Hopefully you read Part 1 of this series on upgrading the electronics in your guitar. If you didn’t, please take a look at it here and come right back, because things are about to get switchy…
Upgrading the pickup selector switch in your guitar may not sound critical or even necessary. I mean, how much of a difference can it make? Well, I’ll throw some questions your way and see if they apply to you. Have you ever jiggled the switch in your guitar and heard static through your amp? Or even worse, the sound cut out completely? Have you heard a low buzzing sound coming out of your amp that mysteriously stopped once you touched the metal part of your switch? This next one applies mostly to blade type switches… do you hear a pop through your amp as you move the switch between positions?
In most cases players just get used to these little things and tune them out, but believe me, others hear it. So let’s see how we can fix it.
There are a number of ways that guitars handle pickup switching, but for this article we’re going to focus on the two most common types of pickup switches: blade style and toggle switches. Blade switches are typically used in guitars with 2 or more pickups. Some good examples are Fender Stats and Teles, Ibanez RGs, Jackson/Charvel guitars, etc. A blade switch typically has 3, 4, or 5 positions, and each position can represent a single pickup or a combination of pickups. The actual switching occurs by using a series of metal contacts on the rotating portion of the switch that come in contact with the metal lugs on the stationary portion of the switch. The pickup output wires are soldered to the lugs and as you move the switch through the positions, the contacts and lugs make contact and allow the signal to pass through the switch and on to the volume pot. This type of switch has a few failure points – the metal contacts become worn, rusted, or loose. Cheaper switches use low-quality materials and will start failing much sooner than switches made with higher quality materials.
The other type of switch is a toggle switch. It’s typically a round shape and it has only 3 positions, with each position representing a single pickup or a combination of pickups. It’s typically used in guitars with 2 pickups, such as a Gibson Les Paul and SG, and various PRS models. The toggle switch works quite differently than the blade switch in that it uses a pair of thin metal bars that are pressed against the switch frame to complete the signal circuit. So rather than moving the switch to enable the connection for the desired pickup, as in the blade switch, the toggle switch moves to disable the connection for the opposite pickup. For example, if you’ve got a Les Paul and you move the pickup selector down to activate the bridge pickup, the switch actually pushes the metal bar connected to the neck pickup away from the switch frame, essentially disconnecting the neck pickup while allowing the bridge pickup to remain connected to the frame. It’s not a very complicated design when compared to the blade switch. The most common failure point is when the thin metal bands lose their tension against the frame. The toggle becomes loose and the signal cuts out due to poor connections.
The problem I see most often is that most low cost/high volume guitars that are built overseas (i.e. Korea, Indonesia, China) are fitted with switches that have poor quality metal contacts and plastic parts that wear out fairly quickly. On a brand new instrument you may not notice a difference in quality right away, but over time those low-quality switches will wear out and need to be replaced. The second most common problem I see is when the guitar is fitted with good quality switches but they have either been used so much the metal contacts have worn down, or the guitars have been stored in very wet/humid conditions and the switches are corroded. In this case, it’s best to just replace the switch.