Pickups Demystified Part One: Series/Parallel Wiring
Recently, PGS has been getting in some guitars that come with the new Fender Custom Shop Lineage pickups. This brought about a lot of discussion at the shop and it dawned on me that there’s a huge chunk of guitarists out there that have no idea what terms like Series, Parallel, Phase reversal and Coil Tap/Cut/Split mean. I’ll even admit to not quite grasping a few of these concepts until I did some research. So, Andy’s Corner will occasionally tackle these terms and provide some sound clips to help us all with this 50+ year old technology that few people still have a handle on!
Parallel wiring diagram credit treblebooster.com
Understanding the concept of series and parallel circuits will not only expand your library of tones but will aid in other departments like; rewiring your speaker cab to different Ohms ratings or better grasp how your amp’s FX loop is mixing your effects together. It’s not a real complicated subject but sometimes straight answers are hard to find on the internet. Let’s start with the most common wiring technique you’ll see on 2 or 3 pickup guitar, parallel.
Think of parallel circuits as railroad tracks. Each rail is independent of each other like the positive and negative of a circuit. You can then think of the hot and ground leads as the wooden ties, with the output lead going to the selector switch and the ground lead to a single point (usually the back of a volume pot). To help make better sense of this, let’s look at a guitar not wired this way, like Brian May’s.
Series wiring diagram credit treblebooster.com
He has three single coil pickups but wired in series, part of why it sounds different from a Strat. Notice how the current, even with on/off and phase switches along the way, is still end to end with the output of one pickup right into the input of the other. If I’m not mistaken this is the same way you’ve been connecting your pedals all along! These two methods of wiring produce very distinct yet useable tones. There is no right or wrong way and some even choose to have both options for maximum versatility. Now with the analogies out of the way, let’s get to the interesting stuff, their difference in sound.
Brian May's wiring credit treblebooster.com
Think of the tone of position 2 (neck/mid) or 4 (mid/bridge) of a Strat. You hear a spanky, low output, hum free, classic Strat sound (are you singing Sultans of Swing too?) You’re hearing two pickups with a low impedance load on each other, acting as a filter of sorts. This is the essence of parallel wiring and what gives your clean tone all its sparkle and tightness. It furthermore explains why Brian May’s tone doesn’t sound anything close to a Fender, his series wired pickups have more in common tone wise with humbuckers when you think about it. Take a break and listen to these 2 examples of Series vs. Parallel. The first clip is a Telecaster with a 4 way switch and the second a Strat with S-1 switching.
The Humbucker is a dual coil pickup with coils of reversed polarity, reverse wound, connected in series. Like the darker tones you heard in the sound clips, they have a hotter output too. However, humbuckers with a four wire conductor can be taken from their stock series state to parallel for a brighter, spankier single coil tone. Seymour Duncan’s site says that “a humbucker wired in parallel has about 30% less output of the same pickup wired in series.”
Although the pickup will still be hum canceling on account of its reverse polarity and wind, you will basically get the sizzling tone of two closely spaced single coils. Although I don’t have a clip of that for you, you can just type “series parallel humbucker” into YT and find some brave modders out there.
We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of these things called pickups but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Hopefully this at least gives you a better idea on why humbuckers and single coils sound so different. Besides their build materials, wiring series vs. parallel will give completely opposite tones. I’ll tell you, I at least have to put a 4 way switch in my Tele after hearing what a simple wiring mod can do.
See you next time in the corner,