Blog post about upgrading my old Stratocaster

Originally published on October 20, 2013

A Better Stratocaster

This post, which marks my return from about a year of silence, actually ignores any pretense of continuity in favor of jumping right into the very specific topic at hand: a documentary on my Stratocaster upgrade. Don’t worry—the other stuff in due time.

This guide harks back to my previous work on adding an aux-in jack to a Saab 9-3 (R.I.P. SAAB) from over three years ago. Surprisingly, 95% of my website traffic to this day comes in for that topic alone and not, as it turns out, to learn more about my beautiful person as I usually hope when I see all those visits being reported on Google Analytics.

What’s different this time is that I’m going about this upgrade entirely solo (ha! get it? ok, no more puns like that I promise). I no longer have my elite hacker and hardware-badass friend Jason Cohen (who incidentally is also a guitar badass) to spew knowledge at me while I nod and pretend like I know what he’s talking about. But those late nights of soldering (er, he did all of it) and dremeling (yeah, that too) back in Austin sure left an impression on me. Three years later, I remain grateful to have learned from the best; now it’s my turn to prove to myself that I retained at least 5% of all that.

So who should read on?

  1. If you’ve ever wondered how an electric guitar works, you should read on. In order to have the confidence to cut those last three wires not self-contained on the pickguard assembly, I had to first understand what I was cutting and what I was not cutting.
  2. If you want to learn about a more logical (note that more “logical” is not necessarily “better” for playability) interface for the Strat, you should read on.
  3. If you want your MIM Stratocastero to look like this and sound way better, you should read on.

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Ok still here? Good. This guide is written for those who are reasonably smart and educated in some other technical field, but with no knowledge of how even basic guitar wiring works—maybe you just never thought about it, you know? I certainly never did until I wanted a better electric guitar. And now I have a better electric guitar!

Tsk tsk… my new Taylor… always trying to steal the spotlight from Mr. Stratocastero.

Background

Before I get into theory-heavy stuff, let’s take a step back and think about some motivating factors. In my case, I have a bit of guitar history that I need to share with you first.

I got my first guitar when I was 15, which was a decade ago (whoa!). I had wanted a guitar ever since I was 12 or 13, but of course, I was never in the habit of “getting” much stuff as a child because of our economic situation, so I could never justify the purchase. Yet the urge lingered throughout high-school; if anything, it only grew stronger as a result of several emo-torn years. Man, those were the days.

When I finally convinced my parents to buy me a guitar for my 15th Christmas, it was a Yamaha FD01, which is presently discontinued. It couldn’t have been more than $100 at the time, and for about half a year served me really well. Reassured by my initial enthusiasm, my parents were more obliging when I begged for an electric guitar five months later (also presumably because I did well on the SAT). It was an Agave Blue Stratocaster with a maple neck and white pickguard, Made in Mexico. I found the receipt again recently, and it actually only cost $315.

That still seems low to me today (even accounting for “inflation”), but my guitar has always felt a bit gimped from the get-go, so those sly guys at Dave Phillips Music & Sound must have known something I didn’t. Well, they definitely knew something I didn’t—namely, how to play guitar. I pretty much bought my guitar after hitting a couple of power chords on it and declaring it awesome.

I would discover throughout the last decade several things wrong with it, given that it was my main instrument (I stopped playing piano in high school, and I played the aforementioned Yamaha FD01 only during college breaks and holidays back at home–so maybe 2-5% of the time). For one, the tone dials on the guitar didn’t seem to do anything, no matter which position the switch was in; indeed, the different pickups didn’t really produce obviously different sounds (the bridge pickup being the notable difference), and adjusting the pickup height didn’t seem to do much, either. Other more experienced guitarists noted that the action was quite high and that the sustain was nonexistent when they played it, so for years I had been ready to give up on it, had it not been for one thing: I truly loved this guitar.

It’s been with me through everything: in high school alone, it was with me during my first attempt at starting a band, a second band, and even that colossal failure at making battle of the bands with said second band. It came with me to college where I impressed exactly zero girls, and crossed the country with me to Austin where I don’t think I impressed any girls with it either. We’ve been through a lot together—the originally white pickguard has turned vintage cream during the past decade—and I knew that’s how things would go from the moment I decided that Agave Blue was better than Surf Green (what a difficult choice that was!).

As a rising senior in HS posing with my new guitar. Oh God… Jorts? The guitar isn’t the only thing with no action.

So this upgrade is really a love letter to my most faithful guitar, spurred on by my recent acquisition of a beautiful Taylor 114 GA acoustic guitar, which has left the Stratocaster in the dust as far as playability and enjoyment goes. I have plenty to say about my new Taylor (she’s so hot!), but that’ll be another day. Today, I honor Mr. Stratocastero.

