Lets talk about pot… entiometers


***This Article Was Written By Sam Crenshaw***


People love upgrading cheap guitars with new pickups! I see it all the time. Whether people are coming in with new pickups or asking about custom wound pickups its one of the first things people want to change. But all to often they overlook the rest of the internal wiring. Filled with cheap Chinese components and horrible solder jobs, your entire signal chain suffers. Say you have a rusty old truck that you drive every day on the same dirt road. One day you upgrade to a smoking new Bugatti but you still drive it on the same dirt and gravel road as before. That just isn’t any good. You’ve got to start driving on the highway! Get some clean paved roads and really push the car the way it was meant to be pushed. By upgrading the pickups and not your pots, caps, jacks, and switches you are only doing yourself a disservice.

In most signal chains you have the same five components.

- Potentiometers
- Tone capacitors
- Output jack
- Selector Switch
- And WIRE

Pots are sold with different readings like 500k or 250k and are important if you want true control of your tone and volume. With cheap pots you might notice that there are drop off points where all of sudden it sounds hugely different, or you might hear a lot of scratching or noise that can’t be cleaned with contact cleaner. On the low quality pots the reading may differ +- 10-20% of their intended value. On the highest quality pots these readings with differ on each pot depending on temp and humidity by 1% of their intended value. Something like Emmerson Custom CTS pots read to about 8% of their intended value. This is considered pretty high quality. As far as what brand of pots I always recommend CTS. They are the standard American potentiometer and are very reliable. Now what companies like Emmerson Custom do is they take a box of CTS pots, measure all of them and take the ones that are within that +-8% mark, then resell them at a premium. This is an easy way to get your hands on the really good quality CTS pots. Now there is a way to actually rebuild the standard CTS pots to read within +-1%. But that is something I will have to go into another day.

Tone caps are more simple. You get what you pay for. I always recommend Orange drop or paper in oil capacitors for my clients. The cheaper ceramic caps will technically get the job done but not very well.
The output jack and selector switch are another example of you get what you pay for. I use Switchcraft in every guitar I work on. When soldered correctly they have literally never failed me.
(PRO TIP: Use heat shrink tubing to cover your solder connections to your output jack. This way even if something gets pulled or bumped inside the jack cavity you can help insure that nothing gets accidentally grounded.)
Now wire is the last spot I want to talk about. This is where the quality of your skill really has to match the quality of your materials. Clean solder joints, even heat, insulated wire, and the right kind of wire for the job, all must work in harmony. The type of wire will often change between jobs so I wont go into that, but there are three points to note about wiring.

- Insulated wiring
- As little bare wire showing as possible
- Strong and clean solder joints

I always use A LOT of heat shrink tubing when working on guitars. I use it both to add extra insulation to my standard wire, cover bare wire, cover points where I had to extend a wire that was to short, and just help keep things clean and tidy. On longer runs I will take multiple wires and put them into the same heat shrink to make sure there’s not extra complications in the cavity. Finally solder joints. This is one of those things that just takes time and practice. Clean, shiny, strong solder joints make a world of difference and minimize potential complications later on.

I recommend this kind of overhaul with almost every pickup install that I do. Or even if someone is just generally unhappy with their pickups I will recommend that we try this with some height adjustment before spending extra money on new pickups.

If you have any questions or comments you can leave them below or message me on Instagram @samuelcraigmusic.

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