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Last Updated: March 24, 2021
I’ve decided give one of my guitars a big tone upgrade with better electronics. I’ll also be changing its wiring configuration for more tonal versatility. Since I get email questions about guitar electronics, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to let you look over my shoulder while I do so.
More importantly, I can finally tell you about my favorite solderless guitar wiring kits by Mad Hatter Guitar Products.
You heard that right: Solderless.
Put away that soldering iron, you won’t need it
I have Mad Hatter’s solderless guitar electronics in nearly all my guitars now, and have been using their guitar wiring upgrades since I discovered them 3 years ago, when I learned that Steve Vai had a Mad Hatter kit installed in his #1 guitar: Evo. After the install, Steve said “It’s like you gave Evo a bigger set of lungs.” (see the Evo install video here).
After I installed my very first Mad Hatter system, I was really impressed by the tone improvement and ease of installation (remember, zero solder needed). I’ll tell you more about Mad Hatter’s products at the very end of this post. For now, I’d like to jump right into the upgrade, so let’s get to it!
Overview: Today’s Guitar Electronic’s Upgrade
This is Snow, my heavily modified Ibanez RG1527 (7-string):
“Snow” currently has a single volume knob and a 3-way pickup selector. You can see Snow’s full specs here.
Currently, Snow is wired in a very simple configuration I’ve used almost exclusively for over 10 years now on all my guitars: single volume control only, with a 3-way pickup selector. All 3 switch positions are full humbucking.
Here’s a diagram of what that looks like:
Current Pickup Switching
For years, this simple setup has worked well for me because 90% of my guitar playing has been overdriven heavy metal, and little else. However, I’ve lately been playing more clean stuff, and would like some glassy, single coil tones at my disposal. So, in addition to overall better components (and better tone), I’ll be changing my pickup selector to a 5-way switch and wiring it for coil-splitting in positions 2 and 4.
Here’s what that’ll look like when I’m finished:
NEW Pickup Switching
With this new wiring scheme, I’ll still have the same 3 full-humbucking options that I’ve always had, but with the addition of 2 more positions (positions 2 and 4 in the diagram above) that’ll give me a couple nice “ultra clean” tones thanks to coil-splitting my humbuckers.
The best thing about this whole procedure is…
I’ll be doing it all without one drop of solder!
Unboxing: Mad Hatter Solderless Tone Shaping System
Let’s unbox and take a look at the components of the “Terminator SV-IBZ” kit that I ordered from Mad Hatter. This is just one of many kits that Mad Hatter offers. For kicks, I did a quick count and found at least 70 different wiring kits on Mad Hatter’s website, so they’ve got a solderless kit for just about any wiring scheme you can imagine.
I Made a Video! Unboxing of my SV-IBZ System
I’m finally getting brave enough to make videos, so I made a quick 5-minute unboxing:
Quick peek inside
Packages and wiring diagrams removed from the box
Whatever kit you order will include a detailed wiring diagram and all the components you need for the wiring/switching configuration you’re after, including any tone caps (capacitors), pots, toggles, and even kill switches (if you wish).
My setup is pretty simple, so I don’t have many parts, but more complex wiring will naturally include more pots, caps, etc.
Your kit will come with an easy-to-follow, full-color wiring diagram
100% Solderless Guitar Wiring Kits
You should install a Mad Hatter kit, first and foremost, for the big improvement in tone that’ll result. However, the fact that all components are 100% solderless is a big added benefit if you don’t like to (or don’t know how to) solder.
Closeup of the solderless terminal on the 5-way pickup selector
Closeup of the solderless terminal on the “Goes 2/11” volume pot
Closeup of the solderless terminal on the grounding wire
The L.A.S. (Little Ass Screwdriver) that comes with all Mad Hatter kits
Where Are the Tone Caps, You Ask?
Since my configuration doesn’t have a tone pot, there’s no need for a capacitor in my kit. Otherwise, Mad Hatter solderless systems will always include one or more capacitors as needed. You can also use your own capacitors with these systems. So if you have some rare Russian capacitor that you smuggled over during the Cold War, you can use it. Since these systems are completely solderless, you can easily swap capacitors, pickups, etc. and experiment to really dial-in your tone.
First Let’s Disassemble & Remove Old Electrical Components
Now that we’ve unboxed and taken a look at my Mad Hatter solderless guitar wiring kit, it’s time to get down to business… and the first step is to get the current electrical components out of my guitar.
