How Do Volume and Tone Pots Work For Guitar?

There’s a lot riding on your pots. Let’s Get to Know them.

Pots are an integral part of your guitar’s tone and setup. They can do a lot of things, like adjusting your guitar’s volume, to fine-tuning your tune. By understanding your pots a little more, you can make sure you pick the right pot for your guitar.

The Basics:

A Potentiometer (or, “Pot” for short) is a type of variable resistor. By turning the pot, you are changing the way electricity flows through it. Inside the pot, there is a circular resistor strip, or “element” that gets wiped by a “sweeper”. Turning your knob changes the position of the sweeper on the resistor strip. This allows you to choose how far the electricity has to travel on the strip until it reaches it’s output.
A Pot is an “L-Pad”, which is an electrical device doing two things at once. It’s introducing Series Resistance and a Short across the signal. The Short is what dampens the high frequencies of the signal, even when the pot is on “10”. (See below for comparing 250K and 500K pots.) For instance, if you have a 250K pot, you can choose any value from 0 – 250K.To illustrate this further, take a look at the diagram below:

Fralin Pickups Pots Basics

As you can see in Ex. A, the pot has a Resistance Strip, made of resistive material, and a sweeper. The sweeper will sweep across the resistor strip to achieve the resistance you want.
 
For a 250K pot, the resistance of the Start of Sweep (Lug 1) and End of Sweep (Lug 3) is roughly 250K. It’s important to note that manufacturers have tolerances – in reality, it might be 243K. You can check the resistance of your pot by taking an ohm reading of the two outside lugs.
 
The Middle lug is the sweeper. This is how you get your variable resistance!
 
The Pot is the foundation for all the possibilities you can achieve. From Volume Pots to Tone Pots – let’s check out a few variations to see how we get many uses from one pot:

Which Pot to Choose? 250K or 500K?

500K or 250K?
Brass Tacks: 
 
Single Coil pickups and brighter-sounding pickups (think Strat, Tele) use 250K Pots
Darker-sounding pickups (P-92, 43-Gauge Big Single, P-90’s, and Hum-Cancelling P-90’s) use 500K Pots.

Why?

The higher resistance pot won’t send your high frequencies to ground as easily as 250K pots do. They sound brighter and allow more high frequencies to pass through the pot. 250K Pots will send more high frequencies to ground, making the pot sound a tad darker. This is pleasing to the ear – we don’t want muddy sounding humbuckers, or piercing single coil pickups. So, our pots help compensate and shape the tone right from the get-go. 
 
There are Pots in the middle – we sell 300K Pots as well, which are a little brighter-sounding than 250K pots.
 
NoteLindy always says: “The correct pot is the one that sounds the best”. Use your ears! You might like 500K pots on your single-coils, depending on what you are trying to achieve.

Linear vs. Audio Taper?

We get asked about Linear and Audio Taper pots a lot. Despite choosing which resistance of pot to go with, there are two types of pot “Tapers“. Taper refers to how the swipe acts and sounds: is is smooth and gradual? Or, quick and abrupt?

Linear Pots: Linear pots are, well, linear. Imagine a straight line on a graph: electronically, your wiper and taper is just like that – a straight line. You would think that this is the end-all, be-all of pots, right? Well, the human ear doesn’t really hear that way (there’s a thing called the Weber–Fechner law). What happens? 90% of your perceived signal change is found in the first 25% of the turn. That means, you turn your pot a little bit, and the bulk of the change happens right there. Not very useful for certain applications.

Audio Taper Pots: Audio Taper pots are different from Linear pots as they are logarithmic. Imagine that straight line, only curved in the middle. The result is an exponential increase or decrease in resistance as you turn the pot. What happens? You experience a smoother change when you turn the pot. This means that you can perceive 50% loss in volume at the “5” mark!

We prefer Audio Taper Pots for Volume and Tone, but you can always experiment!


Split Shaft or Solid Shaft?

This is all about the knob! If you have plastic knobs like a Strat, those require Split Shaft – you can simply slip the plastic knobs on.

