How the Fender Stratocaster 5-way switch works

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The five-position switch is one of the distinctive features without which the Fender Stratocaster cannot be imagined today. The switch allows you to switch between the three pickups and their combinations, greatly increasing the flexibility of the Stratocaster. No matter what kind of music the guitarist is playing, one of the switch positions will produce the right sound.

Beginning guitarists and those using a Fender Stratocaster or similar instruments for the first time often don’t understand how the five-position switch on these guitars works. Instead of the usual two pickups and using them together, the Strat offers three pickups and their combinations, expanding the Iron Age guitar accompaniment as it fits perfectly with any pickup.

A bit of history

Today’s Fender Stratocasters are equipped with five-position controls right from the factory, but that wasn’t always the case. The five-position switch didn’t appear on Leo Fender electric guitars until 23 years after the first Fender Stratocaster. Leo Fender’s first electric guitars were equipped with a three-position switch that allowed you to select one of three pickups. The guitarist knew about the possibility of combining two pickups but was against such functionality.

From 1954 to 1977, Fender installed a three-position switch on the Stratocaster: guitarists could choose between the bridge, midrange, and backing pads. It was never a question of using two pickups at once. According to Richard Smith, author of Fender: The Sound Heard ‘Round The World, the idea came from Leo Fender himself, who valued the clean sound of each cartridge individually.

Despite the limitation of three positions, guitarists quickly discovered an imperfection in the design that opened up access to new sonic possibilities. It was possible to put the switch in an intermediate position by locking it between the low and middle or middle and high positions.

When the switch was in this “suspended” position, it did not deactivate all the pickups but instead activated two cartridges at once. Guitarists also found that combinations of bridge and midrange, as well as midrange and neck, produced a richer and more distinctive sound.

The idea is developed by the already mentioned Richard Smith: “The roaring ‘nasal’ timbres redefined the sound of the electric guitar. The sound of the instrument in between resembled a muffled trumpet or trombone with a kind of crackling power lines.

For some reason, guitarists began to call the intermediate positions “playing in antiphase,” which is not quite correct. If you combine two pickups so that the signals they produce are in antiphase, the sound of the guitar becomes noticeably weaker and thinner.

Because the signal becomes richer and more interesting when the two pickups work together, the cartridges stay in phase concerning each other. Moreover, different pickups respond differently to string vibrations, suppressing and amplifying certain frequencies in the signal. Wheeler notes that Fender referred to the sound in the intermediate positions as “overtone chaos” and didn’t want guitarists to play in that mode.

How the 5-position switch works

The five-way switch is a small knob that is placed diagonally across the bottom of the pickguard (not far from the top strings of the instrument). Its location is the most convenient – the switch is close to the strings, and it is easy to reach with your hand when you are hitting the strings. The position is chosen to minimize accidental switchovers in the heat of the game. The knob has five positions. Depending on where you put the switch, the combination of pickups you use changes. To understand how a 5-way switch works, let’s number the switch positions 1 through 5. Let’s assume that:

  • The number “1” represents the lowest position of the switch (closer to the tone control, which is in the middle)
  • Figure “3” is the middle position (the switch is exactly in the middle).
  • Figure “5” is the highest position (closer to the strings).
  • Numbers “2” and “4” denote intermediate positions between one, three, and five.

Conclusion

Fender Stratocaster beginners are often confused by the 5-position pickup switch and don’t know which pickup they’re playing. In this article, you’ll learn how the five-position switch on Fender guitars works, what potentiometers work in different switch positions, and why Leo Fender resisted combining pickups when playing.

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