Premier Guitar

Humbucker Pickups in an Esquire, PT. 1

November 5, 2012

With its dual-coil construction, the Chopper T Bridge pickup offers three switchable modes—series, parallel, and split. Photo courtesy of DiMarzio

In recent months, we’ve been exploring wiring options for the Fender Esquire. This time around we’ll continue our journey by investigating Esquire-friendly humbuckers. With some body routing and a special bridge, you can use any full-sized humbucker in an Esquire, and mini humbuckers or Filter’Tron-style pickups are also fair game. But today I want to share the glory of mounting a single-coil-sized humbucker in an Esquire.

These pickups are often called “stacked humbuckers” because in this design, the two coils are arranged one on top of the other, rather than placed side-by-side, as in a standard PAF-style humbucker configuration. Because stacked humbuckers are made to fit into the standard single-coil space, there’s no routing required—swapping the pickup is a simple solder-and-play operation. Other designs arrange the two coils side by side, while keeping the single-coil dimensions.

These pickups are not new—we’ve had them since the late ’70s. Larry DiMarzio was one of the pioneers in this field and his company still holds a leadership position in the replacement pickup market today. DiMarzio and others made it possible to install humbuckers into a Stratocaster or Telecaster without any additional woodworking or having to replace the pickguard or bridge. This was a real revolution at the time.

Today we can choose from countless “stealth” humbuckers from many companies. They all have two coils and are made in a similar way. Some sport the classic 2-conductor wiring you know from a single-coil, others have a 4-conductor wiring that gives you access to the start and end of each coil. Some use ceramic magnets, while others use alnico, cunife, or even more exotic materials placed side by side or on top of each other.

There are pickups with classic rod magnets or screw pole pieces, or the more modern blades, or a mix of both. These pickups come in all colors and shapes, with or without covers, and are available with low-vintage or high-modern output. And they all sound a little bit different.

So how can you find the right pickup when there’s such an enormous choice? Sure, thanks to eBay you can buy, try, and resell pickups until you find one that you like. You can get ideas from the many internet forums that discuss pickups 24 hours a day. But as you know, tone is always an individual and personal subject, and what a pro player uses might not suit your individual needs. So let’s see if we can narrow down the pickup choice right now in this column.

To modify your Esquire, you need a humbucker designed to correctly fit into a Telecaster bridge—in other words, shaped like a standard Tele single-coil with its particular height-adjustment screws. Many companies make such a humbucker, but not all of them. For complete tonal flexibility, you’ll want a model with a 4-conductor wiring. And last, but definitely not least, you want a tone that works well with an Esquire.

If you read Mod Garage regularly, you know I usually don’t recommend specific brands or models of pickups. I have several reasons for this: What fits my playing style might not necessarily be your cup of tea. Also, I don’t get paid in any way by any companies—my recommendation or endorsement is not for sale. But in the spirit of giving honor to whom honor is due, I’m going to make an exception and recommend a particular brand and model of pickup. It’s really one of the greatest pickups I know of. In fact, it’s one of my personal top three favorites.

Before I let the cat out of the bag, let’s start with a little background knowledge. As I mentioned, a humbucker with a 4-conductor wiring gives you access to the start and end of both coils. With such access, you have the flexibility to switch the two coils in series (like a standard PAF-style humbucker) or in parallel to get a hum-free tone that still sounds more like a single-coil. But that’s not all: You can shut down one of the two coils (aka “splitting”), so only one coil is active. This is a true single-coil mode, so the pickup is no longer hum-free. When split, it reacts like a normal single-coil, picking up all kinds of hum, noise, and interference.

That’s a total of three sounds from one pickup—perfect for the single-pickup Esquire! So far, so good. But the problem with most pickups of this type is that they are designed to sound very good as a humbucker, but they leave you with more-orless useless sounds when operating in parallel or split mode. Often, it’s difficult for even a trained listener to tell the difference between the parallel and split modes. I’ve encountered this a lot with customers who have these kinds of pickups in their guitars.

But I’m glad to say I’ve found a Telecaster/Esquire bridge humbucker that really shines in all three modes on almost every guitar. Ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present DiMarzio’s Chopper T Bridge pickup, model DP384. It’s a humbucker with side-by-side coils, ceramic magnets, 4-conductor wiring, and two blades. It has been available since 1994 and comes in a bunch of different colors.

When I heard this pickup for the first time, I was instantly stunned by how good it sounds. In the shop, we install this pickup for all customers who want the functionality I just described, and they’ve all been totally happy.

Next month I’ll dive into the Chopper T’s modes, discuss various wiring and potentiometer options that work well with Esquires and Teles, and provide a wiring diagram. 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.