Fitting a full-size humbucker in the neck position of a Telecaster is sometimes called the Keith Richards mod but he was by no means the first to do it. Keef’s famous Blackguard ‘Micawber’ wasn’t fitted with a humbucker until 1972, so while it might be the most iconic example of its type, Robbie Robertson, Albert Collins, Bob Bain, Terry Reid and many others beat the Rolling Stones legend to it.
Back in the 1960s, players didn’t modify their guitars that much. Granted they’d often strip them, repaint them and maybe add a Bigsby tailpiece, but hacking them up to install different pickups and trick wiring only become commonplace in the 1970s.
So why were Teles seen as fair game by Messrs Bain, Collins et al? At the risk of offending vintage purists, Telecaster wiring didn’t get off to a great start. Broadcasters and Nocasters all had the blend circuit and in 1952 this was altered to provide bridge and neck pickup settings with a tone control, and a neck-only setting with a very pronounced treble roll-off. Compared to pretty much every other twin-pickup electric guitar, the Tele only had two useable sounds when it should have had three.
This wiring scheme lasted until 1967, so plenty of Tele players decided to rewire their controls. Combining both pickups provided timeless country and rockabilly tones, but for power trios and early hard rock, some players found the little metal-covered Tele neck pickup sounded rather dull and weak. Many still do.
Fenders are easier to modify than most of the other classic guitar brands and if you make a mess of the woodwork, you can hide it under the pickguard. With a neck humbucker installed, you can enjoy a more varied tonal palette. For Bob Bain, it meant taking one guitar to a session rather than two. “I put a humbucker in the neck position because I might go to a studio and need a Chuck Wayne sound,” he told Vintage Guitar magazine. “I’d have a Gibson ES-150 with me and switch if I had to. But that meant I had to carry two electrics.”
The owner of the guitar on our workbench today recently acquired an original 1950s Telecaster, so he decided to his luthier-built Blackguard replica was ripe for humbuckering. The guitar already has a 1953 Fender lap steel pickup in the bridge and here I’ll be combining it with a Gibson patent number pickup from the 1960s.
I’m using a humbucker routing template from eBay, a pickup ring from allparts.uk.com and a bearing guided router bit from axminstertools.com. But before embarking on irreversible modifications, I have to determine the exact position for the humbucker.
Check out Micawber and you’ll see that the pickup ring is very close to the neck and a sizeable area of the pickguard is missing. Clearly very little wood survives between the neck pocket and the pickup cavity. I want to avoid that that and deicide instead to replicate the Bonamassa/Terry Reid look.
Stock Tele neck pickups are placed directly under the harmonic and I want the humbucker screw coil to line up in the same place. I begin by removing the bridge assembly and the neck pickup, then I reattach the pickguard and place masking tape over the top for easy marking.
The neck pickup slugs are 6.5 inches (165mm) from the 12th fret, so I run a ruler along each side of the neck, draw straight lines onto the masking tape and then mark the 6.5 inches at each side and draw a line to connect them. I also establish a centre line.
The gap between the centre of the pickup’s pole screws and the pickup ring’s outer edge is 0.5 inches (12.7mm) so I mark that location too. With the ring placed upside down on the pickguard, centred and aligned with the front mark, I draw around the outside and inside of the ring. With the exact location of the pickup ring established, I can now mark the position for my router template.
The pickup ring will eventually sit on top of the pickguard, but the neck pickup hole has to be enlarged. The router will refine the edges but I remove most of the material using a jeweller’s saw, cutting just inside the router template markings.
Like original 1950s examples, this pickguard is fibreboard, but I’m able to saw through it quite easily. The pickguard is mounted back onto the body and I’m ready to rout.
To secure the router template to the pickguard, I cover the bottom of the template with masking tape and then apply double-sided carpet tape. It’s extremely sticky stuff and masking tape protects the pickguard and template from being damaged when the double-sided tape is removed.
Since there’s already a neck pickup cavity, I don’t need to remove that much wood. My router bit drops in with plenty of clearance and I’m able to cut the wood and the pickguard simultaneously. I’m left with a neat humbucker hole and a perfectly aligned pickguard cutout, but the hole is too shallow for the height screw brackets.
The template also has two smaller holes that can be aligned over the full sized cutout. I use them to cut a little deeper at each side of the rout to accommodate the brackets and height adjustment screws. This is quickly done and the scary bit is complete.
Reassembly and rewiring is straightforward, although I have to solder a wire onto the humbucker’s braided wire to connect it to ground. I also sand the underside of the ring to make it flat rather than slanted.
With the guitar strung up, I carefully align the humbucker so the strings are passing directly over the pole screws. Masking tape holds the pickup in position as I drill pilot holes for the pickup ring screws and secure the assembly to the guitar.
For the best balance with the stock controls, I’d suggest installing a relatively low-wind humbucker with a naturally bright tone – otherwise it may sound a bit dull with a 250k volume potentiometer. And if you discover that your pickups are out of phase, the easiest solution is to flip the humbucker magnet.
I would never do this to a vintage Tele and even feel a twinge of guilt cutting into this fabulous guitar. But it’s what the owner wants and this is a classic combination because it really works – sonically and aesthetically. All that remains now is to remove that low E string and tune to open G…