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Guitar Makeover
VOL. 3
Hot-rod your Tele, Strat, or Paul, with this insightful
collection of hardware tweaks and wiring mods.

Digital Press

Swap That Tone Knob for a Warmth Control


F or most players, even a �.��� µF cap • 4700 pF. This is similar to the ���� pF
Bottom: A
sweet stash of
new-old-stock makes the tone too dark and lifeless. The cap, but it delivers a little more of all the
low-capacitance solution is to replace the tone cap with qualities I mentioned above. However, it can
tone caps from our
shop. Makes you
one that has even less capacitance, and thus be difficult to simply tame shrill-sounding
want to haul out the turn the tone pot into a “warmth control.” To pickups using a ���� pF cap, because the
soldering iron and
get busy, right?
do this, we’ll experiment with capacitors in the useable knob-rotation range for that task is
picofarad (pF) range: specifically from ���� pF so small. When fully closed, this value also
up to ���� pF. Here’s what you can expect from shares the vocal quality of the ���� pF cap,
five popular values that fall within this range. but tends toward a more throaty character—
something the ���� pF value lacks. Because
• 1000 pF. This value provides a very subtle it avoids any muddiness and allows perfect
effect—perfect for warming up pickups with a separation between the individual strings
lot of high end. Because it only affects the upper when playing power chords, the ���� pF
high-end frequencies, it’s impossible to dial in a value is prized by many players craving
tone that sounds lifeless. This value, as well as round, fat distortion tones.
all the following values, delivers useful control • 6800 pF. This value sits right on the border
over the whole rotation of the tone pot, and between a warmth control and a traditional
every small turn of the knob yields an audible tone control. But compared to the standard
change without any of the dreaded “on-off” tone control values, ���� pF preserves much
characteristics of most stock tone knobs. more high end and chime, and, as with
• 2200 pF. Still subtle, this value is perfect for all the aforementioned values, offers finer
warming up strident pickups in the first half controllability. While ���� pF is throaty when
of the pot’s rotation. Beyond this, it will start to fully closed, ���� pF is raucous, yet still has
slightly blanket the high end, yet you’ll retain a vocal quality. If you want an effective tone
all the guitar’s chime and overtones. This is also control that doesn’t ruin top end and chime,
the ideal value if you want to warm up your this ���� pF value is your ticket.
distortion sound without making chords muddy.
• 3300 pF. My personal favorite—I have it in Naturally, you can try lower values than ����
almost all my guitars and I recommend you give pF (��� pF or ��� pF, for example) or higher
it a try. This value lets you go from warming than ���� pF (such as ���� pF or �.�� µF), but
up shrill sounding pickups in the initial third the ����-���� pF range has proven to be the
of the rotation to that “cocked wah” tone when most useful, and it satisfies the majority of
you fully close the pot. In the last third of the players. It’s not a big investment to get some
rotation, it warms up your tone noticeably and caps in this range and try them out. That way Photo courtesy
imparts a vocal quality. This versatile value also you can determine what works best for your
produces stunning tone swells. guitar and music.



Dialing in the Passive Tone Control


I often hear guitarists say they leave their

tone control on 10 all the time—or even
disconnect it—because they find it
useless. A small turn from wide open takes
the tone from “lively” to “clinically dead,”
[Editor’s note: These ratios indicate the percentage
of total resistance measured at the middle of the
shaft rotation, i.e., at 5 on a typical knob.]
Using a linear pot as a tone control creates a
different problem: There’s no apparent change
and that’s all you get. Why is this a common in tone over almost the whole rotation until
problem with passive guitars? Typically, it’s the “on-off” effect suddenly appears at the very
because of two reasons: 1) The tone pot has end—exactly the opposite of an audio pot with
an ineffective taper and/or resistance, and 2) an ineffective taper.
the tone cap has too much capacitance. Both Besides the pot’s type and taper, its resistance
issues are easy to fix, so let’s explore the can make things worse in a passive system. A
remedies. simplified rule of thumb: The higher a pot’s
In a passive guitar, the typical tone control resistance, the less effective it will be as a
is a capacitor connected to a potentiometer— volume or tone control. This means 250k and
that’s it. Because the system is so simple, both 500k pots work well in these applications, while
components must be chosen carefully to make a 1M pot is pretty useless.
it work well. Players often complain that the So what’s the perfect tone pot for a passive
tone pot functions as an “on-off” knob, rather guitar? It’s a 250k or 500k audio type with a
than a control that provides a gradual and even 60:40 or 65:35 taper. I use a 250k audio type with
effect over its entire rotation. Fortunately, we a 60:40 taper along with a no-load mod, which
can deal with this. makes the pot disappear from the circuit when
The tone pot. Because of how our ears work, it’s fully opened. This recipe preserves a good
the tone pot inside a passive guitar must be an portion of the high end. Compared to a 500k
audio (aka logarithmic) type, not a linear type. pot, a 250k pot offers a bit more controllability,
(This also applies to a volume pot in a passive but it adds more load to the circuit—that’s the
system.) The “on-off” problem is typical of nature of the passive beast. The no-load mod
audio pots with a ratio of 90:10, which is more compensates for this problem.
or less the standard today. Human hearing The tone cap. The second element in the
simply doesn’t work like this and needs a tone control system is dominated by two
different ratio, preferably 60:40, or at least 65:35, factors: type (construction) and capacitance.
which was the standard in the ’50s and ’60s. The type—ceramic, polyester, paper-in-oil,

