As a guitar instructor, I routinely deal with students trying to learn songs they want to play. After all, that’s the whole point of this thing of ours, right? The thing that I notice over and over, however, is the increasing dependence of most students on some sort of online tab website to provide the details on how a given song is played, rather than learning the song in the time-honored play-along-with-the-record ear-based method. Read more
It’s easy to get bamboozled if you’re purchasing a vintage Fender guitar. Because these instruments are bolted together, their parts can be swapped, stripped or replaced faster than you can say “rip-off.” A buddy of mine who has been in the vintage game for years recently estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of the “Sixties Strats” out on the market are bootlegged. And if that number sends a shiver down you fuzzy fretboard, the number of “all-original” Strats that feature replaced pickups, pots, bridges and other parts is even higher.
By and large, G-V has found that vintage guitar dealers who have a good reputation have earned it. Likewise, if the word on the street is that a certain seller is not on the up and up, he’s probably guilty as charged. Avoid him like the plague. Read more
People in the 1950s thought that we’d all be wearing jetpacks and driving flying cars about now. But did they bother to predict what kind of guitars we’d be shredding on? No, they didn’t. Probably because they couldn’t imagine just how hard these eleven axes would rock. From robot-tuning to synth access, these guitars will have you dreaming of the possibilities.
First up is the Gibson HD.6X Pro Digital Guitar, an instrument that’s capable of making each string sound completely different than every other. Using fancy tech and hexaphonic pickups, the signal from each string is pushed through and Ethernet port to a computer, where you can tailor the sound, EQ and wave-shape. And did I mention that you can put a different effects signature and amplification on each string? Even though this guitar came out in 2007, it’s still pushing the envelope even now. Read more
Marshall Amplification is a British company which is renowned for manufacturing some of the best and most versatile guitar amplification units out there. The sought after “crunch sound” which only Marshall Equipments have to offer remains unrivaled till date. Guitarists who prefer a heavier guitar sound have always invariably ended up selecting a Marshall. Read more
An electric guitar’s sound is deeply influenced by its pickups. For a musician who has little or no knowledge of electronics the matter can often seem to be incredibly complicated. When it comes to electronics in general, pickups are quite easy to wrap your brain around. This article will explain the connection between the electronics and sound. Read more
What is a Potentiometer?
Potentiometers, or “pots” for short, are used for volume and tone control in electric guitars. They allow us to alter the electrical resistance in a circuit at the turn of a knob.
It’s useful to know the fundamental relationship between voltage, current and resistance known as Ohm’s Law when understanding how electric guitar circuits work. The guitar pickups provide the voltage and current source, while the potentiometers provide the resistance. From Ohm’s Law we can see how increasing resistance decreases the flow of current through a circuit, while decreasing the resistance increases the current flow. If two circuit paths are provided from a common voltage source, more current will flow through the path of least resistance.
We can visualize the operation of a potentiometer from the drawing above. Imagine a resistive track connected from terminal 1 to 3 of the pot. Terminal 2 is connected to a wiper that sweeps along the resistive track when the potentiometer shaft is rotated from 0° to 300°. This changes the resistance from terminals 1 to 2 and 2 to 3 simultaneously, while the resistance from terminal 1 to 3 remains the same. As the resistance from terminal 1 to 2 increases, the resistance from terminal 2 to 3 decreases, and vice-versa.
Tone Control: Variable Resistors & Tone Capacitors
Tone pots are connected using only terminals 1 and 2 for use as a variable resistor whose resistance increases with a clockwise shaft rotation. The tone pot works in conjunction with the tone capacitor (“cap”) to serve as an adjustable high frequency drain for the signal produced by the pickups. The tone pot’s resistance is the same for all signal frequencies; however, the capacitor has AC impedance which varies depending on both the signal frequency and the value of capacitance as shown in the equation below. High frequencies see less impedance from the same capacitor than low frequencies. The table below shows impedance calculations for three of the most common tone cap values at a low frequency (100 Hz) and a high frequency (5 kHz).
