Monday, January 21, 2013

Upgrading a Pickup on an Electric Guitar

Today’s post deals with upgrading a pickup in an electric guitar. I’m just performing this operation on a generic no-name guitar this time. No, wait, it’s NOT a no-name, it’s “Photo+Genic”! How’s that for a trustworthy brand?

Anyway, the basic process should be the same for most electric guitars, although on some models, accessing the pickup may require an additional step or two. I’ll try to make a point of mentioning that at the appropriate time.

This is the same guitar that I just upgraded the tuners on (you can see that blog post right here:

Here is the patient:
And with the strings removed:
We'll need to access the pickup from the front and the wiring from the back.

Let’s deal with the wiring first so that we don’t have a pickup dangling from the front if we do that part first.

First we remove the back cover:
Inside we find a mess of wiring. In this case I can easily deduce which wires come from the pickup, but on something like a Les Paul, you may have to do a bit more working out.
It’s a bit tight getting a soldering iron in there, so I’ve decided to remove the volume control, loosening it from the front before pulling it out from the back. If you have something like a Gibson Les Paul, you shouldn’t have to do this, as there’s room enough to get a soldering iron in the control cavity there, but if it does get awkward, loosen all four controls from the front of the guitar and (carefully) pull the whole lot out together.
Here I de-solder the wires connecting to the pickup I want to replace. It’s a wise idea to snap a close-up photo before doing this just in case you forget where things go.
Now it’s time to remove the pickup from the front of the guitar. This one is held in with two screws only. For a Fender Stratocaster, you will need to remove the entire pickguard/scratchplate to access both the pickups and the electronics. For a Les Paul, remove the pickup surround rather then the pickup itself. You may still need to remove the pickup from the surround once it’s out, but you can’t really do this while it's still mounted on the guitar (and you’d have zero chance of getting the new one back in without removing the surrounds anyway).
The pickup comes out quite easily, but watch out for any little springs that might pop off the back of the pickup screws, although in the case of this guitar, it appears a bit of sponge rubber was used instead. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen that.
The wire is then pulled through carefully and the pickup set aside.
Now this is where it gets interesting. If you are replacing a single coil pickup with another single coil pickup, then replacement is fairly straightforward. However, if you are going from single coil to humbucker (double coil), or even replacing a humbucker with another humbucker, you really have to watch how you wire it up. In this case, I’m putting a humbucker in to replace the single coil that was there before. I’m using one that is the same size as a single coil pickup, so I don’t need to think about routing out any wood, but instead of the two wires that the single coil had, I’m now faced with FIVE wires: two for the first coil, two for the second coil and one shielding wire.
Luckily for me, two of the wires were already soldered together, showing me that these are one end of the first coil joined to the other end of the second coil. I can more or less ignore these and simply connect the other two inner wires to where the previous pickup went. The shielding wire connects to one of these wires, and luckily for me, this has also already been done, making the wiring extremely simple. Usually when you buy a new pickup, you’ll get instructions to tell you which wire is which. You should make a point of reading this because different manufacturers use different standards for their wiring.

Here’s a handy chart courtesy of Seymour Duncan (as with all images, click to enlarge):
Anyway, on with the show. I add some rubber tubing I have handy to the pickup screws (if you prefer, you can add springs instead):
Carefully push the wires through the guitar:
And screw the pickup into place:
I solder the wires back to the contacts:
Then I insulate the two wires that were already connected together. If I wanted a coil tap, I would connect these two wires to the centre leg of a switch and connect the switch's other leg to ground, but I’m not going to do that on this guitar (a coil tap is when you use a switch to turn off one of the coils of a humbucker, effectively making it a single coil pickup).
The volume pot is then secured back in place and the knob is pushed back on:
The wiring is carefully pushed back into place:
And the back cover is closed:
Finally, the strings are put back on:
You can adjust the height of the pickup by adjusting the screws at both ends. It’s a good idea to measure the height of the old pickup before removing it to give you a good starting point for the replacement, although I didn’t do that here because the pickups are so different that it wouldn’t have been much use anyway. And that’s the pickup upgrade finished! A very simple procedure indeed.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Upgrading Electric Guitar Tuners

I’ve done a post about upgrading tuners on an acoustic guitar before (found here:, and really there’s no difference between tuners on an acoustic (steel-string) guitar and an electric guitar, except for the fact that you’re less likely to encounter six-a-side tuners on an acoustic guitar. (Six-a-side refers to when all six tuners are on the same side of the peghead, like on a Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster. A Gibson Les Paul has three-a-side tuners, but you can still use this blog post to help you upgrade them.)

