Here’s a workaround to get a similar configuration without having a third pickup. Plus, this serious tone weapon can be integrated into any given Telecaster wiring.
Hello and welcome back to Mod Garage. After writing the column about the Brent Mason Telecaster wiring in October 2021, I received a lot of requests from you about a more practical and non-invasive version of it. Well, you asked, and the Mod Garage delivers.
A lot of people don’t want to route an additional hole into their Telecasters to add a third pickup in the middle position, which is a massive task. I totally understand this, so let’s see what can be done instead, and let’s add some more tonal flexibility, which was another common request after that article.
The good news is a lot can be done. We touched on this multiple times in past columns: mimicking Stratocaster in-between tones with a Telecaster without having a middle pickup using half-out-of-phase wiring, for example. Some time ago we explored the Bill Lawrence way of doing this (“Mod Garage: The Bill Lawrence 5-Way Telecaster Circuit”) and the Jerry Donahue Telecaster wiring as well (“Decoding Jerry Donahue’s 5-Way Telecaster Wiring”). These two columns are great starting points to read about the basics of half-out-of-phase wiring and what it does.
In general, there’s nothing wrong with using these two wirings the way they are. But our goal is to get a little bit closer to the Brent Mason Telecaster wiring, plus add more tonal flexibility. Brent Mason’s wiring is straightforward—basically it’s a normal Telecaster wiring with an added middle pickup that has its own volume pot. Mason’s Telecaster is loaded with three humbucker pickups for trouble-free performance regarding hum and noise in both studio and live situations. But it doesn’t have any additional switching for splitting the individual humbuckers, so there are a lot more sounds under the hood to discover. If you need them or not ... well, it’s all up to you. The basic setup works well for Brent, and he can get his signature sounds in any given situation, but it’s not a crime to want more flexibility.
A lot of people don’t want to route an additional hole into their Telecasters to add a third pickup in the middle position, which is a massive task.
The basic plan for today looks like this:
1. Swap both pickups on your Telecaster for the correct Brent Mason models.
2. Add a triple-sound switch to each of the two pickups.
I will show you how to do this in a way you can integrate into any given Telecaster wiring, but to get the most out of it, I recommend combining it with the Jerry Donahue wiring. This way, you will receive an ultra-flexible Telecaster wiring that can also cover basic Stratocaster in-between tones.
Let’s start with the pickups. Brent uses Seymour Duncan pickups. If you want to get as close as possible you should use the following models:
- Bridge position: Vintage Stack Tele STK-T3b, which is a vintage-flavored, traditional-sounding humbucker with 4-conductor wiring.
- Neck position: Vintage Mini Humbucker, built-in 180 degrees flipped, so the open pole pieces are facing the bridge rather than the neck for more high-end and clarity in the tone. The pickup also sports a 4-conductor wiring.
If your Telecaster has the traditional vintage routing under the hood, the cavity for the neck pickup must be enlarged to make the mini humbucker fit, which can be a downside if you want to plug ’n’ play. If enlarging the routing is not an option for you, there are numerous humbuckers on the market that will fit into the routing, such as the Seymour Duncan Hot Rails and Vintage Stack Tele neck pickups. Almost every pickup manufacturer has such a pickup in its portfolio, so there are plenty of options.
Choosing a Stratocaster neck pickup will result in the same problem: They won’t fit into the standard vintage neck routing of a Telecaster.
Rig Rundown: Brent Mason It’s impossible to overstate Brent Mason’s impact on country and, arguably, even rock guitar. Over the course of his more-than-35-year career, Mason has perf...
If you have a full humbucker routing under the hood, which you can find on a lot of newer Telecaster models, you’re good to go the easy way, but keep in mind that you’ll have to enlarge the hole in the pickguard as well. Don’t forget to build it in 180 degrees flipped, like on Brent’s Telecaster, to get closer to his trademark sounds.
Changing the bridge pickup should be a no-brainer: It’s an easy 1:1 swap.
For adding the two triple-sound switches, you’ll need two DPDT on-on-on mini toggle switches. You can’t use push-pull or push-push pots for this because they’re only available as on-on or on-off versions, so the third switching position is absent. But on common Telecaster control plates, it’s no problem to place two of these switches between the two pots and you don’t need Reiki hands to operate them. But again, two holes must be drilled, so it’s not an easy mod if you want to make it look good on the control plate, straight in one line.
