Blackguard Telecaster® Build Continued – Keith Richards’ “Micawber” Wiring

Posted: March 15, 2012 in DIY, electronics, guitar, Luthiery, musical instruments, pickups, tinkering, wiring
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By now it should be obvious to anyone following this project what the “twist” is that I referred to in the first post of my build (https://amateurluthiery.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/a-new-project-for-the-new-year-an-early-50s-blackguard-telecaster-with-a-twist/).

Keith Richards’ “Micawber” Telecaster is one of the most iconic guitars in Rock and Roll. Mine is a tribute to Keef’s legendary Tele, rather than a full-on replica.

It’s pretty easy to superficially match the cosmetic appearance of Keef’s axe, and I think I’ve done a fair job to this point (other than the nearly 60 years of use and abuse). “Relic” guitars can be pretty cool, but that’s not really my taste. This one will be more an impression of what a new 50’s Telecaster would have been like with Keef’s mods.

However, some of the particulars of Keef’s guitar are rather closely-guarded secrets and the subject of much heated Internet debate, particularly the wiring. Only Mister Richards, or one of his guitar techs, can settle this argument. I won’t claim to solve the mystery, but using what is known – combined with some common-sense deductive reasoning – I’ll try to build what I think is probably right.

It’s a rather open secret that the neck humbuckers Keef uses are original ’50s Gibson “Patent Applied For” (PAF) humbuckers. Because a humbucker can produce a somewhat “dark” tone, he turns his “backwards” so the magnet poles are about an inch closer to the bridge to brighen the output.

The bridge pickup is the subject of much heated debate. For a long time it was accepted that Keef used an original Fender Broadcaster bridge pickup, which would be the rarest of rare single coils (certainly less than 200 manufactured).

Lately some have argued he uses a ’40s Champion Lap Steel® pickup, since he only uses two pickup mounting screws, while others – based on interviews with former Fender employees – say he uses an early Telecaster bridge pickup rewound extra-hot to lap steel specifications.

The most intense debate of all is just how these pickups are wired in the guitar, and there just isn’t anything approaching a definitive answer. The most prominent theories I’ve read are:

1) The pickups are hard-wired to bypass the switch and use only the bridge pickup in case he accidentally bumps the switch with his energetic strumming. The neck humbucker is just for looks.

2) The guitar was rewired from its original configuration to late ’50s wiring. He always plays the guitar with the pickup selector in position #1 – bridge only. The neck humbucker is just for looks.

In my opinion, neither of these theories passes the smell test. Keef is a notorious “tone freak.” He is on record saying the only reason he plays vintage instruments is because he can’t get the same tonal quality out of new ones. It’s hard to imagine that he would buy vintage pickups that were already ridiculously expensive when he modified this guitar in 1970 or ’71 simply for their appearance.

It’s true that “Micawber’s” pickup selector is rarely seen in any position other than #1, yet many knowledgeable and discerning fans distinctly hear the humbucker’s tone when Keef plays. How can this be?

A standard Telecaster’s switch selects either the bridge pickup alone (position #1), both pickups (position #2) or the neck pickup alone (position #3). The knob closest to the switch is a master volume control, and the second knob is a tone control.

The very early Broadcasters/Nocasters/Telecasters, on the other hand, use a very different wiring scheme than what we’ve become accustomed to. Instead of volume and tone controls, they have master volume and “blend” controls. In position #1, the bridge pickup is active, and the second knob acts as a “blender,” allowing the player to dial in his desired amount of the neck pickup’s output. Position #2 activates the neck pickup only, with the blend control disabled. Position #3 activates the neck pickup with a tone capacitor to “bleed off” the treble response giving a very “dark” tone to somewhat emulate a bass, since this wiring scheme predates the advent of electric bass guitars.

The third position tends to give a very muddy, bassy tone and was never really all that useful; since the introduction of electric basses, this switch position has become pretty much obsolete (hence Fender’s 1957 redesign).

I’ve come to the conclusion that Keef very likely uses the Broadcaster wiring in “Micawber.” Have I proven it? Of course not, but frankly it’s the only answer that makes sense to me. I don’t believe he added the humbucker to his guitar simply because it looks “cool.” Broadcaster wiring would allow him to use the bridge and neck pickups together to dial in a unique voicing. The fact that he reverses his neck pickup to brighten its output, and uses an extra-hot single coil in a brass bridge to tone down its output, reinforces this to my mind. Plus, this guitar seems only to have ever been photographed in use with the switch in position #1 or (rarely) #2.

