Wilko Johnson Fender Telecaster. Neck pickup, scratchplate and control plate installation

The next task for my Wilko Johnson Telecaster build, is to install the neck pickup, scratchplate and chrome control plate. The new, Fender Mexico “Classic ’60’s” body is supplied without any screw holes drilled for the plates – so I’m able to use a custom-cut scratchplate, and tailor it to the body properly. The neck pickup on a Telecaster can be either mounted on the scratchplate, or attached directly to the body – in which case the adjustment screws are hidden away, under the scratchplate, in normal use. This can be troublesome for some – but I always think it looks a lot tidier. Practically speaking – the adjustment screws on plate-mounted pickups are very close to the pickup cutout, and cracks due to stress over time are common. Since the neck truss rod adjustment screw is located just adjacent to the neck pickup – it makes perfect sense to set the playing action during setup, and then correspondingly adjust the pickup height whilst the scratchplate is off the body. It’s just like lifting the hood on a car for maintenance. With nothing else actually attached to the scratchplate, it can easily be slipped back into place – even if the strings are left on the guitar.

Custom-cut scratchplate, and Fender Custom Shop neck pickup

The red pickguard on Wilko’s black Telecaster is a customised item, (and seemingly not available as a standard Fender retro-fit component) – originally inspired by the colour combination of a shirt Mick Green used to wear. I’ve ordered a custom-cut, all red acrylic plate from WD Guitars, suitable for use on a Fender Mexico “vintage-type” body. The plate will be supplied with an authentic 8-hole screw pattern, and no pickup adjustment screws. WD Guitars, although based here in Kent, send their custom plate orders off to the USA where they’re completed by their “pickguards.com” outlet. They’re usually great quality, well-finished and expertly cut. Although they’re not Fender produced – the fitting is usually spot-on accurate. I’m not particularly concerned about matching screw hole locations here, but it’s vital that the plate follows the outline of the body – especially around the lower outside contour.

Since the body-mounted neck pickup has to fit snugly into the opening provided on the scratchplate – fitting the pickguard properly relies on accurately locating the neck pickup on the body, as well as within the neck pickup rout. The Fender body comes with pilot holes for the pickup screws already pre-drilled – but their location needs to be double-checked, before the pickup can be screwed into place. Even a few millimeters drift either way can result in the pickup binding to the fitted scratchplate. In some cases, this can result in the pickup being pushed off vertical, and angled towards the neck or the bridge. The correct location of the scratchplate also serves as a setting-out point for fixing the chrome control plate, which needs to sit snugly in the semi-circular rebate cut in the plate, and then run down towards the tail of the body, parallel to the bridge plate.

The neck pickup for my build is a new, Fender Custom Shop “Nocaster ’51” pickup, which I’ve acquired from another project builder. The pickup was part of a set, but “surplus to requirement” – so I managed to cut a good deal for the unwanted neck pickup and the original box it came in. Wilko has often stated his preference for “1962 Telecasters”, but since he generally plays on the bridge pickup with all controls fully open – I think the best pickup for his neck position is probably of relative unimportance. That said, the Fender Custom Shop “Nocaster” pickups are generally well-rated as “authentic sounding”, traditional Telecaster pickups – offering a balance of “punch” and “twang”, warmth and attack. I figure any good, solid performing Fender neck pickup – whatever the spec – will do the job, although in this case, I think the best solution will be to fit this Custom Shop offering as a nod to Fender’s Vintage Telecaster heritage.

Fitting the neck pickup

To assess the position of the neck pickup in relation to the scratchplate – it’s always best to do a dry assembly with the pickup temporarily supported in it’s rout, and with the scratchplate fitted around it. The pickup wires are lightly twisted together, and are fed down the diagonal wire conduit, and through into the control cavity. The pickup is best assessed for position within the pickup rout, whilst sat on a temporary platform. BluTack is ideal. It’s mouldable and tacky – so that once the pickup is pressed down into the soft clay – it stays in place.