With the switches, each of the pickups will have three operation modes and tones:
- Full humbucker (both coils in series)
- Real single-coil split (one coil shut down to ground)
- Single-coil-esque tone (both coils in parallel)
This, combined with the second pickup plus all the features of the Jerry Donahue wiring, results in a lot of different tones. While the humbucker and single-coil-esque tones are free of hum and noise, the real single-coil split mode will also behave like a real single-coil, picking up all kinds of hum and noises.
This switching was made popular by the DiMarzio company under the name “dual sound,” which I think is confusing because it’s a triple-sound switch, not a dual one.
The good thing is that this switching is placed directly after the pickup, so in layman’s terms this means: The four wires from the humbucker are connected to the switch but only two wires are going out of the switch (hot + ground), so it’s super easy to add this feature to any given wiring.
You simply solder the hot output of the switch to the spot where usually the hot wire of the pickup is connected and solder the ground coming from the switch where the ground wire of the pickup is usually connected, and you’re done. So, it’s absolutely independent from the wiring that’s coming after the switch, and you can transfer it to any given guitar.
You can’t use push-pull or push-push pots for this because they’re only available as on-on or on-off versions, so the third switching position is absent.
Now, let’s focus on the bridge pickup to demonstrate the wiring on the switch, as seen in Fig. 1. Please note the jumper wire on the switch and don’t forget to solder it. The middle position of the switch is the real single-coil split. With the toggle up, it’s full humbucker, and the toggle down is the hum-free single-coil-esque tone. I used the Seymour Duncan color code for this because we’re talking about Seymour Duncan pickups. If you want to use pickups from a different company, you’ll have to transfer the color code using one of the many transfer charts online.
The wiring of the neck humbucker is exactly the same: the bare ground wire of both pickups always goes to ground. After wiring both pickups to their mini toggle switches, you only have to connect four wires before you’re done. The hot output of the neck pickup switch goes to the spot where usually the hot wire of the neck pickup is connected to and the hot output of the bridge pickup switch to where the hot wire of the bridge pickup is connected to. Likewise, the ground output of the neck pickup switch goes to the spot where usually the ground wire of the neck pickup is connected, and the ground output of the bridge pickup switch goes where the ground wire of the bridge pickup is usually connected.
Congratulations, you’re done! This is a good alternative to the original Brent Mason wiring, and it adds many more possible tones and variations. Especially in tandem with the Jerry Donahue wiring, this is a serious tone weapon with an almost unlimited number of sounds.
That’s it for now. Next month we’ll continue with another guitar mod, so stay tuned. Until then ... keep on modding!
How to Balance Pickups on Strats and Teles
Adjusting pickup height sounds simple, but pickups that aren’t adjusted properly can cause problems.
Guitars with two or three pickups offer lots of sonic variety, but they also introduce a particular problem that single-pickup instruments—such as Fender Esquires and some Les Paul Juniors—don't have. When you switch pickups on a multi-pickup guitar, you can experience volume differences between one position and another. This can be rather annoying when you're in the studio or playing a gig. Just as frustrating is when your treble strings sound weak, but the bass strings are ridiculously loud. In both cases, the fix can be as simple as adjusting your pickups.
Guitarists often overlook this tweak, either after a setup or replacing pickups. Adjusting pickup height sounds simple, but pickups that aren't adjusted properly can cause problems, which I'll describe in detail below. Fortunately, all these problems are correctable.
To show you how to adjust pickups yourself, we'll look at two guitars—a Stratocaster and a Telecaster. Both of these project guitars sport single-coil pickups and both are terribly out of adjustment.
1. This Strat needs the height of its three single-coil pickups adjusted for optimum sound. 2. Our project Tele's two single-coils also need to be adjusted for proper height.
Step 1: Gather your tools and prepare your workspace.
You only need two tools for this project, but it's important to use the correct ones. Here's what I use when adjusting pickups:
- 6" precision machinist ruler
- Phillips head screwdriver
Step 2: Measure current pickup height.
First tune the guitar to pitch and then start taking its current measurements. These baseline measurements are very important because you need to know where the pickups are now in relation to where they should be.
Here's how to measure a pickup's height:
- Press the 1st string onto the last fret and hold it down.
- Using the 6" machinist ruler, measure the distance from the top of the pole piece to the bottom of the 1st string. Write down the measurement.
- Repeat this process with the 6th string, again holding it against the last fret and writing down the measurement.
- Now repeat the process with the remaining pickup(s).
- At this point you'll have measurements for both the treble and bass sides of each pickup.
How did our project guitars measure up?
