The Joe Strummer Telecaster. Pickup and control circuit wiring installation.

I’ve researched the basic Telecaster circuit – and have taken on board how the basic elements are connected, and how each does it’s job. Since this is a custom build, I want to try and make sure the guitar looks and sounds authentic, whilst providing a half-decent playing experience. If I can achieve that, then I can truly say I’ve learned what I wanted to from this build, and pass the instrument on to my mate with a hope it’ll put a big smile on his face when he hits those first chords.

For the circuit components – I want to use the best quality parts I can source. This includes CTS 500k, pots for both volume and tone control. These differ from the standard Fender specification, in that the usual 250k pots are upgraded to 500k – reducing a tendency for the circuit to sound a little too “dark” if the controls aren’t turned full up. The three way switch is a CRL, spring action lever switch – as per original 1950’s Fenders. Nice and reliable. The tone capacitor is a 0.022uf Orange Drop. It’s not a true vintage “Sprague” type – but still a high quality cap nonetheless. – now produced by Cornell Dubillier Electronics. The usual 0.047uf capacitor in the Fender specification is replaced with a 0.22uf to try and remove some of the “darker” characteristics of the neck pickup.

The “Treble Bleed” modification is an additional 0.001uf capacitor, paired with a 150k resistor which is hardwired between the capacitor poles. This is added to avoid a tendency of the Telecaster tone to darken as the volume control is rolled off. Most live players I’ve met seem to always set the guitar controls at one particular setting anyway – getting their best tone and a good signal out of the guitar. Usually with the volume full up. Sound guys I’ve known have always treated “control fiddlers” with disdain and, having set levels and EQ for any particular instrument always roll their eyes when players try to drastically modify their tone or volume mid-performance. But this guitar will, more likely, be used in a domestic environment- with practicalities like neighbours and co-habitees to consider. I figure the volume control will be used a little more extensively. I want to bear this in mind. The treble bleed modification should help keep the treble bite of the guitar – even as the volume control is taken down to whatever volume level is deemed acceptable.

With the shopping list complete for the circuit, I drop an order in to Six-String Supplies for the pots and caps – as well as for some black and cream, cloth covered, vintage style wire. Also a few bits of heat shrink tubing to keep things insulated and tidy. I’ve used Six-String a few times – since I came across a couple of their, highly informative, YouTube videos. These videos are an ideal aid to those, like me, who have a little basic knowledge and understanding of how to wire things together. There are plenty of simple tips to help get your soldering up to scratch, and to help plan and logically lay out some of the fiddly wiring jobs.

The standard Telecaster circuit runs the ground side of the signal off the back of one of the control pots, (usually the volume). It’s here, on the back of the volume pot that, normally, all the of the ground wires converge. In this build however, I’ve provided a level of electronic shielding in the copper foil lining the pickup cavities, and so it should be possible to link this directly to the ground side of the circuit by providing a central, “star earth” point as an alternative convergence point. This means I have to reconfigure the basic circuit a little, and I’ll have to work out myself how to do this, but – in a way, separating the ground side elements does at least help to clarify the layout and purpose of some of the other wiring. When you’re looking at just the hot side of the circuit – it’s somehow easier to appreciate the order and purpose of components, and to more easily visualise the signal path.

I’ve learned along the way, to improve my soldering techniques, by doing some simple connections on other projects. One of the main things I learned was the importance of being able to hold the work steady – keeping both hands free to hold the iron and solder accurately. Like many guitar circuits – the components are attached to a control plate, and it’s this control plate which can help keep things steady. With the pots and switch already mounted in place onto the distressed, chrome control plate – I drop this into place on a bit of old oak kitchen worktop, which I have left over from doing the kitchen out, a year or so ago. A small piece of this, drilled to accept the shafts and fastenings of the pots and switch, has enough abouot it to sit securely on the work top, whilst also being portable enough to spin round to see the job from all sides. It also helps keep any stray splashes of solder from landing on my, more expensive, oak-topped kitchen table. (Top Tip. This helps keep Mrs.C happy, and keeps me out of the doghouse). With the work firmly held in place, and with the wiring procedure fixed in my mind – it’s time to fire up the solder station and get busy.

