One of the best things about electric guitars is that you can pretty much customize them to your liking. Much like cars, the more popular brands will have a bevy of manufacturers working towards creating products for the model when compared to lesser known guitars (although several smaller guitar manufactures circumvent this by modeling the size of certain aspects to match that of their more mainstream rivals, such as all of those Strat clones out there that can use pretty much any official Stratocaster product). With that said, there are fewer guitars out there as popular as the Fender Telecaster. Although the stock sound of the guitar is what makes many players gravitate towards the Telecaster, sooner or later they tend to want to tweak the timbre, even just slightly, to reflect more of their personal taste in tone. So, just in case any of you Telecaster owners are in the same boat and are looking to fine tune the sound of your instrument, what better way than a brand new set of pickups!
Obviously, the first thing you need to do is decide on what kind of Tele pickups you might want, so for those of you who have yet decided on what kind of sound you’re going to want your baby to play, check out PALs selection of Telecaster pickups past the link.
Before we get started, familiarize yourself with your guitar and the how the pickups work in terms of size and interchangeability. For the Telecaster, you will be working with two pickups, the neck and the bridge. The neck pickup is on the side right next to neck and the bridge pickup is obviously close to the bridge of the guitar. This is important because you don’t want to go and accidently buy a neck pickup for a Tele when you are trying to get a bridge because they will not fit on the opposite slot. Although some guitars do allow for interchangeable pickups, some don’t, which is why it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself, or go the easier route and buy the complete set (although it’s NEVER a bad idea to be knowledgeable about your rig). This guide is for replacing your Standard Telecaster pickups with standard sized Telecaster single-coil pickups. It is essentially the same technique if you’re going to be replacing your pickups with something else such as a minihumbucker neck pickup except that it will include an extra wire (because humbuckers have two coils, one wire for each coil, although these two wires will be twisted together and soldered as you would with a single coil pickups wire, so essentially it works very similar to a single coil as far as installation goes when it’s all said and done).
Familiarize yourself with this diagram and the corresponding spots on your guitar's wiring
Step One: Gathering your Tools and Prep Work
There will be a few things you will need before you will be able to change the pickups on your Telecaster, but you should be able to easily find everything at your local home improvement store. A few of these tools aren’t explicitly necessary but trust me; it will make it so much easier.
Here is what you will definitely need:
Soldering Iron and Solder - Lead free is the best way to go for any electrical system.
Full Set of Screwdrivers - You will need two, but its best to find the exact fit so as to not strip the screw.
Pliers – Unless you have very thin fingers, you’ll need a way to feed the wires through the cavity.
Wire Cutters – Most new pickups will not have exposed wiring. Use these to take some of the plastic coating off, but remember, don’t cut through the entire wire.
These will make things easier:
Electrical Tape – To hold the wires in place inside the guitar body cavity, especially important in keeping two separate wires from touching which will cause a short, breaking the entire electrical component.
Wire Strippers – Used to cut the piece of plastic surrounding the new pickups wires. Work better than wire cutters in that they don’t cut all the way through.
Exacto Knife – Used to strip the pieces of plastic around the wire in case you don’t have wire strippers.
Paper Towels – Solder tends to get messy. Place around the control panel's wiring to make sure it doesn't get inside the guitar or on the body.
Step Two: Opening up the Control Panel
Since you will be taking apart most of the guitar, it’s not a bad idea to clean up some of the gunk that has accumulated over time while you’re at it. This would also be the perfect time to do any other tuneup job you’ve been meaning to do such as replace your strings, adjusting the action, replacing the jack, etc…
Alright, now that you have your tools gathered, the first thing you will obviously do is take off the strings. For our younger and less experienced readers, don’t forget about proper string removal which is similar to proper string installation. Don’t just go removing low E down to high E. Balance it out; if you remove low E first, remove the high E, then A to B, D to G. Get it? Keep it balanced! Unbalanced pressure is not a good idea in terms of the guitar neck. Same applies when stringing a guitar. I tend to go D to G, A to B, E to E so I work my way from the middle to the edges.
Alright, so the first actual thing you will be doing is removing the control panel which is where your volume and tone knobs are at. There are two screws on either side of the plate. Remove them and gently pull out the connection plate. Remember to be careful and not pull anything to hard. You don’t want to go rip a connection. If you have a camera handy, like on your phone, it will be a good idea to take pictures of the connections so that you don’t lose track of where each goes once you remove the old pickups. Set the exposed control panel off a bit to the side for now, but don’t pull too hard on the wires or you will make a simple job into a much longer one.
Step Three: Removing the Bridge Pickup
Now that you have the control panel unscrewed, you will need to remove the bridge plate which houses your bridge pickup. There can be as many as eight visible screws depending on your model of Telecaster. Remove the actual corner plate screws first and not the ones near the pickup as those hold the pickup in place. After you remove the bridge plate, then remove the pickup screws and the pickup.
