In my guitar shop, players often ask about how to improve the tone in a Tele neck pickup. Here are several ways to address it, including a pickup wiring that removes the tone load in the neck pickup’s switching phase, resulting in a slight high-end boost.
Hello and welcome back to Mod Garage. This month, we’ll continue our “no tone control” journey from last month [“Mod Garage: The Scott Henderson S-Style Wiring”] with a cool mod for your Telecaster. Something I hear a lot in the shop is that people aren’t happy with the tone of the neck pickup in their Telecaster. It’s often described as muffled, colorless, lifeless, or similar. Why is this? It’s usually a mixture of three things:
1. The physical location of the neck pickup. You have the same issue on every electric guitar, no matter if it’s a Telecaster, a Stratocaster, a Les Paul, or whatever else. The neck pickup has the warmest tone of them, which is the physical nature of the beast.
2. A standard Telecaster neck pickup has a closed metal cover that’s attached to the pickup’s ground to add some shielding. Because the cover is closed, a good portion of high end will be drained to ground because of eddy currents, even with a thin German silver metal cover.
3. Interestingly, the neck pickup of a Telecaster is often adjusted way too low from the strings for whatever reason. Some players told me that they hit the metal cover with their plectrum, so they adjusted it deeper to get it physically out of the way.
So, let’s see what can be done to address the above problems regarding a Telecaster neck pickup.
Physical location: We can’t outsmart physics and we can’t change the location of the neck pickup inside a Telecaster, so there is nothing we can do here.
Metal cover: We have several possibilities to enhance the tone of the neck pickup. One option is to simply replace the metal cover, which will change the tone noticeably, similar to how moving a carpet or rug away from your amp changes the sound. On the other hand, you lose the shielding abilities of the metal cover. A good compromise is an open-frame pickup cover in the shape of a rectangle with an open top, to break eddy currents. This will enhance the tone while still providing some shielding.
Another solution would be to swap the pickup with a Stratocaster pickup or whatever pickup you like best. But this is not as easy as it sounds. Other pickups have other dimensions, and you will need to reroute the pickup cavity in the body as well as the opening in the pickguard to make them fit. There are a lot of replacement pickguards available that already have such routings for a Strat pickup, so this is not really a problem. A good compromise is a replacement pickup in a Telecaster neck pickup size that offers a different construction under the hood, like the Lollar Royal T Neck that is a Stratocaster-style neck pickup in a Telecaster shape. These are 1:1 ratio replacement pickups, so you don’t have to struggle with new pickguards and routing the Telecaster’s body.
"One option is to simply replace the metal cover, which will change the tone noticeably, similar to how moving a carpet or rug away from your amp changes the sound."
Pickup height: This is super easy to solve: Simply adjust the pickup closer to the strings. The closer the pickup is to the strings, the more high end and volume it will have. We measure the pickup height from the top of the pickup magnet to the bottom of the string while the string is pressed in the last fret with the guitar in playing position. A good starting point for a Telecaster neck pickup is 3.5 mm (9/64") on the low E string and 3.0 mm (1/8") on the high E string. Start with this and listen to what happens when you change the pickup-height adjustment until you find the tone you like best.
I recommend adjusting pickup height first and hear if this does the trick for you. If not, continue with swapping pickup covers or pickups.
As you can see, there are many ways to address the muffled tone of a Telecaster neck pickup if you don’t like it. Here’s another weapon of choice you could try that lies somewhere between the aforementioned strategies. Maybe you adjusted your standard Telecaster neck pickup correctly and now you’re close to being happy with the sound, but it’s still a tad too warm and round for your taste.
Chances are good that this can be solved inside the wiring. Usually, Telecaster players are happy to have a tone control for the bridge pickup that can sound very shrill and ice-picky without one, depending on your playing style and type of bridge pickup. But only a few players really use the tone control for the neck pickup. So how about a wiring with the tone control only affecting the bridge pickup? This way you will get rid of the load of the tone pot (usually 250k) plus the tone cap. Maybe this will give you the tad more high end you’re looking for, so give it a try.
The good news is that you don’t need to change the standard 3-way pickup selector switch like we did on the Stratocaster last month. This is mostly because a regular Tele only has a single master tone control, so we’re happy with the two switching stages of the standard switch you already have in there.
With this wiring, illustrated in Fig. 1, you will end up with these three settings:
1. Bridge pickup with volume and tone control
2. Bridge + neck pickup in parallel with volume for both pickups and tone control only for the bridge pickup
3. Neck pickup with only volume control
To further enhance this wiring, you can use a no-load pot for the tone control. This way you’ll also be able to engage the bridge pickup without tone control if this is an option you want.
That’s it for this round! Next month, we’ll continue with some Danelectro wirings, so stay tuned.Until then ... keep on modding!
B-bender, mini-bucker, and copious switching options make this session master's signature Telecaster a twanging tone chameleon.
Get convincing “in-between” Strat sounds from Teles and other two-pickup guitars.
