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December 2014
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Guitar Shop 101: Tips for Replacing a Strat-Style 5-Way Switch

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Photo 1

A client recently came to my shop with a Strat-style guitar that had a faulty 5-way pickup selector switch. The problem? Its inexpensive stock "box” switch (Photo 1) sounded scratchy and was cutting out in the bridge position. Most imported box switches like this are primarily made of plastic and tend to fail when you re-solder wires on them. So a new switch was in order.

I decided to upgrade it with a high-quality CRL 5-way switch (Photo 2), a rugged device that’s built to last. Other great brands I’ve used are Oak Grigsby and Switchcraft. Available from such luthier supply outfits as Allparts and Stewart-MacDonald, these products are preferable to the budget box switch.

Soldering tips. Whatever replacement switch you choose, it’s important to develop good soldering skills. Following these simple tips will help your solder joints and wiring look professional.


Photo 2

For guitar projects, use a 30- or 40-watt soldering iron with a small, tapered tip to keep your soldered joints clean. It’s an effective range, but doesn’t get too hot. Anything less than 30 watts will make it painfully slow to heat components for good solder flow.

This is important: Never use a soldering gun around anything magnetic because its large transformer can degauss the magnets in your pickups. A soldering iron is the right tool.

I recommend using 60/40 rosin-core solder. Look for .032" diameter solder. It’s quite thin, so it melts easily and helps prevent over-soldering. Never use acid-core solder because it will ruin your electronics.


Photo 3

A clean tip performs better than a dirty one. After heating your iron, use a brass wire brush, followed by a damp paper towel or sponge to remove any residue. When the tip is clean, coat it with solder (Photo 3). Called “tinning” the tip, this process helps the solder melt faster and cleaner. Finally, each time you make a connection, swipe both sides of the tip across the damp towel or sponge to keep it clean.

By the way, never blow on a solder joint after you’ve made a connection. It may be tempting to clear the smoke and hasten the hardening process, but a solder joint must cool and harden on its own. If you blow on it, air pockets can form inside, creating a “cold” solder joint. If the solder joint doesn't look shiny, clean it off and start over.

A good pair of hemostats will help you grip the wire and parts you’re about to solder without burning your fingers. I use a pair with rubber-coated handles, in case they get hot. It’s important to have a pair that locks, so your wires don’t slip when you are tinning or soldering them.

For connecting parts inside a guitar, I like to use 22-gauge stranded wire. I prefer the type with a cloth jacket, rather than a plastic jacket, because plastic can peel off when the wire gets hot during soldering and cloth will not. Also, you can easily slide the cloth jacket back on the wire to expose a tip for soldering, which explains why this wire is often called “push-back” wire. Cloth-covered wire is available from the part suppliers I mentioned earlier.

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