Your guitar’s tone capacitors (caps) are the most underrated component of your guitar. Tone caps are so underrated, many players never even utilize their tone knobs. Others still settle for the one that came in their guitar and don’t realize how easy they are to customize.
The truth is, a simple swap of your tone cap adds versatility and personalized control to your guitar. These relatively inexpensive, tiny components are the key to taming harsh frequencies, nailing darker, woody tones, and even delivering wah pedal-style effects.
So let’s pull back the curtain on these misunderstood marvels. Hopefully, this will inspire you to try some out and find the right one for your sound.
With subjective things like tone capacitors, it’s extremely easy to get into the weeds. Some players are incredibly focused on the minute details of capacitor construction. Others say that all capacitors are created equal. We’re not picking sides right now. We’ll only explain the different types and ratings to let you draw your own conclusions.
Types and Materials
Electric guitars feature three main types (materials) of tone capacitors. Ceramic, paper-in-oil, and polypropylene. The tonal differences between them is a debate for the ages. But there are some commonly held beliefs. We’ll investigate those differences, where each type excels, and why they’re so popular.
Ceramic capacitors are the most prevalent type of capacitor in electronics. They’re small, easy to work with, and extremely inexpensive. And, in theory, they do the same job as every other cap out there.
Many players and guitar builders have no problem with ceramic capacitors. But many others avoid them for what they consider a ‘thin sound.’ This bad rap is largely because the quality and tolerances of inexpensive components can vary quite dramatically. Therefore some ceramic caps might sound terrific, while another with the exact same specs might not.
You’ll often hear that paper in oil capacitors are the only way to go. Much of this is because Gibson used them (specifically, the famed Bumblebee caps) during their 1950s golden era. These vintage caps are so desirable that used and NOS versions regularly sell for mind-numbing prices—when they can be found, that is.
Paper-in-oil capacitors are said to have a smoother tone that is essential to the vintage guitar “magic.” The only downside to these capacitors is that they are much more expensive than the other options. Even though many companies are now making more affordable recreations of the iconic caps, they still demand a premium.
While the term polypropylene isn’t necessarily a buzz word, “Orange Drop capacitor” is. Not only are they some of the most popular polypropylene capacitors on the market, but they even give Bumblebees a run for their money with the tone-hound crowd.
Orange Drops and other polypropylene caps are known for an open tone. And in many ways, they are the perfect balance of high-quality manufacturing, reliability, and affordability. We highly recommend these capacitors to all guitarists.
When it comes to guitar tone, capacitor ratings are what matters most. These ratings indicate how the cap will perform as you roll your guitar’s tone back. The higher the rating, the darker the tone. Lower the rating, the brighter the tone. It’s that easy.
While there is a wide range of ratings to choose from, the vast majority of electric guitars feature one of only a few options. We’ll focus on those three. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try others!
Microfarads = µF. Picofarads = pF
- .015 µF 15,000 pF
- .022 µF 22,000 pF
- .047 µF 47,000 pF
.015 µF capacitors aren’t as popular as the other two in this list. But they’re definitely getting there. They are perfect for fine control of your high-end frequencies throughout the full sweep of your tone knob. They are also fantastic for taming harsh frequencies without muddying up your signal. If your current tone knob gets too dark too fast, .015 µF capacitors are well worth your time.
If there is a default capacitor for electric guitars, the .022 µF is it. While they do interact differently with humbucking and single-coil pickups, they work great on both setups. That said, they are most often found in humbucker-equipped guitars.
And their balance of clarity and ability to get warm and woolly make them the best place to start on a tone capacitor journey.
.047 µF capacitors are the second most popular choice. They are darker than the other two options. That’s why Fender often relies on them for their brighter Stratocaster and Telecaster pickups.
You’ll find your high-end detail will disappear fast as you really roll your tone knob back. But this is why many players love them. Their dark, mid-range focus is especially popular with jazz players and those after Clapton’s “woman” tone.
Tech Tips: Capacitors feature a voltage rating which also indicates the physical size of the cap. Because almost all capacitors will easily handle the voltages produced by your guitar, these ratings are not an important tonal consideration. But you do need to be sure you find a size that will fit in your guitar’s electronics cavity.
Swapping tone caps is an extremely powerful, affordable, and easy-to-accomplish modification – unless you’re looking for a Holy Grail, vintage capacitor right out of a ‘59 burst. So head to your local electronics shop, grab a bunch of different values and materials, and start experimenting.
Let’s talk tone!
If you have any other questions about tone capacitors, pickups, or other guitar upgrades, check out our Knowledge Base here. You can also email us here. And don’t forget to dig deeper 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 lot more.