A Technicians Guide to Pickup Color Codes: 4 conductor edition
I love 4 conductor pickup wires. They are the easiest to install and give you the functionality to wire them any way you want, and realistically a must have if you are mixing and matching pickup brands. What I don’t love is there is no standardized color code. Anyone can use whatever colors they want, and some brands will even change it model to model, or year to year. Its obnoxious.
We will start with the easy bit as I can guess that 99% of you just want to know what your brands color is!
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What happens when you don't know the color code?
Let’s say you found a humbucker set from a boutique brand/builder that no longer exist, or a cheap generic set with no instructions. How can you tell what the color code is? Real life scenario time. You only have a multimeter.
Step 1: Find the individual Coils.
Using the multimeter figure out what colors go with what coil. In this example.
- Red and Black makes one coil (3.86K)
- White and green make the other coil (3.89K)
Step 2: Figure out the Phase:
For the pickup to work the 2 coils have to be in the same phase. With the multimeter attached to a single coil. Using a metal object like a Screwdriver, Place the screwdriver flat against the polepieces and watch to see if the Multimeter jumps up or down. This is also where you can find out which coil is the Slug, and which coil is the screws. We started with the Green and White wire. Touching the polepieces shows that it is the screw coil. With the Green attached to the positive multimeter wire and the White on the Ground, the Coil went up before going back to normal. We want to repeat this test a few times to insure a consistent jump.
Moving on to the Slug coil, With the Black attached to the Positive, and the Red to the Ground. The Slug coil went down, meaning this coil is not in the correct phase with the other coil. What that means is when we make the series link, we want to swap that color code. So Red is our Positive, and Black is our negative.
So to put it in a readable format.
- Screw Coil + = Green
- Screw Coil - = White
- Slug Coil + = Red
- Slug Coil - = Black
To make the Humbucker work we wire the 2 “-“ together to make our Series link. Now we can choose which coil will be the first, and which coil will be the last in the signal path. In this example we are going to make Green our hot and red our Ground. Doing the phase test on this shows the multimeter goes up. Do the same color code for the whole other pickup, so that the phase is matching.
Example of messing up the phase.
If you install the pickup and it sounds very thin and weak, that means you accidently wired the phase incorrectly. Swap one of the coils + and – and audio test it again. So, in this scenario using the same pickup, on the Slug coil we are now doing it as Black is +, and Red is –
- Hot = Green
- Series Link = White and Red Soldered together
- Ground = Black
I am installing this unknown pickup with another brand.
Like we said before, there is no standardized color code, and important for this situation no standardized Magnet direction. You can have 2 pickups with the same overall color code but the magnet direction is reversed. In this situation all we can do is figure out the individual humbuckers phase. We do this just like how we figured out the individual coils phase. The Necks humbucker goes up when you touch it and the Bridge pickup goes down. All we want to do is flip one of the pickups + and – wires. So, on the Bridge pickup. Before, the Green was our + and the Red was the -, we are going to wire the Red as the hot and the Green as the ground.
Here's the readable format.
Neck pickup (Brand A)
Green is +
White/black is our Series link.
Red is -
Bridge pickup (Brand B)
Red is +
White/black is our Series link.
Green is -
But wait, what about the Bare wire?
No matter what, the bare wire is always going to be grounded.