How to Wire a Les Paul (50s Wiring)
50s Les Paul Wiring
This guide is based on using our Les Paul wiring kit (CTS pots, Switchcraft toggle switch/jack, orange drop caps and braided guitar wire) and covers the popular 50s Les Paul wiring. If you are re-wiring your Les Paul, building your own, or upgrading the electronics on an imported copy then you will find this guide useful.
There is a full wiring diagram at the end of this article and we recommend you study it before starting. We will break this guide into four parts which you can navigate to using the buttons below.
For 50s Les Paul wiring you will need;
- 70w soldering iron (ideally one with adjustable temperature control)
- Tin/Lead solder (60/40) - if you prefer to use "lead free" then use the lead free with added silver
- Wire cutters
- 4 x CTS 500k audio pots (long or short shaft depending on your guitar's top thickness)
- 1 x Switchcraft 3-way toggle switch for Les Paul
- 1 x Switchcraft 1/4'' mono output jack
- 2 x 0.022uF capacitors
- 5ft braided Gibson style guitar wire
- 1ft tinned copper wire
- 10-15cm heat shrink tubing (3.5mm diameter)
- 6'' x 6'' square of plywood, acrylic or cardboard (approx. 2-3mm thick)
- As with any soldering and wiring task, you will want to take the time to lightly tin the lugs of the pots and the tips of the wires to be used. Pre-tinning the components before assembly makes an easier and more solid electrical and mechanical connection.
- Ideally you want a temperature controlled soldering iron. Tin/lead solder melts at 183°C (lead free is higher at 217-223°C) so you want your iron to be anywhere between 315°C and 375°C. Test it out on a few scrap parts and wire before starting to get a feel for the flow of your equipment and solder.
- Keep your soldering iron tip clean and tinned. Use either a damp heat resistant sponge or brass/steel wire shavings. A clean and tinned tip is essential for the correct heat transfer into the joint you are creating.
WIRING THE HARNESS
We will start by wiring the initial harness that slots inside the control cavity. When wiring a Les Paul (or any similar model) it is a lot easier to work outside of the guitar body. There isn't a lot of room in there and you'll be working with a hot soldering iron - better to work in the open where you can see what you're doing and eliminate the risk of burning the finish of your guitar.
To overcome this - you need to make a little jig.
Take the 6'' x 6'' piece of plywood or acrylic (cardboard will do, anything that makes an ideal template and is sturdy enough) and trace the volume and tone controls throught the guitar body. Place the template under the guitar and trace through. Then drill the holes to M10 to accommodate the larger shaft diameter of CTS pots (9.52mm). The idea is to create the inside of a Les Paul control cavity as accurately as possible.
With the template complete, assemble the 4 pots as per the below photo. You can also turn the pots inwards at a slight angle. Note - our long shaft 500k pots come with 2 hex nuts, a flat washer and a serrated washer. The first nut is used for height adjustment inside the control cavity. The serrated washer sits in between this nut and the inside of the cavity (ie. the teeth dig into the wood securing it and the pot in place - no one likes a wobbly pot). The dress washer and the second nut are used to tighten the pot from the other side. (So that order again, nut, serrated washer, flat washer, nut).
Lay down a ground wire connecting each pot together. Using the black cloth wire provided or tinned copper, lay the ground running from the top left pot (neck volume) clockwise until you reach the bottom left pot of the template (bridge volume) It does not need to be a continuous wire. In fact it is a lot easier to cut the ground wire provided into 3 - as long as each pot is connected. Either solder the ground wire to the back of each pot or to the edge of each pot. By putting it on the edge, you leave more room for grounding the toggle switch and pickup leads on the volume pots which you will do later. It is recommended that you allow for a little bit of slack in the wires in case you miscalculated the dimensions of the template compared to your control cavity.
Next, ground the lugs on each pot that will not be used in the circuit. From a birds-eye point of view, these are the first lugs on each volume pot (lug 3), and the middle lugs on the tone pots (lug 2). You can either use a snippet of ground wire soldered between the lug and the back of the pot or alternatively, bend the lug back onto the pot and solder. If you decide to bend it back onto the pot, be careful - if you over do it on the solder, you risk getting some inside the pot via the hole behind the middle lug. Refer to the diagram further down the page for reference.