Assessing the scratchplate and neck pickup positions, before drilling the adjustment screw holes

Once the scratchplate is in the ideal position, (it helps to secure it in place with a few pieces of masking tape), with the pickup located level, and oriented centrally within it’s cutout – the pickup can be pressed down onto the BluTack. This holds it firmly in position whilst the plate is removed again for access. The pickup adjustment screw positions can then be accurately marked, through the holes in the bobbin plate. A sharp awl is perfect for the job.

The pre-drilled pilot holes in the body are quite generous in size for the two, 1″ No. 3 screws usually used for body-mounting Fender pickups. They’re not too deep, but they serve as approximate locations for the required pilot hole positions. Once marked with an awl – the accurate locations can be fully drilled out to the required depth, and at a diameter more suitable for the screws to hold securely.

Drilling a hole at the bottom of another hole, which is itself located at the bottom of a cavity cut into a, not too thick piece of wood – just never seems straightforward. Visually, it just always looks like you’re bound to drill through the back of the guitar. Although there’s still apparently plenty of “meat” to the body underneath the pickup rout, I always find I’m much happier taking the extra time and double-checking the screw length and the required depth of the holes – just to prove to myself that it’ll all work out properly. Drilling through the back of the guitar at any stage would be an utter disaster.

Installing surgical tubing and neoprene foam pad “springs”

The pickup requires springs to push it upwards against the downward force exerted by the securing screws. Two lengths of surgical tubing are the traditional method, although some people prefer to use metal springs. Fender Jaguars and Jazzmasters in the early 60’s used strips of dense foam underneath the pickups and although some players seem to report problems, with the foam potentially causing pickups to “squeal”, I cut a suitable baton of neoprene foam and attach it towards the front of the pickup opening. This serves to support the pickup all along it’s length, and to counteract the pickup pitching forward as the screws are tightened down. If I do get any squeal – I’ll look to find another way of supporting the pickup.

The pickup can now be positioned and fixed into place. The screws are tightened down until the top of the pickup sits just below the level of the heel of the fingerboard. The eventual adjusted height will be sorted once the guitar is strung, and the neck action properly assessed.

Checking the scratchplate fit, and positioning

With the pickup in place, the pickguard can be refitted, and it’s position finalised. It’s temporarily held in place with strips of masking tape. When positioning, I’m looking for the plate to fit snugly around the heel of the neck, and squarely around the bridge plate. I also want the outside line of the body to be closely followed by the line of the plate. Ideally, the alignment should be equal and parallel all around the lower horn, and down towards the control plate.

Marking the scratchplate screw positions

With the scratchplate held firmly in the correct place, I use a sharp HSS drill bit to scratch out, and punch the centres of the screw holes. This HSS bit fits the openings in the scratchplate snugly, and by positioning and rotating it firmly, the bit is automatically centred within each opening in turn, and is sharp enough to clearly mark the surface of the black guitar body. It even wears a slight indent – so I’ll be able to position a fine drill bit accurately. I carefully work my way around the plate, and mark all of the screwhole centres.

Drilling and countersinking the scratchplate screwholes

Once all of the holes have been marked, I remove the scratchplate and drill out all of the positions to the required diameter and depth. Once they’re all drilled, I return to each, in turn, and trim back the edges with a larger HSS drill bit. An oversized, sharp bit carves the edges of the screwholes away and, whilst not providing a true countersink – does at least pare back the weak edges of the finish around the screwholes. As each screw is driven in, the wood immediately around the threads of the screws can sometimes distort and lift slightly. This in turn can cause the finish in these areas to fracture and flake off. Cutting a slight countersinik around each hole, like this, prevents the finish from getting damaged.