This is why I’ll be wiring my Telecaster with a variation of the original “Broadcaster Blend” circuit.

[As always, your comments and questions are welcome and encouraged.]

[Fender,® Telecaster,® Nocaster,® Broadcaster,® Esquier® and Champion Lap Steel® are registered trademarks of Fender Musical Instrument Company]

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Comments
  1. nosguitar says:

    Really interesting/intriguing theory on Micawber’s wiring (I’m a huge Keith Richards fan as well). It would certainly stand to reason. I wired up my travel Tele with the Broadcaster circuit, and I’m digging the tones. Maybe not what I would choose for my primary guitar, but definitely a useful variation.

  2. gutfish says:

    Nice! I really like your Broadcaster-mix logic. I recently snagged one of those Squier Classic Vibe 50’s Butterscotch Teles with the aim of converting it to a Micawber-like instrument. Now you’ve got me thinking, and I may go with the mix version, rather than the modern Bridge-Both-Neck switching.

    • I tried to reach the most logical conclusion I could. I figure the worst case scenario is I don’t like the result and have to swap out the linear “blend pot” for a conventional tone circuit. On the other hand, it may be just the right solution to balance my custom, hotter than normal single coil bridge pickup with the PAF humbucker clone in the neck.

  3. Syrus says:

    So what do guys think about the theory that the switch is turned 180 degrees?

    Namely, as I can get very close to Keef tone with my les paul with the neck pup twisted 180 degrees.

    • I don’t think Keith has his switch flipped, though a lot of Tele players really like it that way.

      The one thing Keith does for sure is flip the humbucker. I’m pretty sure that puts the pole pieces of the pickup at the sweet spot where the 24th fret would be, and brightens the ‘bucker’s tone.

  4. thomas says:

    Hello, thanks for the informative Keith tech. I am going to the sound Keith had at the Stones 1978 Memphis show. I can send you a copy for free if you need it. I’ve never seen a picture of video from that particuler show. But from the Ft Worth 1978 Stones show, he’s using an old style Tele bridge, or at least I’m pretty sure he is. I’m thinking of converting my tele from the modern bridge to an old style. But I’m not sure if that is realistic or not. Do you know? Thanks
    Thomas

    • I haven’t found a timeline of the various modifications to Micawber – the best article I’ve found really only discusses its current configuration. Most of what I came up with for the wiring/pickups is from the general consensus of his pickups and some hopefully informed conjecture.

      I did find a picture of Keith playing what appears to be Micawber (though I can’t be sure) in Buffalo, NY in 1978.

      Photobucket

      As you stated, he appears to still be using the vintage “ashtray” bridge at that point. Also notice that the neck humbucker was still in the normal “Gibson” position at that point, with the poles toward the neck – not reversed as it has been for some time.

      [edit: Yes, it’s Micawber. Note the missing dot inlay at the 17th fret.]

      If you have the Fender “modern” bridge, the holes won’t line up. The modern bridge is 3-screw and the vintage is 4-screw. The Gotoh bridge I have is the same 4-screw pattern as the vintage “ashtray” bridge. You can still do the swap, but you’ll have to plug the holes and drill four new screw holes to mount the bridge.

  5. Stu R says:

    Excellent write-up; I’m a big fan of the Stones & Keith.
    My Tele has the SD Broadcaster bridge pickup & I love the tone, even if it is on a standard ashtray. Interesting too to read about rotated ‘bucker. I was assured by John Birch the late UK custom builder that rotation does nothing to the tone – just appearance. (My Tele has one of his custom humbucker’s at the neck).
    NB. That’s not to contradict what is said, just what John told me & I took a face value.

  6. Dennis says:

    Hi There,
    I really appreciate your documentation and posting of your work. That’s because I’m getting started on almost the exact same project. Got a question on wiring. I have (2) 250-CTS pots that are in an existing standard tele wiring control plate I have. Like you, I want to replicate the Broadcaster wiring scheme. Is there a difference between a volume and a tone pot? Some posts I’ve seen indicated they are the same. So for the Blend pot (Tone Position) if they are the same I would use the existing tone pot, and modify it for “no load” function. Would you agree this would be appropriate? Or do I need to get a new blend pot – no load?
    Dennis

    PS – Do your have a wiring diagram?

  7. Dennis says:

    Okay that makes sense. I’ll get a CTS-250 linear taper pot. Also do you think a treble bleed cap at the volume control would work to maintain the high end tone for playing at lower volumes?

    • The Broadcaster circuit does have a treble bleed on the volume control, but I can’t really how it will sound at low volume with the value listed.

