The Internet and blogosphere is full or articles and how-to’s on the differences of the so-called “vintage” versus “modern” wiring for guitars like the Telecaster® and Les Paul. So briefly, what is it and does it matter?
In short, in a typical two-knob volume and tone arrangement, the major characteristic of “vintage” wiring is that the tone capacitor (low pass filter) is wired between (connects) the volume and tone controls. On a “modern” circuit, the tone capacitor is connected from one lug of the tone control potentiometer to ground (usually the top of the tone pot). There are several variations on this theme, but in general terms this is the biggest distinction between vintage and modern.
The modern tone control circuit allows for totally independent tone control regardless of where the volume control is set. Essentially, the tone control directly shunts high frequency single to ground, the amount depending on how much the tone knob is turned. In a modern four-knob setup (such as a Les Paul) the volume and tones controls are independent from each other and each pickup. In a true vintage Les Paul circuit, turning down one pickup all the way actually turns off both pickups (this can be remedied without changing how the capacitor is wired).
The characteristic of the modern circuit is that there tends to be a high end roll-off as the volume is turned down. This can be compensated by using a “treble bleed” or tone bypass circuit, which lets through a small amount of high frequencies no matter where the volume control is set. On G&L guitars there is a .001-microfarad bypass capacitor on the volume pot of every guitar. The capacitor acts as a high pass filter, and some treble bleed circuits use a capacitor/resistor combination.
In a vintage circuit the capacitor is connecting the volume and tone controls, and the signal going to the tone control passes through the tone capacitor first (in a modern circuit the full signal passes to the tone control before the filter capacitor is applied). As a result, the signal being fed to the tone control pot is dependent on the setting of the volume control.
The characteristic of vintage wiring is that there tends to be less high-end attenuation as the volume is turned down. Even without a bypass circuit, the volume control has little effect on tone. But the and volume controls are now interactive, and the tone control works differently depending on how the volume control is set.
Is One Better Than the Other?
The modern wiring setup provides independent operation, and with the addition of a treble bypass circuit the volume control is quite functional. On some guitars a little high-end reduction via the volume control may be desirable, but on a darker sounding guitar a volume control without a treble bypass may be all but useless.
With vintage wiring the volume control is usable – and possibly better sounding – without a treble bypass. But how the tone control works depends on where the volume control is set. To some this may be annoying, but I like the range of different sounds available via the interactive nature of the two controls. I also think the volume control plain works better too, and I prefer it without the bypass. On a two pickup four-knob guitar like a Les Paul, the vintage wiring setup allows a vast array of tones just not available with the modern wiring scheme.
I’m a vintage wiring proponent, but if you can solder it’s pretty easy to switch back and forth and see what arrangement are most comfortable with. There is no right answer, just options.