Guitar Pickup Selector Switch Explained: 3 and 5 Way Toggle

Whether you are new to the guitar or have been playing for a while, the controls and knobs are important to your sound. But the pickup selector switch is probably one of the more important controls that most players don’t quite understand.

The pickup selector switch is normally found in 3 and 5-way toggles. This switch allows you to select certain pickup configurations to get different sounds. Some guitars have more options than others, but they all have a pickup selector switch.

In this article, we are going to explore the pickup selector switch and how you can use it to transform your tone.

guitar pickup selector switch

What Is a Guitar Pickup Selector Switch?

The electric guitar selector switch is a device that allows you to select which pickups are active. The pickups are the part of your guitar that senses the vibrations of the strings and converts them into an electrical signal.

Most electric guitars have two or more pickups, each with its volume and tone control. The selector switch allows you to choose which pickups are active at any given time.

This can be one pickup only or a combination, depending on how your guitar is wired and the number of positions available on the switch.

How Does It Work?

The selector switch works by interrupting the electrical connection between the pickups and the rest of the guitar.

When a switch is in the “off” position, it breaks the circuit and no signal can flow to the output jack. When the switch is in the “on” position, it completes the circuit and allows the signal to move to the output jack, and ultimately your amplifier.

Most switches are wired to have at least one pickup active at a time, depending on the position and the player’s preference. You will never be left without a signal unless the guitar was wired this way, but that is not common.

Some guitars are also wired to use switches to blend pickups, which is another way of getting some great tones.

Types of Switches

There are several types of selector switches, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

3-Way Toggle Switch

The 3-way switch is the most common type of pickup selector. It has three positions: “neck,” “middle,” and “bridge,” and comes in blade and toggle switch design options.

If you have 2 humbuckers on your guitar, each of the 3 positions provides:

  1. Neck Pickup Only
  2. Neck and Bridge Pickups Together
  3. Bridge Pickup Only

This is the most common and found on many guitars like the Gibson Les Paul. It’s also very easy to use on the fly and can quickly provide a lead and rhythm tone. If your guitar has 2 humbucker pickups, then this is more than likely what you have for switch control.

On the other hand, if your guitar has 3 pickups, then the configuration is a bit different. Instead of combining the bridge and neck when set to the center position, it will provide a signal from the middle pickup alone.

This is a great way to get a new tone, as the center pickup will provide its distinct sound. This will work whether it’s a humbucker or a single-coil pickup, as each type is possible depending on the guitar model.

It also means that you can no longer blend 2 pickups, as each one will now have its own designated position.

5-Way Switch

The 5-way switch is less common, but can be found on some legendary guitars with 3 pickups and offers more tone options as you can blend them together.

It’s normally a blade switch that has five positions that are:

  1. Neck pickup only
  2. Neck and middle together
  3. Middle pickup only
  4. Bridge and middle together
  5. Bridge pickup only

This type of switch gives you the ability to get a wider range of tones from your guitar. You can still get the standard lead and rhythm tones, but you can also get different in-between sounds that can really add character to your playing.

The drawback is that it can be more difficult to use on the fly, as you have to remember which position corresponds to which sound.

If your guitar has 3 single-coil pickups like a Fender Stratocaster, switch positions 2 and 4 now offer a hum-canceling or humbucking effect. This is due to the use of the middle pickup with either the bridge or neck that is wound in a different direction.

How to Use the Pickup Selector Switch

Now that you know what the pickup selector switch is and how it works, let’s talk about how to use it.

The first thing you need to do is identify the different parts of the switch. All switches will have a series of lugs that the wires get soldered or connected to. These will be under the pickguard where most players cannot see them.

There will also be a switch lever, which is what completes or breaks the circuit. This is accessible to the player, normally located in a position that cannot be hit accidentally when strumming.

The next thing you need to do is identify the different pickups on your guitar. If you have more than one pickup, they will most likely be labeled as neck, middle, and bridge.

If you only have two pickups, they will be labeled as neck and bridge, or, in the case of a Les Paul, rhythm and treble.

Now that you know where everything is, it’s time to start using the switch. The first thing you need to do is select the position you want the switch to be in.

For example, if you want the neck pickup to be selected, you would put the switch in the upper position. The neck position is normally used as the lead tone for most players. This is because the warm, broad sound this pickup produces is perfect for solos.

If you want to select the bridge pickup, you would put the switch in the lower position. This is normally used as a rhythm tone, as it is brighter and clearer. However, certain music styles like blues do better for rhythm in the neck position.

A middle pickup will essentially be a combination of both and can also provide some great tone!

It’s that simple! Experiment with different positions to see what pickup selection sounds best for your playing style.

Wiring a Switch

Now that you know how to use the pickup selector switch, let’s talk about how to wire one. This can seem like a daunting task, but it’s quite simple.

The first thing you need to do is identify which wires go to which terminal on the switch. You can do this by using a multimeter and testing each terminal for continuity when in each position.

This wiring diagram of a 3-way switch will help you understand what to look for. It’s a Gibson Les Paul style switch.

3 way guitar switch wiring

Once you know which wires go to which lugs, it’s time to start soldering. You’ll want to start by soldering the ground wire to one of the lugs on the switch. This lug will normally be connected to the body of the switch.

Then, you’ll want to solder the hot wire from the pickup to another lug on the switch. The lug you solder the hot wire to will need to correspond to the position of the pickup and the switch.

Once those are soldered in place, you’ll want to solder the output wire to the last lug on the switch. Sometimes this will mean 2 lugs being connected to the output, which is normal on a 3-way switch.

Now, all that’s left to do is test the switch to make sure it’s working properly. Flip the arm back and forth a few times and make sure the pickup is being selected correctly.

Consult a technician if you feel this task is just a bit too large for you, or if you have issues that need a solution.

Guitar Selector Switch Installation Tips

Now that you know everything there is to know about the guitar pickup selector switch, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

  • Make sure you consult a wiring diagram specific to your guitar. Not all guitars are wired the same, and you don’t want to risk damaging your instrument by guessing.
  • If you’re not comfortable soldering, there’s no shame in taking it to a professional. This is a task that, if done incorrectly, can cause damage to your guitar.
  • Be mindful of where you place the switch. You don’t want it to be in a spot where it can be accidentally switched while you’re playing.
  • If you’re using a Stratocaster style guitar with 3 single-coil pickups, you may want to consider using a 5-way switch. This will give you more tonal options.
  • Always use a multimeter when testing for continuity. This will help understand and find all terminals and how they interact with the switch lever.
  • Be careful when soldering. Too much heat can damage the switch or melt the wires. Some wire is shielded coaxial and can be permanently damaged.
  • Take your time and double-check your work before moving on. This will help you avoid any mistakes that could be costly to fix.

Conclusion

The guitar pickup selector switch is a simple, yet essential tool for any player. It allows you to choose which pickups are active, and therefore what tone you want to produce.

Knowing how to use and wire a selector switch will give you more control over your sound. It’s a relatively easy task that can be completed in an afternoon. Just be sure to consult a wiring diagram specific to your guitar before starting.

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Don East

My name is Don East, I'm the editor for Killer Rig. I've been playing guitar for over 20 years and have designed and manufactured products like guitar amps, effects pedals, and more. Over the years I have played in many bands and have a deep love for quality gear. I am an electrical engineer and have a passion for music gear, and now want to share what I know with the community!