Some people claim that, when wired into

a guitar, all cap types sound the same,
but if you experiment with this, I’m pretty sure
you’ll reach a different conclusion."


Your tone control can
be a potent sound-
sculpting tool, but to
be effective, its simple
components must be
chosen carefully.

etc.—dictates the overall tone, while the in the late ’60s and ’70s, to 0.022 µF, which is
capacitance determines how dark the tone will the quasi-standard for single-coil pickups today.
get when closing the tone pot. Some people But let’s face it: Even in the ’50s, guitarists
claim that when wired into a guitar, all cap never wanted to play bass lines on their
types sound the same, but if you experiment Telecasters, and even 0.022 µF is overkill for
with this, I’m pretty sure you’ll reach a most players. In other words, 0.022 µF makes
different conclusion. In previous Mod Garage the tone incredibly dark and lifeless when
columns, I’ve discussed various types of tone the tone pot is closed, which is exactly why
caps and how they perform, so we don’t need so many guitarists don’t use their tone control
to rehash this here. at all. So it’s time to fix that! The easy and
Photo courtesy

Capacitance is often described as “value,” effective solution is to replace the tone cap
and the typical range for guitars is from 0.022 with one that has way less capacitance. This
µF up to 0.1 µF. Over the years, cap values have will morph the pot into a “warmth control.”
steadily decreased from the original 0.1 µF that Capacitors in the picofarad range (pF) are
Leo Fender chose, so “a guitarist can also play perfect for this, and a useful range to experiment
bass lines,” to 0.05 µF, which was the standard with is from 1000 pF up to 6800 pF.



The ABCs of Output Jacks


T here are many different types of output

jacks, including mono, stereo, TRS, barrel,
and power types (Photo 1). Ultimately they
all have the same job: transfer the signal from
your guitar to the instrument cable. Output
but as gearheads we have to be more specific.
Here’s a list of the most common types of 1/4"
output jacks:

• Mono: Used in most acoustic and electric

jacks can eventually wear out, causing the guitars with passive pickups.
signal to be intermittent—usually at the worst • Stereo: Used in acoustic and electric guitars
possible time. Ever been onstage and heard a with stereo outputs or active electronics.
crackling sound or even silence when you jiggle • TRS (tip-ring-sleeve): Used with active
your guitar cable in the jack? No fun. electronics, active pickup systems, or acoustic-
When it’s time to replace a cranky output electric guitars with two independent sound
jack, there are several things you need to know sources (such as an under-saddle transducer
before firing up the ol’ soldering iron. The first and onboard mic).
step is to identify what kind of jack you have • Power: This is usually a stereo or TRS jack
and what will make the best replacement. attached to a preamp.
Form and function. Almost every type
of output jack used on both acoustic and Each of these can be found in different
electric guitars is referred to as “a 1/4" jack,” forms, including the open or skeleton jack, the


