You might have noticed that single-coil pickup guitars tend to come with 250K pots (potentiometers) while humbucker equipped axes tend to sport 500k pots. Does the value of the pots used have anything to do with their pickups? Actually, yes.
First things first, either one of these two pots can be used safely with all passive pickups, be they single coil or humbuckers. If you were worried about which of these two pot values are compatible on your passive pickups, then not to worry. And in case you’re wondering, active pickups tend to use 25K and 50K pots. Anyways, the key difference between 250K and 500K pots is their resistance level and their effect on tone.
Under normal circumstances, the higher your pot’s value, the brighter your tone will be. On the other hand, a lower pot value will sound slightly warmer. The reason for this is how they handle a pickups frequencies. Higher pot values don’t allow treble and higher frequencies to bleed off to the ground wires as easily as lower pot values do. Meanwhile, lower pot values do the opposite – they tend to divert the higher frequencies to the ground and allow lower frequencies to pass through the pickups.
Don’t forget that the pots alone don’t give your guitar its sound – it’s how they work with your pickups that really matters. Take the Les Paul for example, a humbucker equipped guitar that is usually paired with 500K pots. Humbuckers tend to give off a warmer sound as compared to single coils so pairing them with 500K pots helps them retain some of the higher frequencies they would otherwise lose. The same can be said with Fender’s popular single-coil guitar, the Stratocaster, which are usually wired with 250K pots in order to preserve its mid-range and lower frequencies. There are certainly exceptions to the rule as you can find Strat’s with 500K pots and Les Paul’s with 250K pots (In fact, some early Les Pauls came with 300K pots and early Telecasters with 1meg pots).
You can also use capacitors to change a pot’s standard sound. With the right capacitor wired in, you can essentially change a 500K pot into a 250K, as far as tone is concerned. Values can also be affected by the total pot configuration. If all other variables are equal, a 500K/500K volume and tone pot setup on a Les Paul is essentially the same as a 250K volume setup in a Fender. In other words, the two connected 500K pots act like one 250K pot.
While the tonal difference between a 250K and a 500K pot are more subtle than between humbuckers and single-coils, they play an important role in the balancing of frequencies as well as creating the signature sound of a guitar. So if you happen to be handy with a soldering iron, trying out different pots on your bass or guitar is certainly worth a try! And if you're in the market for a new one, check out our selection of potentiometers right here!