The 4-Way Telecaster

A marvelous mod for any standard-wired Telecaster is one in which you replace its stock 3-way switch with a special 4-way switch that, in addition to the standard middle-position parallel wiring of both pickups, lets you use the two pickups in series—a combination that yields a fat, loud tone that’s great for leads.

This mod should not be confused with parallel/series humbucker switching. This is all about wiring two pickups, regardless of their type, together. On most guitars with more than one pickup, you can choose to play any one pickup by itself or through combinations of the pickups. The standard way to connect multiple pickups is to wire them in parallel—it’s the industry standard because most people think it sounds more transparent and clear. It’s the tone our ears know from countless records (e.g., positions 2 and 4 on a standard Strat). Only a few stock guitars use series-wired pickups, the most popular examples being the Brian May “Red Special” and most Danelectros.

So if series wiring is so uncommon, why should you try it? There are a lot of good reasons. First, if you want more volume and midrange out of your pickups, series switching may be perfect for you. Series-wiring two pickups together produces a longer path with increased resistance, which boosts volume and prevents the highest frequencies from getting through, while allowing more bass and midrange to pass through the circuit. It’s great for driving a tube amp on the verge of overdrive into saturation without the help of an external booster. With series wiring, the output of one pickup goes into the input of another pickup, whereas with standard parallel wiring, each pickup takes its own path to the output. Because of this, series wiring has no effect on your tone when only one pickup is selected. In other words, single-pickup settings on two otherwise identical guitars—one with parallel wiring, one with series—will sound the same.

The reason you lose treble with series-wired pickups is because the long pickup wire works like a resistor. The longer the wire, the higher the resistance, which saps treble frequencies more than midrange and bass frequencies—just like with a long guitar cable. That means series-wired guitars are left with more prominent low end and midrange.

So now you know why series wiring produces a different tone, but why is it louder? Simply put, when you wire two pickups in parallel, each pickup loses a whopping three-quarters of its output. Essentially, you’re adding two pickups operating at 25 percent output together, and you end up with a total output of about 50 percent. However, if you wire the same pickups in series, you’ll add the outputs of two pickups operating at full volume. The result is a much louder sound. That said, this doesn’t mean two pickups wired in parallel are half as loud as a single pickup, nor does it mean the two pickups wired in series are twice as loud as one pickup. Why? I don´t want to bore you to death with scientific explanations, but suffice it to say that it has to do with how the output level of your guitar translates to actual volume, the logarithmic nature of decibels (the unit of measure for volume), and the technicalities of how the human ear perceives them.

Let’s move on to the details of setting up your Tele with the 4-way option. The first step is to unground and reground one of the pickups—preferably the neck unit. A typical Telecaster neck pickup has a metal cover, and one of its mounting tabs (which is folded under the coil) usually has a short jumper wire soldered to an eyelet on the pickup chassis (Photo 1).

A typical, metal-covered Telecaster neck pickup has a short grounding wire on the underside of its chassis.

This wire connects the coil to the negative wire. To unground and reground the cover, carefully clip the little jumper (Photo 2) and add a new insulated wire connecting the cover’s tab to a ground point in the control cavity (e.g., the back of a pot). Be sure to insulate your new solder joint with some tape or heat-shrink tubing to avoid having it make unwanted connections with other components.

After you’ve cut the neck pickup’s stock ground wire, solder a new insulated ground wire connecting the pickup (at the point indicated by the yellow line) to a ground point in the guitar’s control cavity.

After you’ve regrounded your neck pickup with the new jumper wire, you’re ready to grab your new 4-way switch and start soldering.

Wiring diagram for the 4-way Tele mod. Diagram courtesy of Seymour Duncan Pickups.