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Guitar Shop 101: Dress Up Your Strat with a New Pickguard

Guitar Shop 101: Dress Up Your Strat with a New Pickguard
Photo 1

Here’s a fun way to update your loyal 6-string’s look.

You know the feeling: Your favorite Strat isn’t getting as much attention as it once did—that old spark just isn’t there. Perhaps you’ve even been thumbing through gear catalogs or surfing the web to ogle new guitars. They look sharp, don’t they?

Wait! Before you take another step toward replacing your trusty axe with a new one, consider something less drastic. Perhaps it’s time to update your loyal 6-string’s look with a snazzy new pickguard—it’s a quick, inexpensive, and fun way to rekindle the flame.

Strat pickguards come in a mind-bending variety of colors and styles, from classic tortoise, mint green, or mother-of-toilet-seat to goth skulls, vintage pin-up artwork, Celtic knots, and even reflective acrylic. Why not shake things up a bit? It’s easy to revert to the original guard if you decide you don’t dig the new look. This project only requires a small investment of cash and time, so give it a shot. The hardest part might be selecting a new guard from the plethora of choices.

Strat pickguards come in a mind-bending variety of colors and styles ... why not shake things up a bit?

Replacing your pickguard is a relatively simple undertaking, but as with any guitar mod, it’s important to plan ahead by having the right tools and understanding each step of the operation. By the way, the process is similar for Telecasters, and there are as many replacement options as with a Strat, so you can easily adapt this project to Leo’s first 6-string creation.

Project overview. To walk you through the steps, I’ll replace a worn, scratched, and cracked pickguard on a client’s Fender Stratocaster (Photo 1) with a new, 11-hole antique white replacement from Allparts.

Tip: Before you tear into your guitar, take a moment to visually confirm that the holes in your replacement pickguard match up with the old one. Not all aftermarket pickguards will retrofit perfectly, and checking this now will spare some frustration.

Photo 2

Here’s what you’ll need for this project: a 6" machinist rule, a 1/2", 7/16", or 10 mm nut driver, a medium Phillips head screwdriver, and a string winder. And, of course, your new replacement pickguard.

Getting started. First, remove the strings. Next, gently pull off the knobs and the tip of the pickup selector switch. If the volume and tone knobs don’t pull off easily, slide a thin machinist rule under each knob and gently pry it off (Photo 2). It helps to turn the knob while prying and pulling.

Photo 3

With your nut driver, unscrew the nuts that secure the volume and tone controls to the pickguard (Photo 3). Most volume and tone pots require a 1/2" socket, but in some cases you may need a 7/16" or even a 10 mm driver. Let the pots drop into the body.

Use a medium Phillips screwdriver to remove the screws holding the pickups and switch to the old pickguard. (Note: While most pickup selector switches have Phillips head screws, some have slot head screws. If so, you know what to do.) Turn these screws counter-clockwise to back them out. As with the pots, it’s okay to let the pickups and switch fall into the body—it’s a great way to keep everything organized and protected. Make sure all the height-adjustment springs stay with the pickups.

Photo 4

Out with the old. Now we’re ready to remove the pickguard. Like many Strat pickguards, the one on our project guitar attaches to the body with 11 mounting screws, but be aware that some pickguards only have eight mounting screws. (Telecaster pickguards typically have either five or eight mounting screws.) Grab that Phillips screwdriver, back out all the mounting screws, and gently lift the pickguard off the body (Photo 4).

Tip: Always place the knobs, washers, nuts, and screws in a container to avoid misplacing them (Photo 5).

Photo 5

Got an extension? Before you mount the pickups and electronics on the new pickguard, check it one more time to make sure the mounting holes match the holes in the guitar body.

Also—this is important—look at where the fretboard meets the body. On some guitar necks (for example, the 22-fret necks found on American Standard Strats), the fretboard extends slightly over the pickguard. If your guitar has an extended fretboard, take a moment to confirm that the new pickguard has enough room to slip under the extension without pressing up against it. If the fit is too tight, you’ll run the risk of warping the fretboard extension over time. The pickguard should slide into the gap without you having to force it in.

On a guitar with an extended fretboard, it can be tricky to slide a loaded pickguard under the extension—the pickups and electronics may get in the way. No worries: The fix is to temporarily remove the neck before installing the loaded pickguard on the body. It’s not a big deal, but you’ll want to anticipate this.

Install the pickups. A new pickguard is typically covered with a thin piece of static film that protects it from scratches. Peel this off before installing the pickups onto the guard.

Photo 6

I like to begin with the neck pickup. Slide one of the pickup mounting screws into the pickguard, place the pickup spring over the screw, and press the pickup towards the screw. Grab your Philips screwdriver and tighten the screw to mount one side of the pickup to the guard (Photo 6). I find it easiest to hold the pickup and guard with my left hand while turning the screw clockwise with my right. Once you have one side of the pickup mounted, follow the same procedure for the other side. Repeat this process for each pickup.

Install the electronics. Next, push the switch into the pickguard and install its mounting screws. Once the two mounting screws are snug, you’re ready to move on to the pots.

Slip the pots into the pickguard and place the washer and nut over the shaft. Turn the nut clockwise while holding the back of the pot to prevent it from spinning and breaking the connecting wires. To keep each pot stable, I recommend putting a lock washer between it and the underside of the pickguard. Tighten the nuts until they are snug enough to keep the pot from spinning, but don’t get carried away—you don’t want to strip the threads.

Time to put the volume and tone knobs back on. After positioning each knob so its numbers line up the way you want them to, press it down onto its respective shaft. Don’t force the knobs—you can damage the pot. Now put the switch tip on.

Mount the pickguard. Hey, we’re almost done. Nestle the pickguard down onto the body—make sure to tuck all the wires into their cavities—and then attach it with the mounting screws. Once again, just tighten the screws until they’re snug. Don’t strip out the screw holes with excessive torque.

Photo 7

Restring the guitar and then adjust the pickups’ height. There’s an art to this, and it’s key to getting a great Strat tone. You’ll find the details in my Guitar Shop 101 column “How to Balance Pickups on Strats and Teles.”

All righty, we’re done (Photo 7). Now that your guitar has a fresh look, why not celebrate by learning some new licks?