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May 2014
more... GuitarsGearDIYHow-TosGuitar & Bass ModsPickups & AccessoriesMod GarageT-StyleOctober 2012

The "Luthercaster" Esquire Wiring

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The "Luthercaster" Esquire Wiring

In this “stealth” circuit, the Strat neck pickup is hidden below the pickguard. Illustration courtesy of www.singlecoil.com

Now that we’ve explored a hot-rodded version of the Eldred Esquire wiring [“The Modded Eldred Esquire Wiring,” September 2012], I’d like to show you the full wiring I have in my personal Esquire. Nicknamed the “Luthercaster,” this is the guitar I play onstage with our local Johnny Cash tribute band. I decided to use an Esquire in this band primarily because Luther Perkins—Cash’s first guitarist—played one most of the time.

An Esquire is simply perfect for this kind of music. Perkins was a Fender player to the bone, and the Fender folks were kind enough to give him a new guitar from time to time—an early endorsement deal of sorts. Other than a short romance with a Fender Jazzmaster in 1959, Perkins played an Esquire until his untimely death in 1968.

Before I explain the wiring in my Esquire, I have to describe our band’s set list. We have a classic lineup: a drummer, a bassist, a lead guitarist (that’s me), and a singer who plays rhythm guitar. This lets us cover a lot of Cash songs and authentically nail his early sound.

For the songs Cash recorded late in his career for the American Recordings label, I play an acoustic guitar because there’s no need for electric guitar tones. But there are also Cash songs with keyboards, horns, banjo, and fiddle—and no electric guitar. Furthermore, I often want to play acoustic guitar in the verse and electric guitar in the chorus, or vice versa. Playing two instruments in one song is always a problem! Sure, I could put my acoustic guitar in a special stand and play it like Santana or the Scorpions, but I don’t think it looks good, plus it’s not practical on small stages.

After a lot of experimentation, I came up with a solution that works perfectly for me. A customer told me about his Boss AC-3 Acoustic Simulator pedal, and though I never expected a digital modeling box to be a suitable solution, I was curious. I grabbed one on eBay and when it arrived, I plugged in my Strat. With a clean tube amp, it sounded ... not bad. So I gave it a chance at our next rehearsal. Playing the Esquire, I was very disappointed. My tone was cold and sterile. Even a pure piezo pickup played into a transistor amp sounded warmer. I tweaked the AC-3’s knobs to no avail.

How could this be? Same amp, only a different guitar. I played it with a Strat again and the pedal sounded much better, but only with the neck pickup. Playing it with the Strat’s bridge pickup produced the same ice-pick sound as with the Esquire. Okay, I realized the neck pickup was the key, but as you know, Esquires don’t have a neck pickup. I didn’t want to destroy the classic Esquire look with a neck pickup, but I also wanted to use the AC-3 to simulate a flattop in some songs. (By the way, the AC-3 doesn’t sound like a real acoustic guitar when I play by myself at home, but onstage with other instruments, the pedal really starts to shine.)

After some of my trial-and-error attempts, the final solution came from my friend Michael Pantleon at LeoSounds pickups (leosounds. com). We call it the “Esquire stealth pickup.” The idea is simple and not new: You install a pickup underneath the pickguard, so it’s invisible from the outside. Fender did this in 1965 with their first Marauder series, and other companies have tried this too.

Using a router to cut an additional Stratsize pickup cavity was easy, but getting the pickup to sound right through the pickguard was tricky for two reasons: You can’t adjust the pickup height, and the pickup is farther away from the strings than it should be. But Michael solved this problem and the result was much better than I expected. The trick is to use a non-magnetic plastic or Bakelite pickguard (a metal pickguard affects the sound) and build a pickup with flush pole pieces so it fits snugly against the ’guard. On my guitar, it sounds like a standard Strat neck pickup mounted on a Telecaster—imagine a Fender Jerry Donahue Telecaster—only you don’t see the pickup. This turned out to be perfect for the Boss AC-3, and it sounded great right from the start.

My contribution was to figure out how to integrate the new pickup into my existing wiring. I wanted to keep the modded Eldred wiring (see last month’s column for that schematic), so I experimented a bit and came up with the following circuit. It incorporates the modded Eldred wiring, as well as an additional switch I call the “acoustic switch.” Here’s the switching matrix:

Switching position #1. This rear position is true bypass. The guitar’s single pickup is routed directly to the output jack, with the tone and volume control removed from the signal path for maximum twang and spank, and to provide a good solo boost.

Switching position #2. This middle position is the same as on a standard Esquire, with the pickup signal routed through the volume and tone controls. It sounds warmer than position #1 on my Esquire.

Switching position #3. In this front position, the bridge pickup is routed through a single, small capacitor and volume control, and the tone control is bypassed.

The acoustic switch. Turning this on engages the stealth neck pickup and routes its signal directly to the output jack, bypassing all the electronics and also muting the stock bridge pickup. This works in any position of the 3-way switch.

You can use a push/pull or push/push pot for the acoustic switch, but I prefer an additional mini toggle switch located between the two pots on the Esquire’s control plate. When I want to use the AC-3, I just flip this switch. I simply use the AC-3’s volume control to achieve unity gain with the bridge pickup. It took me several rehearsals to master the technique of flipping the switch with my right hand while simultaneously engaging the AC-3 with my right foot, but before long the movement felt quite natural.

So what do you need to set up this switching? In addition to routing the pickup cavity, you need a special flush-pole pickup and a toggle switch or a push/pull pot. For me, a Stratocaster neck pickup on an Esquire is the right choice when you want to drive an acoustic modeler. But I can also imagine a stealth humbucker or P-90 underneath the pickguard to provide a second tone that’s completely different. For more Perkins-style mods, visit premierguitar. com/oct2012.


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.

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