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Pot Luck

Are you getting the most out of your guitars'' pots?

Dean F’s custom 1981 Dean Z.
How’s everybody doing? This month I’ve decided to examine one of my old habits, just so you won’t have to be as limited as I once was. Specifically, I’m talking about the non-use of the guitar’s volume and tone pots. Believe it or not, way back when, I never used my volume or tone controls (except to set them to full blast), because if I lowered them even a smidge, the resulting tone would be nothing but muddy! This was really annoying, because I had to control the final tonal shaping with the amplifier’s tone controls instead. I basically had nowhere to go, unless I wandered over to the amp to make some tonal changes there, which I viewed as a hassle, of course. As a result, I had to be satisfied with my sound as it was. This old habit manifested itself in other ways, too, such as eventually having guitars made with no tone pots at all. My ‘81 custom Dean Z is a great example; it isn’t stock wiring at all. I acquired this habit based upon the experiences I’d had earlier with my 1969 Gibson Super 400. During this time I was primarily a Gibson player, and my quality time with Fenders was still a few years ahead of me.

Eureka In the early ‘80s, I built a Stratocaster-style guitar from parts, and I was just about blown out of my socks when I discovered that the instrument sounded great at every setting of the tone and volume controls. It was a surprise, but also a big relief. The bell of freedom was ringing loud and clear. As a result of this discovery, I did an about-face and became primarily a Fender player— though the Super 400 remained my main jazz guitar. It wasn’t too far into the future that I found out I could get amazing jazz tones from a Telecaster or Stratocaster too. The main reason was that the Fender’s lowervalue potentiometers would allow a nice tonal variety to come out of the instrument, whereas the Gibson instrument wouldn’t do quite the same thing. At first I thought this was simply the difference between single-coil and humbucking pickups. Upon further investigation, however, I found out that my Gibson Super 400 had 300K-ohm potentiometers installed in it instead of the normal 500K-ohm standard pots that had been used before. “So, that’s where the problem was,” I realized.

Some 14 years later, I found my jazz guitar soulmate in a Gibson Wes Montgomery L-5 model. I’ll never forget what happened when I turned the tone control down to around 4: it sounded downright… well, right! The tone was big and smooth, and there was no need to go through the puddle of dark mud either. As it turned out, this dream L-5 I had just found had 500K-ohm pots installed stock from the factory. Another priceless tonal moment had occurred.

This leads me into another related subject, which is the use of volume pedals. A lot of people use these on their pedalboards to control just their overall volume level. When you control the guitar’s volume from your instrument, you will notice shades of tonal variety as the volume control is decreased, whereas going the route of the volume pedal, generally speaking, demands that the instrument volume control remain on full—unless you have the volume pedal set all the way up (full forward throw) and you wish to use the instrument’s volume control instead. That’s the workaround if you ever find yourself in the one-tone territory. Going further into this, you will eventually find out that there are wide differences in the measurements of any particular batch of potentiometers. They might be marked 250K, but they can measure much less or much more than what’s marked. I’ve seen some 250K pots measure as high as nearly 400K or as low as 190K. Because of this, I always have my guitar tech pick out potentiometers that are closely rated to avoid any possibility of losing my tonal integrity. I may seem to be nitpicking here to some folks, but to me my tone is important... because it’s mine.

At the end of the day, individuality in tone is a huge part of your style, and if it is going to stand out from the crowd, you’ll have to do some digging to find out exactly what makes all of the elements of your chosen signal chain work together in a way that shows your playing off in the most flattering light. There’s nothing I can think of that can make you more pleased with your own music than finding yourself shining through every live (or recorded) performance. The moral of this story is to look into the reasons why something might be “off” for you, some odd thing that may have caused you to develop habits that ultimately limit you and keep you from your total and fullest musical expression. Armed with knowledge, you can get to where you want to be sooner rather than later. The devil is indeed in the details. We’ll see you next month.

Dean Farley
Dean is the chief designer of Snake Oil Brand Strings and has had a profound influence on the trends in the strings of today.