Even though typical electric guitar owners consider changing the stock pickups of their guitar as the most cost effective way to upgrade to a better tone, would changing the pots or potentiometers be the more cost-effective option?
By: Ringo Bones
Whenever they are dissatisfied with the sound of their electric guitar and they have some money burning a serious hole in their pocket, most electric guitar owners resort to upgrading the stock pickups of their electric guitars as a “cost effective way of upgrading their electric guitar sound. After all, there are well-reviewed DiMarzio humbuckers and Lace Sensor single-coil pickups that can be bought for less than 500-US dollars that would readily transform that 500-US dollar electric guitar given to you as a gift last Christmas into something that sounds similar to a one used by a famous rock guitar god. But what if I told you that there’s a far more cost effective – i.e. cheaper – alternative way to upgrade the existing tone of your electric guitar.
Consider changing potentiometer values of your electric guitar, a reliable potentiometer brand often used by top electric guitar manufacturers like Fender or Gibson seldom sells more than 50-US dollars each. And if you’re soldering and electronic DIY skills are as good as your guitar playing, you could save a bundle in labor costs – given that they are relatively easy to install and swap around. From an electronic engineer’s perspective and from the electric guitarists “point-of-hearing”, volume pots or potentiometers act as a tone filter – given that a typical classic Fender Strat or Gibson Les Paul uses internal shielded / Faraday caged wiring to connect its pickups with the output socket via wires with a 30 picofarad per foot capacitance ala JAN (joint Army-Navy) RG-58 shielded cables. The higher the potentiometer’s value, the more treble you hear. With a little DIY experimenting, you might find out that your electric guitar’s stock pickups can be made to sound like the one used by Eric Clapton during his Cream days just by swapping the pots and a few minutes worth of DIY soldering.
When it comes to single-coil pickups, stock Fender Stratocaster / Telecaster guitars or Fender type clone electric guitars that use single-coil pickups typically use 250-kiloohm (250-K) potentiometers, substituting it with a 500-K potentiometer will brighten single-coils, whether they are of Stratocaster-style lipstick or the much older soapbar (pre 1955 era) style pickups. For an airy sounding Strat, try a 1-megaohm (1-Meg) potentiometer. The trick here is to find a value that provides clarity of tone without introducing too much harshness or noise.
When it comes to humbucker pickup use and installation, most manufacturers follow Gibson’s lead and use 500-Kiloohm (500-K) potentiometers for humbucker pickups. If your humbucker pickup equipped electric guitar sound too bright, too shrill or too tonally thin, try mellowing its tone by changing to a lower value potentiometer – typically 300-K or 250-K. Conversely, you can add more presence to a humbucker by switching to a 1-Meg volume control. Just remember that in a dual-volume Les Paul style rig, you can mix volume controls say like brightening only the neck pickup or darkening the bridge pickup of your Les Paul type electric guitar for greater tonal flexibility usually very useful for country music or old school electric Blues styles.