Pop quiz. What is the most critical part of your guitar’s electronics – other than pickups?
Answer: Your potentiometers.
Potentiometers – or simply, pots – determine how much of what frequencies make it from your pickup to your output jack. And while some players may be content leaving them full up, getting to know these little guys can open tones that have been hiding right under your fingertips.
While some would argue we’re getting into the weeds on this one, this is ground zero for getting the very best performance from your favorite pickups. And pots come in a wide variety of configurations. From impedance ratings to sizes, shaft construction to taper, there is a lot to learn. So let’s get started.
Some important terms
The rating of a pot is a measure of the resistance it places on your signal as it passes through. We won’t get into the math of it all, but it’s important to know that different ratings generally work better when matched with varying styles of pickup.
A capacitor is a device that diverts the flow of your guitar’s frequencies. Different ratings affect different frequencies. This is why you don’t lose low end when rolling your tone knob back.
A Resistor is a device with a measurable amount of resistance. Simply put, a Resistor impedes the flow of or “resists” electricity and turns things down.
All pots are variable resistors (and therefore, volume controls. Though we’ll get to that in a bit). They are resistors that you control in real-time, allowing you to restrict varying amounts of signal through your electronics.
Tone pot vs. volume pot
Believe it or not, they’re usually the same type of pot. While a volume will restrict all the frequencies and shut your signal off, the simple addition of a capacitor and/or resistor allows specific frequencies to pass through unaffected. So you can shut off your high end while keeping your lows, AKA a tone pot.
This is a style of pot that combines the standard pot with an independent, onboard switch. They’re perfect for adding functionality to your guitar’s electronics without drilling new holes into the top of your guitar. And they’re extremely popular for coil splitting and tapping.
The shaft of a pot is the piece that sticks up out of the assembly. It’s also the part that the control knob is attached. It may seem like a no-brainer piece of the puzzle, but the shaft makes a big difference in finding the right pot for your guitar.
Your pot’s taper is what determines how fast, slow, or gradual the pot affects your signal as you turn it. The two types of taper we’ll deal with here are Audio (Logarithmic) and Linear.
Finding the perfect pots
Here are the most important aspects to consider when finding the right pots for your guitar. We’ll tackle these in a specific order to come out on the other side with the perfect pots for your guitar.
Two main impedance ratings pop up again and again, 250K and 500K. These two ratings have been the gold standard for decades.
250K pots offer lower resistance to your guitar’s pickups. Don’t think of it as more or less resistance. It’s actually where the resistance sits that makes the difference. Because of this, 250K pots naturally attenuate more high frequencies than pots with higher ratings. This makes them perfect for, and almost universally paired with the brighter tones of passive single-coil pickups.
As you can probably guess, 500K pots have higher resistance, lessening their impact on high frequencies. This makes them the perfect choice for use with the commonly darker tones of passive, humbucking pickups.
1 Meg pots:These pots’ extremely high rating helps bring out chime in certain pickups. Often found in Jazzmasters, some Teles from the ’70s and Wide-Range humbucker-equipped guitars. They’re also a popular mod for players who want maximum bite and attack.
Active vs. passive
Active electronics are a different animal than passive electronics. They require pots with a very low impedance rating of 25K. While frequencies do play a role here, this low resistance is actually to match the battery-powered LO-Z impedances these systems deliver.
Audio Taper vs. Linear Taper Pots
Taper is how smoothly and quickly pots attenuate your signal as you turn them. As a general rule, Audio taper provides a more natural feeling and sounding swell. This allows for many different tonal shades throughout the range of the pot.
Linear taper pots react much differently. This style of pot feels more like an on/off switch. As you raise the pot from zero, you’ll notice a significant and fast increase in your signal within the first quarter turn. From there, it may seem as though very little happens throughout the rest of the range
Not a shortcoming of the design, many players prefer the way this gives them plenty of room to work with when making fine adjustments to their tone and volume.
Whether you choose an Audio or Linear taper is about personal preference. And you really can’t go wrong. That’s why we highly recommend trying both. Some players even prefer using one on their volume controls and the other on their tone.
As if wading through all of the techy electronics weren’t confusing enough, pots also come in a ton of different construction styles. And like making sure you have the right electronic match for your guitar, it’s equally essential to snag one with the perfect build style.
One way to tell a lot about different pots, as well as telling them apart, is by their shaft (the piece that turns inside the pot’s housing). When it comes to split- and solid-shaft pots, the differences don’t affect your tone, but will guide your choice in knobs.
Split-shaft pots are the most common style of potentiometers found on electric guitars. Defined by the slot that runs down the middle of the shaft, these pots utilize friction to hold your knobs secure. By slightly spreading the two sides of the shaft apart, its splines can grab hold of the knob and keep it in place.
While this makes for an easier time when replacing your knobs, it does present its own set of challenges. For instance, if the sides of the shaft aren’t putting enough pressure on the knob, it’s easy for it to come loose. And because achieving the right fit requires manipulation of the metal, the sides of the shaft can break if pushed too hard.
