How To Replace Strat Pickups

 

Blue Fender Stratocaster

Strat Picture

 

Maybe you bought a Korean or Squier Strat and you aren’t happy with the way it sounds. Maybe you’ve heard the guitarists you admire talking about the pickups they use and how their sound is largely due to them—whatever your reason, you’ve decided it’s time to change out the factory pickups in your Stratocaster or Strat-style guitar, but you’re not sure how to go about it. This guide is for you!

 

Materials Needed:

 

Before you start, you will need a Stratocaster-style guitar, and this guide is specific to those kinds of Strats that have three single coil pickups—the old-school way. And obviously, you will need to have some replacement pickups. Replacement pickups are available from many different places. The ones I’m using in this guide are these:

Fender Custom Shop Fat 50’s Pickups

Fender Custom Shop Fat 50’s pickups

Fender Custom Shop Fat 50’s pickups

..but there are lots of different pickup manufacturers and each has their own special sound. Here are a few to get you on the right track:

Seymour Duncan
DiMarzio
Fralin Pickups

Fetish Guitar

Tools Needed:

Now that you have a guitar and some replacement pickups, you are going to need the following tools (or comparable ones) on hand to be able to complete this project:

  • String Winder – for winding and unwinding stings… go figure.
  • #1 Phillips Screwdriver – for unscrewing and screwing pickguard screws.
  • #2 Phillips Screwdriver – for unscrewing and screwing pickup mounting screws.
  • Wire Cutters – for cutting wires… yeah.
  • Wire Strippers – for stripping the shielding off wires, depending upon the pickups you purchased.
  • Soldering Iron – for melting solder… you could go with a really cheap one, that will do the job fine, or, if you plan on getting into the pickup changing lifestyle, this is the one I’d suggest: Hakko 936 ESD-Safe Soldering Station
  • Solder Sucker – Sometimes, you need to clean solder off of switch or potentiometer lugs, so you might need one of these solder suckers
  • Desoldering Wick – or sometimes well-meaning people really leave a mess on the backs of their potentiometers, so you may need one of these to get solder off the back of your volume potentiometer
  • Solder – I like the 60/40 rosin core solder….lead-free solder seems like a good idea, but has only let me down!
  • Small Zip Ties – for keeping the wires together so the pickguard is easier to install.
  • Good Paper Towels – These paper towels are lifesavers! Many, many uses.

Now that you have the tools and parts, we’re ready to get into it!

Step One: Remove the Strings

While it is possible to remove the pickguard without taking off the strings, it’s kind of an advanced procedure. You probably needed to change the strings anyway, so you might as well take them off.

 

Strat Headstock closeup

Removing the strings

 

Fender Startocaster with no strings

Stringless Strat

 

Step Two: Remove the Pickguard Screws

Using your trusty #1 Phillips head screwdriver, remove all of the screws that are holding the pickguard on.

Strat Pickguard Close Up

Removing the pickguard screws

 

Fender Strat with Pickguard Screws Off

Fender Strat with Pickguard Screws Off

 

Step Three: Turn the Pickguard Over and Snip Any Tape or Cable Ties

To ensure that I won’t mar the finish of this guitar, I’m using the awesome paper towels mentioned earlier as a cushion on which to rest the inverted pickguard. Also, this is the time to cut any tape or cable ties that may be serving as wire retainers.

Strat Pickguard Removed

Strat Pickguard Removed

Removing old Strat Pickups

Removing old zip ties

Removing Start Pickups

Removing old zip ties

Step Four: Unsolder the Pickups From the Switch

Using your soldering iron, heat the lugs of the switch leading to the pickups. In this case, the wires are white, yellow and red. Remember which pickup was soldered to each lug. It may be a good idea to use your digital camera to document where each wire goes, so you can put the new pickups in the right places.

Unsoldering the Pickups From the Switch

Unsoldering the Pickups From the Switch

Unsoldering the Pickups From the Switch

Unsoldering the Pickups From the Switch

Unsoldering the Pickups From the Switch

Unsoldering the Pickups From the Switch

 

Step Five: Unsolder the Pickup Ground Wires from the Back of the Volume Pot

Typically in a Strat, all the ground wires from the pickups are soldered on to the back of the volume pot. Heat up the solder that is attaching these usually black leads to the pot, and gently lift them away from the pot.

Unsoldering the Pickup Ground Wires from the Back of the Volume Pot

Unsoldering the Pickup Ground Wires from the Back of the Volume Pot

 

Step Six: Remove the Pickups from the Pickguard

Using your trusty #2 Phillips head screwdriver, loosen the screws that hold the pickups onto the pickguard.  Set the pickups aside, but save the plastic pickup covers for later.

Removing the Pickups from the Pickguard

Removing the Pickups from the Pickguard

Removing the Pickups from the Pickguard

Removing the Pickups from the Pickguard

Removing old Strat Pickups

Removing old Strat Pickups

Stock Pickups Removed

Stock Pickups Removed

 

Step Seven: Determine Which of the new Pickups is the Neck, Middle and Bridge

In this case, it’s pretty easy: since the middle pickup is usually a Reverse Wound/Reverse Polarity (RWRP) pickup (so as to be hum cancelling when the switch is in positions two and four), the hot wire in this set is yellow.

