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Now that you’ve gotten your feet wet with a dead-simple guitar mod, let’s move on to the intermediate level. For this mod, we’ll be adding an out-of-phase option to Strat, Tele, and Les Paul. In addition to the wire and soldering equipment required for our previous mod, you’ll also need a 2PDT switching device like a mini toggle or a push/pull or push/push pot with a 2PDT switch. There are additional considerations for this mod depending on which guitar you’re looking to mod, so we’ll address those in each proper section.
The Mod: Out-of-Phase
The out-of-phase mod is most common on Strats, and there are a lot of misunderstandings about exactly what the term “out-of-phase” means. When we are talking about "out-of-phase" sounds on a Strat, we are not talking about positions 2 and 4 of the 5-way pickup selector switch. It’s a common misunderstanding that these positions are out-of-phase, but they’re still in phase. Another common misunderstanding is that physically rotating a pickup 180 degrees (think Jimi Hendrix) will put it out of phase. You will achieve a different tone, especially with a pickup with staggered pole pieces, but it’s not out of phase.
My favorite misunderstanding is about the basic structure of an out-of-phase sound: it is important to understand that on a guitar with two pickups you don’t have to use two phase switches because reversing the leads of both pickups would put them back in phase again, and you will receive the stock sound. And putting a single pickup out of phase will also have no audible result—playing a bridge pickup alone out of phase will sound the same as in phase. You can only get an out-of-phase sound when you use two pickups together, one of them out of phase—period!
When two pickups are in phase, they work together and reinforce each other. When they are out of phase, the two pickups are working against one another and the resulting sounds are the "leftovers" from these cancellations. The closer the two pickups are, the greater the cancellations, and the sound is thinner and has less volume, so the neck and bridge pickups are usually the best choice for setting an out-of-phase mod.
What does it sound like? Basically, it’s a thin, inside-out, squawky kind of sound—two pickups that normally sound full and rich turn into a thin and shrill-sounding couple. You may think, “Why would I want that?” Well, it’s great for reggae or funk, where you need a thin sound, and it will cut through a lot of effects or distortion that would otherwise muddy up your tone.
A great example of this sound is Brian May’s Red Special. His guitar offers individual out-of-phase switches for each pickup, and he used the sound on a lot of the Queen recordings. James Burton is another famous guitarist who said once that he discovered the sounds on accident on his late ’50s Tele while playing with Ricky Nelson. He found out that he could move the 3-way selector switch between the bridge and neck position to get a thin out-of-phase sound from his Tele that can be heard on famous Nelson recordings like “Travelin’ Man” and “Fools Rush In.” Peter Green is another musician who made use of out-of-phase sounds, but on his famous Les Paul.
When we are talking about out-of-phase options here, we are always talking about electrical out-of-phase. There is also magnetic out-of-phase, but most of the time this is a factory accident or the result of a sloppy repair work on a pickup. Don’t confuse magnetic out-of-phase with reverse-wound/reverse-polarity either—this is yet another configuration!
So let’s heat up the soldering iron and put some pickups out of phase. In order to achieve this sound (and to return to a regular sound), use a DPDT phase reversal switch (see diagram below). Wiring the phase switch is fairly simple: unsolder the two pickup leads, solder the phase switch "out" leads (hot and ground) to the exact same spot where the pickup leads were, and solder the pickup leads to the "from pickup" terminals on the phase switch as shown below. Mount the switch, close up the guitar, and start enjoying the new sound you have just created! Naturally, you can also use a push/pull or push/push pot for this.
Wiring diagram courtesy of Seymour Duncan Pickups and used by permission. Seymour Duncan and the stylized S are registered trademarks of Seymour Duncan Pickups, with which Premier Guitar magazine is not affiliated.
This is the basic structure for out-of-phase wiring on all guitars: the pickup you want to put out of phase is connected to the DPDT phase reversal switch the way shown above, running the two output wires from the switch to ground and to the pickup selector switch, volume pot or directly to the output jack, depending on the guitar. So the phase reversal switch is additionally inserted in the normal wiring of the pickup.
