I’ve been fascinated by guitars since I was a teenager:  six string, electric, bass, classical, I just love the look, feel and sound of them.

Well, when it comes to sound not quite all.

Over the past fifteen years I have been obsessed with finding that personal ‘tone’ that all guitarists appear to fantasise about.  I’ve tried different guitars, different pickups, different wiring, different pickup configurations, … .  Within my limited budget I’ve tried most things except the ‘big name’ guitars.  I have improved cheap guitars by re-fretting, fret levelling, and then upgrading the wiring loom – as well as the usual pickup improvement.

The most expensive guitar I own is a Gibson SG Future.  The cheapest is a £15 ‘boot sale’ find.  Do they play the same?  Once I’ve got through with them I like to think they are not far off.  Do they sound the same?  No.  The main reason for the difference in sound is obviously the pickups and the way they are wired.  I can’t afford, nor am I interested in, the ‘big’ names in pickup design.  The most expensive pickups I own came as stock on the Gibson.  So the main thrust of my guitar ‘building’ has been tweaking the wiring loom – I’ve now come to a conclusion concerning the pickup manufacturer I prefer, but if you need to ask then you’re not reading this properly!

When it comes to ‘insane’ wiring looms, the most frustrating to wire was the black guitar pictured here.  It is a ‘Frankenstrat’/‘Partscaster’ (as are many of my guitars) made from an unknown make of body and, er, an unknown make of neck.  I have been reliably informed that it plays like a guitar costing ‘several thousand pounds’, which is a real boost to the old ego.

The pickups are Warman pickups, with two ‘Soapy Joe P90s’ in Neck and Middle, and a Warman G-rail at the Bridge.  It is the switches that do the work.  However, to describe the function of all of the switches can be confusing.  But I’ll give it a try.

The five-way switch is a traditional five-way switch.  Neck, Neck-Middle, Middle, Middle-Bridge, Bridge.  No special effects on the five-way, no ‘super switch’.  The Volume and Tone pots are simply for volume and tone.  No push-pull/push-push pots here.  All the ‘special effects’ are done by the mini switches.  To help with understanding – and if you’re insane enough to try this yourself – Josi Warman has kindly let me use his original wiring diagram for the G-rail.

For ease of understanding, I’ll include a picture with the switches labelled – see below.

Mini switch number 1 is very straightforward.  It simply switches on the neck pickup.  So from five positions we now have seven (N/N-M/M/M-B/B as usual, now plus N-M-B/N-B).

The fun starts with the other three switches.  These all work the G-rail.  The G-rail is in effect a normal single coil paired with a rail humbucker.  It has six wires, two from the single coil and four from the humbucker in the traditional manner.

Treating the G-rail as two pickups – the single coil and the humbucker – switch number 2 is a three-way switch giving single coil only, single coil plus humbucker or humbucker only options.  I’m not a mathematician and am not going to attempt to work out the number of options having this extra switch gives.  So far so straightforward.  Kind of.

To give slightly more complexity, switch number 3 is a two-way switch reversing the phase of the single coil on the G-rail.  In some options the effect is limited, but in others it is radical, going from full single-coil-plus-humbucker power to a weak, hollow sound at the flick of a switch.  Again, I’m not going to try to calculate the number of ‘tonal options’ now available, but it is pretty high!

Then there is switch number 4.  Things now move into a wholly different realm.  This is a three-way, on-on-on, which uses the four wires coming from the rail humbucker to give:  both coils in series;  single coil cut;  and both coils in parallel.  To put it mildly, the switch options are high, and can cater to most tastes in guitar tone.

Am I happy?  To a point.  There is only one problem:  I don’t like all of the tones produced.  In fact, the best phrase to describe my attitude to some of the tones is ‘meh’ – though no doubt to some these would be ‘THE’ guitar tone they are looking for!

Surprisingly, given his obsession with the colour orange, my son has now adopted this guitar as his own – hence the finger marks everywhere, the sign of healthy use!  Is this due to a superiority in sound?  Well, only by chance, as he only found ‘his tone’ later.  He likes it because it is the lightest guitar in the house.  For a small lad, this is very important!  However, like I said. he has found the ‘killer tone’ he likes on this guitar.  Is it an eerie mix of all three pickups plus phase and parallel options?  Of course not.  His favourite sound is position two on the main 5-way switch.  In other words, it’s just the two P90s working together!

So what have I determined from all of my wiring and pickup experiments?  Well, for a start, pickup choice is dependent upon the individual’s ear:  what is ‘tone gold’ to some people is just a racket to others.  But my most important discovery is that I like P90s.  A lot.  Which is why I’m going to attempt to convert a Les-Paul-alike – which has already been butchered, and I mean butchered! – from humbuckers to full-size P90s.

As for my experiments with the wiring loom, after loads of testing I have come to the conclusion that the following wiring options are the only ones I now consider as ‘standard’.  Obviously some of these are only appropriate for pickups with a suitable pickup configuration.

 

‘Stratocaster’             3 single coils               mini-switch to activate the neck pickup

switch/push-pull to reverse polarity of middle pickup

 

Stratocaster’             ‘super strat’                 mini-switch to activate the neck pickup

switch/push-pull for humbucker ‘coil split’

 

‘Les Paul’/’SG’ etc    P90s                             switch/push-pull to reverse phase of one pickup

 

‘Les Paul’/’SG’ etc    humbuckers                switch/push-pull to reverse phase neck pickup

switch/push-pull for ‘coil splits’

 

And that’s it.  I like the ‘hollow’ sound of a reverse phase in combination with a normal humbucker, the ‘coil split’ gives a little variety, and on a three-pickup guitar the neck pickup mini switch is an easy way to add tonal variety.  I will never again incorporate such complex wiring as that of the ‘mental’ guitar, as it caused a hell of a lot of stress – well, at least not until the next time!  Which could be sooner than I thought.  I’m now contemplating converting one of the ‘Les Paul-alikes’ I own with a ‘Jimmy Page’ wiring loom.  Why do I do this to myself …..