Fitting the Jaguar pickups.

The Jaguar is all ready to go – except without it’s pickups, it looks a bit of a hollow shell. Fitting the pickups is the final step which, together with stringing, should bring the instrument to life. The installation process for the pickups shouldn’t, in theory, be too difficult – just as long as my previous wiring work is sound.

I’ve had a matched pair of pickups, custom made by Jacques at Fuente Guitars. They’re made to vintage specifications, with Formvar coil wire around Alnico 2 magnets – the poles of which are configured flat – rather than stepped. This seems to match later Fender modifications from 1965 / 1967 – onwards. I was originally looking at getting hold of some Creamery Sonic pickups in their characteristic chrome covers, but they’re expensive and the waiting list for Creamery builds just seems to get longer and longer all the time. Jacques’ pickups come highly recommended, and promise to prove a favourable alternative for a great price.

Each pickup is installed with a white, plastic cover. The pickup and cover are then seated in a chrome plated “claw”. It’s important to note that different generations of Jaguar pickups, appeared to have slightly different pole spacings. These Fuente pickups have 51mm spacing. Some of the aftermarket cover options available appear to fit 52mm spacing, and are not compatible. The pickup units are supposed to fit snugly in the pickguard openings, and are screwed to the body of the guitar to allow for height adjustment. So that the screws have something to work against, small strips of neoprene rubber are located in the pickup cavities to act as springs.

Because the pickups need to move freely through the pickguard, the location of the screw holes needs to be accurately assessed. I’ve previously worked out the rough placement, and have drilled 8mm holes in the brass grounding plate before fitting – to allow plenty of room for the screws to pass through unhindered. With the pickguard screwed down, I now use the pickup covers and claws to mock up the alignment, and to check the fit. It actually proves easier to put the covers in upside down – but the first thing that’s obvious is that the openings in the scratchplate are a little bit too tight. There’s a risk that if the pickups are screwed down too much – they might not be able to spring back freely.

I use a sharp blade and pare back any loose plastic around the edges of the covers. I also take a little off the curved ends of each pickup opening on the pickguard – taking care to make sure there’s roughly the same taken from each end. Eventually, the pickup covers move freely through the openings. With the covers and claws in place, I carefully mark the screw hole locations through onto the body, using a sharp bradawl.

One of the challenges of the Jaguar build has been getting hold of some of the smaller components – since some genuine Fender components don’t seem freely available for the Jaguar, especially here in the UK. A couple of parts to note in particular, are the pickup screws and the foam “springs”. I manage to find out that the original pickup screws were #4,’s and are 1.5″ long. There are some Fender Jazzmaster pickup screws available which appear to match that – and, it seems I can get hold of a bag of 12. The foam strips, however, are impossible to find. Fortunately, a little research reveals that similar strips are used on the Jazz Bass. Whilst Fender parts are hard to find in the UK, I find an outlet in Dartford who makes alternatives to the correct specification. The neoprene foam “springs” come with self adhesive strips to secure them in place. With the holes marked, the strips sit perfectly – just within the screw holes. I fix each strip in turn, one for each pickup opening, and re-route the wiring harness around each strip in the channel.

Each pickup requires two soldered connections. One, the “hot” wire – which runs to an appropriate selector switch, and second – the ground wire, which will be attached to the central grounding point I’ve prepared previously. (Top left in the photo above). Each of the two connecting wires for each pickup is connected to one end of the copper pickup coil, at the bottom of the winding bobbin. This is the same with all pickups – however, with Jaguar pickups, the grounding wire also has an extra tail extension. This needs to be soldered to the chrome claw which encases each separate pickup. This effectively connects the claws direct to the ground side of the circuit. It eliminates interference, and also helps “focus” the electro-magnetic field – providing much of the characteristic Jaguar sound. Before fitting each pickup therefore, the pickups are cold assembled – cover, coil, claw – and the grounding wire “tails” are soldered onto the claws. But before finally soldering that connection – you first need to double check the run of the wires, and decide which way round the pickup will sit.