When the tone pot is set to its maximum resistance (e.g. 250k?), all of the frequencies (low and high) have a relatively high path of resistance to ground. As we reduce the resistance of the tone pot to 0?, the impedance of the capacitor has more of an impact and we gradually lose more high frequencies to ground through the tone circuit. If we use a higher value capacitor, we lose more high frequencies and get a darker, fatter sound than if we use a lower value.
Volume Control: Variable Voltage Dividers
Volume pots are connected using all three terminals in a way that provides a variable voltage divider for the signal from the pickups. The voltage produced by the pickups (input voltage) is connected between the volume pot terminals 1 and 3, while the guitar’s output jack (output voltage) is connected between terminals 1 and 2. From the voltage divider equation below we can see that if R1 is 0? and R2 is 250k?, then the output voltage will be equal to the input voltage (full volume). If R1 is 250k? and R2 is 0?, then the output voltage will be zero (no sound).
The taper of a potentiometer indicates how the output to input voltage ratio will change with respect to the shaft rotation. The two taper curves below are examples of the two most common guitar pot tapers as they would be seen on a manufacturer’s data sheet. The rotational travel refers to turning the potentiometer shaft clockwise from 0° to 300° as in the previous visual representation drawing.
How do you know when to use an audio or linear taper pot?
It’s really a matter of personal taste when it comes to volume control. Notice how the rate of change is much more dramatic on the audio taper pot when traveling back from 100% to 50% rotation. This means that the same amount of rotation would give you a more intense volume swell effect with an audio taper than with a linear taper. Using a linear taper volume pot would give you a more gradual change in volume which might feel like you have more fine control with which to ease back the volume level.
For tone control, it’s basically standard practice to use an audio taper. The effect of the tone circuit is not very noticeable until the resistance gets pretty low and you can get there quicker with an audio taper.
How do you know what value of potentiometer to use?
The actual value of the pot itself does not affect the input to output voltage ratio, but it does alter the peak frequency of the pickup. If you want a brighter sound from your pickups, use a pot with a larger total resistance. If you want a darker sound, use a smaller total resistance. In general, 250K pots are used with single-coil pickups and 500K pots are used with humbucking pickups.
Potentiometers are used in all types of electronic products so it’s a good idea to look for potentiometers specifically designed to be used in electric guitars. If you do a lot of volume swells, you’ll want to make sure the rotational torque of the shaft feels good to you and most pots designed specifically for guitar will have taken this into account. When you start looking for guitar specific pots, you’ll also find specialty pots like push-pull pots, no-load pots and blend pots which are all great for getting creative and customizing your guitar once you understand how basic electric guitar circuits work.
Kurt Prange (BSEE) is the Sales Engineer for Amplified Parts (www.amplifiedparts.com) in Tempe, Arizona, United States. Kurt began playing guitar at the age of nine in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is a guitar DIY’er and tube amp designer who enjoys helping other musicians along in the endless pursuit of tone.
Passive (i.e. battery-free) electric guitar circuits are relatively simple and the possibilities for customization are endless. A basic understanding of pickups, potentiometers, capacitors and switches is all you need to get creative and take more control of your instrument’s voice on an electronic level. Read more
Have you ever noticed how your low ‘E’ string just never stays in tune? Wondering why it’s harder to play your guitar rather than your buddies’ slick Gibson? The secret to effortlessly traveling along the neck of an axe that melts like butter is probably in the setup. Read more
Last weekend, my band and I dropped in the studio to lay down some tracks for three songs. Recording is always a tedious process, and involves so much work from the band as well as the recording engineer. Depending on the degree and seriousness of the project, the process can take anywhere from two days to 2 months, maybe even longer.
Our progressive rock quintet is composed of a drummer, a bassist, two guitarists, and a vocalist. Everyone but our drummer does vocals, so you could say 4 vocalists. We record drums first, then guitars, bass, and finally vocals. When necessary, all five of us get in the room together to throw down gang vocals. Read more
Irrespective of time, place or anything, whenever people talk about guitars, be it anywhere in the world, the name Fender Stratocaster inevitably creeps in.