What is a guitar pickup switch (or pickup selector switch)?

Guitar pickup switches explained

If a guitar has more than one pickup, chances are you can choose between them. The way you choose between pickups is by the guitar pickup switch:

Fender-Telecaster-Pickup-Switch-Middle by Dave Wirth

Fender-Telecaster-Pickup-Switch-Middle by Dave Wirth

There are all sorts of pickup switches, but the most common ones are the 3-way and the 5-way switches. 3-way switches are usually placed on guitars that have two pickups (like Telecasters in the photo above), and 5-way switches are usually placed on guitars that have three pickups (like Stratocasters). 

Why so many choices for so few pickups?

Here's a question some of you might have: Why on earth do you need five pickup choices if a guitar has only three pickups?

Take my word for it: Guitarists love options. They love the combined and blended sound of two pickups at once as well as the direct sound of any one pickup.

Let's suss this out with some visuals.

3-way pickup switch example: Telecasters

Telecasters have a 3-way guitar pickup switch. When the switch is in this position, the guitar has the bridge pickup selected:

Fender-Telecaster-Pickup-Switch-Bridge by Dave Wirth

Fender-Telecaster-Pickup-Switch-Bridge by Dave Wirth

In this position, the guitar has the neck pickup selected:

Fender-Telecaster-Pickup-Switch-Neck by Dave Wirth

Fender-Telecaster-Pickup-Switch-Neck by Dave Wirth

In the middle position, the guitar offers a blend of the sounds of both pickups.

Fender-Telecaster-Pickup-Switch-Middle by Dave Wirth

Fender-Telecaster-Pickup-Switch-Middle by Dave Wirth

Each of these selections sound radically different than each other, right? Once again, guitarists love options.