A Better Interface

The Internet is rife with debate on what constitutes a good Strat mod. After reading some of those debates, it occurred to me that the electric guitar is inevitably a very individual instrument, so I should really be careful here about using the word “better.” What I mean is that it’s better for me and the way I think about playing the guitar.

For instance, I’ve always found the two tone knobs confusing: which pickups are they for again? And how the heck do I make use of the entire continuum of tone adjustments? Also, the five-way switch, which is confusing because with three pickups there are seven reasonable combinations? To my symmetry-and-structure-craving brain, having individual on-off and volume controls for each pickup would make much more sense, because I could then blend them as individual components, like RGB for colors or something.

With this preference in mind, I ended up deciding that I wanted three switches and three volume knobs which intuitively matched up to each pickup. The three switches would respectively control the neck pickup (on-off), the middle pickup (on-off), and the bridge pickup (in phase/off/out of phase). Having a pickup be “out of phase” means that its signal is being subtracted from the other pickups, as opposed to added. See here for an explanation of how that works.

A Better Sound

But before I went about messing with the interface electronics, I wanted to make sure that I had decent quality sound first, which is arguably more important than a new pickup selection interface, so that led me down another rabbit hole. But having reemerged from that hole recently, I gathered that the Internet consensus for improving the quality of sound in MIM Strats seems to be to get a new tremolo block (e.g. a thick block of brass or steel so that it gets more sustain), a new nut (e.g. of bone), and new pickups.

I currently don’t have the expertise to file and install a new nut on my own, nor do I want to entrust Guitar Center with this task, so I’m deferring this particular upgrade until later. For now, I would be happy to improve the bridge setup of the guitar and install some new pickups.

Pickups run the gamut from expensive to really-freakin-expensive, but I mainly just wanted something in the $100 range. John Mayer has of course been a big inspiration to me musically, so I figured why not try some pickups that would get me closer to his sound? Obviously, his “sound” comes more from the fact that he can make any guitar sound like his “sound” (ok, and maybe his super exclusive Two Rock and Dumble amps help too), but I’m just looking to improve on the worst ever Fender stock pickups this side of the Squier line-up, so a little goes a long way. Also, I’ll never ever compare myself to John Mayer again.

I ended up settling on a set of Tone Emporium mid-scoop pickups, which are not quite the Big Dippers that JM uses, but purportedly similar. Good enough for me.

As an aside, via email, I learned from Jason that pickups are really just like an EQ on your strings. The insight here is that you can make any pickups sound like any other pickups with the right EQ in post-processing, assuming they are of the same sensitivity. Additionally, affecting the sustain on your guitar is not really a linear thing, as some mods may improve the bass response but kill the treble or vice versa. Or the really zen way to think about it, and I quote: “It’s like an EQ that’s constantly being reapplied over time.” Whoa, right?

It’s a good thing, though, that I only learned these things after I finished my mod. Otherwise I probably would have gotten all nihilist about it and bought a new Les Paul instead.

Materials

So let’s round up all the materials we’ll be needing to complete this upgrade, shall we?

From GuitarFetish:  (the name of this site is weird, but their deals are good for sure)

From ToneEmporium:

  • Mid-scoop Gravity Pickups

From Radio Shack or equivalent:

  • 2 SPST flip-switches
  • 22 AWG (American Wire Gauge to save you a trip to Wikipedia) hook-up wire. I got a pack in three different colors. You might want to get the stranded variety. I got the solid variety by accident and ended up sticking with it, but I can tell in retrospect that stranded would have made my life a bit easier, especially since I suck at wiring things together.

Tools:

  • I am assuming you have soldering equipment and materials, but you can always get them from the Shack as well.
  • Multimeter to check your work
  • Philips screwdriver
  • Wire-clipper/stripper

Dissection

All right then, let’s open up that Strat. If you’ve never done this before, it’s actually pretty easy. Remove the strings and unscrew the 11 screws on the pickguard, and lift up the assembly. You should see everything come out except for three wires that appear to be running into the guitar body somewhere. In my case these were two black wires and one white wire. One set of these (black and white) goes to the output jack. The other one goes through to the back of the body where it is soldered onto the tremolo claw: this is the ground wire that ultimately grounds your strings (just follow the metal).

I chose to cut the black and white wires going to the output jack at the edge of the output jack, but this was an arbitrary decision. You can cut it anywhere since the output jack has to come out as well, unless you plan on reusing it. In my case, the GF pickguard assembly came with a new jack assembly so I just used that one, given that the original jack was getting a bit loose.

For the ground wire, I didn’t feel like redoing the soldering to the tremolo claw, so I cut it as close to the original pickguard assembly as possible.

