2 Volumes 2 Tones, Too Many Options!

Since the invention of the electric guitar there have been countless designs and endless variations on wiring schematics.  That said, only a handful have stood the test of time.  One such design is the two pickup, two volumes and two tones with a three way selector often associated with guitars like the Gibson Les Paul.  

    This design seems simple on its surface.  Each of the two pickups has its own dedicated volume control and its own dedicated tone control, and the pickup selector controls which pickup and therefore which volume and tone knobs are active at any given moment.  However, when we dig a little bit deeper some of the less apparent nuances of this wiring schematic reveal tonal possibilities that are not often discussed at the point of sale of these types of guitars.  

    The coolest part about all of this is that we are talking about modifications that do not require any major purchasing.  If you're able to solder a few wires with any degree of confidence, these wiring modifications are within your reach.  

    If you're new to soldering, I recommend giving it a try if any of the modifications discussed in this article pique your interest.  All you need is a soldering iron or a soldering pen.

    In previous articles covering solder related modifications I have recommended this soldering station as a good place to start.  It is important to not buy the cheapest possible option if you're new to soldering, as the cheaper models can require a bit more finesse to function optimally.  This soldering iron should be sufficient for those of you who are new to novice at soldering.

    For guitars wired with the "Les Paul" style wiring design, there are really four major distinctions.  There is Dependent Wiring versus Independent Wiring, and Modern versus Vintage Wiring.  For example, many modern era Gibson guitars use Modern Dependent wiring.  If you are lucky enough to own a vintage era Gibson, there is a good chance that your guitar uses Vintage Independent wiring.  Let's take a look at what exactly is meant by these qualifications.

Dependent Vs. Independent Wiring

The difference between Dependent and Independent Wiring can be explained by observing the behaviour of your volume controls when your pickup selector is set to the middle position, where both the neck and bridge pickup are active.  

    To test this out, set your guitar to the middle pickup position (both pickups are on) and set the volume of both pickups to ten.  Now, roll the volume of just one of the pickups down to zero so that one pickup is set to zero and the other pickup is set to ten.  If there is still volume coming from your guitar with your settings this way, your guitar has Independent Wiring.  If turning the volume of one of your pickups to zero while the other is still set to ten kills all volume from both pickups, your guitar has Dependent Wiring.  There are pros and cons to both Independent and Dependent Wiring, and which is better for you depends on your own personal preference.

    Independent wiring is wonderful if you make use of the middle pickup position on your guitar often.  With Independent wiring your guitar will blend the two pickups together intuitively in the middle position producing a wide range of tones.  However, when your guitar is in either the neck or the bridge position, Independent wiring increases the load on the coil of your pickup.  This increased load results in a loss of high end when using the volume control in the neck only or bridge only position.  Due to the nature of this tone loss and the fact that it comes from an increased load on the pickup coil, it cannot really be remedied by a treble bleed circuit, although a treble bleed circuit may help a little bit.

    Dependent wiring works very well if you tend to use your guitar in either the neck only or bridge only pickup positions.  Using Dependent wiring will not increase the load on the coil in these positions, fixing the problem of tone loss when the volume is rolled down.  The problem with Dependent wiring is that your guitar may not act completely intuitively when both pickups are active.  Some guitarists do not like how turning one pickup to zero will kill all the signal from both pickups.  Additionally, some guitarists argue that Dependent wiring negatively affects the taper of the volume pots when in the middle pickup position where both pickups are on.

    To learn more about the difference between Dependent and Independent Wiring, check out this video here:

Vintage Vs. Modern Wiring

The difference between Vintage Wiring and Modern Wiring has to do with the order of the volume and tone potentiometers in the circuit.  Using Vintage wiring, the signal runs from the pickup into the volume potentiometer and then into the tone potentiometer.  Using Modern wiring, the tone potentiometer is placed ahead of the volume potentiometer in the circuit, between the pickup and volume potentiometer.  Whether Modern or Vintage wiring is best for you is subjective, and both have pros and cons.

    Using Vintage wiring has some advantages because as you roll down the volume of your guitar the tone remains fairly consistent.  With your tone control at ten, rolling your volume down will not result in a loss of high end.  The disadvantage with Vintage wiring is that as you roll your volume down and you begin to roll your tone control down as well, the frequency response is less predictable.  Due to an electrical concept known as "output loading" you can actually begin to introduce high end into your signal by turning down your tone control while the volume is set to anything other than ten.

    With Modern wiring, if your volume is on a lower setting and you begin to turn the tone control down, the frequency response will be predictable.  This means that with Modern wiring you are able to use the volume control in conjunction with the tone control and the results will always be intuitive and each control will function consistently.  The disadvantage with Modern wiring is that as you roll down the volume of your pickup, you will lose high end.  This will result in a darker tone at lower volumes.

    To learn more about the difference between Vintage and Modern wiring, check out this video here:

    If you're interested in learning how to wire up these different modifications into your guitar, check out these wiring diagrams below that illustrate how each one is wired up:

Modern Dependent WiringModern Independent WiringVintage Dependent WiringVintage Independent Wiring

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