Cage Match: Few Controls vs. Many

Guitars can be made many ways these days. Some provide one or two sounds from the guitar itself, with nothing more than a pickup and a volume knob. Some players like a huge palate of sounds available at all times, covering the face of their guitar with switches and knobs. This article will explain both schools of thought as well as some ways to achieve those sounds without all those holes on your purty guitar’s top. Finally, I will explain what I like (and need) in a guitar’s control layout, and how I make it work for me.
In this corner….

Beautiful simplicity. Charvel Custom Shop San DImas
Beautiful simplicity. Charvel Custom Shop San DImas

In the 80s, guitar trends stripped down the excesses of the 70s. Primarily due to Eddie Van Halen, rock guitarists got down to the bare essentials. This is where we first started seeing guitars appear with nothing but 1 pickup and a volume control (outside of jazz circles). This setup was highly dependent on the player’s dynamics and/or further control of the sound via signal processing (big racks of flashing lights). These guitars could get one basic sound, but in the right hands, it was the right one. These types of guitars (many equipped with just a Seymour Duncan JB model) were stripped-down tone machines for guitarists that didn’t see a need for a tone control, or in some cases, a neck pickup.
The downside to this setup is that you’d better be one of those guitarists that either can change tones using just your hands or be able to change the tone downstream via pedals or amps. However, sometimes the music doesn’t require any tonal change at all and some guitarists, in true 80s style, can get by with one sound for the whole set. Who has time for making changes to the sound when you are too busy looking good, right?
In that corner…
Some guitarists need control. Over their tone, that is. From their guitar. The most iconic guitars of all time like the Gibson Les Paul, the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster, all provide some way to vastly change the sound of the instrument via pickup switch and tone controls. In the late 60s and 70s, guitarists experimented with different switching schemes. Sounds like pickup splitting (where one coil of a humbucker is sent to ground), pickup tapping (an output wire is soldered into the pickup wind somewhere in the middle of the coil) and series/parallel wiring were used to get more sounds out of your guitar. More sounds are better, right? Soon, guitars were littered with all sorts of switches and knobs and push-buttons. It is quite fun to pick up a guitar with so many options, and since most of them weren’t mutually exclusive, you could mix and match settings from various pickups. Soon, preamps appeared on guitars with active bass, mid & treble controls, and companies even experimented with putting effects directly into the guitar. Whew!

Umm, I might have to read the manual for this...
Umm, I might have to read the manual for this…

Well, you can see the downside here. While having a bunch of sounds on your guitar might sound like a great idea, in reality, it can become difficult to switch from one sound to another. If you have multiple switches to engage, or buttons to push, it makes it difficult when you want to go from those jangly strums in the verse to the thick chords in the chorus. Guitarists found that they favored just a handful of sounds, and the rest of the options went unused. And we all know what happens if switches or pots aren’t used for long periods of time: static, dropouts, scratchiness. The wiring for some guitars got so complex that the control cavity was a rat’s nest of wires, and there was more that could go wrong.
Alright then, who wins?
Well, we know what iconic designs have survived. If the market teaches us something, is that guitarists want some control, but too much is splitting hairs. LPs and Strats, with their basic setups of volumes, tones, and single switch, give enough variation that most people are happy. If you are not happy with just that though, there are options.
Hidden Control?

Just pickup rings? Look closer..The Seymour Duncan Triple Shots!
Just pickup rings? Look closer..The Seymour Duncan Triple Shots!

Guitars these days can be all ninja-like. Push-pull (or my favorite, the rare push-push) knobs hide a switch usually used for coil splitting in one of the pots. Pull up on the pot, and the humbuckers are split. This is easy to wire, and doesn’t require you to deface your guitar.
Another way to add switches is with Seymour Duncan Triple Shot Mounting Rings. These replace your humbucking pickup rings and allow series/split/parallel wiring without the need for additional switches. I have used them before with P-Rails, and it is very easy to get to those different sounds.
What I Like

The Mayones Regius 7 Gothic features Seymour Duncan Blackouts. I like this control layout.
The Mayones Regius 7 Gothic features Seymour Duncan Blackouts. I like this control layout.

My needs are mostly pretty simple. I have found over the years that I prefer HH or HSS guitars, with a volume and master tone. I like the ability to split the humbuckers, either with a push-pull pot, a 24 pole Superswitch, or a Schaller Megaswitch which automatically splits certain coils at different positions of the 5-way switch. I do switch pickups while I play a lot, and I love to use the tone control too, so I need a fast way to get to the sounds I need. I see no need to have sounds on the guitar I will never use.
Do you have any favorite wiring tricks to give yourself a unique sound? Do you prefer a lot of controls on the guitar or just a few?

Join the Conversation


  1. For me…I think Gibson nailed it with their 4-knob setup. My old Les Paul XR-1 had a factory coil cut switch as well, so the guitar was pretty versatile while simple to use.

      1. I really, really like them… Something about just tapping the knob instead of having to grab it works much better for me. I did get one bad one out of my last order of 3 of them, but Warmoth had a new one to my door two days later without so much as charging me extra shipping (and I guess I never did send in the bad one :P). Both of my main guitars are working great with them, the Ibanez has had them for the last two years and my Dean got the new wiring earlier this year – so far both are switching and potentiomet-ing cleanly and reliably with regular beatings.

