Given the popularity of Les Pauls, SGs, Explorers, Flying Vs—and the thousands of other two-pickup axes inspired by these iconic models—it’s no surprise I’ve replaced many failing 3-way switches over the years. Switches get used a lot and eventually they can wear out. When this happens, you’ll hear loud popping sounds or scratchy noises, and the signal may even cut out when you’re switching pickups.
Fortunately, 3-way toggle switches are easy to replace, and you can do it yourself with just a few tools and a bit of patience. It only takes a few minutes to cover the process, so let’s get started.
The project. To illustrate the steps, I’ll use a 1983 Ibanez Les Paul copy that has a standard 3-way pickup selector: neck only, neck-plus-bridge, bridge only (Photo 1). Charmingly, Ibanez kept the arcane “Rhythm” and “Treble” designations for the neck and bridge pickups.
This is a cool guitar and it plays great, but the toggle switch is shot. Like many imported guitars, it has a cheap switch. I’m going to upgrade the guitar with a Switchcraft model, one of several options preferred by discerning players and professionals who are willing to pay a bit extra for reliability. Let’s take a closer look.
Types of toggle switches. On most guitars, you’ll find one of two different types of 3-way toggle switches: the box style and the open style. In a box toggle switch, the internal parts are enclosed—typically in plastic—and they can fail if the prongs get overheated, especially when the switch has been re-soldered too many times. As a result, box switches tend to have a short life.
The internal parts are exposed on an open toggle switch, but open switches are usually made from better materials. Switchcraft double-pole 3-way switches boast solid construction and last a long time, which explains why they’re used on so many high-quality instruments.
Open toggle switches come in three styles: short straight, tall straight, and right-angle. The short and tall straight switches have their switching apparatus below the toggle, while the switching mechanism on the right-angle switch is perpendicular to the toggle. All three are wired identically, they simply differ in depth and width. For example, guitars with shallow electronics cavities, such as the SG and many thin ES-style hollowbodies, use the right-angle switch. Gibson Les Pauls take the tall switch.
Here’s an easy way to tell which type of replacement switch you need: Check out the minimum cavity size for all three Switchcraft styles at stewmac.com, and then compare these dimensions to your guitar’s switch cavity.
Removing the old switch. Using a Phillips screwdriver, remove the cover plate on the back of the guitar to access the switch cavity. If you already have an open switch and you’re simply replacing it with a new one, draw a diagram of the old switch or label each wire to help you remember the connections.
If you’re replacing a budget box switch with an open toggle switch, you can use the simple diagrams I’ve provided as a guide. Image 1 shows a common 3-way toggle as seen from the front and Image 2 shows the back view.
Unsolder each wire and then remove the switch by turning the mounting nut counter-clockwise. Some toggle switches have a hex nut and require a deep well socket wrench, others have a knurled collar nut that can be loosened or tightened using an adjustable toggle switch wrench.
Tip: Don’t use a pair of pliers to remove the nut collar! Pliers will mar the knurled nut and if you slip, you’ll also damage the top of your guitar.