There are some things to consider when setting up a phase-reversal option, and here are some guidelines.
There really aren’t many special considerations on a Strat—you should connect the middle pickup to the phase-reversal switch, simply because the middle pickup is always involved when two pickups are used together on a Strat, so you will receive two new sounds with only one switch: bridge and middle pickup together out of phase or middle and neck pickup together out of phase. If you also have the "7-Sound" mod on your Strat and you want the bridge and neck pickup together out-of-phase, there is no way around a second phase-reversal switch. One is for the middle pickup, and the other for the bridge or neck pickup, it doesn’t matter what pickup you decide on.
Setting up the out-of-phase option on a Tele is fairly straightforward as well, but there are a few additional considerations. In general it does not matter if you connect the bridge or the neck pickup of a Telecaster to the phase-reversal switch, but you will have to unground and reground one of the pickups.
If the pickup's negative wire has continuity with any metal parts—say, the cover or the frame—you must break this connection to separate the metal cover or frame from the coil's negative wire. When you put a pickup out of phase, the negative side of the pickup's coil is now on the positive side of the guitar's circuit. This means that a metal cover or frame (mounting screws, springs, pole pieces, etc.) will have continuity with the hot side. This will make the pickup more susceptible to hum, and it will have the potential for unexpected and unwanted noises if you touch the pickup or its screws while playing. If you accidentally hit it with the strings (that are grounded through the bridge), it can also mute the whole guitar, so you should perform the out-of-phase mod always with the neck pickup of a Telecaster, simply because most players are less likely to touch the neck rather than the bridge pickup while playing. Another benefit is that normally the neck pickup of a Telecaster is also easier to mod—most Tele bridge pickups have a bottom plate with continuity to the negative wire, and you would have to remove the strings and the entire bridge to work on this pickup.
On typical Telecaster neck pickups, there is a metal cover. One of its mounting tabs, folded under the coil, usually has a small, short jumper to the eyelet on the pickups chassis that connects the coil to the negative wire. To unground and reground the cover, all you need to do is carefully clip that little jumper, breaking the connection, and then add a new insulated wire from the cover's tab into the control cavity, where you can attach it to any given ground spot, like the back of a pot. After this little mod, the cover will always stay on the shielded/grounded side of the circuit, providing protection against hum and noise.
Les Paul (or SG/335)
An out-of-phase wiring for Les Paul guitars is a very popular and common modification. The difficulty level depends on the pickups installed in your axe. A lot of humbuckers have four-conductor wiring (beginning and end of both coils) plus a fifth conductor, typically a bare wire running inside the insulated cable that is the ground/shield connection to the chassis of the pickup, which is completely independent and insulated from any wires from the coils. If this is the case with your pickups, simply follow the color code from the manufacturer and solder along.
Many traditionally made humbuckers sport only a two-conductor wiring with a braided/external shield—hence the term “braided shield wire.” The external braided conductor is typically soldered to the pickup’s metal chassis and used as the ground/shield plus the coil’s negative wire together. Now you have a pickup where the metal chassis, cover, screws, and also the entire length of the exposed braid on the wire has continuity with the ground of the guitar. This is not desirable at all. If it’s a humbucker without a metal cover or a P-90, you can simply use some heat-shrink, latex, or cloth tubing to insulate the entire length of the exposed braid. While the mounting screws and pole pieces are still connected to the hot side, it’s better than stock.
If you have a pickup with a metal cover, it becomes more complicated. The only way to completely fix the problem is to replace the stock wiring with a four-conductor wiring. This is far more complex than we can get into here, and there’s a high likelihood you will destroy your pickup if you’re not very experienced. Luckily, many pickup companies are offering this service at a decent rate. Alternately, you could simply replace the stock pickups with replacement pickups that already offer the four-conductor wirings from the start.
Dirk Wacker lives in Germany and is fascinated by anything related to old Fender guitars and amps. He plays country, rockabilly, and surf music in two bands, works regularly as a session musician for a local studio, and writes for several guitar mags. He’s also a hardcore guitar and amp DIY-er who runs an extensive website—singlecoil.com—on the subject.