Splitting Strat tone controls into two different ranges with separate caps

Hello and welcome back to “Mod Garage." After last month's Q&A, we're returning to more Stratocaster mods. This time I'll show you how to split the tone controls into two different ranges by using two separate tone-caps with your standard Strat wiring. This mod is easy to do, but very helpful and effective—plus it doesn't alter the appearance of your guitar. It's also perfect for combining with some other mods we've talked about in the last months, e.g. the “Bridge Pickup Tone Control" (BPTC) mod.

You can see on the standard Strat wiring scheme that both tone pots share a common tone capacitor, and both pots are also of the same value. This means that each of the tone controls has the same frequency response curve. Because there is only one tone capacitor, the two tone controls are wired in series. This works, but it doesn't really work as well as it could.

I suspect that Fender used only one capacitor when the Stratocaster was developed back in the '50s in order to cut cost. If they had used two capacitors, one for each tone control, it would have cost a few more cents, but the tone controls would have been more useful. It's never to late to change such things, though— so pull out your soldering iron and heat it up!

The Tone Split
Our goal is to use two independent tone capacitors to shift the range of the tone controls, one cap for each tone control. For this, we will have to modify stage #2 (output stage) of our 5-way pickup selector switch. This is also a good time to think about changing the configuration of the two tone controls. In the stock Stratocaster wiring, the bridge pickup has no tone control, while the middle and neck pickups each have an individual tone control. We talked about this some months ago; now it all comes together.

Using two different tonecaps will allow you to use different types of capacitors, or even different capacitor values, for certain pickups. Let's say, for example, that you're happy with the neck-only tone control, you did the BPTC mod, and you'd like to get more treble out of the middle/bridge-pickup combination. You can split the tone controls like we'll do here, then put a smaller tonecap on the corresponding tone control pot for more treble in the middle, bridge and middle/bridge positions. This is highly recommended, by the way, if you do perform the BPTC mod.

In one of my own Strats, I did that mod (bridge and middle pickup sharing one tone pot) and split the tone controls. For the bridge and middle pickup tone control, I use an NOS “high voltage" 0.02uF ceramic cap from the early '60s to achieve the classic vintage tone. For the neck pickup tone control, I use a 4700pF NOS paper-in-oil cap from military supply, because I want a clear and transparent jazz tone out of the neck pickup, with only some slightly dampened high end. I think you got the idea—you can also review my earlier column, “Auditioning Tone Capacitors" [March 2009 Web Exclusive] for more details about tone caps and values.

Example 1

To start, I recommend you print out the standard Stratocaster wiring and place it on your workbench. That will make it easier to see and understand the differences in the modded schematics. You can download the standard wiring scheme from the Seymour Duncan webpage at: seymourduncan.com.

Example 1

So here, in comparison to the standard wiring, is the Tone Split mod. Please notice the modified wiring on stage #2 of the 5-way switch, and the additional tonecap, all marked in red. This is the wiring you all know, with the bridge pickup without a tone control, and an individual tone control for the middle and the neck pickup.

Example 2

Example 2

Often, you can find the tone-split mod together with the BPTC mod for even more flexibilty— many Strat players favor this one. With this wiring, you'll also be able to control the tone of the bridge pickup (Vintage Strat wiring doesn't give you this ability). One pot is a tone control for both the neck and middle pickup, while the other pot is a tone control for the bridge pickup only. If you use a 5-way switch, the middle and bridge position will be affected by both tone controls—a really cool option!

That's it. I hope you'll find this mod useful for increasing the versatility of your Strat. Next month, you'll find a PG first right here: I'll show you how to use the famous Gibson '50s vintage wiring from the late-fifties Burst Les Paul guitars in your Stratocaster! As far as I know, such a circuit drawing was never published anywhere before, so stay tuned. Until then, keep on modding!

Dirk Wacker

Dirk Wacker lives in Germany and has been addicted to all kinds of guitars since the age of five. He is fascinated by anything that has something to do with old Fender guitars and amps. He hates short scales and Telecaster neck pickups, but loves twang. In his spare time he plays country, rockabilly, surf and Nashville styles in two bands, works as a studio musician for a local studio and writes for several guitar mags. He is also a hardcore DIY guy for guitars, amps and stompboxes and runs an extensive webpage www.singlecoil.com about these things.

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