We’ve all seen that jumble of wires that occupy the lower half of a typical Stratocaster style guitar’s pickguard. But, what do all those wires and knobs do, and how can they be made to sound better and work more reliably with more diverse tone? Well, here’s how you can do this upgrade yourself!
1) Here’s the loose components required for a typical, three pickup, three control, 5 way switched Stratocaster pickguard assembly (pictured right). The only thing that’s missing from this picture is the connecting wire, of which there’s actually very little to be used.
2) Go to the nearest hardware store and buy a roll of “Metal Repair Tape”. It’s thick, aluminum metal strip material with industrial strength adhesive on one side. This makes for excellent shielding material, and it’s less than $5 a roll (10 yards).
Overlapping Metal Tape
3) Using overlapping strips of metal tape, cover the principle area of the pickguard from the rear. Make sure there’s a small overlap between sections. You can pierce the aluminum with a razor knife to ensure connectivity between pieces. The tape will act as a ground shield, and also make grounding connections for metal hardware that’s attached to/through it. So, there’s no need to run separate grounding wire connections for each piece of hardware, because simply mounting the hardware to the pickguard and shielding will do that for you!
4) Here’s a set of custom wound, “Will Kelly” pickups that I personally made for myself on my homemade winding rig. I’ll cover that one day for you guys…it’s a great way to get in to building your own pickups. Physically mount the pickups, installing them about halfway in (so there’s room for adjustment either way) depending upon the final string height of the guitar. For the control potentiometers, there are three in stock configuration. The one closest to the strings is the master volume control. Usually the next two are neck tone and middle pickup tone controls; but we’re going to change that up a little bit.
5) This is an active, 9 volt preamp integrated control from GuitarFetish.com. You usually mount these in place of one of the stock tone controls and make the other one a master control. This is actually more usable, simply because in a stock Stratocaster setup the bridge pickup has no tone control, only the middle and neck positions have that capability. But, with a master tone control you also have control over the bridge pickup tone, as well.
6) We’re going to replace the middle tone control, traditionally the neck pickup tone control, with the new preamp control. I had to use several brass ‘star’ washers in between the body of the control and the rear of the pickguard so that the height of the control shaft would be in line with the other two potentiometers on the face of the pickguard. You have to ‘eyeball’ this in order to get it right, but aesthetics count, and to me all three pots should have exactly the same height off of the front of the pickguard.
7) We’re using Bourns Model 82 vintage potentiometers for this guitar. These are extremely high grade controls originally developed for the military. They’re sealed, lifetime lubricated and use high tech polymer tracks for variable resistance, instead of the traditional carbon tracks found in most all potentiometers. This means they don’t wear like carbon, don’t get dirty or scratchy sounding, and never need cleaning, ever…turn the tone control’s terminals towards the preamp, inward towards the rest of the controls. Screw in the 5 way switch, making sure it’s operation is free and unencumbered by the edges of the pickguard.
8) The first thing you should do is wire the ‘hot’ lead coming from each pickup to the 5 way switch. Refer to your switch manufacturer’s terminal output diagram, or simply trace them out with a multi meter. You’ll know which pickup goes to which terminal lug. Solder these lightly. Run the corresponding ground leads to a single point, in this case the spade terminal washer coming from the Bourns Master volume potentiometer’s mount. Use some small tie wraps to secure the bundle of wires, for protection and sorting out later on. We’ll use this single ground point to handle the master volume grounding and pickup grounding. We’ll also ground the tremolo claw wire to the other Bourns potentiometer’s spade terminal washer connection used by the Sprague “orange drop” tone capacitor on the master tone control pot.
9) The output from the 5 way switch connects to the Master volume control’s right terminal, the output of the master volume control is then sent to the input of the preamp as well as the master tone control’s middle terminal. The output of the preamp then goes to the output jack. You want to use as little wire as possible, and make all connections neat and minimal. The easier it is to follow a wire lead visually, the easier it is to fix later, if the need arises. Some people go as far as to use plastic ‘shrink wrap’ tubing on all exposed connections, but if the wiring’s securely soldered, and the wiring routes are correct, then there should be no need for additional protection.
10) Here’s the finished assembly, ready to drop in to a new Stratocaster build. I’m building a custom, ’54 Strat for a very famous guitar player/artist/teacher and this assembly is the heart and soul of this new guitar build. It’s being documented in my new book “How to Modify or Build your Own Electric Guitar” by Will Kelly, available from Voyageur Press in Fall of 2011. So, keep checking back here on RobbieCalvoGuitar.com and I’ll keep putting up great tips and tricks for you guys to try on your own. Until next time…keep on playing!