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If you look closely at one of the Jaguar claws, it’s apparent that two of the individual claws are slighly shorter thatn the others. Now – there’s huge debate about whether these should match the bass strings, (low “E” and “A”), or the two treble strings, (high “E” and “B”). Most think the theory of the shorter claws is to somewhat modify the magnetic field for the two affected strings – and it’s supposed, (depending on which side of the argument you come down on), to either “hold” the bass strings less, in order to cut down slightly on the bass frequencies – or, alternatively, to fit the other way round and cut down on some of the dreaded treble, “ice pick”, tones. As I say, there’s huge debate about this. Fender themselves don’t help – by producing stock images showing the claws in both configurations. Some say they changed their approach with the slight redesign of the Jaguar in the mid-60’s. Certainly, a lot of the earlier stock and catalogue images seem to show the shorter teeth aligned with the bass side strings. I find a few, original 1962 images showing this configuration, and decide to wire it that way.

Now I can see which way round the pickups need to sit, so that the wires can be routed to their destinations, I can identify the bass side, and fit the claws. As with the Stratocaster spring claw – soldering a wire to the claws needs a very hot iron. My soldering station varies up to 480 degrees – and it’s still a struggle to get the solder to stick. I scratch a rough area through the chrome, and try to make a bit of a key to help. Eventually, I get a good connection, and the two pickups are prepared for fitting. Be aware that the pickups are marked “neck” and “bridge”. Since it’s important that they go in the right way round and, since the claws cover up the identification marks – you need to make sure you don’t lose track of which is which, or which way round they go.

I decide to tackle the front, rythmn, or neck pickup first. The ground wire has to travel back through the body cavity – where it can meet with the other ground wire from the bridge pickup. I pass the white, “hot” wire through the small connecting hole to the rythmn circuit cut-out, and then screw the neck pickup into position – making sure all the wires below are clear of the screws, and are routed between the neoprene spring and the body. With the cover plate cushioned above the body, exposing the connections, and with the rest of the body covered to prevent accidental damage – there’s just enough slack to manoeuvre the plate so it can sit securely. I solder the connection for the hot wire, as my wiring diagram indicates.

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The rear, lead, or bridge pickup then goes in the same way. There’s enough ground wire to reach the main jack cavity, but I only need enough to reach the central grounding point in the pickup cavity – so, rather than trimming it, I put the ends of the two ground wires together, and then loop the excess ground wire, neatly around the body cavity. The white, “hot” wire from the rear pickup is threaded through to the main switch cavity, where the connection is soldered to the centre switch – as per the wiring diagram.

The ends of the two black, ground wires are then soldered to a small screw lug, and then the lug, in turn, is screwed down, to join the ground side of the circuit at the central grounding point. With the rest of the circuit already in place – that should complete the pickup circuit. The moment of truth – using the usual technique of connecting the guitar to an amplifier, (volume not too high). By touching each pickup with a screwdriver – I can make a basic test of the wiring.

Obviously the Jaguar switching means you have to have the switches configured correctly to correspond with whichever pickup you are testing. I switch on the neck pickup, and there’s a reassuring thump from the speaker cone when I apply the screwdriver. I try the bridge pickup – nothing. I try all the switch combinations, and I’m mystified. The neck pickup seems to work all the time – even if it’s apparently switched off. I realise that the volume and tone pots appear to work – both the main set and the separate rythmn set on the top plate. I stare blankly at the wiring diagram for a bit – and try and figure out where I’ve gone wrong. Obviously, it looks like the problem is with the bridge pickup. Maybe it’s DOA??

I unscrew the bridge pickup again. The ground connection to the claw looks a bit insecure, I suppose, so I resolder it and check it’s firm. Then I notice a mark on the brass grounding plate. It looks like where a bubble of solder where the “hot” wire is attached to the bobbin, might be touching the plate – potentially shorting to ground? I cover the area with insulation tape and put it all together again. I thought that was it – but it wasn’t. Maybe there’s another problem somewhere on the ground side? When I look at each of the switch cavities, I wonder if the lugged cables I’ve used might be grounding the switches out somehow, or if the actual switch components might be grounding out to the copper foil on the sides of the cutouts. Certainly – it all seems pretty snug in there. I take a bit more insulating tape, and run a border of tape around the inside of the top of each switch cutout. I hope that will be enough to stop any unwanted short.

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But that doesn’t make any difference. I’m beginning to wish I paid more attention to electronics when I studied physics at school – but then I always had a bit of a blind spot when it came down to it. I try a few different switch combinations. I’ve already found that I can change the frequency of the “thump” from the neck pickup by turning the main tone control. I’m intrigued to find out if the change in tone due to the “strangle switch” is equally detectable.

And then I find out the strangle switch isn’t in the right place.