If you have Metal knobs with a set screw, those require Solid Shaft pots. For Metal knobs, you have to tighten the set screw onto the post. Consequently, this is really hard to do with a Split Shaft, and you might break part of the shaft doing so.

A quick fix is to use a “sleeve” which is a metal tube that goes over the Split Shaft, basically converting it to a Solid Shaft pot.


Volume Pot Basics:

Now that we’ve covered some of the most frequently asked questions, let’s dig into how pots work. Let’s start with the Volume Pot:

On a Volume Pot, a basic set-up is this for a Gibson®, Strat® or Tele®:

  1. Input = Lug 1
  2. Output = Lug 2
  3. Ground To Casing = Lug 3

The third lug connects to ground. That means, as the sweeper moves towards the grounded lug, more of your signal is sent to ground. When the pot is turned all the way counter-clockwise, all of your signal is being sent to ground, thus, no volume!

See below for an image (Please note these images are from the bottom of the pot – not the top of the guitar. When you turn your knob, it goes in the direction described below.):

Fralin Pickups How Do Pots Work

In Ex B, The sweeper is moving towards the grounded lug – which means some of your signal is being sent to ground. If the sweeper was turned all the way counter clockwise, no signal would come through your amplifier.

The opposite example, Ex. C, your input and output are basically connected – zero resistance. Therefore, all of your signal is passing through the output lug. If you didn’t ground Lug 3, your volume pot won’t work correctly. It will never give you zero output. In Examples B & C, the Output Jack is being Grounded. This works for 1 Volume guitars, like a Strat or a Tele. 

 

What if you have 2 pickups and want to turn down the individual pickups themselves?

To accomplish this, you change the order of the Lugs. Instead of Lug 1 being the input, Lug 1 is the output. The sweeper will be the Pickup itself, instead of the Output Jack. So, instead of the Output Jack being sent to Ground, the Pickup is being sent to Ground. This works well for Jazz Basses, or P-J Basses. See Below Ex. Ba and Ca for an diagram for this type of wiring:

How to Wire a Les Paul or Jazz Bass - Fralin Pickups


TONE POT BASICS:

Tone Pot is nothing but a regular pot, with a capacitor soldered to it. A Tone Pot will work the same way as a Volume Pot, but justlittle different. 
 
Instead of sending the entire signal to ground, the tone cap helps by sending only a part of the signal to ground. Tone caps only let high frequencies pass through it – they resist, or reject low frequencies.
 
The value of the tone cap (.0025mfd, .02mfd, .1mfd, etc.) will determine the cut-off point for the highs. A smaller value(.0025mfd) will pass the least amount of highs. When rolled off, you will notice a subtle change in your high frequencies – you can only get your guitar to sound so dark. A higher valueof tone cap (.1mfd) will roll off the most amount of highs, getting into your high mids. You will get the darkest and deepest roll-off with higher value caps.
 
here’s how it all comes together:
 
  1. You turn your Tone Pot counter-clockwise.
  2. Your signal starts to pass through the Tone Cap, which connects to ground. (Example D)
  3. The Tone Cap will reject the low frequencies, allowing the high frequencies to get sent to ground, thus making your tone sound darker.
 

See below for an illustration: 

How do Tone Pots Work?

As you can see from Ex. D and Ex. E, the tone pot works pretty similar to the regular Volume Pot. This time, we have our friendly friend the Tone Cap to help us fine-tune our tone!


What is a No-Load Pot?

Before we get into No-Load Pots, let’s talk about “Load”: The definition of Load in terms of electricity is anything in a given circuit that “consumes” energy as opposed to sourcing (providing) energy. Even on “10”, your tone pot is still “sucking up” electricity. The Sweeper (Middle Lug) is still technically on the Resistance Strip, which draws power from the Volume Pot.

On a No-Load pot, there is a break on the Resistance Strip where the wiper is taken completely out of the circuit. It’s like “no man’s land” for the wiper, so much so that the Volume Pot doesn’t “see” the No-Load Tone Pot at all – almost like it’s invisible.