So with that, the original pickguard assembly including pickups, pots, and all should come right out.

Original disassembly. Sorry for the crappy photo.

Bridge/Tremolo Replacement

If my guitar looks cooler, I will actually sound better too… right?

With the pickguard assembly out of the way, I decided to do the drop-in bridge and tremolo replacement. If you’ve ever used a screwdriver, then you know how to do this, so this is definitely not the hard part of the mod. Simply remove the back panel to get at the springs; remove these carefully. Then turn the guitar back over and find the six screws on the original bridge; remove these and the whole bridge and tremolo block assembly should come out.

The replacement setup from GuitarFetish features a brass (or steel—your choice) tremolo block that is way heavier than the stock block. The rest of the bridge assembly is probably the same quality as the stock parts on my guitar. I got the package though because it included a whammy bar that is threaded to the American standard as opposed to the metric standard, and the brass block is cut to the American threading. Not that it even matters because I never use the whammy bar (indeed, I pseudo-hardtail my Strat anyway), so you can save yourself a couple of bucks if you get the block by itself.

What do I mean by psuedo-hardtailing? Well, I don’t do it by inserting a block of wood to wedge the tremolo block in place, but rather just tension the springs to the point where trying to use a whammy bar is pointless. This usually means that as the strings tune up, the bridge does not float up either.

Finally, I swapped out the stock saddles for some nice solid steel ones that look super cool and presumably help the sustain too. No worries about the intonation or action yet—just screw ’em on there for now.

Assembly

Ok, let’s direct our attention to the pickguard assembly.

The first thing I did was line up the aluminum pickguard shield with the GF pickguard and punch two extra holes. I used a too-small hole-punch that I had from something else (Invisible/Xero Shoes, if you’re into that!), and just did the rest with a pocket knife. The aluminum is soft enough that carving out the two extra holes isn’t an ordeal.

Next, I screwed in the pots, switches, and pickups. No gotchas here except noting that everything should be really snug. You don’t want the pot itself to turn when you turn the knob, for instance, nor do you want the switch the rotate as you flip it, but this is commonsense super obvious stuff.

Less obviously, you’ll have to decide what kind of switches you want. I personally got two SPST switches (also known as toggle switches) because I didn’t care for the DPDT three-way switches that came with the GF pickguard assembly. This is because having an out-of-phase pickup really only makes sense between the neck and bridge pickups, since they are the farthest apart. You want your signal to be different enough on the pickup that is in phase vs the one that is out of phase so that they don’t cancel each other out entirely. You can see this for yourself by imagining what would happen if you took two of the same pickup signal and inverted one and then combined them: they would cancel out, leaving you with no signal at all!

So to summarize, the GF mod wants you to have three DPDT switches, so that any pickup can be in phase, off, or out of phase. To me, I logically only wanted one to be able to go out of phase, and that was the bridge pickup. I also imagined this pickup as the only one having a black cover to match up nicely with the fact that it was somehow “special” compared to the others.

But this is also where I should mention that I actually put the DPDT switch (one of three that came with the GF pickguard assembly) in the neck pickup because of a dubious technicality: when I ordered my pickups, I asked for black covers, figuring I could use the white covers from my stock pickguard assembly. So far so good. However, the Tone Emporium neck pickup has a slightly different width distribution than the stock pickups, so I could only use the black cover on the neck pickup. This led to a brief dilemma: do I have two black pickup covers and one white pickup cover, keeping the bridge the “special” pickup or do I care more that two white pickup covers over a black pickguard would look more badass? As is usually the case for me, the cosmetic reason dictated the functional outcome.

But hey, it looks badass indeed! And in case you need a reminder, here’s what it looks like again!

The knob says tone but it actually controls the volume of the middle pickup. Ditto with the last tone knob that you don’t see in the picture. Also, the specks on the pickguard are from the protective plastic film that I haven’t removed yet. This mod is actually perfect. Trust me.

Wiring

Before I considered this mod, I actually had no idea how an electric guitar works. I didn’t know that pickups are actually measuring a disturbance in their magnetic field, translated to voltage; although that is quite obvious in retrospect. I mean, what else could the signal be?

And I had no idea how the tone pots work, noting only that there appeared to be a capacitor in between the signal and ground. But then it hit me: I was supposed to remember at least something from my Saab Aux-In post. It was this: one of the problems in that mod was the fact that the radio seemed to have a capacitor built-in, which appeared to filter out frequencies in the signal coming from the iPod. Aha! So the capacitor’s function in the tone pots is to send high frequencies to ground, which leaves the lower frequencies. That’s how you get that muddy/growly sound by rolling down the tone knob! That’s pretty cool!