The Strat's bridge pickup was 6/64" on the treble side and 8/64" on the bass side. The middle pickup measured 8/64" on both treble and bass sides, and the neck pickup measured 2/64" and 4/64", respectively, for the treble and bass sides. As we'll see in a moment, these distances are way off. The project Tele was also out of whack, with its bridge pickup measuring 4/64" and 2/64" (treble and bass) and neck measuring 2/64" and 4/64".
Not only were the heights of these pickups all over the map, the Tele's neck pickup was loose and wobbly. That's a tell-tale sign that the rubber compression tubing (which acts like a spring) over the pickup screws had either shrunk or was too short to begin with. To correct it, I had to remove the strings and pickguard, and then separate the pickup from the guard. After installing new tubing, I was able to adjust the pickup without it bobbing inside the guitar.
When you finish recording the baseline measurements on both the treble and bass side of each pickup, you're ready to adjust them to their ideal specs.
3. Using a machinist ruler to measure the distance between the top of the pole piece and the bottom of the 6th string on our project Stratocaster's bridge pickup. This pickup is too low. 4. The bridge pickup is set too high on our project Telecaster. 5. Adjusting a Telecaster bridge pickup. In addition to setting its overall height, the three adjustment screws let you control the pickup's fore and aft tilt. For maximum sustain and power, make sure the top of the bridge pickup's pole pieces sit parallel to the strings.
Step 3: Correct the pickup height.
There's a lot of debate about what constitutes "correct" pickup height, but conceptually the goal is simple: Set the pickup height to give your guitar optimum volume, clarity, sustain, and treble-to-bass balance.
Setting the pickups too high doesn't further this cause. In fact, when Fender-style single-coil pickups are too close to the strings, the pole pieces—which are cylindrical magnets—will pull the strings out of tune, causing intonation problems and reducing sustain. If the pole pieces are high enough, they can actually collide with the strings, especially when you play open chords. When a pickup is too close to the strings, its output signal can be too hot and overload the preamp stage in your amplifier.
Yet when the pickups are set too far away from the strings, the result is a weak signal. This will cause the guitar to sound thinner and brighter than normal.
Furthermore, when the pickups aren't balanced correctly from the 1st to the 6th string, the result is uneven volume as you move from the treble to the bass strings. Fortunately, we can prevent all these problems. The tables in Fig. 1 show the measurements I use for each pickup on a Strat and Tele.
Using a Phillips head screwdriver, raise or lower the pickup by turning the adjustment screws located on either side of the pickup. (Some single-coils use slot-head screws, in which case you'll need a straight screwdriver.) Make small adjustments and go slowly. After each adjustment, again hold down the 1st and 6th strings at the last fret and take new measurements. Repeat this process for each pickup until it matches the corresponding specs in the tables.
Tip: Running out of screw length before you're done adjusting the pickups is one of the "little surprises" that can occur when altering pickup height. If this happens, remove the pickguard and replace the screws with longer ones.
Step 4: Testing—1, 2.
After you adjust the pickups to spec, it's time for the final test, which is to plug into your amp and play. So you can hear the full range of your pickups, don't stand too close to your amp. Instead, move back a good 10 feet or more.
Be sure to test the pickups with the guitar's volume wide open. Listen carefully to the balance between bass and treble strings, and switch between all the positions on your pickup selector. The goal is to hear equal volume from each pickup, even though the tone will change dramatically from pickup to pickup.
These measurements are a base point to start from, though I wouldn't recommend adjusting the pickups any higher. If the pickups sound unbalanced after you've set them to these specs, lower the louder pickup to reduce its output instead of raising the quieter one. A quarter turn can make an audible difference, so listen carefully, and be patient.
By following this relatively simple procedure, you'll probably discover that the dynamics, sustain, clarity, and stringto- string balance will have improved on your Strat or Tele. Next month, we'll tackle another DIY project, so stay tuned.
The Telecaster Mod Guide
The Telecaster is a guitar with very complex primary-tone physics, but on the other hand, is electronically very simple. If your Telecaster has a good primary tone, it will benefit from the following mods and you can maximize your tonal possibilities.
I hope you all had a great holidays and that Santa brought you some nice new gear toys … maybe a Telecaster? If so, heat up your soldering iron, because this month, we will take a closer look into the Telecaster circuit and the possibilities to expand its tonal palette.
A General Electrical Update
To start, I would like to ask you a question: how many things can you name that are still built today exactly the same way as 60 years before? The Telecaster is one of them! Without any doubt, Leo Fender was one of the great masterminds in musical history. Almost 60 years ago, he constructed an electrical guitar that remains a landmark today. The Telecaster is a guitar with very complex primary-tone physics, but on the other hand, is electronically very simple. If your Telecaster has a good primary tone, it will benefit from the following mods and you can maximize your tonal possibilities.