enclosed or panel jack, the barrel jack, and the 2
flange jack. Let’s take a closer look.
Electric guitars with passive pickups typically
have open jacks. I prefer the Switchcraft brand,
because they have heavy-duty construction.
Imported guitars, especially budget models,
usually come with enclosed or panel jacks.
Often encased in plastic, these jacks are
inexpensive and tend to wear out faster than a
well-made open jack.
Acoustic-electric guitars often have a
cylindrical barrel jack that passes from the
inside of the instrument through the tailblock.
Secured externally with a nut and threaded
strap button, this jack replaces the guitar’s The TRS jack functions like a stereo jack with
endpin. Barrel jacks can have mono, stereo, or the addition of a fourth lug and third flange
TRS configurations. that allow you to add a second pickup source.
Takamine acoustic-electrics, as well as some By using a stereo cable and TRS plug, you can
other acoustic-electrics, use flange jacks. These independently control these two sources. This
have integrated endpins and structurally is useful when you want to send each to its own
resemble barrel jacks. They too come in mono, preamp, direct box, or amplifier.
stereo, and TRS styles. A common use for a TRS jack is in an
Guitar applications. The most common acoustic guitar that has an under-saddle
output jack for electric guitars is the mono jack. pickup, as well as an onboard microphone or
It has two lugs: One is the ground, and it’s part a body sensor. For electric guitars, the TRS
of the jack’s interior or case. The other lug is jack works great for using magnetic pickups
the hot or primary lead. This lug is part of the in conjunction with a bridge configured with
long, bent flange that connects to the tip of piezo-pickup saddles, like the L.R. Baggs
your instrument cable. X-Bridge.
A stereo jack is similar to a mono jack, but it’s Power jacks attach directly to a preamp and
equipped with a third lug and a second (shorter) can have either a stereo or TRS configuration,
bent flange. The latter acts as a power switch and some preamps are housed within a barrel
for active pickup systems by connecting and jack. Power jacks are found in many different
disconnecting the third lug when a standard 1/4" systems, including the L.R. Baggs Active
plug is inserted or removed from the stereo jack. Element, Fishman Matrix, and Taylor ES1 and
For example, when the black (negative) wire ES2. Because most power jacks are soldered
of a battery snap is soldered to the third lug, to a printed circuit board, they are difficult to
inserting a 1/4" plug into the jack engages the replace without damaging the electronics. If a
battery by connecting the negative battery wire power jack fails, your best option is to replace
to ground and completing the circuit. the entire unit.


3 4

How do I wire this thing? With the exception

of the power jack, all of these are simple to
wire if you take the time to map them out.
All of them will have a ground and a primary
lead, but they differ in other ways. Here’s a
breakdown of those details: 5
Mono jack: The ground lug is attached to the
case and the primary lead lug connects to the
bent flange (Photo 2).
Stereo Jack: The ground lug attaches to the
case; the primary lead is the short lug that
connects to the longer bent flange, and the long
lug is the power/battery switch that connects to
the short bent flange. Photo 3 shows the wiring
for a stereo open jack and Photo 4 is a stereo
barrel jack.
TRS jack: The ground lug attaches to
the case. The primary lead is the short lug
connected to the bent flange, and the medium
power/battery lug connects to the short bent
flange. The longest lug connects the secondary
pickup to an isolated output (Photo 5).
Okay, got all that? Great—someday there will
be a test ... and you’ll be ready.



Ultra-Flexible HH Wiring

H ere’s a super-flexible mod for dual-

humbucker guitars with 4-conductor
pickup wiring. The 3-way pickup
selector on most HH guitars offers three
sounds, but by adding two DPDT mini-
When you use the 3-way
switch to select both humbuckers
in parallel and then hit the
switches to the existing wiring, you can get series/parallel switch, you put
eight switchable sounds. As shown in the
schematic, one switch acts as a coil cut to go
the pickups in series, which
from humbucking to single-coil operation, and really packs a punch."
the other is a series/parallel switch to further
expand the tonal palette. If the pickups have them, such as a Les Paul. In that case, I’d
metal covers, like on a PAF-style humbucker, suggest using two push-pull or push-push pots.
you’ll have to make sure they aren’t connected The DPDT switching matrix is standard on
to the pickups’ common ground. More about most switchable pots, so either way, it should be
this in a moment. easy to adapt this mod to your specific guitar.
Installing two mini-switches is easy on Now, about the metal pickup covers: Because
instruments with a pickguard or control plate, of the series/parallel switch, we need to
but it can be a real pain on guitars that lack separate the pickup’s cover from its ground
and then install a new ground wire exclusively
for the cover. This is the same operation
as modding a Telecaster with 4-conductor
wiring, which I’ve covered before. For the gory
details, go to and search
for “Preparing Your Tele for Future Mods.”
Alternatively, you can simply remove the cover
or swap it for a plastic one.
The payoff. On a typical dual-humbucker
guitar, the 3-way pickup selector offers either
bridge humbucker, neck humbucker, or both
humbuckers in parallel. Thanks to the two
DPDT switches, you get five additional sounds:

• Bridge single-coil
• Neck single-coil Schematic courtesy
• Both single-coils in parallel
• Both single-coils in series
• Both humbuckers in series

Operation. Essentially, the two new switches

work as extensions of the pickup selector


switch. For example, when you select the switch—in other words, it doesn’t show any
bridge humbucker with the 3-way switch and volume and tone pots. That’s because the mods all
then hit the coil-split switch, you get the bridge occur before the 3-way switch, so everything that
single-coil. Or when you use the 3-way switch comes after the pickup selector switch can stay
to select both humbuckers in parallel and exactly the way it is. This reduces the diagram
then hit the series/parallel switch, you put the to the necessary basics, which is convenient
pickups in series, which really packs a punch. because after the 3-way switch a Les Paul is wired
As an extra bonus, the wiring offers hum-free differently from, say, a PRS or Hamer.
operation when the two single-coils are used I show the two switches as individual
together in series or parallel. (When using parts on the schematic. If you use a push-
either the bridge or neck single-coil by itself, pull or push-push pot, the switch is located
you face the same noise issues you would with underneath the pot, but the wiring remains the
a standard Strat or Tele—that’s the nature of same. As usual, I’ve used the Seymour Duncan
the beast.) color code for the wiring. If your pickups are
To keep the schematic as simple as possible, from another company, simply transfer their
I’ve ended right after the 3-way pickup selector color code to this diagram.




“Decking” a Stratocaster Trem


H aving endured for more than half a

century—and still going strong—the
venerable Stratocaster has delivered
great tone to generations of guitarists. One of
the instrument’s strengths is how easily it can

be adjusted to suit different playing techniques

and musical styles.
Here’s a case in point: Recently a client
brought me his 1993 Strat (Photo 1) for a setup.
His primary concern was that he was having
a problem staying in tune, especially when
bending one string while holding another. While
we were discussing this, he revealed he rarely
used the tremolo and kept the bar swung back
out of the way when he played. Based on this, I
recommended he allow me to lock his tremolo 2
down—or “deck” it against the body. I knew
this would resolve many of the tuning issues he
was having. He agreed and I proceeded with the
relatively simple project described below.
If you’re a Strat player who doesn’t find much
utility in the trem system, you might consider
doing this too. This tweak isn’t for everyone—
many Strat players feel the trem provides much
of the guitar’s magic. But there are also those
who play a Strat because they love its pickups,
scale length, weight, and feel, but prefer the the two-post design of modern Strats. I noticed
stability of having its bridge locked down there were only two springs holding the tremolo
tight against the body. Some even swear this to the claw, which explained why the bridge was
increases sustain. tilting forward so much (Photo 2).
Fortunately, it’s a reversible mod, so you It’s crucial to know the intended tuning and
can try it out and see for yourself. If the string gauges before you set up a Strat. My
tuning advantages outweigh losing whammy client explained he strings up with .010-.046
capability, great. If you find you miss your trem, sets and tunes to standard pitch (unlike some
you can always return to a floating bridge setup. Strat players who tune down a half-step à la
(I explain that process in the DIY video “How to Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan).
Float a Strat Trem.”) Getting started. The first step is to remove
Evaluating the guitar. This Strat had spent the cover plate on the back so you can access the
some time on the road, but it was in good shape. claw and trem springs. To provide maximum
It had a vintage-style, six-screw bridge—not stability, I added three more springs to the claw