Obviously, I’ve put the plate with the three switches in upside-down. That’s a simple fix – but it doesn’t solve my ultimate problem. Have I soldered the wrong connection for the bridge pickup? Even with the correct plate orientation – my hot wire matches the location specified in the Fender wiring diagram. I double check it. I treble check it. I de-solder it – just in case the connection is poor. Re-soldering doesn’t help – so I desolder it again. Either the pickup is dead – or it’s connected wrong.

Then I wonder why each switch position corresponds to two pins on the actual switch body? I touch the hot wire to the other pin in the outer position. The one next to where Fender says it should be. I tap the pickup. Thump! Ah – there we are. Either Fender’s official wiring diagram is wrong, or there’s something screwy with the switch.

With everything in position – both pickups, and all the switches now appear to work correctly. I put the scratchplate in position, and then screw it, and all the chrome control plates, securely down into position. I drop the Staytrem bridge into position, and adjust the height until the bridge hovers just above the scratchplate. The bridge needs to be low enough to provide a good playing action at the neck, but it has to pivot when the tremolo arm is used, so needs to stand proud a little. I’ll do final adjustments as part of the set-up.

I take the tremolo plate off one more time and push the tremolo arm into place. It takes quite a shove to get it all the way into the special nylon collet. The Staytrem replacement collet is designed to hold the arm more securely than the original Fender design, which tends to flop around a bit too much. The Staytrem tremolo arm is now designed with a mark to show when the arm is fully in position. I screw the tremolo plate down into place again. It’s quite a moment. That’s the build pretty much complete.

I grab a set of strings. With the tremolo plate locked off in position with the toggle switch, I load the strings and tune the guitar up for the first time. The action is way too high – especially at the nut, but there’s no buzzing frets and the pickups sound sweet. I’m immediately struck at the difference a shorter scale makes to left hand technique. It’s a little unfamiliar – but seems easier and more natural somehow. I love the sound. Real vintage Fender tones. “Twangtastic”. Obviously, I’m going to have to look at the setup first, but it’s hugely promising. It feels like this is going to be a good guitar to get to know.

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The only bit of hardware left in the project box is a bag of 2 string trees. The nut is quite high – but I can already see that the break angle of the strings could be improved a little. I check the rough location with some old Fender stock images, and see how that affects the string angle for the two top treble strings. The screw position is marked and I drill a countersink hole to cut through the clear nitro on the headstock. Deep breath… and…

…of course, the nitro cracks – and a small area around the hole comes away, like a tiny divot of lacquer. To be honest, I’m pretty philosophical about stuff like this. A lot of the creative work I do is process critical, and things do have a habit of going wrong, despite best efforts. If not wrong – then, at least, differently. You just have to learn how to work around, or work it in. More often than not – it adds to the character of the project. It’s a valuable lesson, and it doesn’t affect how the guitar will ultimately play. I’ll admit, though – it is a bit of a downer. Typically, it’s the very last job – and just as I was ready to sit back and admire all my work. There’s another life lesson in there, somewhere.

With the countersink hole sunk only a few mm below the surface of the headstock lacquer, a smaller pilot hole is drilled for the screw, and the string tree is located and screwed into position. The nitro has flaked off like a sharp, shallow divot. It’s clear nitro – so there’s no distinct edge or line of contrast. With the string tree in position, it’s not really visible – but I know it’s there. I’ll add it to the potential list of remedial tasks I need to do to fix the other tiny dings in the white body nitro. Maybe next year, when I’ve played the guitar in. I’m in no rush, as it seems that whenever I get things perfect – the inevitable damage which tends to come along after, is all the more dispiriting. I can live with a few, relatively un-noticeable defects – just as long as I can get the guitar to play nicely enough. That’s the main point, after all.

Some people like a second string tree – some don’t. Looking at the string break angles – I can see that another tree for the middle string pair would help make the angles uniform across the nut. Obviously – drilling a second hole is risky, but I’ve already had one divot. Caution to the wind. The second one goes in a little easier – but there’s still a bit of nitro flaked off. I think I need to learn how to apply much less to the face of the headstock. Or perhaps try to drill the holes while the finish is still curing?  Again – with the string tree in place, it’s not too noticeable. If I do ever get around to looking into fixing the damage – I’ll have to see if I can drop-fill the areas and rub everything back with the tuners still in place. I fear that removing the tuner bushings would severely damage the nitro. It might not be worth messing with in the long run. As I say – although I know it’s there – it’s really not so bad. I’d much rather concentrate on getting the playability spot on. And that’s the next task.

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