Four ways to bring classic Stratocaster sounds to your Tele.
Last month in “Riptide Stratocaster Wiring," we tried to stuff as many Telecaster attributes as possible into a Stratocaster. At our shop, we also get numerous orders for modding Teles with Strat-flavored elements, so let's turn the crossover concept around and explore this approach. Most of these mods can be combined, so it's up to you to determine how far you want to go.
Swapping the neck pickup. Replacing the standard Telecaster neck pickup with a Stratocaster neck pickup is the least invasive mod on our list. It's no secret that many Fender players love the sound of a Stratocaster's neck pickup, and mounting a favorite Strat-style neck pickup in your Tele is a great way to make selector-switch position 3 come alive.
Of course, this will alter the tone of position 2—neck and bridge pickups in parallel—but fortunately a Tele bridge pickup sounds really good combined with a Strat neck pickup, so you don't suffer sonically when you hit that middle position. Finding the perfect balance between the pickups is simply a matter of playing with their height adjustment screws.
As a bonus, you can use a reverse wound/reverse polarity (RWRP) neck pickup so you get a hum-free tone with both pickups engaged. RWRP neck pickups aren't common, but you can get around this by installing a Strat's RWRP middle pickup in the Tele's neck position, and those are readily available. Alternatively, any boutique pickup maker should have no problem winding a RWRP Strat neck pickup for you. But be sure to have the bridge pickup specs at hand when chasing a RWRP mate for it. Otherwise you might wind up with an out-of-phase tone or simply not get the hum-cancelling benefit in position 2.
Now, as you might have guessed, there's a size consideration: A Stratocaster pickup is slightly bigger than a standard Telecaster neck pickup, so to make the former fit it's necessary to enlarge the body routing and pickguard hole.
You'll also need to decide whether you want to keep the traditional Telecaster mounting system of two screws that penetrate the wood and hide under the pickguard, or if you want to take the Stratocaster approach and drill two screw holes through the pickguard and then mount the pickup on it.
Some companies sell Strat neck pickups in Telecaster size, which makes it a one-to-one exchange, and you still have the option of switching to Stratocaster-style mounting. Makers offering such specialty pickups include Don Mare (S-Telly), Lollar (Royal T), and Harmonic Design (Mini-Strat Neck Pickup). Even Fender incorporated this mod in their Jerry Donahue Telecaster, Clarence White Telecaster, and some of the Teles in their California series.
Swapping the bridge pickup. This mod isn't requested very often because most players like the tone of the Telecaster's bridge pickup, but I want to mention it to make the list complete. As you probably know, you can't simply put a Stratocaster bridge pickup into a standard Telecaster bridge because of the different mounting systems and sizes. A Tele bridge pickup usually has three mounting holes, while Strat pickups have only two.
That said, if you're a hardcore DIY person, it shouldn't be a problem to convert any Strat pickup to Telecaster specs. My friend Magnus Plaue, one of the biggest DIY nerds I know, has written a nice essay about this operation. He calls it “single-bucking" because he wanted to squeeze a Strat humbucker into one of his Teles. You can read it here. I've never seen a commercial solution for this (if you know of one, please tell me), but any skilled pickup maker should be able to fabricate a custom order for you.
Adding a Strat middle pickup. Another good way to access Strat tones from your Tele is to install a third pickup in the middle position. Brent Mason did this on his No. 1 Tele, and there are also some Fender models, like the James Burton Telecaster and the Nashville Telecaster series, that are made this way (Photo 1). This is essentially a Stratocaster wiring on a Telecaster platform, and there are three popular ways to configure it.
• Nashville wiring. Swapping out the Tele 3-way pickup selector for a Strat 5-way switch yields the standard Stratocaster wiring, but with a Tele-style master tone.
• Nashville B-Bender wiring. Identical to the Nashville wiring, except position 3 selects the bridge and neck pickups in parallel, instead of the middle pickup alone.
• Blend wiring: This is the system Brent Mason made popular. It's based on a standard Telecaster wiring with a 3-way switch, but you add a third pot to the control plate for blending in the middle pickup.
You can enhance these three configurations with additional mods, such as out-of-phase or series/parallel switching. We'll examine these wiring options in future columns.
Adding a middle pickup requires routing a new pickup cavity, but at least you won't have to mess with your original pickguard because there are many Tele-style pickguards designed to house a middle pickup. That's a good indication of how popular this mod is! Again, you can mount the pickup directly to the body or suspend it from the pickguard. There are two common configurations: Strat middle pickup plus Telecaster neck pickup, or Strat middle and neck pickups. As you can see, there's a lot to experiment with here.
If you don't want to alter your Tele's appearance, there's another stealthy way to add a middle pickup. This Marauder-inspired approach uses a special pickup with flush pole pieces installed underneath the pickguard where it's not visible. A standard plastic pickguard won't interfere with the pickup, but don't use a metal pickguard with this stealth setup. To compensate for being further from the strings, the pickup should have more power—your pickup maker will know what to do. We explored this subject in “The Luthercaster Esquire Wiring."
Semi out-of-phase mod. If you lust for the Stratocaster's clucky, dual-pickup tones but don't want to change your Tele's pickups, you'll like this mod. All you have to do is swap the 3-way switch for a 5-way switch and implement a trick used by Fender for their Jerry Donahue signature Telecaster and by Peavey for their Omniac JD model.
First, some background: Phase difference is measured in degrees. Totally in-phase signals have either 0 or 360 degrees of difference (the latter is equivalent to none). Totally out-of-phase signals have a 180-degree difference. This mod shifts one signal half out of phase, which means there's either 90 or 270 degrees of difference between the Tele's two pickups. It turns out that half out-of-phase wiring is perfect for mimicking positions 2 and 4—the dual-pickup settings—on a Stratocaster. (Of course, on a Strat the pickups are actually wired in phase. The “in-between" sounds we know and love result from how the pickups are physically located in relation to each other, and the comb filtering that occurs when the middle and bridge or middle and neck pickups are both engaged.)
When a signal passes through a capacitor, the voltage leads the current by 90 degrees. So the basic theory behind this wiring is to send one pickup's signal through a capacitor to shift its phase by 90 degrees—exactly half of 180 degrees. Compared to the fully out-of-phase sound, the semi out-of-phase setting delivers a richer tone with more midrange and lows. We've looked into this before, so for more details and the circuit drawing, check out “The Bill Lawrence 5-Way Telecaster Circuit."
There you have it! Next month we'll investigate what I like to call “virtual tone controls," so stay tuned. Until then, keep on modding!