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The 7-Sound Stratocaster

Find those buried sounds in your trusty Strat.

The Seven Sound Stratocaster

Hopefully you've taken some time to improve the primary tone of your beloved Stratocaster following our last installment [“Stratocaster Insight," September '08]. This month we will begin talking about some of the most popular mods for Stratocasters. We'll start with a simple but effective one: the seven-sound Strat. This modification is one of the oldest ones around. While its origins cannot be confirmed, some sources claim that it was the idea of the famous Western swing guitarist, Eldon Shamblin; others attribute the trick to one of the fathers of the Stratocaster, Bill Carson.

No matter where it came from, the seven-sound Strat mod addresses one of the major deficiencies with the Strat's design (or any other guitar with three single-coil pickups, for that matter). A Strat normally has three pickups but only a 5-way selector switch, limiting you to combinations like bridge/neck while keeping other unique choices, like all three pickups simultaneously, out of reach. With open 5-way selector switches available from companies like CRL and Oak Grigsby [now acquired by Electro Switch Corporation], it's easy to add some of these esoteric combinations to your guitar. Unfortunately, because the switch has only five positions, you'll still have to give up some options – perhaps not a terrible thing if you never use the middle/ bridge combination, for example.

But if you're interested in having the most options available – switch limitations be damned – you'll want to try the seven-sound Strat mod. It will leave the 5-way selector switch combinations untouched and will add two other combinations. But before we begin tinkering, let's review the stock positions you'll find on a run-of-the-mill Fender Strat:

5-way selector switchpickup combinations
position 1Bridge pickup alone
position 2bridge + middle pickup in parallel
position 3middle pickup alone
position 4middle + neck pickup in parallel
position 5neck pickup alone

The concept behind the seven-sound mod is simple: add a switching device that can activate the neck pickup. There are several solutions available to make this happen, but they all have one thing in common: a simple on/off (SPST) switch. Simply drill a hole in the pickguard and install a small SPST toggle switch near your existing 5-way selector switch. Wire it according to the following diagram:

The Seven Sound Stratocaster So how does it work? Position 1 of the 5-way selector switch activates the bridge pickup alone; by engaging your new toggle switch, you can activate both the neck and the bridge pickups together. Likewise, with the 5-way selector switch in the second position and the bridge and middle pickups activated, a flick of the toggle switch adds the neck pickup to the equation. You can also route the bridge pickup to the toggle switch for a similar effect — simply use positions 4 and 5 to get the new sounds.

So with the toggle switch added, let's take another look at the Strat tone chart:

5-way switchpickup combinations7-sound mod
position 1Bridge pickup alonebridge + neck in parallel
position 2bridge + middle pickup in parallelall three pickups in parallel
position 3middle pickup alone
position 4middle + neck pickup in parallel
position 5neck pickup alone

The Seven Sound Stratocaster Of course, the new combinations that arise from this modification are a matter of taste – I personally find the three-pickup sound to be the least useful of the two new combinations, although it works well for rhythms. The neck and bridge pickups together sound great, reminding me a little bit of a Telecaster, albeit a lot fatter and more defined. I used to call it the “Sweet Home Alabama" setting. Give it a try and see what you think.

If you're more of a traditionalist, or the thought of drilling a hole through your pickguard simply isn't exactly appealing, another option is to replace one of your pots with a push/pull or a push/push type of pot with a SPST or DPDT switch. If you actually enjoy standing out in the crowd, another cool way to perform this mod is to use a completely new pickguard with three individual SPST switches instead of the common 5-way switch. Fender used this method on the shortlived Stratocaster Elite, which featured three small on/off push buttons for the pickups, among other “improvements." While the Strat push buttons were initially a flop, it has been over 20 years since their appearance, meaning that it may be time for you to bring them back for a bit of ironic, vintage style.

Have fun with this mod; it's an easy one to do and it will open up a few more tonal posibilities for you to explore. Next month, we'll continue our Stratocaster mod efforts, turning our attention to those famous out-of-phase sounds. Until then, keep on modding!