Solid-shaft pots do away with the shaft splines and slot down the middle. Instead, they utilize a single, smooth piece of solid metal. This style of pot requires a knob outfitted with a metal insert and set screw for holding on.
The benefit to a solid-shaft pot is that, when the set screw is secure, it holds tight. And there is little chance of breaking the shaft. Unfortunately, if the set screw shakes loose, even a little bit, nothing is holding your knob from going flying mid-performance.
Size is everything
Now let’s make sure you have the right fit.
When discussing pot sizing, there are two main things to think about; shaft length and diameter. These differences are purely a matter of getting the correct fit for your guitar and make no difference to the pot’s performance. Luckily, knowing which is right for your instruments is a straightforward affair.
Shaft length is the first consideration. Guitars with thick, arched tops, such as Les Pauls, some Paul Reed Smiths, etc. require a pot with a long shaft to ensure enough material rises above the top to fit your control knobs. Guitars that boast pickguard-mounted controls, a thin arched top, or flat construction are perfect candidates for the short-shaft variety. Here are a few recommendations to help you get the right fit.
Long Shaft:Les Paul, carved-top PRS, and similar designs
Short Shaft: Stratocaster, Telecaster, SG, Jazzmaster, ES-335, Explorer, Flying V, and similar designs
As vital as the shaft’s length is its diameter. Due to differences in measuring systems, pots and the holes routed into a guitar can vary from imported and US-made products. Often, imported pots and guitars feature narrower shafts and routes. This means, you won’t be able to fit an American-style pot into many imported guitars’ routes without widening the hole first. Conversely, installing an import-style pot to an American-made guitar can leave you with too much room, making it difficult to secure the pot in place.
While there are remedies for both of these situations, we highly recommend measuring the route in your guitar before purchasing your replacement pots.
General diameters of both
Imported-style: 6 mm
The last pot construction style we’ll cover here are push/pull pots. For players who are happy with their guitar’s versatility and aren’t looking for more pickup-switching options, go ahead and skip to the next section. For the rest of us, read on!
Push/pull pots are simply the combination of a potentiometer and a switching mechanism. While their potentiometer section acts the same as a similarly rated, non-Push/pull pot, the independent switching also makes them a convenient and versatile way to increase your guitar’s sonic flexibility.
From adding coil-tapping and splitting capabilities to engaging onboard electronics, being an active/passive switch to being a killswitch, there are few limits to what these pots can do. But best of all, they do it all while maintaining the look and feel of your stock guitar. No need for drilling extra holes into your guitar, people!
Yngwie, Liberators, and More!
Hopefully, now you’re able to decide on the potentiometers with the perfect resistance; taper; shaft style, diameter; and length, as well as determining if push/pull is the way to go. No matter what you choose, we offer here multiple options to make sure you give your guitar’s pickups the perfect match.
Not only are our Liberator pots extremely high-quality and deliver exceptional performance, but they are an answered prayer for players who love to swap pickups. By outfitting them with simple and secure, solderless connections, you’re demo new pickups as quickly as you can load them in and out of your guitar. And their solderless connection is every bit as reliable as a traditional solder joint.
Available in both 250K and 500K varieties, the Liberator potentiometers are the perfect way to find your ideal set of electric guitar pickups.
Standard and YJM Speed Pots.
Every pot has its own action and feel. Some players like them to be smooth and loose for quick control manipulation, while others like their pots to give them a bit of resistance. This keeps them stable when you accidentally bump them.
Our standard Seymour Duncan pots are a perfect middle ground, offering easy control and just the right amount of resistance. But once we went to work with the inimitable Yngwie Malmsteen on his signature set of pickups, a new breed of Seymour Duncan potentiometer was born, the YJM Speed Pot.
Yngwie demanded a pot with action so fast and smooth that it can keep up with his blazing technique. So we went to work, adding minimal-viscosity lubricant to our standard potentiometer construction. It worked perfectly, creating one of the most effortless and smoothest-feeling pots on the market.
While perfect for Yngwie, players of all styles and genres have embraced the YJM Speed Pots, leading us to offer them in multiple configurations. So if you want Seymour Duncan quality in a pot crafted for quick control, we recommend trying the YJM Speed Pots for yourself.
Whew! That’s a lot of information! After all that, we’ll bet you don’t look at your guitar’s pots the same.
From determining your pickups’ performance to how they feel in your hand, there’s a ton to think about when finding the perfect ones. But the cool thing is, there’s no wrong pot for your guitar (outside of one that doesn’t fit, of course). There are just ones you’ll prefer over others. So don’t be afraid to experiment with different values, switching options, and construction types. You may find you love something a little bit out of the norm.
If you have any other potentiometer or wiring questions, please, don’t hesitate to reach out at (805) 716-6764 or email. Also, don’t forget to dig into the Seymour Duncan blog! There’s a ton of in-depth information on all of our different designs, how-tos, tone demonstrations, and a whole lot more.