5-way Switches Explained

Two common types of 5-way switches…

The questions I get asked in response to people reading my stuff on guitar wiring often relate to the 5-way pickup selector switch so I thought I’d write a brief explanation of how it works. Understanding how the 5-way switch on your guitar works is key to successful guitar wiring. Knowing what goes on inside the switch may sound like a simple, maybe trivial, detail but it’s something we all need to understand and it’s not as easy as it first seems.


The Fender 5-way switch…

…and the “import” type.

There are two common types of 5-way selector switches in the guitar world – the Fender type and the “import” type. Both types are functionally identical but differ in physical layout. It’s easy to see which type you’re dealing with. The Fender-type switches viewed from below have two rows of 4 contacts, either side of the circular body of the switch. The import-type switches have a single row of 8 contacts in a line.

Fender-type switches are, obviously, found in Fender guitars but are easily available so could find their way into any guitar, most likely Strat-type guitars. Import-type switches are often found in other makes like Ibanez and on replacement pickguard assemblies. If you have a look at my HSH wiring page and scroll down you’ll see I have an import switch in my Godin SD.

Switch basics

OK some people will know this already but let’s just be clear about switch terminology. A switch as you see it on the bench in front of you will often be a set of switches, mechanically connected within a single assembly. Wikipedia explains. The important thing to remember is the number of ‘poles’ is the number of switches that you have ganged together off a single lever in the component and the ‘throw’ or ‘way’ part describes how those switches operate.


Schematic representation of a normal guitar switch

When I first looked at guitar wiring, here’s the bit I found difficult to grasp:

Our normal guitar 5-way selector switch is not a 5-way switch – it’s a 3-way switch!

More specifically, it’s a 2-pole 3-way switch.

Some history…

A little bit of history will make this clearer… The original Fender Stratocaster switches were 2-pole 3-way switches (that’s actually what I have on my schematic, I think you’ll see why in a bit) and were intended only to select either the neck, middle or bridge pickup. However these were “make before break” switches where, as the switch is moved across from one position to the next, the next contact is made before the previous contact is broken. People found that if you could get the switch to rest in between those three positions that you’d actually have both neck and middle or middle and bridge pickups connected at the same time and, most importantly, it sounded good! It became a common thing to rest the 3-way switch in between the positions, so common that in the 60’s people were filing notches in the detente mechanism of the 3-way switch. These became the “notch” positions. In the 70’s, Fender adopted this poular mod into their stock switch thus becoming what we now use and call a 5-way switch but is, in fact, a 3-way switch with 5 positions.

Hmmm, so how do I wire it up?

OK, remember that the Fender-type and import-type are functionally identical, they only differ in the physical layout of the contacts – this means the schematic is the same for both switches.

In my schematics, I’ve labelled the switched contacts 1, 3 and 5 to correspond to what Strat users would know as positions 1, 3 and 5 (or Bridge, Middle and Neck). Position 2 is actually where the switch wiper rests on both 1 and 3. Likewise, position 4 is where the wiper rests on both 3 and 5.

The best way of working out which contact is which is to use a multimeter and see for yourself which contacts are connected to each other in the 5 switch positions. On the Fender-type and some import-type switches you’re given a good clue because you can actually see the mechanism or see through the switch casing. Watch this as you move the switch through the 5 positions – you can see which contact is always in circuit (the wiper) and which ones are in circuit in each position (1, 2, 3, 4 and 5). This method of visualising the switch also helps when it comes to fitting the switch to your pickguard and getting it the right way around! Now, where does the wire from the bridge pickup go again…

Hopefully this all makes sense now! I’ve drawn out a diagram below showing how the contacts relate between the schematic representation and the Fender- and import-type switches. I’ve shaded the two parts (poles) of the switch red and blue:

Just to re-cap, here’s a table of the switch connections that are made in each of the five switch positions:

Common (0) connected to…
Switch position Red Blue
1 1 1
2 1 and 3 1 and 3
3 3 3
4 3 and 5 3 and 5
5 5 5

If you’ve found this useful or have any comments on how this article could be improved, feel free to drop me a line (thanks to ChrisK of GuitarNuts 2 who set me straight on the history of the switch).


Comments

5-way Switches Explained — 36 Comments

  1. Thanks for this explanation. I have built a few electric guitars, but they have been in the Gibson style with two humbuckers. I am now working on a guitar with an HSH configuration, so for starters, I needed to understand the basic 5 way switch, which if you just looked at it, it makes no sense. Now I see that the wipers of each pole are on the opposite end of each side.

    Thanks again – I enjoy your site a lot.

    — Mike

  2. Oh, thanks for the info. I’ve been rewiring my strat guitar from 3 sings to humb-sing-humb, and I downloaded the wiring schematic from the Seymour-Duncan page, but they use a fender type switch, and I can only found import style switches. Figure out how to convert the diagram was a headache, but with this info finally I can do it.

