Rewiring a Telecaster with a four-way switch

Conventional 3-way switching

IMG_2158I’m willing to be that 99.9999999% of Telecasters are equipped with the conventional 3-way switch that offers up the bridge pickup, the neck and bridge in parallel, and then finally the neck pickup on its own. Time has shown this to be perfectly satisfactory as those 3 different tones have been and continue to be “go to” tones for musicians world-wide. My interest in Telecasters comes from a range of guitarists:

Mark Knopfler

He used one on many tunes like Espresso Love, and even the grotesque Walk Of Life. His Tele tone was always fat and chunky. I don’t know which Tele he used on early tracks, but since late ’79 he used ones built by Schecter back when they really built custom guitars.

George Harrison

He’s famous for his gorgeous rosewood Telecaster, which he used to great effect on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. You can hear him switching between neck and bridge as he plays over verse and chorus, and then the big riff at the end as he grinds through on the bridge pickup.

Joe Walsh

One of my favourite solos ever is the two-player epic that is Hotel California. A fantastic battle between Don Felder on a Les Paul and Joe Walsh on a Tele. You get to hear the difference between the two guitars…the thick bite of the Les Paul, and the sweet glassy edge of the Tele (probably set to both pickups in parallel…the normal middle position).

Conventional 3-way pickup wiring for Telecaster

Conventional 3-way pickup wiring for Telecaster

Why 4?

Over the years I’d always heard that one could get different tones out of a Tele by wiring the middle position so the pickups were in series, rather than in parallel. And that this would give you a “big sound”. That didn’t make much sense at the time, but as I hadn’t ever heard this configuration, I had no reason to doubt it. But I had to try it myself one day.

Recently I spotted a pre-wired kit from Emerson that went for about $65. They do such a lovely job of the wiring I seriously considered getting one. But that’s cheating, so I bought essentially the parts for it from Stewart McDonald so I could build it myself.  Here’s the parts kit. They also sell the ludicrously expensive capacitor that Emerson includes.


The alternate 4-way switch wiring diagram


My lovely wife bought me a set of “Vintage Noiseless” Telecaster pickups, made by Fender. That’s just how lovely she is. So this was a perfect time to install those too. I had originally installed a Schaller telecaster pickup in the bridge and a no-name neck pickup. They sounded OK, but in this modern world of computers-as-tape-recorders and compact-fluorescent bulbs, they were very, very noisy. Second only to the P90s in my Goldtop, but that’s another story. A third reason for doing this is that the cheap Japanese 3-way switch I’ve had in it for almost 15 years was failing quite quickly.

So, the wiring wasn’t hard. The only thing that slowed me down was I decided to use the fabric covered wire that came with the StewMac parts kit. I;d never used it before. You’re supposed to cut to length, and then push the fabric back to revel tinned wire. All cool so far, but then the fabric springs back making it a little hard to solder even if you get a good mechanical joint. I’m used to using Teflon covered wire that I strip before soldering. Anyway, it looks cool, so I won’t whine too much. Here’s some photos.

Here are the noiseless pickups sat waiting for me to begin removal of the old pickups.

Here are the noiseless pickups sat waiting for me to begin removal of the old pickups.

Wiring complete!

Wiring complete! You can see the ludicrously overspecced 200 volts capacitor, from Emerson.

Re-assembled and re-strung

Re-assembled and re-strung

Sound demo

The only thing left to do was to plug it in and see what it sounds like. Here’s a quick recording of me noodling around in Em, and switching between each position. This is plugged straight into my AX84 single-ended tube amp, set to be somewhat crunchy, into my 2×12 cab with celestions. Recorded with an SM57 right into a Mac.

I begin on the bridge pickup. The switch to neck and bridge (parallel) is at 1:49, the switch to neck alone is at 2:43, then to neck and bridge (series) at 4:14.

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6 thoughts on “Rewiring a Telecaster with a four-way switch

  1. Nice article on the 4 way switch. One issue I have seen with telecasters is poor earthing which results in buzzing when you take your hands off the strings. My 2013 model is worse than my 1993 model by a long way.

    • simonallaway says:

      Absolutely. Without decent shielding a Tele can be awful in the wrong room. My current band rehearsal room, which is a friend’s garage, is festooned with long flourescent tubes. Even these noiseless pickups still pickup noise in there.

      Are you going to go for a 4-way switch?

  2. Doug in VA says:

    I installed several 4 way Tele switches and this article does not even mention the tricky part: You must alter the neck pickup ground scheme. So go look it up if you expect to get a good result.

    • simonallaway says:

      For single coils, yes. I installed Fender Noiseless pickups which don’t require that step. The instructions that came with the 4-way switch (ordered from StewMac) detailed the separate neck pickup cover ground.

  3. Pierre Devalnac says:

    Hello !
    Can we have the neck pick-up in position 1 like original telecaster and not in position 3?
    Thank you

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