Controls

Guitars are steeped in tradition…and not. Parts values change, manufacturers come and go, and it’s not always easy to get the same parts, year after year. But when some guitarists feel that something was done better years ago even though there may be no obvious reason why, it’s worth investigating.

When Gibson USA turned its attention to choosing potentiometers for the volume and tone controls built in to the 2016 guitar lines (both Traditional and High Performance), their engineers’ research into 50s-era guitars turned up a few surprises.

Potentiometers have a spec called “taper,” which specifies how fast its value changes as you turn it. Because the human ear becomes less sensitive to volume changes at higher volumes, doubling the volume won’t sound twice as loud; you need to increase the level a lot more for it to sound twice as loud. So, volume controls have an “audio taper” (or more scientifically, a logarithmic taper). For example, if a volume control has a 10% taper, it means that when turning the potentiometer up halfway, the level is at 10% of full volume; the other 90% comes into play as you turn the potentiometer from halfway up to full up. However to your ear, at the potentiometer’s halfway point sounds like the volume is indeed up halfway.

Guitars traditionally use audio taper potentiometers, but back in the 50s, controls with higher taper values were customary. Over time, many guitars started using the more common 10% and 5% tapers. Although these work, when Gibson evaluated older potentiometers, there was a definite, perceptible difference in “feel” of how the control responded as you turned it—that “50s wiring” vibe was back again.

So of course, Gibson USA went to the potentiometer manufacturers, and specified custom pots with 50s-style taper values for both the Traditional and High Performance 2016 guitars. Granted, it’s a small detail and some people wouldn’t notice. But Gibson noticed, and you’ll notice the difference too as you play the new guitars—you’ll have better volume and tone control over the potentiometer’s entire range of rotation, not just part of it.