The main reason I’m writing today’s post is because I went about the upgrade in a very different way, using one of these (called a "rear peghole reamer"):
Which can be found on Stew Mac’s website here:

I was pretty unhappy with the alternative method of reaming the holes manually and then trying to tidy them up with rasps/files, etc., and this seemed like an interesting (and pretty cheap) solution.

Anyway, here’s today’s patient:
As you can above, the tuners are pretty cheap looking. That’s not necessarily a problem, but these ones do not work very well at all.

Firstly the stings are removed and then the tuners can be easily removed by unscrewing all the small screws on the backplate(s) [note, do not remove the larger screws holding the gears on].
The ferrules also need to be removed from the front of the peghead. Ordinarily I’d do this by “rolling” a screwdriver in them (as described above the 4th photo here:, but these ones weren’t coming out very easily, so I tapped them out from the back. Note that to do this you have to have a tool that is narrower than the tuner hole, but wider than the hole in the ferrule itself. Luckily the bit in this screwdriver is perfect.
OK, that’s the tuners removed.
I also removed the two string retainers so that they don’t get in the way of the next steps.
Right. Time to try out the new tool.

Firstly I clamp the peghead down (face down), making sure to hold a piece of wood against the front face of the peghead so that the drill bit cannot pass all the way through. I can’t emphasize how important this step is.
Next, I drill into the already existing tuner holes, one at a time.
If you look closely at the above image (as with all images on this blog, you can click to enlarge), you can see a little step just before the ends of the holes. What’s nice about this is that not only will the nut on the front of the tuner be better centred, but also that when I drill these holes, I don’t need to worry about any tear out at the other side.

I then place all of the tuners in place and screw the nuts/washers onto the front until they are finger tight.
Next, I use something true to straighten up the tuners:
And then mark the holes for the little tuner screws:
I then remove the tuners and use a ruler to check how in-line the holes are. They can easily be adjusted at this stage.
I use some masking tape around the drill bit as a depth gauge so that I don’t accidentally go right through the peghead.
Now this next bit isn’t entirely necessary, but if you want to fill in the holes left by the previous tuners, this is how I go about it.

Ordinarily I would use Super Glue to glue cocktail sticks (preferably real wood ones rather then bamboo ones) into the holes. However, these holes are just a little too wide, so I’m using disposable wooden skewers instead. Unfortunately I could only find bamboo ones, which will leave a very obvious end grain, but they’re better than nothing.

Before I glue in, I test fit them and if they aren’t wedging firmly in place, I snip part of the tip off until they do (you’d be wise to do this if you use cocktail sticks too).
Once all six are glued in and the glue has dried, I very carefully cut them almost flush with the surface of the guitar, making sure I don’t scratch the peghead.

Next, I (again, very carefully), file what’s left down until I’m almost touching the peghead.
Then sand the last little bit, even touching the peghead at this point.
I’ve been really careful to not go through the lacquer here, so I then use some finishing polish to buff up the surface a bit. It’s not going to be prefect, but remember that most of this will be hidden under the new tuners anyway.
Time to re-install the tuners, securing them at the back with the little retaining screws.
Be careful when tightening the nuts at the front. They should be a nice snug fit, but not so tight that you start denting the wood or cracking the lacquer.
As you can see above, the string retainers now look a bit out of place. I could buy new black ones, but instead I’m just going to colour these in with a black sharpie.

And here it is all strung up. Looking a bit more photogenic now, I reckon.
The new tool worked great, by the way, and I thoroughly recommend it. As an aside, and if you really care about how the back of the peghead looks, you can end up with nicer results when upgrading tuners by buying ones with a more similar footprint to what you're replacing. In my case, I could have covered up most of the old screw holes if I'd bought a set of tuners with a centred screw hole rather than an offset one, like this: