Can I Split a Humbucker With a Three-Way Switch?

three-way switchIf I have a humbucker in the bridge position of my Telecaster, can one of the coils be turned off with the three-way switch?

A reader asked about turning off one coil of the bridge humbucker in his Telecaster via the three-way switch. What he proposed is:

1. Neck pickup
2. Neck + one humbucker coil
3. Both humbucker coils

While I guess the answer might be technically “yes,” I am going to say the answer is in reality: “no.”

The reason is that we do not use “both coils” in the humbucker. We actually run one coil into the next coil, and it might be better to look at a humbucker as a Single Figure 8 Coil instead of two separate Single Coils. We can “split” the humbucker by running a (switchable) wire to Ground right where the one coil meets the other coil. This actually “shorts out” the second coil; it doesn’t shut it off. So, in order to split the pickup we need a path to Ground. The three-way switch in a Telecaster is a “Hot Wire” that selects which of the Hot pickup leads to send to the Volume pot. There is no ground connection available and adding one will short out the entire guitar. Without a ground we cannot split the pickup.

Yes, the pickup has four wires, and we can wire it so that both coils are on, but this is not how the pickup is designed to operate. Also, it’s unlikely that you will get a tone that comes close to the tone the pickup will produce when used correctly. For that matter, it is probably not really designed to be split either. So, unless the pickup is actually designed to be split, you probably won’t get as good a tone from a split humbucker as you will from an actual Single Coil. It’s just a “mod” to give you a different tone from time to time, not something meant to be “always on.”

I believe, therefore, that using a push/pull tone control pot is the best way. With this design, you can split the humbucker in the middle and bridge positions giving you more tone options than asked for, and you have the full quality tone from the humbucker when it is not split. The diagram below shows how you can do this and assumes the wiring code for your humbucker is the same as the one that I provided; if not you will have to adjust accordingly.

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