Principles of Guitar Modification

There are several general considerations that inform my "style" of guitar modifications.  I don't consciously follow these; they simply emerge from the process.  I've generated this list because I think it might help others to develop their approach to modifying guitars.  You are free to add to these in your craft and/or reject the ones that don't suit you.  This just happens to be how I play the game, and even then there are exceptions, depending on the project.




However, think these over.  I notice a lot of people send me designs to review where the wiring scheme might be error-free, but I can see they haven't really thought things through about the design itself.

Optimization.  If it's a Strat, then I'm going to make it the best Strat possible.  If it's a speed metal machine, then I'm going to give it the best options for that role.  It's all about casting.  I'm not going to try to turn a Strat into a 335 or a Les Paul into a rockabilly instrument.  If I am working on a Telecaster, then I'm going to give it the best Tele pickups I can find and work with those.  A guitar should be the best version of itself it can be.  It shouldn't pretend to be something else.

Invisibility.  No matter the number or nature of the electronic mods I include in an instrument, I do my best to keep it looking 100% stock.  I try to avoid drilling into the face of a guitar to add any new switches.  Most mods can be accomplished using push-pull pots that keep the guitar looking completely stock.  Many interesting coil combinations can be achieved using multi-pole 5-way switches (aka "super-switches") or rotary switches (e.g., found on some PRS guitars).  Drilling into the guitar to add toggle switches is something that should only be undertaken if there is no better way to include mods or, conversely, if the mods you want to make absolutely require such alterations to the physical guitar.

Reversibility.  In all my guitars, the electronic mods start with the stock configuration as the default.  For example, humbuckers get tapped or switched to parallel, but when the push-pull switch is down (i.e., the default position), the pickup is back to stock.  I don't start with exotic combinations; that's what you should be able to dial in, not what you are stuck with until you say otherwise.

Versatility.  I try to include combinations that offer selections from several groups of sounds.  Although I don't expect any guitar to perfectly emulate any other, I try to add to the palette of what it's capable of.  For example, I want Strat-like sounds (via single coils if I can keep them quiet; parallel hum-cancelling pairs if not) and thick LP-like sounds (via series connections) and even a few weird sounds if possible, usually via a phase switch.  Lately I've been trying to include the "Tele sound" of two single coils at the extremes of the guitar wherever possible.

Silence.  Unless I have silent single coils installed (such as EMG or AGI Lace pickups), I employ as few single-coil combinations as possible to avoid introducing the 60Hz hum into combinations that are usually humbucking (or hum-cancelling, since that's a more general term).  For example, I won't do a configuration where I have an odd number of coils such that each coil doesn't have another oppositely-wound coil to cancel against.  In fact, given the choice, I rarely use coil taps.  I prefer instead to have opposing coils in parallel.  In fact, these usually sound better.

Intuition.  I like the layout of the controls to be really intuitive to me.  For example, I always put the phase switch of Strats on the middle knob since it affects the middle pickup.  That just makes sense to me.  My most-used combinations are placed at the distal ends of the selector switch (i.e., positions 1 or 5 = neck or bridge pickup, respectively) with lesser-used or more exotic combinations (e.g., parallel coils, out-of-phase sounds, etc.) in the middle positions.  This means I can concentrate on playing rather than getting the sound I want to play with.

Practicality.  Mods have to made sense.  They can't just be to increase the number of combinations/options.  After all, they aren't options if you will never use them as a guitar player.  For example, I don't include an excessive number of phase switches on my guitars.  One phase switch is usually enough to give one or two interesting combinations (or more, depending on what other mods are present on the guitar), and any more than that would simply be overwhelming (see "Intuition" above) while not especially useful musically.


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