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….
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!
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.
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
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?