Types of Guitar Pots – What They Are & How They Work

One component that’s the least understood in the guitar are the pots (‘pots’ is the abbreviation for potentiometers.). That’s probably because they also happen to be the least talked about part of the guitar’s anatomy.

We’re going to change that today by explaining to you all the different types of pots out there, and their function. So, put that guitar down and pay attention!

What are Pots?

Potentiometers (known as ‘Pots’) are a type of variable resistor used to control the resistance or flow of electricity in an electric guitar.

These are compact gizmos that are fitted in the hollow cavities inside the guitar’s body right underneath the control knobs. The control knobs are then fitted on the potentiometer.

Here’s what a 500K audio taper, split shaft pot looks like:

What a Guitar Potentiometer Looks Like

What Do They Do?

By turning the pot, you change the way electricity flows through it.

The pot is fixed with both a wiper and a resistor plate. As the control knob is turned on the outside, it slides the wiper, which is also wired to one side of the plate, back and forth across this resistor plate. The level of resistance is increased as the wiper moves away from the wired end of the resistor plate.

This effect occurs due to the increase in distance that the electricity has to travel.

Similarly, as the distance between the wiper and the wired end of the resistor plate decreases, so does the resistance. This is how the tone and volume controls work in an electric guitar.

Here’s a great diagram from fralinpickups.com that shows how it works:

Resistor and Sweeper Diagram

Types of Guitar Pots

Guitar pots come in various types:

  • Mini and full-size
  • Short-shaft
  • Long-shaft
  • Push-pull
  • Split-shaft
  • Solid-shaft

Mini-Pots vs Full-Size Pots

Lets first tackle mini-pots and full-size pots. Normally, full-size pots are considered to be superior in quality as compared to mini-pots.

Utilizing mini-pots (also known as ‘alpha-pots’) provides manufacturers with a cost-effective way of building new electric guitars and are commonly seen with low-end guitars, but mini-pots are also commonly used in many big name brands as well, such as Spector and Ibanez.

If you find that your guitar has mini-pots, then there’s nothing to worry about because they can easily be replaced. However, if you want to get the best results, you should consider replacing the mini-pots with full-size ones.

So, how does one tell the difference between a mini-pot and a full-size pot?

  • Mini-Pots – The easiest way to distinguish the mini-pots from the others is its body or case. The case of a mini-pot is just about as small as a dime. Another way to recognize mini-pots is by their shafts. The mini-pots usually have shafts that feature coarse splines. These pots also require round, 5/16” mounting holes to attach to the guitar.
  • Full-Size Pots – The full-size pots can be identified due to their distinctive body, which is also known as a case. The case of the full-size pot is around the diameter of a quarter and features fine splines which require 3/8” round mounting holes.

Pot Values (aka Resistance)

Resistance or pot values is an important factor to consider when getting guitar pots. The common resistance values for the electric guitar are 500K and 250K, but on some occasions, 25k or 1 Meg are used.

The easiest way to find out what the resistance is of the pot you are about to buy is by simply looking at the marking on the casing or perfboard, where the resistance is usually stamped.

Another way to tell the resistance of the pot you are getting is by inserting a lead from a multimeter on both the outer tabs. The reading you get should not alter regardless of where the dial is turned.

Which Pot to Choose? 250K or 500K?

Both 250k tone pots, and the larger, 500k tone pots, are the most popular by far.

The 500k tone pots are the ideal choice for Humbuckers. This makes the 500k tone pots the ideal choice for using with humbucker pickups that are found on Les Paul, Gibson, and other humbucker styled electric guitars.

On the other hand, single-coil pickups always need to be paired up with the smaller 250k pots commonly used on Fender guitars such as the Strat. This is mainly because the higher pot resistance value results in stronger signals.

Which Guitar Pot to Choose

While it’s rarer to use them, 1 Meg pots are sometimes used to lift high tones and are sometimes used with Telecasters and Gibsons.

The low resistance 25k pots are not used with typical electric guitars, although they are found in guitars that utilize active electronics, such as guitars using EMG humbucker pickups. Other than that, they’re typically found in smaller stringed instruments.

Volume vs Tone Pots

Another common misconception when it comes to guitar pots is when it comes to volume pots and tone pots. Many beginners usually think of volume pots and tone pots as being two physically different parts of the guitar. In fact, the ‘tone pot’ and ‘volume pot’ that are both crucial parts of any electric guitar are not different components, but rather, refer to how the pots are used.

In other words, they basically refer to where the player chooses to use the pot while playing the electric guitar. Pots are essential to control both the tone and the volume of an electric guitar, and its importance cannot be undermined, but there are certainly some best practices that should be followed when it comes to choosing the types of pots to control the volume or tone of an electric guitar. It is widely recommended by industry experts to use audio taper pots when it comes to controlling the volume or the tone of an electric guitar.

Taper

Another crucial feature of a pot is the taper. Pots come in three different types of tapers, but two are most commonly used for electric guitars. These two options are the linear taper and the audio taper. Here’s a brief breakdown of the two:

  • Linear Taper – The linear taper is notated using the letter “B.” This means a pot could be described as “B500k”. This means that the 500k pot has a linear taper. Having a linear taper means that when the dial is turned to 5, the resistance on the multimeter will be 250k, which is exactly half. The linear taper will increase as the dial is being turned up.
  • Audio Taper – The audio taper is notated by the letter “A.” The audio taper pots tend to produce a steeper increase, especially at the top end. For instance, when the dial is turned to 5, the value of resistance is going to be a lot less than half. The audio tapers can also be further divided into two types; modern and vintage. Modern audio tapers provide a 15% increase in resistance when the dial is at 5, while vintage audio tapers provide a 30% increase in resistance when the dial is at 5.

Key Considerations When Buying Pots for Your Guitar

Some of the key factors that you need to consider when it comes to choosing guitar pots will be the type of knobs that you are using. If you use a push-on style knob, then the split-shaft will be a good fit. If you use a grub screw to hold the pots on, you will need to get a solid shaft. Another important factor to consider when getting guitar pots is the length of the shaft.

Pots with longer shafts are the preferred choice for guitars that have a carved top, such as a Les Paul. Variations in the width of the shaft is also another important factor to consider. Pots and knobs are also available for left-handed and right-handed individuals, so you need to ask which one will suit you best, depending on which hand you play with.

Tone and Volume Pots Wiring

There are many standard wiring configurations available online that work for almost any setup, one of the best resources for guitar wiring diagrams is the Seymour Duncan site.

Summary

So, there you have it. Since guitar pots are something that not many people talk about, beginners can find it difficult to find the right one for their electric guitar.

The information provided here should help you make a more informed decision the next time you’re in the market for guitar pots.

Ged Richardson

Ged is the Founder of Zing and guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band 'Django Mango'. When he's not writing or noodling, he's tinkering with his vintage Campervan.