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The first job is at the switch, where a number of the terminals need to be connected to allow for the hot signal to pass the various switching combinations appropriately. The easiest way to do this is to run a single length of single core wire – as shown above – between the four appropriate poles. Since it’s a “hot” signal path, I use a cream cloth covered wire, (black is usually for ground), and it always helps to “tin” the terminals in advance, so that it’s much easier to solder. Enough bare wire is exposed by pushing back, and trimming away, the outer cloth coating from the end of a long piece of wire, and the running wire is soldered onto the correct terminal points in turn. (I also slip a little heat shrink tube over the end of the cloth covering, to stop any potential short-circuit issues, and generally keep the cloth end fray-free and tidy).

With the four switch terminals connected, the remaining, cloth covered end of the wire, now has to run to a terminal on the volume pot. Because the pots fit very snugly within the control cutout – the wire will need to be tucked well away, but still have enough slack to allow for easy routing. It’s important, therefore, to plan and check the necessary length of wire required before trimming it off to length, pushing back the cloth cover, and “tinning” the end.

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The wire will eventually be soldered to the left hand terminal of the volume pot, (the bottom as we look at it in the photo above). It’s important to note that there will, in fact, be three different wires soldered to this particular terminal, and so it’s best to cold assemble the components before a single, final application of solder over all three. For now, the tinned end of the first wire is bent and slipped through the hole in the pre-tinned terminal.

The second wire at this particular terminal is provided by one end of a wire which runs the short distance to the right hand, (or bottom as we look at it above), terminal on the tone pot. This short wire needs to be pre-cut to the right length, and with the ends prepped as per usual – before it can be hooked into place. To help hold it in place, the solder connection at the tone pot can be made now.

The third component attached to the first terminal of the volume pot is the left hand leg of the Treble Bleed capacitor/resistor modification. It’s supplied pre-fabricated with the resistor in place. The capacitor legs are cut to size, (it’ll sit lying over the casing of the volume pot), and the legs are insulated with non-conductive tubing, to prevent short-circuits to the back of the volume pot. With the three, pre-tinned, elements of the circuit at this terminal now in place, the solder connection can be made by simply flowing a little solder around the joint.

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The right hand leg of the Treble bleed is to be soldered to the central pole of the volume pot, but another wire, (one taking the hot signal to the output jack), needs to be attached here also. It’s best, therefore, to trim and fit the wire into place, but to leave it unsoldered for the time being. The final terminal, (the top one, as we look at the volume pot in the photo above), needs to be grounded. This is normally achieved by pushing the leg of the terminal back against the body, and securing the contact with a dab of solder. This is important to allow for the variable resistor in the volume potentiometer to re-direct a certain amount of the hot signal to ground.

Attention now turns to the tone pot. Here, the tone capacitor needs to connect between the central terminal and the ground. (The other terminal, the top terminal in the photo above, is un-used in the circuit). Once again, a route to ground is provided via the back of the tone pot – and so the capacitor legs are trimmed to size and sheathed in heat shrink, as required, to eliminate any chance of short circuit, With one leg soldered into place on the central terminal of the tone pot, the other leg can be cut shorter, and twisted into place to attach, with solder, to the back of the tone pot. (Note: in the photo below, I’ve turned the work around, with the tone pot now at left).

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From here, another, black, piece of wire will connect the backs of the two pots together. The usual Telecaster circuit uses the volume pot as the main grounding point, and connects the tone capacitor between the tone and volume pots. Instead, my route will connect the back of the tone pot to a central ground point in the bottom of the main control cut-out. Although the volume pot will, in fact, function without being hardwired to this central point – there remains a logic for running a connecting ground wire between the two pots, and then running this onto the central grounding point. I’ll revisit this connection when I hook up the final few, external, connections.