      With my complement of pickups (Alnico II PAF humbucker neck/9k+ Alnico II bridge) I’m expecting to do a little experimentation with cap values before I find the sweet spot.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Looks like you may have found the Holy Grail of Keefer…Good read…..Im a big Keefer fan too…lookin to hot rod my tele and get closer to the Keefer tone also…Thks

    LW

  9. Pedro Nunes says:

    Great work, thanks!
    I’d like to leave just a bit of further “Investigation” here, going back to the Fort Worth ´78 gig’s Teles and all.
    Keith does have usually about 5 or 6 blonde Teles on the road although not all of them tuned to open G with 5 strings only. Not knowing exactly about the others, there’s a second one that’s quite similar to Micawber that’s named Malcolm, also with the the 6-saddle brass bridge and a Gibson humbucker on the neck, with the polepieces facing the neck intead of Micawber’s that are facing the body.
    Now, on the Fort Worth gig there are two Teles in open G being played there. The first one has a square-shapped bit of silver scotch tape on the far left edge of the body, probably due to some uncomfortable lack of veneer or something like that. The humbucker’s polepieces are faced to the neck. It bears a vintage-style bridge but with 5 strings only. This might be Malcolm, it can be seen on “All down the line” and “Honky Tonk Women”. Further to the end of the gig, if you look carefully at the guitar being played through “Happy” (which I think to be Micawber), there’s no silver scotch tape bit and the humbucker’s polepieces face the body. This one also has a vintage-style bridge with the 5 string setup.
    Theory, could both Micawber and Malcolm were taken to have their brass bridges put in at the same time? Could make sense if that was the case.

    • thomas says:

      Hi Pedro,

      I have been trying to find out which Tele Keith uses at the Memphis 1978 show for Jumpin Jack Flash. The sound on that is favorite. They are probably the two you mentioned, Malcom or Micawber. Thanks for any input.

      • That’s a tough one. I can’t find any video of that particular show. There’s a YouTube video of Jumpin’ Jack Flash in Texas in 1978, and he’s definitely playing a blackguard Tele with the vintage ashtray bridge. The video isn’t high enough resolution to tell whether it’s Micawber or Malcolm (Micawber is missing the fret marker at the 15th fret). Oddly, the best rundown I’ve ever seen on Keith’s guitars (http://members.tripod.com/blue_lena/guitar2.html) says he usually plays a Tele Custom on Jumpin’ Jack Flash.

  10. Pedro Nunes says:

    Careful there. I don’t think Micawber was already missing the black dot on the 17th fret (not 15th) back in the day. As far as I think I believe it’s Micawber being played “Flash” on the Fort Worth ´78 video. Funny detail, two capos are stuck on the neck in that song. Obviously one of them is there for no use at all.

  11. WangChung says:

    Got to have a late 60’s Ampeg fellas. I’ve gotten his sound from a beater paul with a paf
    in the neck hole through a V2 and a VT40, depends on the tune/sound you’re after too.
    For his 60’s-70’s tele stuff, through the Ampegs, it sounds to me like a paf wired to what
    ever was stock in the control cavity. The later stuff, like beast of burden, has a touch of
    out of phase (neck pup turned around) and that blended with the bridge pup, IMO.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s bypassing the switch and going master vol & blend for
    the controls. Hard to get Exile tones w/o an Ampeg IMO. That CatalinaBread SFT might
    get you there with the right amp and a tele equipped with a paf or old mini-bucker.
    I cobbled a 5-string beater together from a stripped Squire 20th anniv. body, an old Squire
    Bronco tele style neck with cowboy chord fret wear, a duncan hot tele neck pup and a
    duncan Broadcaster pup in an 80’s top-loading bridge, w/500k pots & a .047 ceramic cap.
    I use 9’s that I just chuck the 9 and move everything up one saddle, 11 being the E.
    I run a DSL50 thru a 1936 w/V30 and G12T75 and It works for the 3 stones tunes we do
    and I play bottleneck on it on 2 more. I didn’t expect it to work as well as it does. During
    the first string change I put a coat of 50/50 minwax natural & golden oak on it followed
    by a brush coat of DEFT semi-gloss lacquer, 24hrs dry time each coat, screwed it all
    back together and done. I’ve got a 70 GU-12 that nails the Tumblin Dice/Down the Line
    sound with this guitar, w/no paf. And remember, if you need help making a decision, just
    asl yourself, what would Keef do?

  12. […] some have suggested that Richards has the guitar wired in Fender’s early Broadcaster-Nocaster-Telecaster […]

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