        1. That sounds like the only thing that could make my current guitar better. I’ve got push/pulls and they’re AWESOME, but both my previous guitar and my band’s guitarist’s previous guitar both had knobs break off of them after a couple of years. They weren’t super nice guitars, but it still gives me the willies a little bit when I just grab the knob and pull on it.

          1. Yea, check them out! The wiring is exactly the same as push/pulls, they just use a spring-loaded push-to-actuate setup like a pen. I’m sure the springs will wear out eventually, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they switches on a push/pull wear out just as quickly…. and they’re not so expensive as to make it a horrible thing anyway.

    1. My lp studio silverburst has push pull pots and I love it! Helps me get some decent country telecaster-ish tones for my country cover band but then i can still get the great rock humbucker tones. I’m thinking about getting the p-rails installed in the bridge and using the push pull to go from p-90 to full humbucker, it a push pull pop can do that.

  2. What kind of guitar is that black one at the bottom with all the switches… it looks like an organ had a baby with a guitar

  3. In the last couple of months i tried: replacing the tone controls in my strat for a 3 way switch that activates caps of 0,022, caps bypass, 0,047 mf. I tried this because i found my self rolling off the tone control so i thought a direct switch would make thing easy. Now, i im thinking to put back the tons pots, but this time using 2 master tone, one with a .022 and the other with ,015mf. I found that i used the tone controls to interact with a feedback sweet spot, and now i’m missing this, (maybe i’m lacking finger/pick dyniamics);.
    I don’t know what kind of tone can i get when gradually mixing 2 master tone pots. In a high preamp gain, thing seems to sound the same, but with less gain the different tone set up chan can be heard. I play with an solid state amp wich react as a class A at certain volume and A/B from that point, active eq and a open/vintage voicing in general. (in the reharsals studio i use a tube amp, but my solid state sound good and clear enough for me).

    1. The only LP I’ve got is an Epiphone Special, and it’s broken, and it’s not even mine. Do LPs typically have split coils? Cuz my Epi ES339 does, but besides that and the location of the pickup switch, it’s basically an LP and I find it’s perfect. Nice and simple control over a wide variety of sounds, all while maintaining the elegant Electric Spanish look.

  4. Just a volume pot works just fine for me. I suppose any extras are a bonus, but I really don’t use them very often.

  5. 1 volume, 1 tone, coil tap (push pull), and a 3 way switch is all I could really have. But it all depends on whose playing.

  6. Three knobs; master volume, master tone, and bass roll off. Make the tone a coil split push push for tapping/splitting and add a three way blade or toggle (5 on a strat). And that’s more than enough options on one guitar.

  7. My Superstrat is fine with just the volume pot and the 78′. However, the use of the tone controls on my LP is important!

  8. Tone knob? Seriously, I love my Tele Deluxe with the 4 knob LP type layout. Anyone wanting to check out a multi-knob/switch tone freak machine should get a gander at any of Frank Zappa’s guitars.

  9. I’m a volume and tone for each pickup proponent. However, I did see an interesting blend control knob on the new Gibson Capatin Kirk SG Custom. It allows you to blend the bridge and neck pickups with the middle pickup by twisting the toggle switch knob. I think they’re on to something there.

  10. pickup selector switch and volume knob with push pull coil splitting or coil testing capabilities other than that the guitar is more like a piece of electronics then Happy’s off r that makes music

  11. My first guitar (one I build) had a 3-way SG-type toggle and 6-way rotary switches for each pickup. Way overkill. I do like options, but I prefer things that might be complex under the hood, but easy to operate while on a gig.
    My Strat has a five-way and vol-tone-tone, plus one mini switch. The 5-way is actually a SuperSwitch, and switches the tone controls according to the switch position–bridge position has its own preset 33k/8.2nF tone network, because it sounds great that way. The mini switch changes capacitors on the other tone controls from 8.2nF to 18nF to none (tone control out of circuit). Easy to operate, but complicated on the inside, and gives me good options.

  12. I really dig what I can do on my current guitar, an Epiphone ES-339. It’s got double split-coil buckers, each with its own volume/coil toggle and tone control. Best part is, all of the controls are right there on the lower face of the guitar, instead of the knobs all being down there and the switch being up on top like on a LP. Thing’s gorgeous, too, and it plays like a dream. Honestly, right now the only thing that could sway my devotion to this thing is if I won either a Gibson of the same model or a Suhr, and hell no I’m not buying one, shit’s expensive yo.

  13. I did this adjustment on my Strat and I love it! I took out the second tone knob, setting the guitar up with a master volume and master tone, which helps me roll down the top a little bit on the bridge pickup, giving me a little warmth to a solo. With that spare hole, I put in an on/off switch. This switch is wired up to the system to turn on the neck pickup from any spot. When I have the 5-spot down in the bridge spot, and throw the switch, this gives me a neck/bridge combination. Bump the 5spot up one notch with the switch engaged, and I have all three pickups, which gives me a GREAT tone for rhythm work! The design kind of gets around the weaknesses that the Strat had with its wiring schematic, and gives me a LOT of versatility at a gig.

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