Many guitars suffer from poor components that can turn into trouble within a short time; following Murphy´s Law, your troubles will most likely happen in the middle of a solo, live on stage. To make your guitar road-worthy, I highly recommend completely replacing all external components with a "made in the Far East" quality. This can also cure a dull sounding guitar and the virtual "blanket over my amp" syndrome. A fresh and matched set of high quality CTS pots, a good CRL 3-way switch, a new Switchcraft or Neutrik output jack, all connected with good cable and solder plus a top-notch tone cap can do magic to your tone.
Having said that, let''s look at the standard Telecaster wiring that is used in almost all Telecaster guitars today. Through the years, the values of the pots and the tone cap changed several times, so I didn´t name it in the drawings. We will talk about this subject later.
Changing Pot and Cap Values
As a guideline you can say the higher the resistance, the warmer the tone. This is valid for both the pots and the tone cap. For a very bright sounding guitar, I recommend 250k pots to get rid of the penetrating highs; vice versa, you can use 500k or even 1Meg pots on guitars with not so sparkling high-end sizzle to bring out more of the top-end. Of course, this all is personal choice, and is dependent on the pickups you use.
The standard value of the tone cap is 0.047uF, but for most of us this is almost overkill, because when you use your tone control the tone will get clinically dull and liveless. If you don´t want darker tones like this, I recommend changing the tone cap to a much smaller value (e.g. 3300pF, up to 6800pF). This will guarantee that your tone will always be defined and full of life and color, even when you completely close the tone control. You can dial in numerous different tone colors with this simple and inexpensive mod, and it´s a good field to experiment on your own. Personally I use selected 3300pF Orange Drop caps and 250k pots for a classic, vintage Telecaster tone.
I bet the number of good replacement pickups available for Teles has never been bigger than today. An often discussed subject is the Telecaster neck pickup, as it seems to divide players into two different parties: you either love it or hate it. For full disclosure, I´m lean more towards the "I hate it" camp and usually replace this pickup in all of my Telecaster guitars because the standard pickup is too "boxy" sounding for my tastes. If you are willing to reroute the pickup cavity (or better yet, let an experienced luthier do it), here are some suggestions that sound incredibly good on a Telecaster:
- a Stratocaster neck pickup
- a P-90 soapbar pickup (especially on a Thinline Telecaster)
- a Gibson or Gibson-style Mini Humbucker
If your guitar is equipped with a 4-conductor cable humbucker, you can perform all kinds of coil splitting to enlarge the number of possible sounds … singlecoil mode, parallel mode, in phase, out of phase, etc. A prime example of a good sounding bridge pickup humbucker for Telecasters is the DiMarzio "The Chopper" pickup. A pickup like this can give you the best of both worlds: a hot and punchy humbucker tone and a classic, twangy singlecoil sound in the split mode. One problem with this is that all the pickup manufacturers use different color codes, so there is no general guideline how to wire all the coil splitting options, as it depends on the pickup you have installed. If you can´t download this information directly from the factory homepage, here is a link for you that could be helpful.
'50s Vintage Wiring
I´m sure you''ve heard about this magical wiring that Gibson used inside late 50s Les Paul guitars and that was almost forgotten for a long time. Electronically there is nothing special about this wiring, it simply connects the tone pot to the output of the volume pot (middle lug), instead of with the input. This changes the way the volume pot reacts, and the overall tone gets stronger and more transparent - more "in the face," you could say. There is much less of the typical treble loss that occurs when rolling back the volume and the tone control reacts smoother and more linear without the typical hot spots.
It´s possible to rewire all guitars this way, not just Les Pauls. With a Telecaster it´s simple, because you only have to change one wire, marked red in the drawing. You can also consider using an additional switch to have both wiring variants available: the classic Fender wiring, as well as the 50s Gibson vintage wiring.
The "Strato-tone" Mod (aka "Nashville" Modification)
Many of the top Nashville studio players, like Brent Mason or Reggie Young, are playing Telecasters with an additional third pickup in the middle position to get those popular "in-between" Strat sounds (bridge plus middle and middle plus neck together in parallel). If you want to modify your Tele this way, I recommend giving it to an experienced luthier and letting him do the necessary woodwork (routing the additional pickup cavity, rerouting the pickguard, etc.).