But whatever, I still went with volume knobs because that satisfied the consistency aspect that I’m so attached to. Why only be able to control the tone on two of three pickups? There will be no selective censorship in my pickup democracy!

Anyway, here’s the n00bishly drawn wiring diagram:

As you can see, it’s a pretty naive way to wire everything together, and is probably more work than necessary. I did it this way though because I wanted it to be super clear that each pickup went to each switch and each pot, and that the pots were linked together in the obvious way.

The red lines are the “hot” pickup lines with black being negative or ground. The green wires join the pot outputs together and send them to the output jack. Finally, the blue wires on the DPDT switch are the phase inverting ones. They are literally just swapping the pickup signal leads.

The only trick here is to make sure that the DPDT switch is in the right phase when you expect it to be. To do this, I hooked up a battery where the pickup leads would have gone and checked that the “on” position closest to me (when viewed from the usual perspective of holding the guitar) was the “in phase” setting, and was “out of phase” when pushed away all the way to the other “on” position. Correspondingly, the toggle switches were on when I flipped them towards me, and off otherwise. To do the checking, I set the multimeter to DC volts (pick whatever setting will show your battery voltage, e.g. 2V for a AAA) and see that it is positive when it’s in phase, and negative if it’s out of phase. You must of course point the positive probe of the multimeter to the red output of the switch and the negative probe of the multimeter to the black output of the switch to get the right sign (+ or -).

Ok, so what does it all look like wired up in the physical world? Well let me make some excuses first: CS major, can’t just delete and reset or undo with Ctrl+Z, never really soldered, fine-motor skills out of practice, etc. etc. Ready?

Final wired assembly.

You’ll notice in the photo too that the low E string is on there. This is so that I could test that what I did actually worked. I mean, you should also check with a multimeter to measure the resistance between all the lines to make sure that your solder joints are good, but hearing the right sound come from your amp is really reassuring. But do check your work with the multimeter first to save time: flip the switches off to see the resistance go to infinity, and on to see the resistance drop to 0. You can also hook up a battery and check voltages too.

So there you go! Now you know enough to do it too! It’s so awesome! Yeah yeah ye—

Ok, so this mod isn’t really perfect…

SIgh. ‘Tis true. There are some things that could have been better. For one, it appears that the soldering has been done by a 5th grader… who is actually in the 3rd for having been held back twice. Maybe he has authority issues too. I don’t know, but it looks like it:

I am not doing software engineers’ reputation with hardware guys any favors with this Homo erectus-like soldering job.
Oh… that piece of black tape? I might have burned through the wire coating. Like, I mean worse than where I burned the coating on the green wire.

I also had to troubleshoot a strange problem whereby all my work checked out on the multimeter, but when I assembled everything and tuned up the E string, only one of the phases of the neck pickup would work. For example, the middle and bridge pickup would turn on and off normally, but the neck pickup would only work in the “out-of-phase”  setting. Bewildered, I continued to check all the possible connections and was totally stumped when everything checked out.

In the end, it turned out that the act of putting the pickguard assembly back into the guitar was actually stressing one of the solder joints on the DPDT switch, which was bearing a bit of pressure, pushed against the guitar body. That was totally a head-smacker, but in retrospect, it wouldn’t have been an issue with the more pliable stranded hookup wires. The solid wires are rigid and when pressed against a cavity wall, that force has to go somewhere, and in my case, it went straight to the poorly soldered joints. So to fix the problem, I just shaped the wires a bit more and reinforced the solder joint, after cursing the realities of debugging in the physical world.

Conclusion

All right, so the soldering work could use some improvement, but how did the end result affect the sound, compared with the stock sound? First, a caveat: I actually went through a proper setup for my guitar this time, following a 45-minute-long YouTube video. I got out the feeler gauge, the 64th-inch ruler, the fret polisher, etc and properly set the neck tension, action, and fine intonation. That’s bound to make it sound better, regardless of what hardware was upgraded, so that could be a confounder, I admit.

Yet the sustain is killer now. Notes ring out forever and for the first time ever, I finally understand when people say that Strats have “bell-like sounds.” This thing sounds fantastic in any pickup combination, and I’m loving the quacky out-of-phase sound I can get between the neck pickup and the bridge pickup. As for the cons, I definitely get some of that single coil buzz going on, despite the aluminum pickguard shield. Touching my hand to the strings makes it go away, so I wonder if the ground is compromised? I’ll report back when I figure it out (read: I’m going to send Jason an email).

But until then, there you have it! For about $200 total and some elbow-grease, a probably-justified emo high-school relic was transformed into a well-spoken, stylish mid-20s stud dressed in a tux ready to impress some girls… and I’m not talking about the guitar!

Ok, I am—because for my proper self it took a lot more than just $200 and elbow-grease, but that’s a tale for another day! ;)