First, I’ll remove the pickup selector switch tip and unscrew the screws holding the whole unit in place…
Next, I remove the volume knob and then unscrew the retaining nut from the pot’s shaft…
I used my Ibanez multi-tool to loosen the knob’s fastening screw
My Music Nomad Octopus tool is great for the various nuts used on guitars
After the volume knob and 3-way switch are free, they’ll fall slightly into the control compartment. So, I flip the guitar over and remove the backplates to expose the electronics…
Now free, the controls fall slightly into the guitar
With the guitar flipped, I remove the two cavity covers
Now that we’ve got the tone pot and pickup selector free, it’s time to do the same to the output jack…
Noting fancy here–needle nose pliers will do the trick
All the necessary bolts and screws holding in my electronics are gone, so it’s time to disconnect the parts from the pickup lead wires as well as the bridge ground so I can completely remove the old volume pot, 3-way switch, and output jack…
Pulling the loose components out so I can get at them with my wire cutters
Carefully clipping wires (as close to the connection points as possible) to free the old components.
Finally, I have a clean slate and I’m left with only the bridge ground wire and my two pickup leads. Those can all stay since I’m happy with my current pickups, and there’s no reason to unsolder the bridge ground from the tremolo claw or otherwise replace it. I’ll need it when I install my new kit.
All the old components are removed
Installing the Mad Hatter Solderless Tone Shaping System
If you order a Mad Hatter solderless kit for your guitar, I highly recommend you read all instructions first (on the back of the included wiring diagram) as well as watch at least some of their installation videos before you begin–especially if you’ve never done anything like this. The installation isn’t difficult, but does require a bit of finesse, and the videos that Mad Hatter has created give you tips and tricks to make the installation go smoothly.
First I grab the wiring diagram for my configuration and look it over carefully to get an idea of what lies ahead…
There are helpful tips and tricks printed on the back too, which I’ll review
Next, as recommended by Mad Hatter, I tape my pickup wires and bridge ground out of the way to make my life easier…
Taping wires out of the way until needed avoids any unnecessary hassle
Installing the Output Jack
Now, I’ll install the Mad Hatter solderless output jack and tape its wires out of my way for now…
Threading the output jack wire through the body and into the control cavity
Using my ESP multi-tool to tighten the nut
Output jack wire taped neatly out of the way
Installing the 5-Way Pickup Selector
Next I’m going to install my solderless 5-way OakGrigsby pickup selector…
Per the instructions, I install the switch with the metal plate facing the bottom of the guitar so that the switch is oriented correctly
Then I carefully prop-up the guitar, while keeping a finger on the switch in back, and secure it with screws
Quick Tip: Support the Guitar Properly
I’d like to pause for a second and talk about how important it is that the guitar isn’t just lying flat on its face. This whole time, I’ve had my guitar propped up on a neck support so that neither the bridge nor any of the switches have any weight pushing on them while the guitar is face-down…
A proper neck rest ensures the bridge and controls on the front of the guitar have plenty of clearance
I use a Music Nomad Cradle Cube neck support for all my guitar work
Note: My guitar has stainless steel frets, so I’m not the slightest bit concerned about the strings potentially denting the fretwire while they’re resting on the neck rest like this. However, if you have standard (non-stainless) fretwire, you might want to slip something between the strings and frets in that spot just as a precaution. It’s not likely that you’ll dent your frets, but better safe than sorry.
Connecting the Bridge Ground Wire(s)
Now I’m going to make my very first connections by connecting the ground wires. Look ma, no solder!
Inserting a ground wire into the solderless terminal
Clamping the wire securely in place using the included “Little Ass Screwdriver”
Connecting the Volume Pot
Once that’s done, I get to work making all necessary connections to the volume pot.
Pro Tip: For components like this one, where the solderless terminal is attached directly to the part, make all your connections with it outside the control cavity. If you mount everything inside the control cavity first, it’ll make things ten times harder. Mount it in the control cavity after you’ve made all your connections.
Inserting a ground wire into the volume pot’s solderless terminal
Clamping the wires securely into the solderless terminal
Volume pot is done! All necessary wires are securely clamped into the solderless terminal
Safety Tip: Notice that I have a blue microfiber cloth over my guitar in most of the photos. You should cover your guitar as much as possible when doing something like this in case you accidentally drop a part or a tool. This’ll help protect your finish against such accidents.
Mounting the Volume Pot in the Cavity
I’m done making all necessary connections to the volume pot, so I’ll mount it inside the control cavity…
I adjust the interior nut to ensure the pot sticks out just enough on the front
Depth looks good, so I put on a washer and secure it in place
Time to Connect the Pickups
Alrighty, now that the volume pot is finished, it’s time to wire my pickups to the 5-way switch. Again, no solder needed here either. So, I tuck the cables I don’t need into the control cavity and grab the 5-way switch’s solderless terminal…
I un-tape the 5-way switch’s solderless terminal in preparation for wiring-in the pickups
Connecting the Neck Pickup
I’m going to start by connecting my neck pickup, so I strip the neck humbucker’s wires and twist everything together as needed. Once that’s done, I simply follow the wiring diagram and connect each wire to its designated spot on the terminal…
Wires are stripped-back and twisted together as needed
Neck pickup… done!
