You’ve got a nice guitar. It’s a cool color and it plays like butter, but you can’t help thinking that it could sound a little better. You’ve got a set of pickups in mind, because an internet forum swears by them so they *must* be awesome, but you figure why not go all-in and replace all of the electronics at the same time. Perfect! So you go searching online for all the doodads and electronic thingies and you’re overwhelmed with all of the components, terminologies, and options. Don’t fret my virtuosic friend for I have created a blog series called “Upgrading Your Electronics” to help cure your analysis paralysis and choose the right components to make your guitar the envy of the interwebs.
In Part 1 of the series, we look at all of the components that you can expect to see (and potentially replace) within your guitar’s electronics dungeon… otherwise known as the control cavity. Thankfully this cavity doesn’t require a visit to the dentist, nor will it cause as much pain. To get an understanding of what all this stuff is, let’s take a look at a typical wiring diagram:
This diagram illustrates what you would find inside the control cavity of a Telecaster style guitar, which is arguably the most simple and straight-forward guitar design ever. On the left you have the neck and bridge pickups, on the right you have (from top to bottom) the pickup selector switch, the volume control pot, the tone capacitor, the tone control pot, and the output jack. Each of these components work together to transfer the string vibrations “picked up” by the pickups and turn them into an electrical signal that is then sent to an amplifier that turns the signal into a sound (for better or worse).
The pickup selector switch allows you to choose between the neck and bridge pickups by activating and deactivating the “lugs” under the switch where the pickups are connected to (see the yellow wires). The switch is connected to the volume potentiometer, or “pot” for short. The volume pot (V) is essentially a dimmer switch like you would use with lights in your house. Turn the pot shaft all the way clockwise and you have 0% resistance, meaning the signal from the pickups pass through the pot unrestricted. Turn the pot shaft counter-clockwise and the pot increases the signal resistance, lowering the output signal. Lower resistance = higher volume, higher resistance = lower volume.
The tone pot works exactly the same way, however, it doesn’t control the strength of the signal. The tone pot works in conjunction with the tone capacitor to change the frequency response of the signal. Think of it like the tone settings for a stereo system that has Treble, Mid, and Bass controls. Turn the control pot shaft all the way clockwise and you have 0% effect on the signal. So your stereo tone controls are all set to 10 (max). Turn the pot shaft counter-clockwise and it gradually cuts the higher frequencies, much like turning down the Treble to 0 (min) and the Mid down to about 5 (half-way) on your stereo. Lower resistance = brighter tone, higher resistance = darker tone.
This is kind of the 10,000-foot-level explanation, but we’ll get more into the nuts and bolts later in the series. The real point here is that each of these components work together to allow your guitar to make sounds, so it makes sense to use the highest quality components that you can to ensure that your guitar sounds it’s best. So now that you have an idea of how all this stuff works, how do you go about replacing them? Because, you know, those new pickups you’re buying will only be the “flavor of the week” for…. a week. Not to worry, check out the other posts in this series as we dive deeper into the various options. You will come out of it with a slew of completely random facts to impress people at parties and have a firm grasp of what it will take to get your guitar to sound exactly the way you want it to.