Installing the capacitors - to be a true 50s Les Paul you would need the period correct paper in oil "bumble bee" caps but due to their price (often upwards of £80-£100 a set) countless guitarists, techs and luthiers prefer the orange drop or cheaper alternatives for a fraction of the price. In this setup the capacitors are connected between the middle lug of the volume pot and the first lug of the tone pots (bottom lugs on our template).
After completing the above steps you should now have the initial wiring harness which will simply drop into your control cavity. The harness is now ready to install into your Les Paul. On to the toggle switch wiring.
WIRING THE TOGGLE SWITCH
Commonly found in the Gibson Les Paul, the Switchcraft 3 way toggle is the switch of choice for countless high end guitars. Here is our guide to wiring it using braided guitar wire - the Gibson way.
You will need;
- 1 x Switchcraft 3-way toggle switch
- 4ft braided push back guitar wire
- 10cm bare ground wire (if using our Les Paul wiring kit, take 10cm of the black cloth wire and remove the cloth)
- 3.5mm heat shrink tubing (optional but recommended)
- Wire cutters/pliers
- 25w-60w soldering iron
- Lead/tin solder (preferably 60/40)
- A flat surface to work on...you do not want to do this inside your guitar.
Firstly, you will need to cut the braided guitar wire into 3 lengths (not equal).
- 1 x 1.5ft (this goes to the output jack)
- 2 x 1.2ft (these run to the volume pots)
Note - your guitar may vary in length so be sure to double check your lengths before starting. Just run the wire from the switch cavity to the main control cavity - give yourself an extra 2-3cm or so in case you muck up - its better to be too long than too short.
Before we start - a little lesson on braided guitar wire and how it works. It essentially two wires in one. The outer braid acts as the ground whilst the inner cloth wire acts as the hot/live. So the key is to ensure that the braid is pulled back far enough as to not touch the hot wire.
Next - make sure you know what the different lugs on the the toggle switch do. The thickest lug in the middle is the ground. The lugs either side of this are the outputs to the volume controls, whilst the two lugs on the opposite side are the outputs to the jack.
Take the 10cm length of bare ground wire and attach it to the ground. Thread it through and twist making sure it is secure, apply heat and solder. Refer to the below photos. If you are using heat shrink rubber tubing, feed it down the wire covering the lug. Use a lighter or heat gun to shrink it. Take one of the shorter lengths of braided wire you cut earlier, pull the braid back about 2cm and solder the inner core wire to the volume output lug. Cover the joint with heat shrink tubing as we have below.
Repeat this process using the second shorter length of braided wire and solder its inner hot wire to the second volume output lug of the switch. Again, if you are using heat shrink tubing, cover the joint. Finally, take the longer wire and pull its braid back about 5cm and solder it to the two output lugs on the opposite end of the switch. It is recommended you take the pliers and squeeze these two lugs as close together as possible - you need to feed the wire through both lugs. They are quite rigid, so tread carefully!
You should now have 4 wires in total - 1 unshielded ground wire and 3 lengths of braided wire all pulling in the same direction. The final step is attaching the bare ground wire we did in step one to the outer braids of the other three lead wires, thereby grounding the toggle switch. Pull all of the wires in the same direction as if you were installing it inside the guitar. Taking the bare ground wire, wrap it around the outer braid of the other three. Make it nice and snug and solder it from both sides. Use the below photos as a guide.
The switch is now ready to be installed into your guitar and connected to the volume pots and output jack.
Fit the toggle switch into its cavity and feed the three braided wires all the way through the body to the main control cavity. Tape them back onto the guitar body for now using masking tape as to not damage or leave any tape residue on the finish.
Re-insert and secure your pickups - again, feed the lead wires through the body to the main cavity. If your pickup lead wires are braided wire, this can be nightmare getting all 5 wires through the body as it can be a little cramped depending on your model. With enough fiddling, you'll get them all through. It's worth it in the end!
Finally, place the prewired harness into the control cavity. Using the nuts you can manually adjust the height of each pot - this is important if you guitar has an arched top and you may actually have to set different heights for each pot to get a uniform appearance on the other side. Its the little details that count.
Using the below 50s Les Paul wiring diagram - install your pickup leads and toggle switch leads to the volume pots. As always when working with braided guitar wire, the outer braid acts as the ground whilst the inner cloth wire is the hot/live. Make sure you pull the braid back far enough and solder the braid to the back of its respective volume pot.