Connecting the Bridge Pickup
The last thing to do is get my bridge pickup wired into the remaining ports on the 5-way switch terminal. Once the wires are in place I tighten them down with the “Little Ass Screwdriver” and give all the wires a gentle tug to ensure everything’s secure.
Inserting the bridge pickup’s wires into the 5-way switch’s solderless terminal
Clamping the wires in place with the “Little Ass Screwdriver”
Almost Done! Time to Test
That’s it! I’m done with all the wiring, so now all that’s left is to test everything and make sure it’s all working as expected, and that there’s no unwanted buzzing or hum. If there is, I’ll have to go back and check my wiring, connections, etc.
So, I tuck all my wires into the control cavity and flip the guitar over. I don’t bother putting the switch tip or volume knob back on yet–just in case I end up having to re-do anything. To test and ensure everything’s working as expected, I plug the guitar into my amp and gently tap the pickup pole pieces with the switch in each of the 5 positions.
I’m done! So, I tuck all the wires into the control cavity
Testing all 5 switch positions to make sure the correct pickup coils are engaged
Quick Note About Neatness (or Lack Thereof)
You might notice that my wiring in the above photo isn’t the neatest in history. I didn’t use any heat-shrink tubing and didn’t obsess about trimming all the wires to exact lengths. I just stuffed it all (carefully) into the cavity and called it a day.
That’s another thing I love about these Mad Hatter systems: they’re somewhat forgiving and things don’t have to be perfect. As long as the wires are in the correct terminals and clamped securely in place, your wiring doesn’t have to be neat and tidy… unless you really want to go the extra mile to make it so.
All Done! Hello Awesome Tone
I’m thrilled to say I nailed everything on the first try. There was no unwanted hum or any odd buzzes when I plugged the guitar in, and the pickup switching was exactly what I expected. In addition to 3 fully humbucking positions, I now have 2 coil-split positions that sound ultra-clean and glassy. Love it. All that’s left is to put the cavity covers back on my guitar and replace the switch tip and volume knob.
Time to screw the cavity covers back in place
Replacing the switch tip
Replacing the volume knob with my Ibanez Multi-Tool
And… I’m done!
More Info About Mad Hatter Solderless Tone Shaping Systems
I’d like to wrap-up by talking a bit more about why I love Mad Hatter’s products so much, and why I think you should give them serious consideration if you’re wanting to improve your tone:
If you have even a tiny bit of DIY skill, you can do this. You can stop paying and being without your guitar for days (or weeks) waiting for someone else to do it for you.
Maybe you like your current pickups and switching configuration but simply want to upgrade your tone. Or, maybe you want to completely rewire your guitar for some more exotic tones. Whatever the case Mad Hatter lets you do it… without a drop of solder.
Mad Hatter’s Features at a Glance
- A noticeable improvement in tone thanks to top quality, American-made components by CRL, CTS, Switchcraft, and OakGrigsby.
- Entirely solderless.
- 70+ different kits available: various wiring schemes, pickup configurations, switching, push/pull pots, kill switches, and more.
- Easy-to-follow full-color wiring diagrams tell you exactly where everything goes.
- Have a unique wiring configuration in mind? These systems allow complete freedom to do whatever you want. Just email the company and ask–they’re often willing to create a custom wiring diagram for whatever you dream up.
- Awesome customer support. If you run into any issues during installation, just email the company. I’ve always gotten a response within a couple hours or less (sometimes within minutes).
Total Novices: Simply Follow the Included Wiring Diagram
If you consider yourself “electronically challenged” you can simply follow the detailed wiring diagram that’ll come with your system. It’ll tell you exactly where everything goes. If you don’t find a Mad Hatter configuration for what you’re specifically wanting to do, email the company and tell them what you’re after. They might send you a custom wiring diagram at no extra charge (depends on complexity). If you’ve never done electronics work like this before, I highly recommend you read all instructions and watch the company’s installation videos first.
Electronics Gurus: Wire it However You’d Like
On the other hand, if you’re an electronics guru, you have almost total freedom to wire the components any way you’d like, using any wiring diagram available out there… or using your own imagination. The only difference here is that you won’t need a drop of solder to do it. 250k, 500k, 750k, coil-splitting, push/pull pots, kill switches, treble bleeds, exotic capacitors. Sky’s the limit, really.
What Others Are Saying About Mad Hatter
Here’s what some other’s are saying about Mad Hatter’s solderless guitar wiring kits…
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