Perfect Switching (part 1)

      Design, Electronics

I am tired of the same old Fender Strat or Gibson wiring. Go to a music store and chances are, with a very few exceptions, you’ll see electric guitars wired either the Fender Strat way (5-way switch) or the Gibson Les Paul way (3-way switch). I want to be adventurous and explore new wiring configurations. I’ll be exploring alternative switching configurations for the Cycfi guitar.

Before I begin, let me warn you that this page assumes you know a little bit of electrical wiring and reading basic schematic diagrams. If you don’t know what “parallel” or “series” wiring means, this page will provide you with some basics: http://www.1728.com/guitar.htm.

I will be using this simple notation for brevity:

  • Neck pickup: A
  • Middle pickup: B
  • Bridge pickup: C
  • x | y: Parallel wiring
  • x + y: Series wiring
  • ‘x: x inverted phase

Examples:

A | C reads as: Neck and Bridge pickups wired in parallel
A + ‘B reads as: Neck and middle pickups wired in series with middle pickup connected in reverse (inverted phase).

Standard Switching

Your standard 5-way Fender Stratocaster switch connects one or two of your 3 pickups to the output with these configurations below:

  1. A
  2. A | B
  3. B
  4. B | C
  5. C

With only two pickups (neck and bridge), you have only three options with the standard Gibson Les Paul switching:

  1. A
  2. A | C
  3. C

Red Special

Strat and Les Paul pickups are wired in parallel. That is typical. Most electric guitars out there, with a few exceptions, are wired in parallel. One peculiar exception, and one that I am very fond of, is Brian May’s (of Queen) Red Special that he and his father built. Brian May is my inspiration. He is the very reason why I started building guitars in the first place. I love the thought of having my own unique signature sound that no one else will ever have. Contrary to norm, the Red Special pickups are wired in series. Also, instead of having a single switch, the Red Special has six! Three switches for pickup selection and three more for phase switching (out of phase switching gives you a thinner, squawky  sound since some frequencies cancel out each other). Like the Strat, the Red Special has three pickups. With the three pickup switches, you have all possible permutations:

  1. A
  2. A + B
  3. B
  4. B + C
  5. C
  6. A + C
  7. A + B + C

Strat folks, you are missing the last two pickup configurations! (Aside: A friend of mine has a unique Strat model equipped with three pickup switches like Brian’s, but that model is very rare).

Now, if you add the Brian’s phase-switching into the picture, you have a lot more options. I list all the options below, removing redundancies (for example, A (neck pickup alone), is sonically equivalent to its inverse ‘A (neck pickup reverse wired)). I also removed the all-off combination. Here’s the list:

  1. A
  2. B
  3. C
  4. A + B
  5. ‘A + B
  6. A + C
  7. ‘A + C
  8. B + C
  9. ‘B + C
  10. A + B + C
  11. ‘A + B + C
  12. A + ‘B + C
  13. A + B + ‘C

Brain May’s Red Special indeed gives you a fuller repertoire of sounds. There are a lot of redundancies though. If you consider the number of switches (there are 6), then the possible permutations would be 26 or 64. Yet, in the list above, you see that there are only 13 unique timbres. The rest are duplicates.

Why?

1) A reverse phased pickup only affects the sound in combination with at least one more pickup connected normally (in-phase). The out of phase pickup will cancel some frequencies of the other pickup(s). You will not notice any difference in timbre when you invert the phase of a single pickup. Example:

‘A = A

2) Two pickups inverse-phased will likewise sound the same as its normal counterparts. Example:

‘A + ‘B = A + B

3) Two pickups inverse-phased plus another normally wired pickup will sound the same as the first two pickups normally wired plus the third inverse-phased. Example:

‘A + ‘B + C = A + B + ‘C

In short, the phase switching is only effective one switch at a time and only when two or three pickups are active.

Thirteen possible timbral options is a lot and offers a vastly superior sound repertoire. However, settings that involve phase reversal give you a thin, squawky sound that is only useful occasionally.

Can we do better? You bet!

Next: Perfect Switching (part 2) next