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Electric Guitar Switches - a Beginner's Guide
Confused about what the switches on your guitar do? We're here to help

by Phil O'Keefe

Switches are something that everyone is familiar with. We use them all the time. One common example is a light switch, which you've probably used many times today to turn the lights on or off in a room you were occupying. While they're often a source of confusion for new guitarists, the switches on a guitar have similar functions. They're often used to turn things on or off, but there's a bit more to it than that, so in this article, we're going to clear up some of the confusion and describe the various different types of switches you'll commonly find on electric guitars, and explain what they do.

Toggles and blades

Most electric guitars - certainly nearly all models with more than one pickup - have a pickup selector switch of some kind. On a multi-pickup guitar, each pickup is located in a different spot relative to the length of the strings. Just like strumming the strings in different places produces different sounds (brighter when strummed closer to the bridge, and warmer and mellower when strummed more towards the neck) a pickup produces a different sound based on where it is positioned, and the type of pickup it is. A guitar with more than one pickup and a selector switch gives the guitarist a variety of different sounds that they can access quickly, with bridge pickup settings on the switch providing brighter sounds, and neck pickups usually offering warmer sounds. The switch will also usually have a setting that will allow you to combine the sound of two pickups at once for an additional tonal option.  

There are two common varieties of pickup selection switches - toggle switches, and blade switches. A third type, the rotary switch, can be found occasionally, but is far less common than the other two. Most Gibson and Epiphone guitars (and many others as well) use a toggle switch, such as the one shown in Figure 1.

Fig. 1: The toggle switch on a Gibson SG

These are usually a three-position switch. When the switch is flipped up (towards you as you're holding the guitar), the pickup that is closest to the guitar's neck (the "neck pickup") is usually selected by itself. On some guitars, this setting is marked "Rhythm." When the switch is flipped down (away from you and towards the floor), the pickup that is closest to the bridge (the bridge pickup) is activated, and the neck pickup is turned off. This setting is marked as "Treble" on some guitars. A middle switch position lets you use both pickups simultaneously.

Most Squier and Fender guitars (and many others) use a blade style switch for pickup selection. These come in two common varieties - three-position and five-position switches. Externally the two look the same, and the only way to know what you're dealing with is to click through the settings and see how many there are. Three-position switches are more commonly found on two-pickup guitars, while the five-position blade switch is a common feature on guitars equipped with three pickups, like the Stratocaster shown in Figure 2.

Fig. 2: A modern Stratocaster uses a 5-way blade switch

Three-position blade switches are wired and function similarly to a three-position toggle switch, with one setting (usually with the switch slid fully "forward" or towards the neck) activating the neck pickup, a middle position where both pickups are active, and a third where only the bridge pickup is turned on.

Five-way blade switches can be wired in a variety of ways, but the most common has the bridge pickup turned on by itself when the switch is thrown all the way "down", a combination of the bridge and middle pickups in the second position, the middle pickup alone in the third (or middle) position, the middle and neck pickups together in the fourth position, and finally the neck pickup alone when the switch is flipped "up" (or towards the neck) all the way.

Rotary switches (Fig. 3) often look like ordinary knobs, and they rotate like a volume knob does, but they actually click between different switch positions when the knob is turned. Rotary switches are sometimes used for pickup selection (such as on the vintage Fender Electric XII and some Paul Reed Smith models), but they're also commonly used as tone controls too, such as with the Gibson Varitone control.


Figure 3: The 6-position Varitone rotary tone control switch on a Gibson ES-345

Even less common than guitars equipped with rotary switches are guitars with individual pushbutton on/off switches, or individual on/off mini toggle or slide switches (Figure 4) for activating each pickup. These require multiple switch movements to turn one pickup off and turn another one on, which takes extra time and effort, but they do have the advantage of providing more pickup combinations on guitars with three pickups than what you'll be able to achieve with a five-position blade switch on its own.


Figure 4: This Bass VI has individual on/off slider switches for each pickup, plus another one wired for bass-cut

When is a pickup switch not a pickup switch?

There are some single-pickup guitars, such as the Fender Esquire, that have what look like pickup select switches on them, which seems kind of unnecessary, since there's only one pickup on that guitar. What gives? Well, in the case of the Esquire, the three-position switch is wired to provide different tonal options, just as a regular pickup selection switch does, but it achieves them in a different way. Instead of switching between different pickups, one position gives you the sound of the pickup alone, with the tone control completely bypassed, the middle position gives you the sound of the pickup but adds in the usual tone control, while the third position adds a capacitor that dramatically rolls off the treble, giving it a very deep, bass-heavy sound. Other guitars with single pickups are out there with similar switch arrangements that may be wired to different tone caps, or pickup coil splits or other similar tone altering functions.

Other switches for other tasks

In addition to the main pickup selection switch, some guitars have additional switches that provide extra functions. Oftentimes these take the form of additional smaller-sized toggle switches that are mounted on the guitar's body or pickguard. In fact, some guitars have a bewildering assortment of switches on them - enough that they can occasionally be a bit confusing and perplexing for even experienced guitarists!

Sometimes where these switches are located isn't immediately obvious because they're built into the guitar's other controls. The Volume and / or Tone rotary controls on some electric guitars have "push / pull" (Figure 5A and 5B) or occasionally "push / push" switches built into them that activate various features, such as pickup coil tapping (which turns a two coil humbucking pickup into a single coil pickup by disabling one of the humbucker's two pickup coils), or by inverting the polarity / phase of one of the pickups, which creates a weaker, hollow, out-of-phase sound when that pickup is combined with another one.

Figure 5A and 5B: These two photos show the push / pull tone knob (on the left) on a PRS CE 24, which is wired for pickup coil tapping

Other times, mini toggle type switches are used for accessing features such as built-in preamps and boosts, but these are far less common.

Just how do you know for certain what all of the various switches on a particular guitar model do? You can always ask the store clerk, check the manual (if one was included with the guitar), or try the manufacturer's website - many companies list that information online, even for their discontinued models. Of course if you're really stumped, you can always try playing "stump the experts" and ask the knowledgable folks over on the Harmony Central Electric Guitar forum…     -HC-


Want to discuss Electric Guitar Switching or have questions or comments about this article? Then head over to this thread in the Electric Guitar forum right here on Harmony Central and join the discussion!



Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.  

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Phil O'Keefe  |  March 12, 2018 at 2:08 pm
Mike, thank you for the kind words.
Steph, thank you for the suggestions - I'll see what I can do regarding pot and switch comparison articles. 
Steph Z  |  March 12, 2018 at 2:03 pm
An article about the quality of various switches put out by different manufacturers would be helpful, i.e. within a 5-position blade-type switch are some better than others? Does one stand out as the best? Also, are some tone and/or volume potentiometers better than others? Why?
MikeRivers  |  March 12, 2018 at 1:51 pm
It's about time somebody wrote an article like this. Guitar switches and knobs are notorious for being unmarked and in the "well, everybody knows what that switch does" category.

The real meat here is in your last paragraph, except that I've never seen a manual for a guitar (maybe because I've never bought a new electric guitar) or much of an explanation on the manager's web site. Ask a clerk? Ummmm . . . maybe they know more about guitars than microphones or mixers.

But thanks for the starter info.
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