ProGuitarShop

DIY Tone Upgrade: Swapping Strat Pickups!

October 30, 2013

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.


Ready?

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!

Comments

  1. Michael tran says:

    Good article. Changing out pickups is a must for people who can’t afford $3000 guitars.

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 8:54 am
  2. Will says:

    As an alternative, with nothing to lose if you are replacing pickups, try re-magnetising the old ones. A couple of strong repair magnets from stewmacs and you are set to go. Before you change the pickups, try adjusting the pu heights from low (and clean) to close(and loud) to the strings. Adjust the pole screws to match your fretboard radius. Get to know what can achieved with the old ones. Then replace them.

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 9:04 am
  3. Phillip Jones says:

    Soldering to the back of the pot can be impossible. If you have a blob of solder on the pot and it is not sticking, put a tiny drop of super glue on a toothpick and apply it to the contact point between the pot and the solder. Let it cure for a while then touch the solder again with a hot soldering iron. It should be good to go.

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 9:24 am
  4. Joe says:

    I have long been a fan of swapping pickups. I have tried several sets in my American Deluxe Strat over the years. I was not a fan of the Vintage Noiseless that came in it, but Fat 50s didn’t do it for me either—still too thin for an Ash body and maple neck. I found some Dimarzios that really work in this guitar, along with changing the tone capacitor to a smaller one (to roll off high end only, not so much midrange).

    I’ve tried Seymour Duncans and Fralins in other guitars with great results, too.

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 9:27 am
  5. Tyler says:

    I usually have shot glass laying around to put the screws in

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 9:28 am
  6. Aaron Webster says:

    I swapped out the stock pickups on my Mexican strat with some custom shop 69’s.  Also did the “Eric Johnson” mod and wired the first tone knob to the bridge pickup.  It was easier than you think and Semour Duncan has a ton of schematics out there for different wiring options.  Best thing I did!

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 10:00 am
  7. Chattman says:

    Soldering the back of the pot is impossible and use super glue?!?

    FYI - You don’t have ANY business plugging in a soldering iron let alone try to use it AND working on a guitar!! If you don’t have basic skills to solder you need to let somebody that does know. Good Grief!

    I’m sure there is plenty of YouTube videos that can help you. Here’s a “pointer” for you - it’s called getting proper heat transfer! Here’s another “pointer” - you have to have the right tool to do the right job! Here’s one more “pointer” - When soldering to the back of a pot - if it’s a new one it will have a smooth surface and the solder will barely stick - take a piece of sandpaper (I use a small screwdriver) and scratch the surface where you’re going to solder so it’s not smooth - with proper heat transfer to the pot and the wire at the same time using a “correct” soldering iron at the “correct” temperature (not a cost effective iron) you will get a great solder joint in a short time - If you have the iron on the pot and wire for a long time you are (obviously) not getting correct heat transfer.

    I apologize for the rant, but to suggest using super glue to help solder is pure stupidity!

    Like one of my instructors told me back in technical college - a trained monkey can solder!!

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 10:12 am
  8. nazareno says:

    I bought a trisoncs and want to install with the circuit of a strat. but don’t know what potentiometers use. whit a 500k each volume does not close at all. please help me. sorry about my english im from argentina

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 10:44 am
  9. Isaac says:

    Phillip Jones mentioned a way to help solder to the back of a pot, and I’ve never tried his glue method, but the best way I’ve ever heard or done, is just to take some somewhat fine grit sandpaper and just scratch up the back pretty well, or take an exacto knife and make a thousand scratches in a little patch in different directions works pretty well, but sandpaper is the best.

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 10:48 am
  10. joe says:

    Soldering to pot backs with a 20W iron is pretty much impossible. I’ve never heard of using super glue… I use a 30-40W iron, and rough it up with a bit of sandpaper first. Just be careful using the hotter iron on small components (capacitors). Too much heat can fry them. The ideal is to use a controllable wattage soldering station, if you decide you want to do lots more of this kind of thing.