It’s crucial to know
the intended tuning and
string gauges before
you set up a Strat."
to redo your work. This holds true for every step
of a setup, including adjusting a truss rod, setting
4 saddle height, and intonating the strings.
Take it to the bridge! Next, turn the guitar over
and make sure the six mounting screws holding
the tremolo to the body are all adjusted flush to
the bridge plate (Photo 5). Don’t tighten them too
much, otherwise the tremolo will rock forward on
its beveled edge. Lower each screw just enough for
the bridge plate to sit flat and flush with the body.
Testing one, two. Tune up and test the
spring tension by bending the strings. Does the
trem move at all? If so, tighten the claw a bit
5 closer to the body. Hold a note on one string
and bend another against it. You want the
held note to stay in tune as you bend the other
string. Keep in mind that some guitar necks
flex a bit when you bend a string and this will
subtly affect the tuning. In this case, we’re only
paying attention to the tremolo to see if it rocks
forward when bending strings.
Be patient: You may need to tighten the
(Photo 3) and then used a Phillips screwdriver springs several times before the trem stays rock
to move the claw toward the body and tighten solid when you bend. Remember to always
the five springs (Photo 4). The goal is to tighten tune after every adjustment. Once the trem
the springs enough so the tremolo doesn’t move is secured flush to the body and doesn’t tilt
when you bend a string. At this point, we’re just forward when you bend strings, it’s time to
roughing in the spring tension—we’ll come back move to the final setup stage.
and fine-tune it in a moment. Adjust the saddles. Now adjust the action
Tip: Remember to tune the guitar after every at the bridge saddles. Using an Allen wrench,
adjustment. If you neglect to do this, you may have adjust the two screws to position each saddle


to your preferred height (Photo 6). Make sure
each saddle stays level and doesn’t tilt, and BEWARE OF STRIPPED SCREW HOLES
adjust the saddles in a gentle arc that matches Occasionally when locking down a Strat
the fretboard radius. I explain this operation in trem I’ve encountered worn out screw
“How to Set Up a Fender Stratocaster.” holes, either at the spring claw or bridge
Final Setup. After decking the trem and plate. Stripped-out holes must be doweled
adjusting the action, the strings may be sitting and re-drilled, otherwise the screws will
too close to the pickups and this can negatively continue to strip out more wood and will
affect intonation. So we have to check the eventually slip out of the hole. Last year
pickup height before doing anything else. If you I wrote a column about fixing stripped-
want to brush up on this, read “How to Balance out holes for pickguard screws, and the
Pickups on Strats and Teles.” same principles apply here, although in
After adjusting the pickups, then tackle the this case the holes are bigger and require
intonation. Again, I detail this process in “How a slightly larger dowel. Check out “Got
to Set Up a Fender Stratocaster.” a Loose Screw?” for complete details.
Tip: Always put fresh strings on your guitar Remember, if you don’t have the proper
before you adjust the intonation. tools or knowledge to correctly do this—or
All right—that’s it! You’ve now locked down any guitar job—play it safe and consult
your trem and should have a much easier time your local guitar tech.
keeping your guitar in tune.



Lean, Mean Series Wiring for Telecasters


T ele players often ask about adding series

wiring to their instruments—a mod that
lets you access a powerful tone when
you engage both pickups. On a stock Tele,
the pickups are connected in parallel when
is to replace the standard 3-way pickup
selector with a 4-way switch. This keeps the
three familiar switching positions untouched
and simply adds a new sound in switching
position #4. I explained how to do this mod in
you use them together, but if you run them in “Telecaster Series Wiring,” which you’ll find on
series instead, the resulting output is hotter and (I think it’s the most useful
louder, and this makes it much easier to drive Telecaster mod ever.) In that same column, I
your amp into saturation. also describe an alternative scheme that uses a
There are several ways to mod your Telecaster second 2PDT switch to connect both pickups
for series wiring. The most common approach together in series, while overriding the setting of

