Conductive Shielding For Guitars
Learn how to do conductive shielding correctly. Discover what it does for the tone and sound quality of your guitar.
What is Conductive Shielding
Relative to electric guitars and bass guitars, conductive shielding for a guitar is a process to block electromagnetic interference which can affect tone. Conductive shielding is done in body cavities that houses electronic components (pickups, pots, etc.). The conductive shielding tape or conductive shielding paint must be applied to all areas of the cavity including the back of covers (pickguards, trem covers, switch plates, etc.)
How Does Conductive Shielding Work
To fully understand what shielding is and how it works you should learn about a Faraday Cage. A properly formed Faraday Cage protects electronic components from external radio frequency interference (RFI).
While doing this is an effective means to protect your tone from disruptive interference a Faraday Cage does not provide full blockage. The good news is that most anything that is not blocked won’t be a problem where you typically play your instrument. Source of interference that shielding paint and tape can block are stage lighting, fluorescent lights, neon signs, and even your own equipment such as amps.
What Does It Do and Not Do
Per a 2013 article by the pros at Seymour-Duncan, here is what you can expect shielding your guitar to do and not do for you:
“Humbuckers themselves don’t hum. But get them near light dimmers, fluorescent or neon lights, and dubious club wiring, and all sorts of buzzing happens. Shielding will never get rid of that 60-cycle hum that is present with single coils. Single coils have their own unique, beautiful sound, and part of that admission to Tone Angeles is that hum. What shielding will do is prevent the wiring inside your guitar from acting like antennae and picking up stray signals floating around. If you want to get rid of hum in single coil guitars, you might have to switch to stacked single-coil sized humbuckers.”
Conductive Shielding Products for Guitars
The best guitar shielding method is to use either specially designed copper tape or specially designed shielding paint. The commonly overlooked but critical aspect of shielding is correctly grounding the tape or paint. If your shielding is not grounded it is effectively worthless.
Should I Do This Myself or Pay a Guitar Tech?
Although this is not a particularly difficult thing to do it makes sense to let a guitar repair shop do this for you. Why should you pay a guitar tech to do this for you? The answer is lower cost and more convenience for you.
Shielding products are usually sold in quantities that will do far more than one guitar. Having so much leftover material means you’re paying for far more than you need. Hiring a guitar tech means the money you would otherwise waste can be used to get a professional job and keep your hands clean. Chances are, the guitar repair shop already has the shielding supplies so you don’t have to order anything or wait a week to get started. You can probably get it done for $40-50 and within 24-48 hours.
Do a Google search for guitar repair near me and you will find someone in your area who can do this work for you. We strongly suggest working with a small guitar repair shop for this service and do not use one of the big-box guitar stores or music centers.
Copper Tape Shielding
Conductive copper tape is available from several sources. It’s very important to know that you want to use only copper tape with conductive adhesive! Conductive copper tape is sold in rolls of various widths. Conductive copper tape prices vary depending on the width and length of tape on each roll and the quality of the product.
Personally, we believe that StewMac is where to buy copper conductive tape if you really want a quality job. If you rely on sources like eBay and Amazon you really have no assurance that you are getting copper tape that is truly made for shielding electric guitars.
Conductive Graphite Shielding Paint
Conductive shielding paint provides a very effective alternative method for shielding your guitar. Shielding paint offers advantages over copper tape in certain situations. Shielding paint makes it much easier to apply protective shielding to hard-to-reach areas and under components that you may not want to remove.
It’s worth noting that not only does StewMac offer what is (arguably) the best shielding paint made for guitars, and they also ship fast and have excellent customer service.
Again, StewMac is where to buy conductive paint if you really want an effective and high-quality conductive shielding job.
If you’re thinking about trying it yourself you need to make sure you have these items to do the work. Here is a list of the things you will need:
- Permanent Marker
- Heat-shrink Tubing
- Masking Tape (Painters Tape)
- Scissors, X-Acto Knife & Wire Stripper Pliers
- Soldering Iron & Flux Core Solder
- Window Cleaner & a Lint-free Cloth
- Socket Set / Nut Drivers
- Screwdrivers (smaller Phillips and Straight)
- Pliers (Needle Nose & Regular)
- Phone w/ Camera and Notepad/Pen
Alternative Sources for Shielding Paint
If you rely on sources like eBay and Amazon you really have no assurance that you are getting copper tape that is truly made for shielding. The average person is not even close to being able to determine if their can of black shielding paint really is shielding paint. Buying from a reputable vendor is your only way to know you’re not wasting your time and money. If you want to compare shielding paint prices for a similar product you can visit LessEMF.com and compare their YShield Liquid (Cat. #A290-4oz) guitar shielding paint.
How to Shield Your Guitar
IMPORTANT! It is imperative that you understand that doing this work requires removing and replacing electrical components in your guitar. DO NOT attempt this work unless you have the full knowledge, understanding, skills, and tools to complete this project. Mistakes made in attempting this work can ruin electrical components in your guitar!
DISCLAIMER: The following information is provided as a general guide on how to shield your guitar. The exact process for any particular guitar brand or model may vary from this guide. We are not responsible for any problems which may occur when attempting to do this work and directly or indirectly using the information provided herein.
As with any repair or replacement what you remove must be correctly reinstalled. For this work, we strongly recommend using your cell phone to take numerous, clear photos of where items are located, how they are wired together, and other similar details. You should also make written notes. When things are removed sequentially you may want to lay them out in an order that represents how they are to be reinstalled. Precise installation and wiring are critical to prevent damage and have your guitar properly function.