Conductive copper foil to the reverse of the pickguard

Just before the scratchplate is screwed into place, I apply a rectangle of conductive copper foil to the rear of the plate. It doesn’t really have to extend this far – an area located around the neck pickup will suffice, at a pinch. The foil completes the “Farraday cage” effect, which is designed to exclude all external EM interference from the guitar circuitry. It’s useful, at this stage, to locate a few foil “lugs” extending from the copper-lined body cavities, out onto the body in positions where they’ll come into direct contact with this backing sheet. The screwhole seen just to the top left of the neck pickup position, in the photo above, is an ideal candidate. Positioning a lug or two on the body in this area will help maintain good connectivity. The extra length of foil I’ve left on the back of the plate will help establish another corresponding connection to the body shielding in that area.

Wilko Johnson Fender Telecaster – Fitting the custom scratchplate

The plate can now be screwed into place. I’m using Stainless Steel screws, and since the screwholes have been well-centred – the screws sit down into the countersinks evenly. Cock-eyed screws tend to bind at one side of the hole more than the other and, if over-tightened, can sometimes result in damage to the plate. The screws should be tightened until they just pinch on the plate. Overtightening any screws here can result in splits in the thin acrylic – especially where the holes sit close to the edges of the plate. The location just adjacent to the control plate can be especially prone, since it’s close to the edge of the scratchplate for much of its’ circumference.

Fitting the controls for test-fitting

Now that the scratchplate is correctly positioned, and firmly anchored – I have a fixed reference to help locate the chromed control plate. In order to do a proper test-fit, it really helps if you pre-install the control pots and switch onto the plate. I’ve seen Telecasters where the tolerance is so tight, that I’ve had to use mini pots to get the whole alignment correct. Telecaster plates seem to come in two widths – corresponding to 32mm and 34mm. Since either will work on this un-drilled body, I’ve checked the cut-out in the scratchplate, and that suggests a 32mm plate is the one to use here. However – I also need to be careful about the placement of the tone pot. Some plates, (and I’m specifically thinking of one which was supplied to me as “Vintage-correct”), have the tone pot located slightly further out towards the rear fixing screw on the control plate. This works fine with a mini-pot – but anything chunky, like the CTS pot I want to use here, risks fouling the rear of the control cavity. Oh – and using CTS pots means I need a plate which will accept a wider necked pot attachment. Plates drilled for “Alpha” pots just won’t work with the chunkier CTS “metric” pots. (At least not without a spot of potentially crude, D-I-Y modification).

In the end – I managed to source a suitable plate from Northwest Guitars. 32mm wide, drilled for CTS pots and, critically, dimensioned with the tone pot located just a little further inboard. (I think it’s actually a HOSCO plate). Getting genuine Fender Telecaster control plates here in the UK appears to be virtually impossible. I’m using a CRL 3-way spring switch, a CTS “Premium” 250k pot for the tone control and a RS Guitarworks 280k “Superpot” for the volume control. All three are installed onto the plate with all the required washers, nuts and screws, but the attachments are left only finger-tight. I’ll fix them permanently once the citcuit is wired and checked.

Locating the control plate screwholes – Rear location first

Once again – it’s much easier to get everything in the right place if the control plate is firmly taped down in the correct position. It’s pushed into the scratchplate cutout, and the distance to the bridge plate is checked in a few places to ensure the plate sits properly parallel. A few bits of masking tape can then hold the plate firmly in position whilst the rear screw position is marked, using a sharp HSS drill bit, as before. The plate is then removed, and the hole drilled out and reamed around the edge, to create the required countersink through the finish.

I then drive a screw in and attach the control plate in position using just this one screw. This ensures the plate can’t slip backwards whilst I mark the position of the second. This time, there’s no need to temporarily tape the control plate – the scratchplate cutout is holding it in position at that end. Once the position of the second hole has been marked, the plate is removed once again, and the second hole is drilled and countersunk.

Wilko Johnson Fender Telecaster – Ready for the control circuit

The control plate can then be screwed into position. Once again – there’s no need to overtighten the screws. Just enough to pinch the control plate, and enough to stop any movement. The guitar is now ready for wiring-up, and stringing. Looking good.

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