Fig. 1

Schematic courtesy


the stock 3-way switch. But not everyone wants are other ways to accomplish the mod, but this
to swap their 3-way selector for a 4-way unit or is my favorite because it’s simple to wire and you
add that extra 2PDT switch. Fair enough. can easily reverse the mod or upgrade to a 4-way
If you crave that powerful dual-pickup switching system at a later date. And the beauty
tone, yet want to maintain the Tele’s glorious of this is we still have the familiar operation of
simplicity, why not simply configure the 3-way a standard Telecaster 3-way selector. The only
switch’s middle position to connect the bridge change is the new sound for the middle position;
and neck pickups in series? Yes, you’ll lose the other two settings are not affected.
the old middle position with both pickups in While we’re discussing Tele wiring, I’d like to
parallel, but if the series connection is all you make a point about grounding. Typically, you’ll
need, this wiring is for you. You’ll be one click see the two pots being connected to ground by
away from a hot series tone—a solo preset in running a wire from the volume pot’s case to the
the switch’s middle position. tone pot’s case, and then soldering the string-
The new switching matrix for the 3-way grounding wire that’s installed underneath the
switch looks like this: bridge to the case of one of the two pots. When
you use a standard Telecaster control plate
• Position #1: bridge pickup alone made from conductive metal, you already have
• Position #2: both pickups in series a kind of natural grounding and you can skip
• Position #3: neck pickup alone the wire connecting one pot to the other. Just
connect the string-grounding wire to the case
To begin this mod, you must first check if of one of the pots and you’re done. Why? When
the neck pickup’s metal cover is connected the pots and switch are installed on the control
to ground—which is the case for almost all plate with their metal parts touching the metal
standard Telecaster neck pickups. If so, you’ll control plate, they create a perfect grounding
have to break this connection and solder a system. This applies not only to Telecasters,
third, new ground wire to the metal cover. We but all pickguards and control plates made of
covered this before in “Preparing Your Tele conductive metal. To confirm this, simply set a
for Future Mods,” which you’ll also find at digital multimeter to continuity and place both If you have a Strat pickup, probes on the metal pieces you want to check. If
a P-90, or some similar single-coil in the neck the DMM shows continuity, you’ve won. If not,
position, you can skip this step. For all other then ground your pots or glue a piece of copper
pickups sporting a metal cover that’s connected foil underneath the pickguard or control plate to
to the pickup’s ground, you’ll need to break this add conductivity.
connection before you proceed. This series wiring offers another benefit when
Fig. 1 shows the wiring, which looks familiar you use a conductive control plate: The lug on
but is a bit more complex than standard the 3-way switch that’s connected to ground
Telecaster’s wiring. The important detail here is only needs a short bare jumper wire soldered
to connect the hot wire from the neck pickup to to it. Simply clamp the other end of the jumper
the volume pot’s input lug, rather than directly to between the 3-way switch’s metal frame and the
the switch, which is the usual approach. There control plate, and you’re good to go.



Happy Little (String) Trees


S tring trees are tiny and often go

unnoticed, but they play a vital role
on flat, Fender-style headstocks. Also
called string retainers or guides, they secure
the first two (or sometimes four) strings
most other guitars with six-in-a-row tuners
have flat headstocks that run parallel to the
fretboard. On these headstocks, the strings that
have to travel the longest distance from the nut
to the tuner posts need hardware to create this
between the nut and tuners. Photo 1 shows a essential downward pressure.
guitar configured with two “butterfly” string Most of us never think twice about string
trees holding down the top four strings. trees until there’s a problem. I’ve already
described one—the rattle or sitar-like buzz that
1 results from insufficient downward pressure
behind the nut. But if a string tree creates
excessive pressure, this can cause premature
wear in the affected nut slots and also create
tuning issues. And here’s another consideration:
If you have a whammy bar, certain types
of string trees can interfere with the string
returning to pitch after you release the bar.
To summarize, string trees can help or hinder
your guitar’s performance. Let’s take a closer look
and discuss ways to deal with potential problems.
Design and construction. String trees come
in a variety of materials and styles. Most are
On both guitar and bass, a string tree’s metal, like the butterfly, disk, and barrel types
primary function is to provide the correct found on Fender guitars. The metal trees will
amount of downward pressure on a string so work, but if you do a lot of bending or use
it doesn’t rattle and buzz within its nut slot. a whammy bar, you’ll probably experience
This downward pressure also ensures that a tuning problems. Why? Every time the string
string will sustain properly when played open. changes tension against the tree, the metal-to-
If an open string isn’t securely seated in its metal contact creates friction that can cause the
slot—essentially pinned down the way you’d string to hang slightly at this point of contact.
press a string against a fret—it won’t sound as To reduce friction—and thus improve tuning
loud or clear as it should. stability—you have two options: use a string
Whether or not a guitar or bass requires tree made from a slippery material such as
string retainers is determined by how its graphite (Photo 2), or install a string tree with
headstock is constructed. For example, Gibson built-in rollers that turn with the string as you
headstocks tilt back at an angle from the bend or use the whammy bar (Photo 3).
fretboard, and this angle is sufficient to create Both types of retainers accomplish the goal of
the necessary downward pressure to keep reducing metal-to-metal friction. I’ve had great
strings firmly seated in their slots en route to success with Graph Tech string trees, which are
the tuner posts. By contrast, Strats, Teles, and made from a synthetic material impregnated