It is a good idea to slightly "puff" out the braid - you want to be able to freely pull the inner wire through without it getting caught. The toggle switch lead gets soldered to the middle lug of the volume pot whilst the pickup leads get soldered to the inout lug (below the middle lug from a birds-eye view).
Finally, connect the ground wire coming from the tailpiece to the back of the neck volume pot as per the diagram. This wire will already be there if you are re-wiring a Les Paul but if it is your first install, take a 10cm piece of wire which you need to connect to the tailpiece lug that is nearest the volume pot and solder this wire to the back of the pot. This may require drilling a hole running from the control cavity through to the tailpiece stud cavity.
CONNECTING THE JACK
The input jack on an electric guitar or bass is the gateway - it is essential that it is wired correctly to get a clean connection between the guitar and the amp. If it is not correctly wired, it will either result in some horrific buzz, or no noise at all. This is the "Gibson" style using braided guitar wire as found in stock Les Pauls, SG's Les Paul Junior's etc...
You will need:
- 1/4'' input jack (normally Switchcraft or another reputable brand)
- Your braided guitar wire (that runs from the toggle switch output lug)
- 3.5mm diameter heat shrink rubber tubing or PVC tubing (optional but highly recommended)
- Pliers/wire cutters
- 60/40 tin-lead solder
- Soldering iron
Its important to know and identify what lug on the jack does what so you know exactly what wire goes where. The inner ring (in this case with the Switchcraft stamping on) is always the ground. The second lug is the live. So with braided guitar wire, the outer braid will get soldered to the ground lug and the inner hot/live wire will get soldered to the hot/live lug. Easy enough right?
Now, braided wire has been known to be awkward to work with, whether it be soldering the ground to the jack or to the back of volume pots and we get emails each week asking for any tips on how to work with it efficiently. When it comes to the jack, there is one nifty trick in particular. Yes, it is technicaly push back wire but rather than pushing the outer braid back, actually unbraid it. You will need to unbraid it until you have approximately 1/2'' of black cloth wire showing underneath.
Why unbraid it instead of pulling it back we hear you ask? By un-braiding and then twisting the outer braid as per the below photos, you can easily snip it off leaving a little ledge on the side. This little ledge goes into the ground lug hole of the jack and it makes it a damn sight easier to solder.
Start un-braiding the outer braid for approiximately 1/2''.
Having unbraided the outer wire, twist tightly and pull to the right.
Using your wire cutters, cut the twisted braid leaving a little ledge on the side. This tiny nick is what you solder to the ground lug of the jack.
If you are using heat shrink rubber tubing or a similar form of plastic tubing, feed this down the wire and out of the way for now. It needs to be in place before you solder the joints on the jack however.
With the groundwork done, its time to heat up your soldering iron. So you know that the outer braid goes to the ground lug and the inner black cloth wire goes to the hot/live lug. Start with the hot lug. Push back the black cloth a couple of mm and feed it through the outer lug. Apply heat with the soldering iron and feed the solder wire until the hole is filled. Remove heat and let it cool naturally.
Next, repeat the same process with the outer braid and the inner ground lug of the jack. Place the edge of the already-cut braid you did earlier through the hole in the lug, apply the heat and feed the solder to complete the joint.
Finally, pull the rubber tubing that you put on earlier back down the wire, as close as you can get to the ground lug as possible and apply heat to shrink the tube around the wire. This isn't essential by any means but rubber tubing is great if you use coper or aluminium foil as shielding equipment inside the cavity of your guitar - if the outer braid comes into contact with the foil it will create a short circuit.
Thats how to wire a jack using braided guitar wire. If you've followed the above steps and the other end of the wire is connected to your toggle switch then you're finished and good to go!
That completes our guide to 50s Les Paul wiring - as well as the components used, the position of the capacitors offers a wider tonal range and more use of the tone control which is too often redundant in modern wiring setups. If you are looking for a little more spice, including using push pull pots to coil split your humbuckers, refer to our wiring diagrams page. SoloDallas has a brilliant in depth article on rewiring a Gibson SG from the stock modern wiring to the 50s style and the Seymour Duncan blog has an article explaining the key differences between 50s and modern Les Paul wiring.