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Upgrade Your Made in Mexico Standard Telecaster [MIM Tele] to be Truly Top-Notch! (Pickups, set-up, and other secret tweaks)

by vaughn skow April 24, 2015 4 min read

Upgrade Your Made in Mexico Standard Telecaster [MIM Tele] to be Truly Top-Notch! (Pickups, set-up, and other secret tweaks)

Hi gang!  Sooo, this is a bit of a last minute addition.  I just finished a set of fully custom pickups for a Gibson SG-Z bass; it was a TON of R&D to get that design to actually sound good, but man-oh-man did I get there!  I was going to blog about THAT … but then in comes this fantastic video of our buddy Daniel at WGS upgrading WGS boss-man David’s MIM Tele, and … well … I just HAD to blog about it.  So cool!  First, watch this short video, then … let’s talk about Tele upgrades!


Cool, huh?  THIS is exactly why I make pickups.  Really, it’s the same philosophy as with WGS speakers, and it goes something like this:

“Budget” guitars are now the best playing they have EVER been.  Thanks to cheap yet skilled labor in places like Mexico and Indonesia, coupled with modern CNC machining, $200 - $300 can now buy a really good guitar. The problem is, the manufactures put all their money into what folks can SEE (and maybe FEEL) … NOT what they HEAR!  And so it is that the weak link in a modern budget guitar is the part that actually makes the sound … the pickup!”

In a way, that’s okay, because the average 12 year old getting their first guitar wouldn’t know holy-grail tone from holy-crap tone.  However, in another way that’s just plain disturbing.  I mean, think about it.  That kid may just stick with the guitar, get good, join a band, and turn into a REAL player … and then, what?  I guess he’s just supposed to buy a more EXPENSIVE guitar if he wants decent tone.  Or worse yet, maybe he gets so accustomed to bad tone that he just accepts it as standard fare.

Or … our young friend can take that lovely guitar they have now bonded with and turn her into a totally flat-out pro level tone machine!  Yea, how about that, baby?

Thing is, it’s really quite simple to do.  It comes down to this:  1. Have a good pro-level set-up done, including fret dressing and precise intonating, and 2. Put in a truly GREAT set of pickups (even most American Made guitars will not include truly GREAT pickups), and maybe replace the tone capacitor(s) and volume and tone pots while you’re in there.  What you wind up with in the end is a guitar that can stand toe-to-toe with a $10,000+ vintage “Holy-Grail” level instrument for a total investment of maybe five hundred bucks!

Okay, so here are the few “secrets” … just details really … that I’ve came up with over the decades.

  1. Replace the tone capacitor(s) while you’re replacing pickups.  All my Strat and Tele sets now include a .1uf tone capacitor.  This is the original value Leo chose, and it’s also used on nearly all Custom Shop Fender Strats … I believe the .047 & .022 caps found on newer Mexican and low end Strats sound thin & brittle, so I suggest using the .1uf cap!
  2. I ALSO suggest wiring the second (bottom) tone control to the BRIDGE pickup (as are most Custom Shop/high-end Strats); not to the MIDDLE pickup, as are most lower-end Strats.  If you do not understand this slight mod, please consult a qualified guitar tech!
  3. Often the factory volume and tone potentiometers (pots) are of questionable quality.  The biggest problem is that their values are just plain out of spec.  I just did a pickup swap in a MIM Strat and found the number one volume pot went from 400k-ohms to about 4-ohms … where the value was supposed to be 250K-ohms to less than .1-ohm.  Yes, that will totally wreck your tone!
  4. While modern CNC machines are terrific at getting all the frets in precisely the right position (resulting in great up & down the neck intonation), it still takes a GOOD tech an hour or two to fully dress the frets (for smooth play and feel) and set overall intonation.  Be prepared to have this done!  Even many American guitars will desperately need this service.  The modern “pleck” machines, for instance, NEVER leave the fret-edges feeling acceptably smooth in my opinion (actually most anyone’s opinion).
  5. Upgrade the tuners.  If you want top-notch tuning stability, you've gotta have top-notch tuners.

Folks, the truth is, many pro players are now in agreement that instruments like the Squire “Classic Vibe” Telecasters and Stratocasters are as good as an American Standard Fender or better.  I agree, at least once you have done steps 1-5 above, and your total investment will be way less than an American Fender.  That’s why so many pros riding out of Nashville on big busses have MIM Fenders, Squires, and Epiphones riding in the luggage bay below the buss.  Why take a stupidly valuable guitar out when you just flat don’t need to?

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