So what does this do to your guitar’s tone? Well, you’ll never know until you hear it for yourself, but, it will make your pickups sound a little more “full-throttle”. They might sound a little bigger, fuller, with added bass and treble. This is all personal taste, and we can take them or leave them, depending on the guitar.


What is a Blender Pot?

Lindy has installed a Blender Pot on almost every 3-pickup guitar he owns. A Blender Pot is a type of No-Load Pot will “Blend” between two pickups that it’s wired to. It’s a useful mod that allows you to get a lot of tone options – like Telecaster tones, out of your Strat. Another way to describe a Blender Pot is a “Gradual On / Off Switch”. When the Pot is on “10”, the Blender Pot is out of the circuit.
 
For instance, think about a Strat with a 5-Way Switch: You have the 5.) Neck Only position, the 4.) Neck and Middle, the 3.) Middle Only, the 2.) Middle and Bridge, and the 1.) Bridge Only. If you wire the Blender Pot up to the Neck and Bridge lugs on your switch, you can get a ton of pickup combinations.
On your Bridge (Position 1), turning the Blender Pot will roll in volume of the Neck Pickup. The same applies for the Neck Only position – it will roll in the Bridge. On Positions 2 & 4, you can roll either the Neck or Bridge in, getting all 3 pickups on at the same time.
 
To illustrate a simple installation of a blender pot, check out this wiring diagram here.

Whew. Now you have a grip on the basics. I hope this article has been helpful. Now use your guru knowledge to create your own unique tonal combinations, and make sure you choose the pots that will work best for you.

22 Comments

  1. Good post, but linear volume pots are being recognized more for what they can do for guitarists (and bassists). Lot of guitars, like Gibson, come with stock linear pots, and I prefer them for volume pots. What’s great about them is you can really dial near full volume. Pickups lose just a bit of sparkle but can be fully heard when you turn them just a little bit, and you can find that easy with a linear pot. Also, when near zero, swells are really easy because you only need a tiny turn to bring them into relatively full volume, and you don’t have to actually turn it halfway to get half sound. Lastly, if you accidentally hit the volume pot while playing, with a linear pot, you don’t lose much volume. That said, I found that only 250k or 300k linear pots really work the way I want them to. When they’re 500k, I wish the taper was modified to make 250k to 500k happen really quickly but to have the rest be linear. Meanwhile, audio is always better for tone pots in my experience.

    1. Wouldn’t they (linear) be worse off for accidental touches during playing because they require much less movement for a more dramatic change? Thanks for mentioning your view though, the volume swell pro is a good tip!

  2. What a great article. Tyler, you cleared up somethings I have been unsure about for a long time. Good job and I look forward to more!

  3. I’m getting confused here. What’s the best combination for a HSS configuration? 250k volume, 250 k on the tone for the single coils and 500k on the tone for the humbucker? I have seen that dual pots are available. How could a 250k/500k dual pot be wired for the volume control?

    1. Pat,

      Really good question here. You have to sacrifice something. Either you opt for 250K pots and have a dark sounding humbucker, or 500K pots and have really bright single coils. You can do something like a 300K pot and meet in the middle, but concentric pots are your friend here. Each pot has its own set of lugs, and you just have to run twice the amount of jumpers to accommodate.

  4. Hey, that was a really well written post! This is the first time that all this pickup/wiring thing is clear to me. Thanks!

    I have 2 little questions:
    1) is a blender pot EXACTLY a no-load pot?
    2) will a blender pot still work if you solder the wires the other way around as the diagram shows? (wich would be connecting bridge to the lug and neck to the sweeper)

    Thanks again for all the info!

    1. Hey Pablo,

      1.) Yes sir – it’s a no load pot.
      2.) Also Yes – you can use this differently as it’s a resistive barrier is decreased between the two signals.

      Thanks for your questions.
      Tyler

  5. Hey Tyler, if I’m using a hum, single, mini hum strat.. what pots do you recommend if I play heavy metal, and want high output from both humbucker but want that nice strat tone from the middle single coil? I was thinking 500 volume 300 single tone and 500 mini hum tone. Thanks

    1. Hey Eric,

      Thanks for your question. That seems like a viable option for you, if it were my guitar I would start with a a 500K Volume Pot, 250K Tone and Tone 2. If you needed brighter tone, then you could opt for 500K Volume Pots. They make a slight difference.