Any Stratocaster pickup is a good mate for the standard Telecaster pickups and will expand your tonal palette drastically. You will also have to change the 3-way switch and install a standard Stratocaster 5-way switch and eventually a third pot if needed. Basically, this is a standard Strat configuration and naturally you can perform any Stratocaster mod you like (the 7-tone mod, blending options, etc.), but we will talk about all this Strat stuff in a later column. If one day you decide to switch back to the classic two-pickup Tele configuration, you can simply take out the middle pickup, switch back to a 3-way Telecaster switch and reinstall a standard Telecaster pickguard that will cover the third pickup cavity; suddenly, the former modification is invisible again.
Position 2 of the Telecaster selector switch gives you both pickups wired in parallel; this is a standard wiring, and one of the classic Telecaster tones. But what if you need a fatter sound out of your Tele? The two outside switch positions on the Tele - which select the bridge or neck pickup individually - stay basically the same. But the middle position (both pickups together) wires the pickups in series rather than parallel. This produces a thicker, meatier sound, while still retaining the recognizable characteristics of a Tele. This is not a hum-cancelling combination, but it gives the increased power of a series link. So, in short, all you do is change the #2 position of your 3-way switch, so that the bridge and neck pickups are in series instead of parallel.
If you want to be more flexible, you can install the Fender 4-way Tele switch, as shown in the circuit below. This will give you both sounds when you dial in the two pickups together - wired in parallel (standard wiring) and the wired in series sound.
If, for any reason, you don´t want to install a 4-way switch, you can also use a push/pull pot or a small toggle switch to manually add the neck pickup in series when the Telecaster 3-way switch is in position #1 (bridge pickup alone). Here is what you have to do:
Attention! If you have a standard Telecaster neck pickup with installed metal cover:
For this alteration to work correctly, isolate the metal cover of the neck pickup (if present) from its ground lead. Run a separate ground wire for the cover to the back of the volume control! You can find a good pictured step by step guide for this here - it´s in Spanish, but the pictures are international…
"Direct Through" Switch
If you really want to hear the sound of your guitar together with the pickup, there is only one way: soldering the pickup directly to the output jack. Depending on the guitar, the result can be stunning; with a Tele, your tone will be louder, stronger and more direct, a highly recommended mod for all the country guys, as well as anyone who wants the maximum twang and spank a Tele has to offer. The control pots always add a little load to the circuit and, depending on the pots, the tone will get a bit softer and sometimes dull, losing the shimmering highs and the organic vibe. As you may recognize, the suggested method works well, but is not practicable in any way. However, there are different ways to get rid of the control load in your guitar system:
- You can replace all your pots with so-called "no-load" pots from Fender. This is a very cool, albeit an expensive, way to enhance the sound of your guitar. Electrically this pots are great; when you open them 100%, a circuit will shorten this pot and erase it from the circuit, so it''s as if it never was there. And you can hear it!
- Another way to do this is to use a DPDT switch or a push/pull pot and to perform my "direct-through" mod. You can see how to wire the switch on the circuit below. Activating the switch will bypass all controls and all pickups connected to the pickup selector switch are wired directly to the output jack.
Combating Volume vs. Tone
I´m sure you know the idiosyncracies inherent in passive single coil pickup systems like the Telecaster - when you turn down the volume (even just a bit), the high end or treble loss is not proportionate. In other words, a small cut in volume creates a far greater loss in your guitar´s treble response. The best solution would be to replace the complete system for an active one, but there is a simple method to get rid of this problem.
As you may know, for some time Fender installed a so-called "bleeding cap" on the volume pot to get rid of this problem. Leo was on the right track for sure, but he choose a 1000pF cap that was much too big for this purpose and you can´t use one value for all configurations; it depends a lot on the pickups, the pots, the cables and, of course, the amp you use. The theory behind this is much more complex than it seems, so maybe we will take a closer look into this in a later column. But for now, please take my word and desolder the 1000pF cap if you have one installed.
When rolling back the volume, this cap will pronounce the highs much more than necessary and you can get some really cool, funky sounds with that, but for most of us, 1000pF is not a helpful value in any way. For a standard Telecaster with two singlecoil pickups, connected to two 250k pots, install a 470pF cap and experiment from there. The higher the value, the more treble you''ll receive when rolling back the volume. For other pot values, you unfortunately can´t use the "cap only" method because it would kill the mid frequencies. For this, you will need a treble bleeding network with caps and resistors in parallel or in series, depending on the configuration.
Well, I hope you enjoyed this one and good luck pimping your Tele-Babies!