Shielding is effective when all areas shielded are in contact with one another and are grounded. An example is that when it is reinstalled the shielding on the back of a pickguard must be in direct contact with body cavity shielding. When shielding something like an input jack cavity remember to shield the wiring tunnels (holes). You may find this easier to do with pipe cleaners which will hold paint and allow you to reach within the small openings.
Let’s start with applying the shielding material and wrap up with how to ground your shielding system. For this guide, we will discuss the process of using shielding paint. If you elect to use shielding tape you need to cover areas in a similar manner.
Shielding Guitar Body Cavities
The first step is to remove every component in the body cavities. This includes but is not limited to pickups, pots, switches, input jack, and wiring. In a similar manner, if so equipped, remove the tremolo system specifically including the block, springs, claw, screws, and wiring. As mentioned previously, take photos and notes on placement, orientation, and wiring of all items. You will probably need this information to help you with reinstalling the components.
With the body cavities, all cleared, carefully clean the areas to be painted with a household spray cleaner. Wipe all exposed surfaces and allow the surfaces to fully dry before applying the shielding paint. Your cleaning and paint coats should extend beyond the cavities to the body surface which is covered by a pickguard, trem cover, plate, etc. The paint does not need to be applied to the full edge of the outside of any cover plates but needs to provide a “lip” upon which the shielded cover plates will make contact.
We suggest starting your paint by using a pipe cleaner or a very small brush to paint wiring tunnels (holes). Do the difficult areas first and finish by doing the open areas. Make certain you get complete coverage with good coat thickness but don’t go overboard on achieving thickness.
(If using copper tape start by using a finger to press narrow strips into the routed edges that make the outline of the cavities. Next, apply wide pieces to cover the areas. Start with the bottom, then sidewalls, and include a lap over the edge of the cavities. Ideally, overlaps should be at least 1/8″ wide. You can use an awl or ice pick to make small holes to prep screw holes. Make certain that every bit of the shielding tape is firmly pressed into place and stuck onto the guitar body. You may find it helpful to use the edge of a credit card to rub down the tape.
Pickguards and Cover Plates
While the body cavities are drying you can work on the pickguard, trem cover, or any other rear cover plates. Use conductive copper shielding tape to cover the entire back of every plate. Use an X-Acto knife or razor blade to CAREFULLY cut away any tape that is covering pickup holes. Use an awl or ice pick to make small holes where there are existing screw holes.
Painting cover plates? Adhesion problems applying paint to plastic can be an issue. We strongly recommend using copper tape for plastic cover plates. If you want to try painting cover plates with shielding paint, you should mask off the face side of the plates, clean the rear side of the cover plate, apply a light primer coat and then apply the shielding paint. Note that it is relatively difficult to mask off the edges which means you will probably get paint on the edges – which is very unattractive on those 3-ply covers.
Shielding Your Pickups
Shielding your pickups is not a must-do but it is a good idea. Hopefully, your pickups use shielded wire which gives you a head-start on this part of the job.
When applying shielding tape (not paint!) to a pickguard you must be extremely careful to not damage your pickup. More specifically, you need to watch out for the fine copper wire leads that extend from the windings.
If your pickups have covers that seem to be fixed-in-place DO NOT try to open them. These covers are not meant to be removed!
Generally, you will need to add shielding around the coils and sometimes within the covers. Some pickups, such as Gibson-type humbuckers, do not require you to do anything. If you have a humbucker without a cover you should at least consider installing covers on them.
Carefully wrap the windings (not too tightly) with electricians tape. Next, use 1/2″ strips of conductive tape to cover the electrician’s wire.
If you choose to replace the unshielded wire with shielded wire, or solder tape connection points, you must be very careful to not overheat your pickups.
Grounding Your Guitar Shielding
Grounding is, arguably, the most important part of the process. It is also probably the easiest thing to do.
Sealing the cavity is done when you extend the outside edges of the shielding in a manner where it will have solid, direct contact with the shielding on the pickguard and any cover plates. If this is done you will have effectively created a “sealed box” which nearly equals being a Faraday Cage. (Because your “box” has openings for pot shafts, pickups, etc. you won’t have a true Faraday Cage, but in shielding a guitar you won’t notice the difference).
Inside the body cavity, here’s what you need to do: Use a small metal tab to create a solder lug. Attach this lug to a side wall with a small wood screw. Next, solder a 22 AWG circuit wire from the lug to the housing of the closest pot. This will assure
Reassembly and Parts Installation
Reinstall all components in their proper positions. Pay particular attention to the order and orientation of your pickups. This is your chance to make your work look super professional by neatly routing wiring, making tidy solder connections, and keeping things clean. It is a good idea whenever possible to use electrical tape or heat-shrink wrap to cover hot connections and avoid them coming in contact with your (grounded) shielding. Where possible you may want to use a few zip ties to bundle wires – be certain to trim the ends of the zip ties.
PRO TIPS FOR USING SHIELDING PAINT:
- 1. Have a work area with ample room and lighting. Do this process in a well-ventilated area and provide appropriate cover over the work area (layers of paper, drop cloth, etc.)
- 2. Have a small dish of warm water and a rag within reach to do a prompt cleanup of any paint that gets on your guitar’s finish.
- Completely mask off all of your guitar’s body except where you are going to apply the shielding paint.
- Allow a full 24 hours drying time between coats. Do not try to accelerate drying time with heat guns, etc.
- Carefully put a primer coat on the back of any plastic pickguards or cover plates to promote good adhesion of the shielding paint.
A final note on reassembly: If you scratch the paint or tape you need to cover that area with more paint or tape. You will need to check and adjust your pickup heights and level your bridge if you have a tremolo system. You will need to retune your guitar, possibly including adjusting intonation.