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In anticipation of all the Telecaster mods we have in store, let’s devote this column to getting your pickups ready for the adventure. For starters, unstring your Tele and remove the two pickups. Or if you’ve bought a new set of pickups you want to install, put them on your workbench.
Note: The following steps are only necessary when you use standard single-coil Telecaster pickups with the classic 2-conductor wiring (hot and ground). Don’t perform this work on Tele humbuckers with 4-conductor wiring or single-coils with 3-conductor wiring.
When you look at the bottom of your two pickups, they should look something like Fig. 1 and Fig. 2. (To illustrate this wiring project, I’m using an early-’90s Seymour Duncan Broadcaster bridge pickup and a 1994 MIJ Fender neck pickup.)
Notice the two red circles. On the bridge pickup, the metal base plate is connected to the pickup’s ground with a short jumper wire to provide proper shielding. For the same reason, one tap of the neck pickup’s metal cover is also connected to the pickup’s ground with a short jumper wire.
The stock jumper wires work well as long as you don’t modify the circuit with non-standard schemes. But if you perform out-of-phase or parallel/series mods with this stock configuration, you’ll encounter all kinds of issues with noise and hum. To avoid these problems, we’ll convert both pickups to 3-conductor wiring before heading down the path of Tele mods. The essential idea is to separate the bridge base plate and neck metal cover from the pickups’ ground. To maintain the shield, we run a new, extra ground wire to these points.
First, carefully unsolder the two jumper wires (or simply snip them off) at the pickups’ soldering eyelets. Do not remove the entire jumper wire, simply unsolder one side and bend the jumper up to make it accessible. Now these jumpers should look like Fig. 3 and Fig. 4.
Next, solder a new wire to the jumper on each pickup. Make this new wire the same length as each pickup’s hot and ground wires. Insulate the soldering spot with some heat-shrink tubing, as shown. I use red wire for this operation, but you can use any color you like. Equipped with their new ground wires, the pickups should look like Fig. 5 and Fig. 6.
Finally, solder these two new wires to another grounding point in the circuit—the back of a pot, for example—that’s connected to ground. And that’s it! The new wires are separated from the pickups’ ground, yet they always stay connected to ground to provide proper shielding regardless of any future mods. I think Telecaster pickups should be wired this way at the factory, but most pickups are still made the traditional way with the jumper wire—the way Leo Fender did it back in a time when the word “modification” wasn’t yet applied to electric guitar.
See you next time for more Tele lore. Until then, keep on modding!
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.