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Mod Garage: Trad Strat and Bridge 'Bucker Tones

Mod Garage: Trad Strat and Bridge 'Bucker Tones

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A standard Strat pickup set—and—a switchable humbucker.

As you know, there aren't many guitars with four pickups—the very notion is more or less a leftover from the “more is better" approach of the late 1950s and '60s. Yes, there are historic examples of four-pickup guitars, like Fender's supposed mid-'60s Marauder prototype with four stealth pickups beneath the pickguard, some Italian-made Eko guitars, and some Japanese Kimberly models. But nowadays you rarely encounter four pickups other than in custom builds.

But recently one of our customers, who plays in a well-known Top 40 band here in Germany, requested a four-pickup design to avoid changing electric guitars onstage. He wanted three standard Strat pickups on a Strat pickguard, but with Tele-style master volume/master tone controls and an extra bridge-position humbucker.

Initially I thought we could use a HSS Strat configuration with master volume and master tone, plus the possibility of splitting the bridge humbucker to make it a single-coil. But that wouldn't do, because the customer's personal switching matrix demands a bridge single-coil and bridge humbucker at the same time (more about this in a bit). Additionally, he said he didn't like the single-coil tones of split humbuckers. (I more or less agree. Split-humbucker tones are often “single-coil-like," but they can't match a real Strat bridge pickup. Yes, some humbuckers are specially designed to sound like true single-coils in split mode, and they do, but pickups of this type usually don't sound optimal as humbuckers.)

So this is a real dilemma, one requiring an unusual solution. After much back and forth, we arrived at these specs:

· Three standard Stratocaster pickups with a 5-way switch and standard Strat wiring.

· Telecaster-style control layout with master volume and master tone.

· Additional bridge humbucker, bypassing the 5-way switch regardless of its position, so that adding the humbucker works as a sort of “solo switch" for fat lead sounds.

· The humbucker gets added in parallel, regardless of the 5-way switch setting.

· When the humbucker is bypassed and the 5-way switch is active, master volume and tone are engaged (normal Stratocaster mode).

We decided to use a standard Stratocaster HSS pickguard with three holes for the controls, populated with a standard Stratocaster single-coil pickup set plus a Stratocaster single-coil-sized humbucker, 5-way switch, and 250k master volume and master tone pots. For the humbucker, we'd install a standard Gibson-style 3-way on/on/on pickup-selector toggle in the pickguard's third hole.

Usually customers want all their pickups in phase when using them in parallel, so it's always a good idea to sort this out from the start, especially when combining pickups from different manufacturers.

We had to enlarge the body's typical three-chambered routing to accommodate the bridge pickup ensemble. Since our customer liked the idea of reducing the guitar's weight, we went with a “swimming pool" rout: one big cavity for all three pickups. We shielded the rout with thick copper foil connected to ground, making the axe as quiet as possible. We also shielded the pickguard with one of our custom-made thick copper plates (also wired to ground), and then we installed the pots and switches.

Now it was time to install the four pickups. The customer chose a Strat set with a RW/RP middle pickup, and to be on the safe side, we ordered a Strat single-coil-sized humbucker with four-conductor wiring to correct any possible phasing issues. (Usually customers want all their pickups in phase when using them in parallel, so it's always a good idea to sort this out from the start, especially when combining pickups from different manufacturers.)

Installing the neck and middle pickups was easy, but combining the bridge single-coil and the humbucker was not. Usually HSS pickguards have a plain, non-angled rout for the bridge humbucker, but naturally, our customer wanted it to be angled. We found such a pickguard, but ran into two other problems: There were two holes in the middle of the humbucker cutout to fasten a standard-sized humbucker, but we couldn't use these to install two individual Strat pickups. Also, because of the Strat pickups' bottom flatwork (with its “nose" on one side), we couldn't fit both pickups into the humbucker cutout.

We solved both problems by drilling four new holes to fasten the pickups. We inserted dummy screws into the original humbucker screw holes, securing them with hex nuts under the pickguard. (This looks cleaner and less conspicuous than attempting to fill the holes with colored putty or the like.) Since the humbucker had two blades on top, we simply rotated it 180 degrees. Thanks to the swimming pool routing, there was plenty of space. The rest of the wiring was easy.

After installing the pickguard and playing the guitar for a while, I was surprised how good it sounded and how flexible this setup is. After getting the phase issues right (naturally there were phase problem when combining the humbucker with the Strat's middle pickup—thank heavens for four-conductor wiring!) we experimented a bit with pickup height adjustments. Result: a versatile, good-sounding Strat and a smiling customer.

Image 1 shows our final wiring diagram. To keep things clear, I show only the two connected humbucker wires (hot and ground), and I depicted the angled bridge pickups in a straight arrangement. Both pots are 250k. The tone cap is a .022 µF, and the switch is single-pole on/on/on.

Well, that's it! Next month we'll explore our next mod. Until then ... keep on modding!