Pot Talk: Should You Use 250k or 500k?
Have you ever wondered why a Strat or Tele use 250k pots, and Hum-Cancelling pickups use 500k? If you have, chances are you’ve already asked this, “what kind of pot should I use on my guitar?” To be fair, it’s a common question on the web. However, the more interesting questions are focused on why those choices are made, and whether it should it be a rule to follow all the time or not.
Before anything else, let’s lay out the basics.
How does a guitar circuit work with no tone or volume pots? If your pickup doesn’t have anything – not even resistors – and you plug it in, all the frequencies from it are going through. Remember that electricity always follows the path of least resistance to ground. So, if there’s any path to ground present between input and output, all the pickup’s frequencies will be heard.
If there’s a 250k resistor in between, some of the signal will stay and some of it will go to ground. Which frequencies would be the first to get filtered off? It’s always the highest ones. For a guitar circuit in general, anytime you add a pot, capacitor, or anything using a short to ground, some of the highs get lost when that component is used.
If you place a volume pot in between, that’s when you can start varying how much of the pickup’s signal goes to ground. The sweeper in your pot connecting the outer and inner rings, when turned down, creates the shortest path, producing no volume. As you turn the pot, you lengthen the path, so your guitar gets louder.
The options for the values of your resistor are, again, commonly provided as 250k or 500k. A 250k pot resistor, compared to 500k, will still have a shorter path to ground. This is exactly why single-coil pickups, which are built to produce higher frequencies, have 250k pots to tame it down. How the coils are structured in humbuckers give them lesser highs, so it needs a higher resistance pot – the ideal value being 500k.
In this way, both sound pleasant to the ear – the single-coil isn’t piercing or abrasive to the ears, and the humbucker isn’t muddy. A 500k pot can pull up the full range of the pickup, keeping your axe from losing sound brightness. The 250k limits the pickup’s high range tendencies and keeps it within the right sound texture and frequency.
Should You Follow this “Rule?”
Not at all. Treat this as a guide for your guitar’s sound. You can still use a 500k pot on a single-coil pickup, a 250k on a humbucker, or vice versa, but you would have to experiment with your components to get the right tone mixture.
Choosing the correct pot for your guitar is inarguably crucial to your sound. However, remember that the most important thing when it comes to tone is that it really is just a matter of personal preference. Experimenting with different pot values can help you find out what sounds best to your ears.