      I hope that helps!
      Tyler

  6. Hi, Tyler. I’ve got a Hagstrom Swede into which I put two GFS Mean 90s. The pots are 500k, and I can’t tell or remember if I replaced them (I think I did). I replaced the chiclet caps with NOS PIO ones. I’m thinking I attempted ’50s wiring because the neck capacitor (which says it’s 0.015uf) is going from the middle lug of the volume pot to the input lug of the tone pot. The tone pot’s center lug is grounded and the outer lug is just dangling in the breeze.

    For the bridge pickup, same style wiring, but the capacitor is 0.022uf.

    There’s an additional “tone filter” toggle that had originally been a 3-way pickup toggle with a jumper wire and some caps soldered to each output. I replaced the switch with a big-baton DPDT that I soldered to match the original switch’s intent (or, at least I tried). I think that the jumper I put in made it a SPDT switch, for all intents and purposes. (My recollection is hazy because I did these mods years ago and I’ve not been modding for a long time.) I put in a 0.015uf NOS PIO cap and left a 472k stock cap in there.

    All of that is to preface that my pickups have a tendency to be very muddy. Particularly the neck. I get really good single note tones out of the guitar, with either pickup, but cords just don’t sound as good. I notice, as I look inside the cavities, that I’ve got a bunch of really poor solder joints, but they’re not cold enough to cause any scratching or deadness. Does that mean they’re not a problem? Or do cold joints always have some kind of negative effect?

    Is the ’50s wiring a bad idea with humbucker-sized P-90s? Are my cap values too low? Are the joints too cold? I know that chasing tone is as old as playing the guitar, but I know this guitar could be a tone monster. It’s got lots of mojo and I just want to make it sound as good plugged in as it does acoustically.

    Sorry for the long post, but I don’t really know where else to turn besides the forums to find people with any idea about this stuff and whom (I hope) aren’t bored to death to hear all the particulars. Thanks in advance for any advice you can offer.

    1. Steve,

      Sorry for the delay in response – we’ve been busy making pickups. Your areas of focus on this would be your Solder Joints, Pots, and what you said was a 472K “Cap”. That’s a value for a resistor, and if that’s on all the time, your pickups are “seeing” a 250K Volume Pot instead of a 500K. That could be what’s making your guitar darker. If I were you, I would probably start fresh with standard wiring, see how that sounds, then slowly add some mods.

      Your cap values (.015 / .022) don’t really make much a difference as your signal isn’t passing through them all the time. I would find where your signal is passing through 100%, and start the process there.

      Tyler

  7. I’m building a telemaster and want a standard tele pup in the bridge but a p-90 in the neck with standard tele 3 way and 1 vol and 1 tone using lollar pickups . Should I to go with 500k or 250k a p-90 is technically a single coil so it seems like 250k would do the trick.

    1. Hey Paul,

      You have a few options here. I would recommend reading our article on how to mix single coil pickups and humbuckers (in this case, a P-90) here.

      There’s a few options that will work for you.

  8. Thanks for a great article. My question is, if i want to make a no load pot for a ‘spin o split’ mod, should the cut be on the other side of the lugs as opposed to the usual side? It seems that with spin o split, the splitting happens on 10 and full humbucker at 0…

    1. Mark,

      Yes, if you cut the resistive material on the left-side (bottom up) ((Lug 1)) of the pot, you’ll make it a no-load pot. There are videos out there showing you how to do it. I’ve burned through a few pots trying to make this work, so be careful!

  9. Hi Tyler
    Very informative read, thank you, just spotted a point of slight confusion, Strat pick up numbering is in reverse to what you described, 1 is the Bridge, 5 is the Neck.

    1. Hey! Thanks for that. I’ve adjusted the article to reflect those changes, to clear up any confusion. Cheers.

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