If you've been hearing scratchy, static like noises when moving your volume or tone control on your guitar, you may just have dirty pots. What does that mean, you ask? A potentiometer or "pot" for short, is the electrical component behind your volume and tone knobs. These pots are simple little parts, and sometimes dust and debris from God knows where can cling to the potentiometer and cause the unwanted scratching and buzzing we all hate.
What can you do about it?
Cleaning your pots is really easy, and is an effective method of preventative maintenance that can preserve the functionality of your instrument for ages. Additionally, if you are the kind of person who has a toolbox downstairs you may already have some or all of what's required to get the job done laying around somewhere.
What You Will Need
The only thing you'll really need to clean your volume and tone pots is a product called "contact cleaner". Contact cleaner is designed to clear off all of the dust and residue without leaving behind any sticky film. This is why most guitar techs will advise you to use contact cleaner and NOT WD 40, as WD 40 is a lubricant and will leave oil on your potentiometer. This can cause dust and particles to stick to the pots more easily, meaning you will just need to go back and clean the pots again sooner than is really necessary. The most widely used contact cleaner is called CRC contact cleaner, but many techs also use something called DeoxIT. I've included a link to both products here.
For additional accuracy and to reduce overspray, StewMac makes a pot cleaning cap. To use this cap, simply place the cap over your potentiometer and connect the cap to the small tube, which should connect at the other end to the nozzle of the contact cleaner. This will ensure that your pot is cleaned as efficiently as possible, without wasting any of the contact cleaner by spraying it all over your control cavity.
On Les Paul Style GuitarsAll you need to do to clean the pots on ANY guitar is access the back of the potentiometers. Guitars with control cavities that are accessible by unscrewing a control plate off of the back of the guitar such as the Gibson Les Paul are possibly the simplest guitars to clean, since accessing the electronics is as easy as removing the back cover. All you need to do once the cover is removed is to use a parts cleaner to spray the dust and junk off of the potentiometers. Once you've thoroughly sprayed them down, be sure to turn both knobs a few times to make sure everything sounds fine before closing up the cavity.
On Stratocaster Style GuitarsTo access the control cavity on Stratocaster style instruments, you must first remove the pickguard. This can be done by unscrewing all the screws on the outside of the pickguard (not the ones that mount the pickups to the pickguard). Once the screws have been removed, be careful when removing the pickguard to do so gently, so as to not unintentionally disconnect any wires that may be connected to the pickups or to the pickguard. Once you have access to the potentiometers (which are usually mounted to the pickguard), spray the components down using the contact cleaner. Before re attaching the pickguard, be sure to turn the volume and control knobs back and forth a few times to ensure that the pot has been sufficiently cleaned.
On TelecastersAccess to the electronics inside your Telecaster style guitar is gained by removing the silver control plate on the face of the guitar where the pickup selector, volume and tone controls are located. Usually this plate is screwed on by only two screws. Once the plate is unscrewed, be sure to remove the control plate carefully as some of the components mounted to the plate are connected by wiring to the body of the guitar and you don't want to damage or destroy those connections. Once you have access to the potentiometers, spray them down with parts cleaner. Before closing the control cavity back up be sure to turn the volume and tone controls back and forth a few times to make sure that they have been cleaned well and the scratching has subsided.
Now your potentiometers are clean! There should be no more scratching sounds like there were before. If the scratching still continues, there is a variety of things that could be going on. If you are experiencing dead spots in your potentiometer(s) (areas where the signal totally cuts out), it is possible that you need to replace the potentiometers. Thankfully, these parts are not expensive. I recommend using these pots for single coil passive guitars
And these for humbuckers
In my experience, I have mistaken scratching sounds from other sources to be due to dirty pots, only to correctly diagnose the issue after diligently cleaning my control cavity. Scratching can come from bad cables, tubes that need to be replaced, and many other sources. If the scratching only happens when you're adjusting the volume and/or tone control, cleaning or worst case scenario replacing the pots should fix this issue.
Thanks for checking out my blog! Please reach out if you have any questions or concerns regarding this article or anything else guitar related. Thank you again as always for allowing me to be a very small part of your journey with the guitar. It is something that I never take for granted!