2 3

4 5

with a Teflon-like lubricant, and roller string the angle between the nut and 6th-string tuner
trees from All Parts. (Photo 4). For guitars that require a second string
What’s your angle, man? The amount of tree for the 3rd and 4th strings, the angle should
downward pressure a string tree creates is approximate that of the 5th string.
determined by its location and how high it Many string trees sit on a separate post or
sits off the headstock. Assuming an identical standoff spacer that determines the retainer’s
location, a lower retainer—one that’s close height. The attachment screw passes through
to the headstock—will create a steeper angle this washer-like cylinder and goes into the
between it and the nut than a retainer that sits headstock (Photo 5). When the post is a
higher off the headstock. Getting the correct separate piece from the section that actually
angle is critical for avoiding wear (too steep an holds the strings, you can adjust the retainer’s
angle) or sonic artifacts (too shallow an angle). height—thereby controlling the string angle—
For a guitar equipped with a single string tree by inserting a shorter or taller spacer.
to hold the 1st and 2nd strings, the angle between If the string angle is too shallow and you
the retainer and nut should be about the same as have a removable metal or plastic spacer, you


A string tree’s primary function is to
provide the correct amount of downward
pressure on a string so it doesn’t
rattle and buzz withinits nut slot."
can increase the angle buy sanding or filing Start with a pilot hole, using a very small
the spacer to reduce its height. Alternatively, bit. For the screw hole proper, be sure
you can substitute a shorter spacer: Electronic to choose the correct drill bit—it should
supply companies sell standoffs for PC boards, be slightly smaller than the screw. Measure
and some enterprising guitarists adapt the ball- everything twice, go slowly, and be careful
ends of bass strings for this purpose. Stacking how deep you drill—you don’t want to drill
small washers can work too. Whether you need completely through the headstock! Before
to go up or down, it shouldn’t be too hard to installing the screw, lubricate its threads with a
adjust the height of your string tree by either bar of soap or candle wax.
modifying it or swapping it out. Inserting a delicate screw into a hard maple
Replacing the string tree. If you opt to headstock requires skill, so don’t attempt to install a
upgrade to a roller or graphite retainer, it’s a new string tree unless you have the right tools and
very simple project. All you need is a small or experience. If you’re unsure about your abilities, take
medium tip Philips head screwdriver. Lift the the guitar to a qualified repair tech or luthier.
strings out from the retainer, remove it, screw Goodbye string trees. Some manufacturers
the new one in place, and you’re done. You offer locking tuners with staggered posts.
might encounter small variations in screw size Intended to create the required string angle
and threading, but most manufacturers use a on a six-in-line headstock without using string
consistent size. You can use your original screw trees, staggered posts start out at a normal
if it’s in good condition and fits the new retainer. height for the 6th string and then gradually
First-time installation. If you’re installing a reduce height, which puts the shortest post
string tree on a headstock that’s never had one—on furthest from the nut. Depending on the
a replacement neck, for example—string up the geometry of your headstock, you may be
guitar and lay the new tree on the corresponding able to eliminate string trees altogether by
strings, midway between the nut and closest using these tuners, but the only way to know
tuner. Confirm the strings are lined up evenly for sure is to install them and see if you
and then, with the screw in place, press down on experience any of the sitar sounds or sustain
the tree so the screw makes a small indentation issues that come from having too shallow an
in the headstock. This indentation should lie angle on your top strings. In most cases, you
exactly between the two strings. Use it as a guide probably won’t need string trees if you have
for drilling the mounting screw hole. staggered tuners.



Tips for Replacing a 3-way Toggle


G iven the popularity of Les Pauls, SGs,

Explorers, Flying Vs—and the thousands
of other two-pickup axes inspired by
these iconic models—it’s no surprise I’ve
replaced many failing 3-way switches over the