    Use old-school 60/40 tin/lead solder. Don’t use lead-free or silver solder.

    It also helps to keep the iron tip clean, and tin it before soldering to the pot (melt a bit of solder to coat the tip).

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 12:12 pm
  11. Tim Varney says:

    I use a weller solder gun . Very high heat ,on and off the pot quickly minimizes the risk of damaging the pot. Lower heat means you have to stay on the pot longer to get the solder to flow thereby increasing the chance that you will damage the pot. Oh yeah and use heat sinks on your caps and resistors as they are very easily damaged by heat.

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 2:13 pm
  12. Bryan says:

      I never use a pencil type iron for heavy soldering, such as pots or chassis grounds. I have a Weller 200 watt gun that does the job quickly and easily.

      Like mentioned before, it’s best to rough and clean the contact spot first, or else you could have a failure of the joint when it’s least desirable. Don’t forget to clean the component you are attaching either. A piece of Scotch Bright pad works good for me. I don’t trust steel wool or metal scrubbing pads around electronics.

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 2:16 pm
  13. Alan H. Veil says:

    I can’t say enough good things about D-Allen’s “Johnny Blades” (named after Johnny Hiland who helped develop them) PUPs for Strats. They’re ceramic mini-humbuckers that have a very single-coil type sound, especially when clean, but w/overdrive or distortion also provide wicked high-gain tones as powerful as a full-sized bucker but w/more focus.

    I have a question for PGS or anyone else that can supply any info on this:
    Does anyone know of an effect—or a combination of 2 or 3 effects—that will produce the type of “infinite sustain” that you hear, for instance, on David Bowie’s “Heroes?” There’s a live version of this, w/Adrian Belew on guitar—playing a Strat—and he gets this same type of seemingly endless sustain live, too. Does this require a sophisticated system like Fripp’s “Frippertronics” or a special PUP, like the “sustainiac” PUP used by Schecter on their Synyster Gates signature guitars, or can it be achieved w/some type of sustain pedal (not a compressor) like the Boss feedback-sustainer? I haven’t heard good things about that pedal, though. Any info would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
    Here’s the link to the Bowie video:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_spMJawxvM

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 3:17 pm
  14. Jim Gross says:

    I always have a roll of sloder “Debraid” handy as it will “wick” off your old solder as you heat it much lessening the odds of some solder running into places that you don’t want it. I also, keep a very wet (with cold water) sponge nearby to clean the solder iron’s tip aftereach solder-just lay the hot solder iron tip on the sponge and give it a quick turn (or twist) and that gob of solder is gone.
      Like other’s have mentioned, if you can’t get the pots hot enough to solder to, you likely don’t have a hot enough iron (or gun). Usually sanding the back of the pots (as mentioned above) and using some soldering paste will do the job. Don’t reach for that 250 amp arc welder!

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 5:22 pm
  15. igor says:

    superglue for solder joint on the back of a pot? are you people crazy? not only is it not a good way to achieve what you want, and that’s a good firm solder contact with the pot casing, you’re also going to inhale not just solder fumes but superglue fumes as well, jesus christ in heaven! you have to use a good enough soldering iron that can produce the amount of heat needed to really get the pot casing hot enough so the solder will stick, also the surface of the casing must be clean, you can scratch it with a screwdriver to expose clean metal and it will be fine. now don’t heat it for 2 minutes or you’ll melt away all the lubricant inside the pot and possibly ruin it. you just need to know that soldering to the pot case requires more heat than soldering a tiny wire. sure, you can ductape the joint to a casing, but what for? without proper contact the casing won’t shield your pot and even worse, you could have a grounding point which moves and constantly get noise, scratching etc. in your signal.

