My Quick Change Pickup Project

Several years ago I tried to make a guitar that could cover everything from country chicken pickin’ to heavily distorted riffing, unfortunately it never really worked that great.  No matter what pickup combination or switching modifications I used, the result was a large pallet of mediocre tones.  It’s kind of like a Swiss Army knife; it has a lot of different tools that can get you out of a jam, but if I need to cut down a tree I would much rather use a chainsaw.  Eventually I excepted the fact that for gigs and sessions that required tones that were authentic to the genre, swapping pickups was my best option.  I came to this conclusion for the following (mostly financial) reasons:

  • Pickups cost less than buying a different guitar for every scenario.
  • Even when I do buy a guitar I usually end up changing the pickups anyway.
  • My guitars have been customized to my personal preferences and I have become accustomed to their feel.  Modifications such as changing the fretboard radius, the neck’s finish (I’m not a fan of glossy necks), and fret size are not cheap.
  • I really like the weight and resonance of the guitars I currently own.  I usually base my guitar purchasing decisions on the guitar’s weight and resonance knowing that these things can’t be changed.  In the past several years I have found it harder to find a new guitar with descent wood within a reasonable price range.

For the next  several years I ended up having to changing my pickups a few times a month, no big deal.  However, this all changed several months ago when I was involved in a pickup testing project that required changing them out several times a day.  This much soldering and desoldering was getting tedious, not to mention the damage I was probably doing to myself from all the fumes.  I needed to come up with a method that would allow me to change them out quickly, not degrade the tone, and was compatible with several different types of guitars.  Below is a picture of the solution I ended up using.

These are connectors that are used in the circuit board manufacturing industry.  Despite their small size, they are rugged and hold the wires firmly.  I simply push the wires in and the connector’s spring terminal clamps it down tight.  To remove the wire I just push the little rectangle button on top with a ballpoint pen and it releases the wire.  They worked so well that I ended up mounting them permanently to the back of my pots.

The white connector (A) has one-for-one thru terminals.  Whatever wire goes in one side it only connects to the wire connected directly across from it.  I used these to make the connection between my pickup hot wires (C) and the pickup selector as well as the output jack’s hot wire (E) and the center lug on the volume pot.

The red connector (B) has junctioned terminals.  When a wire is connected to one terminal it becomes connected to all terminals within the connector, making them ideal for ground connections.  (F) is the bridge ground wire, (D) are the pickup’s negative wires, and  (G) is the output wire’s shield.

This setup allowed me to disconnect any pickup with the push of a button.  I could also swap out the entire pickguard assembly by disconnecting E,F, and G.  I found this to be very useful as I have certain pickups that work best with specific pot values.  I now have a pickguard with 250k pots for vintage spec single coils and another one with 500k pots for pickups like my Kinman Woodstock Plus pickups.

I also made a few assemblies consisting of just pots and switches in different configurations.  Now I can easily swap out an assembly wired in stock configuration with an assembly that has a blender pot or a 4-pole pickup selector.

These connectors also worked well with my Les Paul, I just needed to solder a lead to any pickups that had a braided shield.  I attached the connectors to the underside of the cavity cover with some Velcro to keep them in place.   It is pretty cool to be able to transform my Les Paul from a sweet blues machine with vintage spec PAF’s to a complete beast with a Dimarzio X2n in about 15 minutes.

Les Paul with Connectors

I have been using these connectors for several months without an issue.  I have not experienced any added noise, accidental disconnects, or tone degradation.  They make changing pickups so easy that I have been more inspired to experiment with different pickup combinations.  Recently, I  discovered that a pickup I had which was made for the neck position sounds really good in my Les Paul’s bridge position.  Sometimes just swapping my Strat’s bridge pickup for something hotter or my Les Paul’s neck pickup for something brighter  is all that is needed to avoid wasting studio time by having to add more pedals, outboard gear, and performing  track tweaks to get the sound right.

That pretty much wraps up my project, hope you enjoyed the writeup.  I guess if I took anything from this project it is that some guitar related issues can be best resolved by searching outside the guitar parts box and into how other industries solve similar situations.