Most electric guitars come with various pickups. At times, these can be selected through switches, providing players with the advantage of various configurations and combinations that largely depend on the number of pickups available.
How do guitar pickup switches work? A pickup selector switch triggers the pickups that will send signals to the amplifier. Most times, these switches are levers or toggles with various stops (usually three or five) corresponding to different settings (commonly neck, neck/bridge, or bridge).
In this article, we'll discuss the differences between neck and bridge pickups, how switches work to toggle between different pickups, and how to use these switches when playing.
Related article: Top 11 Best Electric Guitar Pickup Brands On The Market
Differences Between Neck And Bridge Pickups
As explained before, the switches allow you to select between different pickups installed in your guitar, enabling different tonal profiles. In order to understand how this works exactly, we need to comprehend the underlying mechanisms that prompt these tonal shifts.
For the purposes of this writing, we'll only be focusing on differences between pickups in relation to positioning rather than technology or components.
Whenever we pluck or play a string, it vibrates with varying frequencies across its length, depending on the distance to the anchor point.
Towards the guitar's neck, the vibration will be lower in frequency and higher in amplitude, resulting in a fuller and “bassier” tone, whereas, near the bridge, the vibration will be more restricted and higher in frequency, producing a higher-pitched tone.
A string's excursion due to oscillation will be greatest at the middle of its length. The vibrational movement becomes more and more restricted as we approach the anchor points. Lower frequencies require greater and longer vibrational oscillation. Therefore, the low end is represented more poorly near the anchor points (notably the bridge).
On the other hand, a pickup captures the vibrations produced within its vicinity. When a pickup is placed near the bridge, it will “pick up” the vibrations produced near the bridge, accentuating higher frequencies. Similarly, a pickup placed near the neck area will “pick up” the vibrations produced near the neck, which are more balanced and relatively full compared to those at the bridge.
Some guitars, moreover, can carry three pickups, with one placed in between the neck and bridge pickups, allowing for an even wider range of tonalities.
The Pickup Selector Switch
Now that we've discussed how pickups work relative to their positioning, we need to explain the role of the selector switch in more detail.
Not all guitar or bass models include this feature. Some of them rely on the tone knobs, usually located at the bottom-left of the instrument. However, some of the earlier Fender and Gibson models included a toggle or lever that allowed the player to select the pickup that would remain operative while connected to an amplifier or external device.
Both the Fender Telecaster and the Gibson Les Paul sported a 3-way switch that toggled the neck or bridge pickups separately and a middle position that toggled both pickups together as a midrange option. The Fender Stratocaster introduced the three-pickup arrangement with a 5-way switch.
How Pickup Selector Switches Work
We will not go into detail regarding the technicalities of how switches work or what “throws” or “poles” are. But, to summarize the technical aspects, a switch provides a person with a way to change the electrical continuity between connections.
For example, on a “blade” switch (the most common), you can observe two sides. Each side is independent of the other (unless you have a jumper wire installed that activates both sides simultaneously). The switch has a number of connections or “lugs” normally corresponding to the number of pickups (plus an output connection that is always enabled).
In a 5-way switch, you would find four connections on each side (numbering eight in total), to wit: Bridge, middle, neck, and output (also called “common”).
By moving the lever, you may be able to activate two different connections together or, rather, have only one of the lugs to the output, the respective tone or volume pot, and the output jack.
The way switches are assembled can vary depending on the model or the modder's needs. There are also various connection options between lugs and tone controls, but to choose one, you must have some intermediate-level knowledge about the limitations of each one.
The selector switch comes in various presentations and models, according to the manufacturer. The Centralab # 1452 is used in a myriad of Fender models, while the toggle switches built by Switchcraft are the staple of many Gibson guitars, such as the Les Paul Standard and the E-335.
Examples of 5-way switch types include the standard CRL 5-way switch, the OAK 5-way switch (similar to the CRL but with a different lug orientation), or the Far East 5-way switch (mostly manufactured in Japan and Korea) consisting of only one row of lugs or connections instead of two.
Some mods allow for additional positions or combinations. A 7-way Stratocaster mod is designed with the same 5-way switch, but it also adds an off-on toggle or replaces a tone pot with a blender control for either the neck or bridge pickup. This way, guitar players may be able to activate both neck and bridge pickups simultaneously, a feat seemingly impossible to achieve with regular setups. There are also 4-way Telecaster mods that work similarly.
How To Use Pickup Selector Switches
From the player's point of view, it's really as simple as it looks. The switches have various positions depending on the type of tone required. Typically, the connections are automatically generated by turning the switch to these positions, allowing the guitarist to control which pickups to activate on the spot.
However, there are some neat tricks. Some guitarists play around with the switch by trying to wedge the lever in between positions for a wider array of tonal options. That way, for example, Jimi Hendrix was able to turn a 5-way Stratocaster selector into a 7-way (though in a different fashion from the mod mentioned above).
Other guitarists like Ritchie Blackmore (of Deep Purple fame) are used to relying a lot on the switch selector to add colour to their lead or rhythm sections. In the case of Blackmore, he stuck to the outer positions of his Strat (neck and bridge positions), and he hardly used pedals or other external devices for special effects.