    P.S: Hailings From México

  3. Thanks buddy big help. been fixing these things for forty years. never even seen theh “generic” switch. Cheap crap. It’s a friends guitar his dad gave him for christmas 30 years ago and I’m getting it to work for him again. It kinda surprises me. It doesn’t sound too bad. Not the real deal. But interestig. Thanks again.

  4. the 5way selector switch in my LYON by WASHBURN has 7 contacts on the side opposite the spring…3 lugs on the left edge, 3 lugs on the right edge, and one lug in the center….how do I wire this to the PU’s, and one volume, and one tone “pot”…THANKS, NR

    • …ummmm, good question! Not come across one with 7 contacts before, I could only tell by checking one over with a multimeter. Keep searching I guess, sorry!

    • i came across the same one mine had 7 (3 then a gap to a single lug and then a gap followed by the next three)

      i found with a multimeter that the 1st and 5th are the bridge, 2nd and 6th are the middle, 3rd and 7th are the neck and the 4th is the common (ground)

      hope this helps

  5. Would it be possible to mod a 5 way switch to make the middle position “all-on”, or would that require an additional push/pull switch or something of the like?

    • No, you’ll need to either add in another switch like a push-pull or a toggle switch or you might be able to do that kind of thing with the so-called “super” switch. There are some very fancy guitar switches out there and lots of people coming up with those kind of wiring schemes. Type “guitar super switch” into Google and start from there…

  6. First time I’ve ever seen an import switch. Retrofitting an old 70’s Hondo II and the “regular” switch was too large to fit in the control well. It was driving me bonkers figuring out how to wire it and yours is the best info I have found on how to do it. Going to go solder now. Thanks BIG time!

  7. Greetings.
    Sorry,the switch dosn’t meet the grade that I’m looking for!
    It’s okay for standard though!
    The Stratocaster Pickgaurd is undergoing a Total new design at my place!
    Cable Jack off of the top and into The Side (Gibson Style!) that leaves room on top to Spread things out more!…Too Cramped up!
    Pick Up Selectors?…Neck and Middle…Mini 3 Way Switches!..Is..1-2-1.
    Now here’s the crunch!…Extra Mini Switches for switching any Pickup Totally On/Off!
    At the moment 3x Single Coil PU’s!
    Adding 1x Neck Single Coil Hum.PU.
    Adding 1x Middle Single Coil Hum.PU.
    I like the idea of 1x Tone Pot and 1x Volume Pot!
    Or even just 1x Pot! (R.I.P.Jeff Healey and 3 Humbuckers!)
    Splitting The Pickgaurd into 2 pieces!
    1 PU piece and 1 piece for the Pots,Switches,Toggles and Wiring!
    The Pots need an Overhaul!..Or….Check soldering…Or…Just…Check up time!
    Take The Strings off again!…Not if I split The Pickgaurd into 2…Check it out!
    Makes Life so much more Comfortable!
    PS:-I’ve noticed a lot that the PU wiring is bunched together under the PU’s!
    Hey,the wire is copper! and it will Magnetise and..Drain Off Single Coil Output!..Check it out!
    Ever wondered…Why are my Single Coil PU’s so…NUMB!
    Humbucker Pickup Wiring comes out..At The Side!..Thus Preserving Output Strength!
    I’m making Alternative Channels and Tunnels for The Pickup Wires!
    1x more before I go!…
    Pickup Earth/Minus wires!…I don’t bunch ‘em up and then solder ‘em as 1x Lump to the top of the Volume Pot!…Split ‘em up!..On to..I use Silver Wire!..A length that is soldered to…All Tops!..In a Line!…But of course not straight!
    But…Don’t/Never Solder on to a Closed Circle!…Because…If a very strong DC Electric Current Reaches your Axe…It Could…Kill/Maim!..With a AC Current you may if you’re lucky just get your fingers burnt!…You’ve just got to have a Break Somewhere!..So that in The Event of an Electrical Overload!..The Excessive Load can..Drain Itself off!…It’s an Electrical Safety Precaution!…Just like a Fuse!
    Okay…You want to do something else or disagree!
    That’s your choice!..And…That’s what it’s all about!…Have a nice day…Bye.

  8. I’ve been looking for a long time for information on what goes on inside a typical Strat-style 5-way switch, and this site helps me understand these switches a bit more. But I still have questions, though: 1)Why is it necessary to use jumpers from one lug to another? 2)As I understand it, a 5-way switch is 2 separate 4-lug switches wired together, each with 3 input lugs and presumably 1 output lug, OR are these lugs INPUT as well as OUTPUT lugs? (I get the impression that they are dedicated to either input or output, but looking at some wiring diagrams, it appears that inputs from pickups can come from either side of the switch.) 3) Is one side the INPUT side and the other the OUTPUT side, or are both sides of the switch mirror images of one another? In other words, must the signal from the pickup enter the switch at one side, and exit the switch at the other side? It seems I can only really understand how these switches work in terms of inputs (from the pickups) and outputs (to the output jack or volume pot). Without knowing whether a certain lug is acting as an input or an output, it can be hard to understand which way the signal is travelling.

