Pickup Selector Switch Explained: 3-Way Vs 5-Way

Whether you are new to the guitar or have been playing it for a while. The controls and knobs are incredibly important to your sound!

But the pickup selector switch is probably one of the more important controls on the guitar! It’s also one 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 Killer Rig article, we are going to explore the pickup selector switch and how you can use it to transform your tone.

What Is a Guitar Pickup Selector Switch?

The guitar pickup switch lets you choose from various pickup combinations to shape your sound.

Typically designed as a lever or toggle, the switch has multiple positions, usually three or five, that correspond to different settings. These settings determine which pickups are active at any given moment.

Pickups are essential components of an electric guitar that sense string vibrations and convert them into an electrical signal for amplification.

Most electric guitars feature two or more pickups, each with its own volume and tone controls.

The pickup switch allows you to activate either a single pickup or a combination, depending on your guitar’s wiring and the number of available switch positions.

3-way guitar selector switch diagram.

How Do They Work?

The selector switch works by interrupting the electrical connection between the pickups. It cuts off the circuits to 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. It then 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. This depends 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. This is another way of getting some great tones.

Different Sounds

The pickup selector switch can have a significant impact on the sound of a guitar. This is because it allows the player to choose between different pickups with different tonal profiles.

The pickup selector switch affects the sound of a guitar in the following ways:

  • The switch allows the player to choose between different pickups, which can have different tone and signal intensity output.
  • The bridge pickup typically boosts the treble and provides a brighter, more biting sound. While the neck pickup provides a warmer, bold yet smooth sound.
  • The middle pickup is wired out of phase with the neck and bridge pickups. This results in hum-cancelling when certain combinations of pickups are selected.
  • The position of the switch determines which pickup(s) are active. Each pickup normally has a certain sound.
  • The switch itself should not affect the tone of the guitar as long as it is functioning properly.

Types of Selector Switches

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

3-Way Switch

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

If you have 2 humbuckers on your guitar, each of the 3 positions works like this:

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. When set to the center position, it will provide a signal from the middle pickup alone. Instead of combining the bridge and neck together.

This is a great way to get a new tone, as the center pickup will provide a totally different sound. This will work whether it’s a humbucker or a single-coil pickup. 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 it can be found on some legendary guitars with 3 pickups. It offers more tone options as you can blend them all together in some great ways.

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

  • Position 1: Neck pickup only.
  • Position 2: Neck and middle together.
  • Position 3: Middle pickup only.
  • Position 4: Bridge and middle together.
  • Position 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. This can really add character to your playing.

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

Does your guitar have 3 single-coil pickups like a Fender Stratocaster? Then 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, or out of phase.

3 Vs 5 Way Switches

There are some rather large differences between the 3 and 5 way pickup selector switches. Here is a table that summarizes them for easy understanding:

Feature3-Way Switch5-Way Switch
Number of Positions35
Commonly Found InGibson Les Paul, TelecasterFender Stratocaster
Tonal OptionsLimited (Neck, Bridge, Both)More versatile (5 different settings)
Ease of UseEasier due to fewer optionsSlightly more complex
Genres Suited ForRock, BluesRock, Blues, Jazz, Funk
Sound ComplexityGenerally simplerMore nuanced
InstallationEasierSlightly more complex
PriceGenerally cheaperMay be more expensive
Hum-Canceling OptionsLimitedMore options due to extra settings

Installing 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 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.

Learn how to troubleshoot guitar crackling noises here!

Guitar Selector Switch Installation Tips

You should now know everything there is to know about the guitar pickup selector switch! But 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.
  • Are you using a Stratocaster guitar with 3 single-coil pickups? Then 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.


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!