years. Switches get used a lot and eventually

they can wear out. When this happens, you’ll
hear loud popping sounds or scratchy noises,
and the signal may even cut out when you’re
switching pickups.
Fortunately, 3-way toggle switches are easy to
replace, and you can do it yourself with just a
few tools and a bit of patience. It only takes a few
minutes to cover the process, so let’s get started.
The project. To illustrate the steps, I’ll use a
1983 Ibanez Les Paul copy that has a standard and last a long time, which explains why they’re
3-way pickup selector: neck only, neck-plus- used on so many high-quality instruments.
bridge, bridge only (Photo 1). Charmingly, Open toggle switches come in three styles:
Ibanez kept the arcane “Rhythm” and “Treble” short straight, tall straight, and right-angle.
designations for the neck and bridge pickups. The short and tall straight switches have their
This is a cool guitar and it plays great, but switching apparatus below the toggle, while the
the toggle switch is shot. Like many imported switching mechanism on the right-angle switch
guitars, it has a cheap switch. I’m going to is perpendicular to the toggle. All three are
upgrade the guitar with a Switchcraft model, wired identically, they simply differ in depth
one of several options preferred by discerning and width. For example, guitars with shallow
players and professionals who are willing to pay electronics cavities, such as the SG and many
a bit extra for reliability. Let’s take a closer look. thin ES-style hollowbodies, use the right-angle
Types of toggle switches. On most guitars, switch. Gibson Les Pauls take the tall switch.
you’ll find one of two different types of 3-way Here’s an easy way to tell which type of
toggle switches: the box style and the open style. replacement switch you need: Check out the
In a box toggle switch, the internal parts are minimum cavity size for all three Switchcraft
enclosed—typically in plastic—and they can styles at, and then compare these
fail if the prongs get overheated, especially dimensions to your guitar’s switch cavity.
when the switch has been re-soldered too many Removing the old switch. Using a Phillips
times. As a result, box switches tend to have a screwdriver, remove the cover plate on the back
short life. of the guitar to access the switch cavity. If you
The internal parts are exposed on an open already have an open switch and you’re simply
toggle switch, but open switches are usually replacing it with a new one, draw a diagram of
made from better materials. Switchcraft double- the old switch or label each wire to help you
pole 3-way switches boast solid construction remember the connections.


Fig. 1 2

Fig. 2

Tip: Don’t use a pair of pliers to remove the nut

collar! Pliers will mar the knurled nut and if you
slip, you’ll also damage the top of your guitar.
Installing the new switch. On the open
switch I’m installing in this Ibanez, there are
four prongs at one end and one prong on the
opposite side (Photo 2). The four grouped
prongs are the switch’s inputs and output, and
the single prong on the opposite side is the
ground. In the group of four prongs, the two
outer prongs are the inputs for the pickups and
the two in the center are the outputs.
If you’re replacing a budget box switch with Before soldering, I use hemostats to gently
an open toggle switch, you can use the simple bend the outer prongs (these connect to the
diagrams I’ve provided as a guide. Fig. 1 shows pickups) away from the two output prongs
a common 3-way toggle as seen from the front between them. Then I crimp the two inner
and Fig. 2 shows the back view. prongs together, because they’ll share one wire
Unsolder each wire and then remove the switch from the switch’s output to the output jack.
by turning the mounting nut counter-clockwise. Note: Open 3-way toggles may differ
Some toggle switches have a hex nut and require physically. On a right-angle switch, for example,
a deep well socket wrench, others have a knurled the ground prong and the input and output
collar nut that can be loosened or tightened using prongs are stacked vertically, and on some
an adjustable toggle switch wrench. straight switches the ground prong is located


between the two inputs, while the outputs to preheat the prong and wire, and finally touch
are on the opposite side. But regardless of the the solder to the connection just long enough
layout, the principle is the same, and once you to let a small amount of solder flow over the
understand it you’ll be able to confidently wire wire and prong. For detailed soldering tips, see
up your guitar. Study the wiring diagram that “Tips for Replacing a Strat-style 5-way Switch.”
came with your new switch to confirm how Tip: When soldering, be careful not to heat up the
it’s configured, or use a multimeter to test and prongs too much. Excessive heat can damage the switch.
identify the input and output prongs. Once you’ve soldered the four wires to their
Slide the new switch into the switch cavity, prongs, it’s time to check your work. Gently tap
thread on the collar or nut, and then tighten it. Be the pickups with your hemostats for each position
careful when tightening the collar—it only needs of the switch. You should get neck and bridge
to be “finger tight.” If you torque it too much, alone when the toggle is pointed up or down,
you’ll strip the threads. Also be sure to orient the respectively, as viewed from the playing position,
switch so the toggle throw matches the original. and both when the toggle is in the center position.
Solder up. There are typically four wires to If the neck and bridge toggle positions are
solder: the neck pickup, the bridge pickup, the working in reverse (i.e., the bridge pickup
output (this connects to the output lug on the engages when the switch is up), then reverse
jack), and the ground. Select a wire and clamp the leads on the outer prongs. If the pickups are
it to its respective prong with the hemostats, working correctly, reinstall the cover plate and
then briefly touch the tip of your soldering iron you’re done!