  9. thav s about the useful information you gave here. i want to choose which coil o work with the middle pickup engaged. how do i do it?

      • yea, i’ve looked on a lot of websites. The way the 5-way switch is explained here helps a lot. Actually, the Dimarzio site has the closest wiring schematic that I’ve seen. I tried it and I got 2 out of the 5 positions to work. The problem is that all 3 pickups are running on both the working settings, just the bridge is more defined on the one setting and the neck is more defined on the other.

        • OK, if your neck humbucker only has two wires I would treat it as a single-coil as far as wiring diagrams go (you can’t do a coil-tap) and look for HSS schemes. This one on the SD site is probably the best place to start: http://www.seymourduncan.com/support/wiring-diagrams/schematics.php?schematic=HSS_1v_1t_5w

          You need to know what colour code your pickup wires are. If the 4-wire pickup is a Seymour Duncan then the link above should work for you, if it’s another brand of pickup then you’ll have to figure out how to correct for the appropriate colour wires e.g. DiMarzio pickups use a different colour code on their wires to Seymour Duncan and they’re all fairly easy to find on the web.

          Hopefully that makes sense and steers you in the right direction, sorry about the link not coming out in the first reply Rob. Good luck!

  10. I guess I’m retarded, because this still has me confused. I have a guitar with the import-style switch, and I still don’t know where I solder the pickup wires. Also, I count 8 positions, not 5.

    • Hi Paul, sorry you’re having trouble. If you’ve got one of the ‘import’ type switches described above you have 8 contacts (lugs). The “5 positions” are the 5 resting positions the switch lever can be set to (which correspond to your 5 possible pickup selections). You need to get the hang of switches before you attempt to rewire one of these so if the idea of a 2-pole 3-way switch doesn’t make sense then you should probably put the soldering iron down and look for a local guitar tech who can help you, your local guitar shop is a good place to ask.

  11. Literally THEE most helpful sight I’ve ever cast my eyes soon. Very very useful and a great use of time and demonstration. Keep up the great work. I needed the help.

  12. This article was extremely helpful for me to understand the 5 way (ok, 3 way) switch. I’ve only previously wired a guitar with one double humbucker, and now I’m going to replace the bridge and neck pickups in an Ibanez that has HSH. The 8 contacts were confusing me since my last wiring job didn’t even involve a switch, but after reading this I know exactly what to do.

  13. Excellent. Thanks for the explanation. The whole world opens up when you know it’s actually a 2 pole, 3 way. I have an Ibanez Artcore in which I’m currently installing an LR Baggs T bridge(for acoustic sounds), and now I know I can wire it with the 5 way and still have the acoustic half completely separate from the humbuckers. Cheers mate.

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  15. Do I understand from your article that on a normal 3 position that one set of contacts is still closed when switching to the next set as they over lap? Is that is why there is no noticeable switch bounce or crackle showing up at in the amp when you throw the switch?
    If so do you know where I can obtain a switch that over laps in actuation to produce 4 discrete current paths? That would be like a strat. pick-up switch with 4 pick-ups and the switch would not have combinations of pickups but still have the ability to overlap in continuity when being thrown.

    Thanks for your article and (hopefully) your answer.

    • Hi Timothy, sorry it took a while for me to respond. Yes, from your first statement it sounds like you’ve correctly understood the operation of ‘normal’ guitar pickup selector switches (i.e. standard 3 and 5 position), the wiper contacts overlap as they move across each other. Unfortunately I’ve never seen anything that matches your 4 pick-up idea, if I were you I’d start looking at the 5-position mega switches which have lots of possibilities but can get pretty complicated. Good luck!

  16. Thanks for the info: I have an ESP LTD M-100FM with a 3-way switch and two numbs. It has the import style switch and I’d like to change it out to a 5-way. Could you post instructions for that process?

    • You don’t say what you’d like to get from the 5-way switch? I suggest heading over to the Seymour Duncan website and browsing their diagrams so find something you like. Hope that helps…

  17. We’ve been having trouble wiring up a 5 way switch on an Ibanez Jem HSH configuration. Having looked at another site (Jemsite) it would appear that we might have ordered the wrong switch. There seem to be differently coded switches for different configurations – this is the reply to someone wiring up an H-H switch:
    “You probably found a 5 way switch for HSH setup, those will not work for 5 way H-H setup.
    You need a switch with the code 2502″.
    So which code switch do we need for our HSH config?

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