soft surface area to rest on.
Right. You’ve got two choices to make at the start—you can remove the strings completely, but you don’t have to. On a strat, loosening the strings about an inch and a half or so usually gives you all the headroom you need to gently lift the pickguard assembly up and slide it out under the strings—but the simplest way is to go ahead and remove them so that you aren’t competing with them for space. Using a string winder (or unwinder, in this case!) is the fastest way to get all the strings off.
Next, remove the screws from the pickguard—but be careful not to accidentally also pull the two screws from your 5-way switch. A best-practice is to always put your screws (or ANY hardware you pull off the guitar, actually) into some type of receptacle for safekeeping—a bin, a dish, a cup, a bowl; choose something that isn’t easily tipped over! Once you’ve removed the pickguard screws and gotten them safely out of your way, go ahead and gently lift the pickguard assembly out of the guitar.
The pickguard is still wired to the body of the guitar at this point (which is what makes this such an easy process-- you're not changing any of the other wiring in the instrument-- just the pickups), so when you’ve lifted the pickguard assembly out, cover the guitar with a soft cloth so that you can lay the pickguard back down without scratching the finish.
TIP: If you’re not a pro at this already (and if you’re reading this, you’re probably NOT!), it can’t hurt to snap a photo of your current wiring to see where all the leads are connected to. It can serve as a handy road-map if you let yourself get overwhelmed with what you’re doing.
Pros probably remove all three pickups at once, but if you’re new to this and feeling a little unsteady, you can absolutely do one pickup at a time so that you stay focused and don’t lose your way in the process.
You might find that the existing wiring is very neatly taped together so that it is the opposite of an “eye-sore.” If the existing leads are taped, go ahead and untape them. Choose your first victim and desolder the leads from that pickup to the pot and the switch. Be careful not to drop any solder anywhere. Once your leads are free, go ahead and carefully unscrew the pickup(s), making sure that the springs and the screws don’t fall to the floor.
It’s a good habit to test your new pickups before installing them just to verify that they haven’t up and died. This is pretty rare, but does happen from time to time, especially in old or used pickups. Assuming the pickups are GTG (good-to-go), go ahead and use the supplied hardware (screws and springs) and attach the new pickups to the pickguard, being careful to put them in the correct spots: neck, middle, bridge. Once your pickups are installed on the pickguard, flip the guard over to get to work. If it suits you, go ahead and organize the leads—using tape to secure them together. Simple masking tape or painters tape will suffice.
Separate the black wires (ground) from the white wires … if you have any interest in keeping your pickups in the best shape for re-sale value, don’t clip the lead wires to shorten them. You can simply wind up the excess lead and tape it down, in order to preserve enough length for another user OR for use in another guitar. However, if you’re pretty confident you’re sticking with these pickups, go ahead and trim the leads down to length—because the longer the wire, the noisier they’ll be—just like instrument cables. Less length to travel is preferable.
If your leads have pushback wire, push the insulation back to reveal enough lead to solder, about ¼”. If your wire has traditional insulation, use a pair of wire strippers to gently cut off enough insulation to reveal the wire. Some wire is pre-tinned, meaning you don’t have to tin the wire with solder before you join it to a component—make sure to verify what type of wire your pickups use so that you use the appropriate soldering technique.
Use the schematic that is supplied with your pickups to map out where to re-solder the new pickups’ leads (or reference that digital picture you took before you started!). There’s a standard method of strat wiring, and your pickups likely came with the schematic for this style of wiring, with no fancy mods.
The black leads are ground and are all wired to the volume pot. The white leads, then, are wired to the 5 way switch. Check your schematic to determine which lugs to wire each pickup to (or reference your previous pic!). Be careful when soldering onto pots not to drip any solder on the center of the pot, or else it could affect the smoothness of the pots rotation… When you've got all three pickups wired in-- you're GTG! (assuming all your solder connections are sturdy and solid!).
Replacing pickups in a standard wiring scenario is pretty easy and a great way to get started modding your guitar. If this is your first project, you probably don’t want to try it out on your Fender Custom Shop Strat but if you’ve got a low or mid level strat hanging around, why not open it up and go to town?! Pickup upgrades are a fantastic first stab at changing your tone and can turn an alright guitar into an awesome one-- though it can be a bit of a gateway drug... once you go under your strat's hood once, chances are you'll be back.
Happy modding from Andy's Corner!