I have a Fender Squier (the cheapest model they make) guitar that was once a nice sunburst colour until I dropped it a few too many times, named it ‘Chip’ and decided to sand it back completely and put my own finish on it. That was about ten years ago.
It was difficult to sand. The annoying parts between the horns(?) required far too much work, by hand, that I put the project off and left it like that. I put it back together and did a mediocre job of rewiring it with new parts I didn’t understand.
However, one recent Sunday I was feeling bored and decided to pull out this old guitar, finish sanding it, oil it and make plans to rewire it better. I’d then have one less unfinished job nagging me, a nice guitar to play, and an excuse to share something else on my blog! I sat on the balcony listening to Escape Pod podcasts and after a few vigorous hours of sanding it was ready. I finished the body and neck with linseed oil which turned out darker than expected, but I actually quite like the contrast between the colour and the pickguard.
The Squier is quite a nice guitar, but it uses a lot of cheap parts. Ages ago the pickup selector switch stopped working so I replaced it with a proper one. While I was at it I upgraded the 250K volume and tone potentiometers (pots) to 500K ones, swapped the standard bridge pickup with a cheap humbucker I got second-hand, and rounded it all off with a new pickguard showing the fancy, three layer (white-black-white) colour scheme.
This time around I wanted to replace the humbucker with a new one and I found a second-hand Seymour Duncan HS4 on ebay for cheap. My only other purchase was for a capacitor and resistor which, surprisingly, are the only things I had to buy new for this project.
I spent ages looking online for guitar wiring plans for inspiration. I wanted to see what others were doing and think about how I wanted mine to work. I’d never really used anything but the bridge pickup with full tone and volume before, electing to simply use an amplifier to alter the sound. Now I had the opportunity to customise my guitar I’d be more conscious of and experimental with the sound options available when I play.
The Seymour Duncan site was helpful. It had a wiring diagram that was printable and only required a few changes. First, I wanted to use a separate tone pot for the humbucker and run the single-coil pickups through the other. Second, instead of the .022 capacitor in the tone circuit I swapped the old Fender .0473 one I didn’t trust with a .0333 that was in my other guitar. (I am unsure about units of measurement here!) And lastly, I elected to include a resistor (100k) and capacitor (1000pF) in the volume pot to reduce ‘treble bleed‘.
An issue I have is that my amplifier is too damn loud for an apartment. I nudge the volume knob just over zero and there’s a very small area between not being able to hear my guitar in all its glory and the point where I’m inviting number ten to hit their ceiling with broom handles. But if I make this search for an appropriate volume easier by turning down the pot on the actual guitar, I lose a noticeable amount of quality in the sound. The treble bleed hack helps retain the quality for the times where you actually need to use the volume knob. I wasn’t certain about which capacitor and resistor values would be best for me so I chose commonly recommended ones. If I could be bothered buying more parts I could experiment, but I think these are more than sufficient.
One Issue I’ve always has with (stratocaster) guitars is that when you take off the pickguard you need to use a soldering iron to detach a few cables before you remove it. Annoying! To avoid this I wanted to implement some kind of system where I only needed to disconnect a single cable by hand. I looked around the garage and found a three-wire, CPU fan cable. Perfect! (For those wanting to try this, a simple CPU fan extension cable has both male and female connectors – and they’re cheap!) This would work for the output and ground cables that go to the jack, and have one cable left for the ground connection to the bridge. (I wonder if anyone has tried this before?)
Putting it all together
After removing all the old wires the first thing I did was solder in the treble bleed hack. The capacitor was a little big so I had to move the volume pot around a bit so the tone pot wasn’t in the way. I’d cut the wires shorter later.
I then slid the female half of the CPU fan cable through the inside of the pickup selector switch. If you try this, be careful not to damage the wires in the process, and try the switch once the cable is in to make sure it isn’t actually in the way. Mine wasn’t, but perhaps I got lucky. Also, make sure it’s the right way around for ease of connection – I reversed it after taking this picture.
Next, I separated one of the wires from the male half of the CPU fan cable (mine was yellow) and slid it through the hole in the body. I soldered it to the bridge area. This will be for ground.
The other two wires on this cable were then attached to the output jack. I used red as output and black as ground. The picture below shows the finished preparation of the male CPU cable. It’s also in the rough position it would be if it was connected to the pickguard.
I can’t stress how happy I am that this hack worked so perfectly. It will save me some time later on, of course, but I’ll also be reminded of how awesome I am whenever I see it. It can also be used for stereo output (using a four-wire cable, using a separate cable for the bridge grounding, or ignoring the bridge grounding altogether), but I didn’t want to play with multiple channels just yet.
Next job was to neaten up the pickup wires and solder them on. That’s fairly straightforward (just check the Seymour Duncan diagram) so I won’t go into detail. The image below shows the completed wiring for the volume pot (the CPU cable and the pickup selector switch have been connected) and we would actually be done now if we didn’t want to use the tone pots.
A bit of fancy wiring for the tone pots . . .
. . . connecting the cable . . .
. . . and we’re done!
I was sure to test the circuits were working correctly before screwing on the pickguard, putting on a set of 10-46 gauge strings, adjusting the height and intonation of the strings and then playing for a minute or two to stretch the strings a little.
Here are some photos of the finished product! (As usual, click on any of the photos on this post to see the large version!)
It’s amazing! I know much of this is because I’m now very conscious of how it’s all working (and for that reason alone I’d recommend such a project to others), but I can hear many distinct sounds coming from each of the pickups. For the first time I’ve found a good setting on the amplifier and then refined it by using the tone controls on the guitar. I can use the humbucker and then switch to a predefined tone using the bridge and neck.
I’m also quite impressed with the treble bleed hack. There is a slight loss of quality but it’s more than sufficient until I get down to 4. Usually it would sound awfully muddy at 8.
I noticed that the only original hardware remaining are the single-coil pickups (I think they’re fine) and the output jack. The latter may actually need replacing. There’s a noise if the cable isn’t pushed in at the right angle, even though the circuit connects clean. I tried two separate cables (four ends) so it’s likely that it’s simply a low quality output jack. I probably have something in the garage that’s better, but this isn’t urgent.
Another lingering issue is that the Squire Strats, for some reason, use a slightly different set of rules for its placement of pickguard holes. Out of the eleven holes on the board, only six match with corresponding holes in the wood. I’ll have to drill five more one day, and get a hold of four additional screws.
Lastly, one thing I liked about this guitar is that it was made in 1996, Fender’s fiftieth anniversary. To commemorate this, they put a gold, embossed sticker stating so on the back of the headstock. I had to remove this for sanding, but I wanted to put it back somewhere. I just don’t know where. Again, not urgent – like my plan to draw a dinosaur design on the headstock with ink.
Apart from being a fun and educational project, I now have a guitar that sounds great and is easy to use. (My other one has a locking nut and floating bridge, which makes it nigh impossible to alter tuning, and the pots and switch are all scratchy.) I’ve been looking for an excuse to get back into playing guitar regularly for years. I hope this helps get me there.
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