A More Flexible 3-Pickup Gibson

While some might argue about how ‘useful’ it is to put a third pickup in a Les Paul or SG, I’ll hear no arguments over how cool it looks. There’s something so-wrong-it’s-right about it that gets me every time. It just looks cool.

Looks great but not the most flexible pickup arrangement as standard

Looks great but not the most flexible pickup arrangement as standard

However, it’s hard not to feel that the wiring was just an afterthought at Gibson.

The Three-Pickup Problem

While Gibson went so far as to include a 3-way toggle switch that had been expanded with an additional contact, the problem is: it’s still a 3-way switch.

It has three positions. This makes for an underwhelming experience on a three pickup guitar. Here’s the standard switching configuration:

The standard pickup switching arrangement on a 3-pickup Gibson Les Paul, SG, etc. Not super useful.

The standard pickup switching arrangement on a 3-pickup Gibson Les Paul, SG, etc. Not super useful.

So you get:

  1. Neck
  2. Middle and Bridge
  3. Bridge

That’s your lot. You can’t even change the middle pickup’s volume individually.

Time to Mod the 3-Pickup Gibson

There are a few different ways you can modify things on these guitars but my favourite is one of the more simple.

  • We steal one of the tone controls (I like using the neck tone).
  • We repurpose that as a volume control for the middle pickup.
  • The other tone control becomes a master tone for all pickups.
  • The switch and volume pots are rewired for individual control of neck and bridge pickups.

How the Modified 3-Pickup Gibson works

So, first of all, let’s turn the (new) middle pickup volume control ALL the way down. Done.

Now the guitar behaves just as a standard two pickup Gibson would. The switch selects:

Middle volume DOWN and our 3 pickup guitar switches just like a regular 2-pickup Gibson.

  1. Neck
  2. Neck and Bridge
  3. Bridge

The neck and bridge volume controls work as you’d expect (except that in the mix position, turning one down no longer cuts ALL the sound). The new master tone does what you’d expect too.

So far, so standard Les Paul or SG.

Let’s bring in the middle pickup

Now, your new middle volume control can be turned up.

This brings in the middle pickup in ANY of the usual positions. That gives you:

Turn up the Middle pickup volume and you can get middle with any of the other three positions

  1. Neck and middle
  2. Neck and middle and Bridge
  3. Bridge and middle

But there’s more

If you turn the volume down on your neck and bridge pickups, you can still get the middle pickup on its own.

And, as if that’s not enough, because you’ve got a volume control for each pickup, you can blend the output of each pickup for more control over the final sound. Pickups don’t have to the just on or off — you can have finer levels of adjustment if you want.

The wiring

This is a relatively easy mod if you’re comfortable with a soldering iron. Rewiring the toggle switch is probably the most tricky thing — not complicated, just fiddly. We end up with one of the switch terminals not used. That’s ok.

There’s some swapping of pickup and switch wires at each of the volume pots and then it’s mostly just a case of removing one capacitor and moving another. You’ll also want to ground lug 1 of your new middle volume pot.

Take your time and triple check your here-to-there connections as you go. Oh, and your particular guitar may not share the same wire colours. It’s not hard to transpose though. I’d print out the diagram and write my own colours in before starting.

And, since I’m on the subject of ‘before starting’, make sure to sketch out a diagram (or at least take a photo) of the as-is wiring before you rip things out.

Tons more flexibility in your 3-pickup Gibson switching. Now, you just need to decide if you like any of them.

3-Pickup Gibson Les Paul/SG wiring modification for more flexibility with middle pickup

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