Follow the two wires from the bridge pickup to the control panel and desolder them. It is a VERY good idea to either write down or take a picture of where the connections go so that you don’t mix up the wires when soldering the new pickup wires. You might have noticed that your black wire was connected on the same point of the volume knob as another black wire (NOTE: some guitars have their black ground wires on the back of the tone knob or even somewhere else. Ground wires just need a spot of metal so that they can complete the electrical connection, so it doesn’t really matter exactly where they are as long as they are out of the way and on a spot of metal. Just use the spot that the manufacturer used as a grounding spot for best results). That other black wire is coming from the neck pickup. There should be a third black wire that will either be connected at the same spot as the other two or in its own spot on the same knob. This third black wire is coming from the input jack. Only remove it if it is connected with the other two black wires that come from the pickups. If they are not connected to each other, leave it alone. They are the ground wires and as long as you remember (or take a picture) which wires connected to that same point when you’re ready to solder your new pickup’s corresponding ground wire, you’re good. Again, write it down, remember, or take a picture.
The other wire, which should be white or sometimes red, is your hot wire and it is connected to the three-way-selector knob. Desolder and remember which spot you removed it from so you can solder the corresponding bridge pickup wire to the same spot when you install the new pickup. You don’t want to accidently wire the bridge’s hot wire where the neck’s wire should be, or vice versa.
(NOTE: You will bump into other colors too in the world of pickup wiring, such as green. Follow the instructions of the pickups manual. In most cases it is because they are humbucking pickups.)
Step Four: Solder the New Bridge Pickup’s Hot Wire to the Three-Way Selector Knob
Now that you have removed the bridge pickup entirely, replace it with your new bridge pickup. Feed all the wires through the bridge plate cavity to the rest of the wiring. You can go ahead and screw the pickup to the bridge plate and the bridge plate back to the guitar. Most pickups will either have all the wires inside a large bundle or two separate bundles, although that is not the case 100 percent of the time. Read the manual of your pickups to make sure you which wires are hot and which are the ground wires, although most are as easy as differentiating between black being ground and white being hot. As I mentioned above, humbuckers will have an extra wire because of its extra coil so just keep that in mind if you’re replacing it with one of those. You can go ahead and solder the hot wire (and only the hot wire) of your new bridge pickup to the corresponding spot on the three way selector knob.
Step Five: Removing the Pickguard and Neck Pickup
The neck pickup on a telecaster is held in place by the pickguard much like the bridge plate held down the bridge pickup. Unscrew the pickguard and remove it. When taking out the neck pickup, be careful not to lose the springs and screws inside that hold the neck pickup in place. Once you have removed the neck pickup, do as you did with the bridge. Follow the wires from the pickup to their spots. The black ground wire should already be loose since you should have removed it from the back of the volume knob when taking off the bridge pickup’s hot wire. If not, you can remove it now. Remove the hot wire from its spot on the three-way-selector knob and remember where it went. All the wires of the neck pickup should now be off so you can remove the old pickup entirely.
Step Six: Solder the New Neck Pickup’s Wires
Now exactly like you did with the bridge pickup, feed the wires of the new neck pickup through the cavity and solder the hot wire to the corresponding spot of the three-way-selector. Both hot wires from the neck and bridge pickups should now be in their place. Take both of the loose black ground wires from the neck and the bridge pickups and twist them together. Solder these two joined wires to the spot on the back of the volume knob where they belong. If there was a third black wire from the jack that was originally there along with the other two, join that one in there as well.
Step Seven: Testing it Out
Before you go and screw back the control panel, it’s a good idea to make sure all the connections are working so that you won’t have to unscrew it all over again in case there’s a problem. If you have an amp and cable handy, go ahead and plug it into the input jack. Since there are no strings, you can take the tip of your screw driver and touch one of the pole pieces of the pickups or in the case of single bar pickups, anywhere that’s metal. If you hear a buzz when touched, everything should be good to go and you can go ahead and put the control panel back in, restring your guitar and enjoy your brand new pickups!
Recap: What’s Been Done
Removed bridge plate and bridge pickup from bridge plate
Desoldered bridge pickup hot wire from three-way-selector knob
Desoldered ground wires (of both the neck and bridge pickups) from back of volume knob
Removed old bridge pickup
Put in new bridge pickup and re installed it to bridge plate, put bridge plate back on guitar
Soldered new bridge pickup hot wire to correct spot on three-way-selector knob
Removed pickguard and neck pickup from pickguard
Desoldered neck pickup’s hot wire from three-way-selector knob
Removed old neck pickup and replaced with new
Put neck pickup back on pickguard, pickguard back on guitar
Soldered new neck pickup’s hot wire to correct spot on three-way-selector knob
Connected both neck and bridge pickup ground wires together and soldered them to their proper spot on back of volume knob
Replaced control panel
Restrung the guitar
There you have it, although it can be a bit complex and overbearing, it is actually a simple form of electrical engineering. As long as you make sure everything is connected securely and in its proper place, you shouldn’t have too much trouble at all. Some guitars will work a tab bit more complex if it has an extra pickup like the Stratocaster, and some pickups might have more wires than you would expect like humbuckers, but even still, same process in the end.