In the case of the neck and the bridge pickups, Fender has done us a favor and marked the underside of each of these pickups. The pickup with the blue mark on the underside is the neck pickup, while the pickup with the red mark on the underside is the bridge.

Strat Replacement Pickups

Strat Replacement Pickups

 

Step Eight: Put the Covers on the Pickups and attach them to the Pickguard

Taking care to put the pick ups in the right places, screw the pickups into the pickguard.

Attaching the pickups to the pickguard

Attaching the pickups to the pickguard

Attaching the pickups to the pickguard

Attaching the pickups to the pickguard

Attaching the pickups to the pickguard

Attaching the pickups to the pickguard

 

Step Nine: Measure and Trim the Pickup Ground wires

Usually, the pickup wires are longer than you need them to be. Trim them to the correct length. I am just eye-balling these lengths.

The three black ground wires are trimmed so they will fit on the back on the volume pot.

Measuring the ground wires to be trimmed

Measuring the ground wires to be trimmed

Trimming the Pickup Ground wires

Trimming the Pickup Ground wires

 

Step Ten: Clean off the Back of the Volume Pot

Whoever worked on this guitar before I did sort of left a rat’s nest and a bunch of messy solder and flux on the back of the volume pot, so we should really make it more presentable. Using a solder-sucker or  desoldering wick, I’m trying to remove the solder and flux mess. When that looks better (and looking at these pictures again, I probably should’ve done a better job! So be better than me!),  we’re ready to solder the pickups. If you have to get a lot of flux off the back of a pot, use some 220 grit sand paper.

Step Eleven: Solder the Hot Wires from the Pickups to the Switch

I’m making sure that the wires leading to the switch have plenty of wiggle room, in case i need to move them out of the way when I put the pickguard back on the guitar.

If you forget where the wires are supposed to go, refer to this diagram.

Since the leads on these particular pickups are cloth-shielded push-back wire, I don’t really need to use wire strippers, I just need to push the shielding back and expose the end of the wire.

From there, just put the wire through the correct lug, heat and apply solder.  Make sure that when the solder cools, the solder is shiny.

Soldering the Hot Wires from the Pickups to the Switch on a Fender Startocaster

Soldering the Hot Wires from the Pickups to the Switch

Soldering the Hot Wires from the Pickups to the Switch on a Fender Startocaster

Soldering the Hot Wires from the Pickups to the Switch

Soldering the Hot Wires from the Pickups to the Switch on a Fender Startocaster

Soldering the Hot Wires from the Pickups to the Switch

 

Step Twelve: Solder the Ground Wires to the Back of the Volume Pot

Solder the three black wires to the back of the volume lug (hopefully, you cleaned the pot off better than I did!)

Soldering the Ground Wires to the Back of the Volume Pot on a Fender Stratocaster

Soldering the Ground Wires to the Back of the Volume Pot

Soldering the Ground Wires to the Back of the Volume Pot on a Fender Stratocaster

Soldering the Ground Wires to the Back of the Volume Pot

 

Step Thirteen: Install Cable Ties

At this point, I put the cable ties around the pickup wires so the pickguard lays down nicely as we install it. I put one in between the middle and bridge pickup,

Installing The Cable Ties on a Fender Stratocaster

Installing The Cable Ties

and one between the treble side of the bridge pickup and the volume pot.

Installing The Cable Ties on a Fender Stratocaster

Installing The Cable Ties

Installing The Cable Ties on a Fender Stratocaster

Installing The Cable Ties

 

Step Fourteen: Lay the Pickguard in Place

In order to test the wiring job I have just done, I placed the pickguard in its position. I didn’t screw it in until I have tested and made sure everything is fully operational (there’s nothing worse than screwing in 11 screws only to find out you did it wrong and have to take all those screws back out again!).

I test each switch position to make sure the right pickup is making noise when I tap it.

Tap-testing the bridge pickup

Tap-testing the bridge pickup

Tap-testing the bridge pickup

Tap-testing the bridge pickup

Tap-testing the middle pickup

Tap-testing the middle pickup

 

Step Fifteen: Screw the Pickguard Down

Once I’ve tested everything and determined that everything works, I screw the pickguard back down and test it again…sometimes, when the pickguard is in place, wires move around and may short out against the switch, so test and retest!

Screwing the pickguard on

Screwing the pickguard on

 

Step Sixteen: Restring the Guitar

When the pickguard is back on, you can restring the guitar and prepare to melt some faces with your guitar prowess! Adjust the pickups to suit your taste, just make sure they are not too close to the strings, or you will have weird noises and intonation problems.

Restringing the Guitar

Restringing the Guitar

Pickup Replacement Finished Project

Pickup Replacement Finished Project

 

So there you go. That’s the basic Strat pickup replacement.  Now, you should understand that there are many different kinds of pickups and switches, so putting new pickups in a Strat or Strat-style guitar is always an adventure! This was basically a vintage-style pickup configuration, so it used nice pickups and pots and it had a nice switch. Your guitar could be different, but the basic steps and principles are the same. Good Luck!

 

 

 

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