This month we'll look at a cool Telecaster wiring that also works with any two-pickup guitar with a master tone/master volume configuration. Designed by the great pickup maker Bill Lawrence, this wiring deals with the so-called half out-of-phase option (more on this in a moment).
Fig. 1 reproduces the relevant page from Bill Lawrence's now-famous scrapbook, where he archived all his wirings as handwritten diagrams. (Thanks to my luthier colleague Ivan "Joe Owl" Franasovic for introducing me to this wiring.)
Image courtesy of Bill Lawrence (billlawrence.com)
Bill Lawrence (real name: Willi Lorenz Stich) was born in Germany in 1931 and became one of the country's best guitarists of the post-WWII era. He was a busy session musician and jazz player who performed under the name Billy Lorento. Germany's Framus guitar company even built a signature model for him (the 5/120) that's still available today. Later on, he started a second career in the guitar industry under the name Bill Lawrence. He conceived many groundbreaking pickup designs and other musical instrument innovations. Sadly, he died in November 2013 at age 82, but his music and genius live on.
Basically, this wiring follows the standard Telecaster schematic, but substitutes a 5-way Strat-style pickup selector for the Tele's traditional 3-way switch, unlocking two new tones. Here's the switching matrix:
- Position 1: neck pickup alone
- Position 2: neck + bridge in parallel
- Position 3: bridge pickup alone
- Position 4: neck + bridge in parallel "half out of phase
- Position 5: neck pickup alone with 10 percent less low end than position 1
We all know switch positions 1, 2 and 3 from standard Telecaster wiring (though they appear here in a different order). Meanwhile, position 5 cuts some lows for a slightly brighter tone than position 1, which makes it cool for more prominent rhythm tones and jazz lines. I was skeptical about the value of position 5, but as I experimented, I found I liked it more and more, so I recommend you give it a try as well.
But for me, the highlight of this wiring is position 4, with both pickups together and "half out of phase" with each other, a concept later adopted by Fender for their Jerry Donahue signature Telecaster and by Peavey for their Omniac JD model.
The highlight of this wiring is position 4, with both pickups together and "half out of phase" with each other.
So what the heck is "half out of phase?" I don't want to bore you with electrical theory, so here's a short, simplified explanation.
Phase differences are measured in degrees. Totally in-phase sounds have either 0 or 360 degrees of difference, meaning none. Totally out-of-phase sounds have a 180-degree difference. So half out of phase is either 90 or 270 degrees of difference. You can only achieve a fully out-of-phase effect when using two pickups together with one wired out of phase. (When both pickups are wired out of phase, they sound the same as both pickups in phase, because there are still 0 degrees of phase difference between them.)
But when a signal passes through a capacitor, the voltage leads the current by 90 degrees. In this wiring, one pickup's signal gets routed through a capacitor, shifting the phase by 90 degrees—exactly half of 180 degrees, and therefore half out of phase. Bill Lawrence chose to send the neck pickup's signal through an additional capacitor, connected directly to the 5-way switch. (If you want to dig deeper into the out-of-phase thing, check out this column: https://www.premierguitar.com/articles/phasing-out-how-to-get-out-of-phase-sounds-from-a-stratocaster-1)
So what are the tonal differences compared to a standard out-of-phase sound? The standard version cuts more lows and mids, while position 4 here has a fuller-sounding tone. Half out-of-phase wiring is perfect for mimicking a Stratocaster's "in-between" positions (2 and 4) using a Telecaster. (Even though on the Strat, the two pickups are actually in phase.) This, for me, is the real benefit of this wiring. I encourage you to give it a try and experiment with the pickup height adjustment screws. You really can get something close to the Strat "in-between" sound we all love. That's definitely icing on any Telecaster cake!
Image courtesy of singlecoil.com.
You can replace the stock Tele pickup selector with any standard 5-way switch for Strats. Both pots are 250k audio-taper types. The wiring works best with two single-coil pickups, like standard Tele ones. The capacitor connected to the tone pot is your typical tone cap. (Bill Lawrence chose a standard 0.022 µF value, but feel free to experiment with other values to find your personal favorite.) The cap connected to the 5-way switch is the phase-shifting cap mentioned above. Bill selected a 0.01 µF cap. In his words: "You may try caps between 0.005 µF (5000 pF) and 0.02 µF. The smaller the cap, the sweeter the sound."
I think 0.01 uF is a great choice, but this really depends on your particular pickups. I recommend experimentation, fine-tuning to get as close as possible to a Strat's "in-between" tones. The tone pot wiring differs slightly from a standard Telecaster's, but it works as intended, so I left it the way Bill designed it.
While Bill's handwritten diagram is iconic and über-cool as a historical document, I'm including a clearer drawing (Fig. 2) that may be easier to follow.
Next time we'll continue with another guitar mod, but if you'd like to see more ideas from Bill's scrapbook, let me know, and I'll cover them in future columns. Until then, keep on modding!