Get the Most from Your Guitar Tech by “Speaking Repairman”
AS LONG AS THERE have been aftermarket pickups, guitarists have wanted to quickly change, compare, and use those options. The following tips are for the player who wants to experiment with a variety of pickups, but doesn’t like—or know how—to solder. There is a growing list of products to help expedite pickup changes and custom wiring modifications. Most of these products expect you to make an initial investment getting the system installed by a tech or yourself, but the payoff is quicker DIY pickup changes and tonal selections.
If you’re somewhat handy, you can set up your own pickup-changing system by investing in some parts. You’ll need male and female connectors (sometimes called “pin connectors”) sold by places such as Acme Guitar Works, local hobby shops, electrical-supply companies (Molex, JST, Mill-Max, or Samtec), and online distributors like Mouser and Digikey. There are also varieties of flat electrical connectors readily available. This project simply requires installing a set of connectors where the pickups are attached—usually through a short pigtail wire—and then attaching the mating connector on the pickups you want to install. Important: Be sure to use heat shrink or some other protection around the connectors so your connections do not short out all the other wires.
Some quick-connect pickup options (clockwise from top left)—Seymour Duncan Liberator, EMG Junction Block, EMG single-coil with quick connect, raw connectors (generic), Graph Tech Ghost ResoMax bridge, Graph Tech Acousti-Phonic Modular Preamp, Graph Tech cable assembly.
If you’re less “do it yourself” and more “do it for me,” there are many commercial options gaining popularity. Ernie Ball’s The Game Changer, for example, is a system that employs hardware and software to serve up more than 250,000 pickup combinations. Seymour Duncan offers the Liberator—a universal solution to changing pickups—consisting of a Volume control that, once installed, allows you to do pickup swaps with a small screwdriver. Duncan also offers the Triple Shot pickup ring that lets you to do your coil splitting and series/ parallel switching right from the pickup ring without having to drill or add toggle switches.
The Acme Guitar Works ToneShaper is a stand-alone product that lets you attach your pickups to their system. There is a series of micro switches on the circuit board to determine the switching positions, as well as assignable and configurable controls.
For full “no solder harness” installs, Kinman, Graph Tech, and EMG are ahead of the quick-connect curve, and offer fully wired systems with no soldering required. Gibson is now offering certain guitars with quick-connect pickup wiring, as well as a complete line of pickups with connectors pre-installed. The pickup maker ThroBak is the first to offer pickups with the Gibson five-conductor connector. I believe this will become a much more common option in the future.
It is a shame that there is no current standard for pickup connectors, but the trend is clear: Swapping and comparing pickups and their various wiring options is easier than it has ever been, and should only get simpler in the future.
Gary Brawer runs Stringed Instrument Repair in San Francisco. His many clients include Joe Satriani, Metallica, and Neal Schon.