Stealth Things to Do with Your 5-Way Pickup Selector

At a NAMM show many years back I ran into Andy Marshall, who was getting all sorts of amazing sounds from his THD amps.
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At a NAMM show many years back I ran into Andy Marshall, who was getting all sorts of amazing sounds from his THD amps. Aside from asking when I could get one of the new amps, I had a lot of questions about the guitar he was using. It was a Fender Tele with only a bridge pickup that he had modified with a dual-rail, Tele-style hum-canceling bridge pickup. The controls were Volume, Tone, and a 5-way switch. The switch controlled a module in the guitar that would eventually become the THD Quintet Tone Curve. It is a small circuit Andy came up with as a sort of upgraded Vari-tone, but much more usable. The switch accesses five different tone filters that give the pickup five unique sounds, almost like having five different pickups in the guitar. As opposed to a switch that selects pickups or cuts coils, this actually filters the one sound coming from the guitar into many. Combine this with actual pickup selecting and you will have the sounds of many guitars in one. It was a couple of years before the Quintet came out, but you can now get the unit alone or with an attached rotary switch to do a stealth install, and even in pedal form if you do not want to put it in a guitar. I love building things like this into guitars to have an onboard secret weapon. Here are a few other ideas along the pickup-selecting/tone-modifying route.

Over the years Fender has added what I call switch modifiers to the standard 5-way switch wiring. Some of these come in the way of a 2- or 3-way rotary switch (1980 “The Strat”) that changes the function of each position. The clever Fender S-1 switch hides a push button switch in the center of a stock looking knob. This also alters the five positions. These wiring diagrams are all available online and it is easy to substitute a push/pull or mini-toggle for an S-1 switch if you like that direction.

One cool idea is to use one of your tone pots as a switch. Some early Peavey guitars use the tone pot in a clever way: From 0 to 8 it works as normal, but between 8 and 10 one of the coils is gradually cut. Lindy Fralin uses the pot as a way to blend in the neck or bridge pickup to whichever one is selected, giving you the options of neck and bridge or all three at once. The added use for this great mod is to gradually thicken the bridge pickup or brighten the neck pickup for a broader tone palette. The pickups are still in parallel, which is the stock (and thinner and brighter) way to combine pickups. A while back a fine player and vintage guitar dealer came up with a unique wiring diagram that takes the last tone control and, by moving a few wires, gives you the ability to go from stock wiring to series and parallel combinations, as well as a couple of unique settings when you turn the pot down.

Another cool and simple mod that you can do with either a mini-toggle or push/ pull pot is keep the 1, 3, and 5 positions normal and, when activated, put positions 2 and 4 in series—not parallel. This takes the quacky, funky tones of the “in-between” positions and makes them louder and fatter.

What I like about these mods is the ability to keep the vintage or stock look of your instrument while having a Swiss Army Knife of tones onboard—not to mention the fact that you can always go back.

Gary Brawer is bald, he’s bad, and he gives a sh*t about your guitar. His many clients include Joe Satri-ani, Metallica, and Neal Schon.