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Into the rabbit hole... and I’m taking you with me!

All I wanted to do was change a control plate and some pickups. That's it. Nothing unusual that I haven't done dozens of times.  However, things are often more difficult than expected. Like when I knock over the cup of coffee I just made, for instance. In the guitar world, this can amount to dozens of unforeseen scenarios. Like, when new tuning pegs don't fit pre-existing holes. Or perhaps your new stacked single-coil pickups require deeper body cavity routes. Ever purchase a new pickguard only to discover the mounting holes don't line up? So much fun!

My latest dose of expense-ridden humility came via my Fender James Burton Tele, an odd-ball signature model most recognized for its red or blue paisley flame body. Mine's red.

Fender James Burton Telecaster with modifications

See? Told you it was red.

After getting the guitar 2nd hand, I called my Fender Rep for any relevant info. According to him, it's not a good selling model at all! Finding pertinent information about it is challenging, as even the Fender Dealer Portal doesn't have thorough details about it. That probably doesn't help it sell if you think about it! Another reason it doesn't sell, dealers don't stock it. Another, another reason it doesn't sell is that it sounds strange, and the tones you'll be searching for are hard to find! So, what gives?

Fender James Burton Telecaster without any Mods

Here it is in it's original, un-modded state.

After a few months of owning it, I wanted to change the control plate to my preferred layout (Volume- Slanted Switch - Tone), eliminate the stock Super-Strat switch, and the S1 switch. I have done this stuff dozens of times over the years, so no big deal, right? It turns out I had a lot to learn about the guitar I already owned until I fully understood the situation!

Rocking Rabbit Control Plate in Black Ceracote

V-S-T: It's an odd-bird layout but it works for me!

I gave the guitar and a Rockin' Rabbit Black Ceracote Control Plate to our tech, Chip. While swapping the control plate, our tech Chip discovered an issue with the pickups that, no matter what, one position on the 5-way was ALWAYS producing an out-of-phase tone. It was confounding, frustrating, and strange!

The pickups in the original version of the Burton model were from Lace Sensor, and now it comes with Fender's version of those pickups. Fender's take are stacked single-coils that are noise-free in all settings, and also, tone-free in all settings! So, why does this cool-looking guitar sound so odd? The answer required a history lesson.

Research revealed that back in the day, James Burton found an out-of-phase sound on an old Tele by wedging the pickup switch like a 3-way in a Strat. Back then it didn't matter if Tele pickups were in or out of phase because they weren't on in tandem. A 3-way switch at that time provided bridge, neck, and neck with the tone off. Once the middle position became both pickups, phase mattered. Since Burton used this out-of-phase tone on many legendary recordings, it became his signature sound.

Mr. James Burton pickin' on his Pink Paisley Tele
The original Chickin' Picker.

So when it came time to make his siggie, Burton MUST have decided to make the bridge pickup out of phase so its default sound was this out of phase thang.

Now I understood why the switching yielded strange results. On top of the phase issue, I hear the pickups as dull, congested, and anemic plugged right into my Princeton. Plugged into pedals, it's another story. It sounds MUCH better. Though I'm not much of a pedal guy and prefer a more direct sound, I thought, "I'll give them some time and see if I grow to love them."

As the winter of my discontent drew nigh, pickup guru, Pete Flynn entered the picture. Pete tried a few things to cure the phase issue, but nothing worked. The wiring and switching are so specialized that they can't be un-specialized! The original pickups are sealed so you can't just flip the magnet. In other words, there is no way to wire the original pickups and have all five positions produce tones in phase. So, I decided to replace the pickups which would also prove more challenging than initially expected.

The next problem, the original pickups were not made with typical Strat or Tele-sized bobbins, though a Strat bobbin offered the most appropriately sized starting point. So, Pete cut off the lip that juts out from the bottom of the bobbin. Some pickups from Dimarzio, Seymour Duncan, and others would fit, but I prefer having more input... or output. That's a pickup pun. As a fan of the earliest Strat pickups, Pete and I settled on the ingredients. However, there was yet another curveball coming.

Modified Bobbins to fit the James Burton TelecasterModified bobbins for the Fender James Burton Telecaster

Notice these bobbins don't have the lip jutting out of the bottom.

With the lip removed from the bobbin, a new location for the holes for the wires had to be determined. After some exploring, Pete drilled two holes through the bobbins between the b and e strings and fed the wires through them. Then the wires of the neck and middle pickups were fed through routes in the center of the body that lead from cavity to cavity until the bridge pickup routes into the control cavity.

Fender James Burton mid pickup install

Directly mounting the pickups to the body was likely done to see more of the Paisley Design (then why didn't you rear-mount the controls, for crying out loud?). The pickup cavities have routing that feed into one another, which was also necessary to keep the graphic intact. So, it makes sense an instrument centered around aesthetics required some interesting design choices.

The Fender James Burton Tele has pickups mounted to the body

Here you can see the pickups mounted directly to the body.

With a set of one-off pickups complete and installed, we finally got it sounding and wired the way I wanted! This seemingly simple project served as a reminder that sometimes things are WAY more complicated (ie: expensive) than you'd think! 

And what would an article about pickups be without a video of me embarassing myself with a guitar that sounds way better than I do!

For those into this sort of thing...
I settled on ingredients from the earliest days of the Stratocaster which are A3 magnets in the bridge and A5 magnets in the middle and neck. The less in-your-face sound of the A3 magnet in the bridge takes a little of the sting off and makes the pickup more useful when operating alone. Pete also reverse-wound-reverse-polariritized the middle pickup for noisefree operation in positions 2 and 4. I could not imagine a better sound coming from this guitar. Honestly, it's not my favorite playing guitar but it sounds so freakin' good that I pick it up more often than others that play better... it sounds THAT good!

This blogpost was penned by Mathew Jenkins, rabbithole enthusiast.

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