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 7:42 pm
  16. JB says:

    I made some heat sinks from alligator clips w/a drilled out worm weight sinker squeezed on & I clip as many as I can on. I’ve ruined pots & mini-toggles w/too much heat on them. I only use the gun type on cords as it will fry most stuff. I have a Stahl soldering station off Amazon that was cheap. I also solder on boards modifying effects & 15 watts is the recommended wattage on those. I have a bunch of pencil tips @ different wattage. The lowest that will work is what I go with. The only difference w/the cheap 1’s is they don’t last as long. Harbor Freight has a 15/30 for cheap.

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 10:13 pm
  17. JB says:

    To the dude from Argentina the rule is 250’s for single coils,500’s for Hummers & 50’s for active PUP’s. I’ve been working on guitars for 45 years,I’m building 2 right now, & soldering to the back of pots is the hardest thing to do. I’m trying the super glue as soon as I wake up all the way.

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 10:21 pm
  18. Rich says:

    I just put a set of D Allen Austin Blues in my 2001 Stat and it sounds magnificent! I recommend DAllen or Fralin for any pickup upgrade.

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 11:43 pm
  19. dadadata says:

    The infinite sustain in the video is an “Ebow”. Fernandes has something similar, their Sustainer pickup system.

    posted on October 30, 2013 at 11:54 pm
  20. Don says:

    I’m not shilling for anyone but I’ve got a bunch of different pickup brands and rewiring demos out on YouTube for anyone who is looking for options and real world uses.

    http://www.youtube.com/user/BrejaToneWorks?ob=0&feature=results_main

    posted on October 31, 2013 at 12:51 am
  21. Jim Brown says:

    NEVER USE SUPERGLUE INSTEAD OF SOLDER OR ANYWHERE NEAR SOMETHING THAT WILL BE SOLDERED - it doesn’t conduct and it produces poison gas when the next guy hits it with a soldering iron.  If you want to solder to the can of the POT use an emery board to scratch the metal, break through any coating and make it rough, then it shouldn’t be any problem to solder.
    -jim

    posted on October 31, 2013 at 1:02 am
  22. jacques mario says:

    Indeed good infos but what about the soldering schema for capacitors? Do we need 2 capacitors for the 2 tones pot or only 1 capacitor will suffice? Thanks to PGS for such good infos . Im new in this domain so plse give me another schema as doing my upgrade with The set of Fender Classic 69 single coil p/ups. THANKS.

    posted on October 31, 2013 at 3:17 am
  23. Stefaun says:

      In the article, it says that using masking, or painter’s tape will do.  NEVER, NEVER use masking tape for doing electricals, even to tape wires together. the tape will “cure”, that is get very hard and stick on and is very hard to remove the glue that is left on. The paper will eventually tear as it gets older. I have had it actually cause a short when used to be touching bare wires where I thought it would be OK.  Even the back side of a P.C. board is a bad place to use masking tape.  No one knows where or how the tape was made, or what they used in their formula, or what might have fallen in to the system while it was being produced.  Always use only a good quality electrical insulating tape on guitars, and amps.

    posted on October 31, 2013 at 4:13 am
  24. Daniel says:

    nice. waiting for les paul explanation.

    posted on October 31, 2013 at 5:48 am
  25. Ken says:

    Daniel, I’m with you on the LP.  Has anyone used Lace Holy Grail pickups? I love the way they sound on the demo. Also, has anyone tried the Brian May wiring kit and pick guard sold by Guitar Fetish?

    posted on October 31, 2013 at 10:19 am
  26. FreewayJam says:

    In reply to ‘JB’ who says he has been working on Guitar’s for 45 years and is currently working on 2 builds.
    Really ? Super glue ? and you’re going to give it a try ? This coming from someone who says he has been working on guitars for 45 yrs !?!?  Using super glue to help with the solder joints on the back of pots is a good idea that you will be trying as soon as you wake up more !?!?              ( because as you stated - soldering to the back of pots is the hardest thing to do )
    Yikes….........

    posted on November 23, 2013 at 11:32 am
  27. Ken says:

    I didn’t catch that. Superglue? Well at least any latent fingerprints will be exposed.

    posted on November 23, 2013 at 12:39 pm
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