by George Ellison
Please note: This article refers to CTS pots only, it does not refer to pots from any other manufacturer.
A number of years ago a company started selling CTS "superpots" that they said were better than what everyone else was selling for several reasons. They made 3 or 4 claims in an interview in one of the guitar mags, the two I remember were these:
1) Ours have tighter tolerances.
2) Ours are the first pots that were made specifically for guitar applications.
So I talked with Ron Kahler at CTS, who at that time was the guy at CTS in Indiana who was the industry contact - anyone who ordered CTS pots 20 years ago will probably remember Ron (he retired years ago). I was familiar with the ordering process for CTS and so I assumed these claims were bogus, but I wanted to ask Ron if these guys knew something I didn't know.
"Well what are they saying?" he asked, and so I read him their claims, and he started chuckling. "Sounds like a little creative marketing." he said.
But I didn't see it that way. There's another word for creative marketing: lying.
If I - as a merchant - prey on your lack of knowledge as a consumer, and sell you a product for fully 300% of the going rate by lying to you about how much better mine is than the competition, then I've done you two disservices, not one. The first of course is that I've wasted your money, but the other is that I've intentionally inserted misinformation into your head that might cause you to unwittingly chase your tail for decades to come.
Here's the truth: everyone has the same pots.
Here's how the CTS process works. CTS publishes a list of options that are available, and you choose from the list. You specify things like the terminal style, the shaft length, the taper, the tolerance, and a number of other features (I'm referring to their 450S series of pots, not 450G, which is a series of generic-spec pots that CTS developed for smaller merchants that could be purchased in smaller quantities - 450G pots are not customizable). The image above is the CTS catalog for the pots used in most guitars (450S series), you can see that there's a long part number that gets created based on which selections are made. This is an older doc and is slightly out of date, but you get the idea - each character in the PN specifies some particular.
Using just the options shown in the doc above (there are others not listed), you can see that there are more than 2.6 million possible combinations (5 terminal styles x 7 mounting styles x 4 shaft lengths, etc.). And that's just using the values they list. So millions of possible combinations, the vast majority of which have never been built because no one has ever needed those particular combinations. But CTS would build them if you wanted them.
The point is that everyone orders from the same menu. At a restaurant you might be able to deviate from the menu: "Parmesan instead of ricotta please." But with electronic manufacturers you generally cannot, you are bound by the menu of options that their engineering team has defined, and that they have the tooling and the capability to manufacture.
Will they make something truly unique? In some cases, if you order enough of them and you have a budget for custom tooling. An example would be Fender's S1 switch, which is based on a custom CTS pot.
But no small merchant, ordering pots 2500 or 5000 at a time, is going to get CTS to engineer and manufacture pots at 1% tolerance, for example, or 5%, or even 8%. CTS offers 10% and 20%, choose one.
"But wait", you say. "I've seen 8% pots on the market!"
Um hmm. Here we go again.
Let's say I buy bulk pots at 500k, and in the tightest available tolerance which is 10%. That means that the pots should fall within the range of 450k - 550k. Well, 8% is not that much of a change, 460k - 540k.
450k - 550k (10%)
460k - 540k (8%)
Most likely the bulk of my pots, and maybe all of them, will actually fall within the 460k - 540k range. But the only way I'll know is to measure every one of them. How long does it take someone to sit with a meter and measure 2500 or 5000 pots, and sort out any that don't fall within that range? I don't know because we would never do this, but whatever it is, you can be assured that this needless waste of labor is being built into the cost of the pots, bumping up their prices. And if there are any that are outside the target range, then I'd have to throw them away, and that would drive the cost of the "good" ones up even further.
To recap: I buy 10% pots; I measure every one; I throw away any that are not within 8%; I charge you a premium to cover the cost of this waste of labor.
This would all be perfectly acceptable if there was any benefit to be derived, but make no mistake: you will never hear the difference between pots at 540k and pots at 550k. Even Eric Johnson won't hear that difference. In fact, many players - if truly tested in a double blind way - won't hear the difference between 250k and 500k pots!
I know, there are all kinds of people out there selling 280k pots and 525k pots or whatever. They'd have you believe it's because they know something Fender and Gibson and PRS and Hamer and Music Man never managed to figure out. And there are all kinds of people out there on forum sites or wherever who are convinced that they definitely hear the differences.
Oh, I never addressed the second lie at the beginning of the article:
2) Ours are the first pots that were made specifically for guitar applications.
It turns out that every pot that was ordered for use in guitars (Strat pots, Tele pots, Jazzmaster pots, Les Paul pots) was ordered specifically for guitar applications. Now that you know the ordering process at CTS, you can see just how ironic that lie is.
So you're just being sold a bill of goods. You're paying more for the "insight" of these merchants, who will tell you they've got a better idea, that they know a secret that no one else knows.
But this is an old story. We all know we've been lied to all our lives by unscrupulous merchants. Here are a few of our favorite examples:
Exhibit A: Ethyl Corporation (Standard Oil & GM, with manufacturing help from DuPont) made millions 100 years ago by convincing people that lead additives would help their cars run better, to the very great detriment of the planet. It was decades before unleaded gas was finally mandated in the US because of the terrible damage being done by the thousands of tons of lead that were poured into the atmosphere each year. Here's the real kicker: gas doesn't have lead in it! So "unleaded" is kind of a confusing term, leading many people to believe that the lead has been removed from it. But gasoline doesn't contain lead, it is unleaded by default! Ethyl (and their competitors) convinced the world to add lead, creating "leaded" gasoline.
The US still uses lead in avgas which is used in piston-engined planes and helicopters, though both the FAA and the EPA are in favor of phasing it out completely. It appears we're keeping good company if a report in the Chicago Tribune is to be believed, which states that the only other countries still using leaded gasoline are these: Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Myanmar, North Korea and Yemen. Nice, huh? You can send your thanks to Standard Oil (ExxonMobil, Marathon, BP, Chevron), General Motors and DuPont.
And Philip Morris was no angel either. It was happy lying to the public about the dangers of tobacco, convincing people that filters made cigarettes safe for their health. But hey, try telling that to Camel in the 1940s, who stated that their unfiltered cigarettes were the brand most preferred by doctors!
Here's one more, just to show you how badly you've been misled: Häagen-Dazs. Danish, right? Or Swiss? Someplace where they really know how to make ice cream, surely?
Nope, founded in The Bronx in 1960 by Reuben and Rose Mattus. The name was a pure fabrication, chosen to create the impression that the ice cream was somehow better than the dreck being sold by their competitors. The original labels even featured the outline of Denmark. But the Danish language doesn't contain the letter "ä", or the "zs" combination. The nearest Danish translation? hagen means hedges and das means tie.
So... enough. Next time someone starts telling you about how they've got a better mousetrap - whether it's pot tolerances, values, or even that brass shafts are somehow superior to aluminum ones - don't believe it. You've been lied to enough. At ToneShapers, we'll tell you the truth, because life's too short.