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The next job is to solder up two wires to the correct poles on the jack plug socket. This is a high quality, Switchcraft, socket and should, if wired correctly, last a good deal longer than some of the cheaper rubbish seen on some budget guitars. A black, (ground), wire is soldered to the central, ring, connector – and a cream (hot), wire is soldered to the outer, (tip), terminal. Shrink tubing should be used to prevent unwanted short circuits, and it’s worth checking the clearance between the connections and the, copper lined, jack socket recess, where the socket sits. With enough of each, black and cream, cable cut to provide for easy connection and maintenance, it helps to then wrap these two wires around each other – at least for the length required to pass through the body and into the main control cavity. With the connections at the plug made, and with checks for insulation to avoid short-circuits – the jack socket can be attached to the body for the final time, with the wires running through into the control cavity. My final task is to now make the connections to join the pickups into the control plate circuit, and to connect the central ground point.

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The photo above shows the control cavity – as looking from the bottom. (The neck end is to the right). The cream wire at left is the wire which will carry the “hot” signal to the jack from the middle terminal on the volume pot, where it will be soldered in place. The black wire at left is the wire which joins the ground terminal at the jack socket, to the central ground point. This central point has been established just to the left of where the pickup wires emerge, and has been provided by screwing a tiny screw, tight against the copper foil shielding, and then flowing a good dollop of solder over and around. All of the grounds will eventually converge here. Doing it this way, directly connects the copper shielding to the ground side of the circuit, and completes the Farraday cage effect of the shield.

The pickups come with thin, co-axial type, plastic coated wires. Nothing against these, although I do prefer vintage-style, cloth covered wiring – from a practical point of view. Because my wiring scheme requires a fair bit of distance between the hot and ground connection points, the ends of the connecting wires have to be stripped back and separated carefully. In the photo above, you can see how the ground wire portions have been coated in yellow heat shrink, and have then been soldered onto the central ground point. The two, remaining, “hot” wires are shown emerging at the right of the control opening. The red, from the neck pickup, and the white, from the bridge.

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With all the wires in place, it’s now time to make the final connections. The wire lengths just about allow enough flexibility to manoeuvre the control plate to a convenient location – but it is a bit fiddly, especially for the final few connections. I find it easier to work from the top of the guitar – so in the photo above, we’re now looking at the control cut-out from the players position, with the neck at left.. The cream wire from the jack socket is connected to the middle terminal on the volume pot. A black, grounding wire, is cut and soldered into place between the tone pot and the, central grounding point. This connects the control switches to the ground side of the circuit and provides basic functionality, (once the pickup “hots” are connected, of course). Now’s the time to run the extra grounding link between the two pots, (although it hasn’t been installed yet on the photo above).

The final two connections are the two pickup “hot” wires. These connect to the outside switch terminals, opposite to the terminals which I have already, previously linked, (by the first jumper wire). As we look at the switch in the photo above, the red, neck pickup “hot” wire is connected to the far left terminal. The blue, bridge “hot” wire, to the far right terminal. With all connections now made, the guitar can be plugged into an amplifier. With the volume and tone pots fully open, (and with a little – not too much – volume on the amplifier) – a tap with a screwdriver on each pickup should result in a satisfying thump, if the circuit is connected correctly. The switch can be operated and tested the same way. On the Telecaster, with the switch fully to the left, only the neck pickup should work. With the switch fully to the right, only the bridge pickup should work. With the switch central, both pickups should work.

I use the same method to carry out basic checks on the tone and volume operations. It’s crude – but you can hear slight differences in tone and volume. With everything checking out – it’s time to secure all the screws to all the control plates and coverings, which might have been loosened – before the first set of strings is fitted, and roughly brought to tune. I need to immediately raise a few of the string saddles to prevent string buzz – but I’ll be covering all that with a proper set-up. With the strings in tune, I hook up the guitar to my amp, and open up both of the pots to full.

Wow! Now that’s got plenty of the bite I’m looking for. I haven’t even started to set this up, and already it sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun to play. Now I remember why I like playing rythmn guitar parts on a Telecaster! It’s not even properly intonated – not even fully in tune – yet I spend the rest of the afternoon cranking out Clash and Buzzcocks riffs, with a big smile on my face.

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