The Best Ways to Upgrade Your Guitar
By Justin Boden
Everyone wants the best. In a perfect world, we would all be playing outstanding examples of our favorite model guitar, fully custom specced, handcrafted in the USA by hard-working, blue-blooded Americans. It’d have meticulously hand-wound pickups, of course, a neck with fantastically rolled edges and polished frets, and top of the line internal electronics that withstand the blood and sweat that comes with playing live for the masses night in and night out.
From the first time player trying to train their fingers into chord shapes to the seasoned veteran with the callused hands, we all eye the American made gems that generally start around a grand but can quickly enter pricing that rivals near late model mid-size sedans. Blame it on marketing, or consumerism or just a natural pursuit for better circumstances, it is absolutely natural to feel like you need a better guitar, no matter your level.
But instead of going out and dropping potentially thousands on another new guitar, why not just upgrade the one you have? In fact, upgrading the guitar you already have can potentially save you money, will allow you to better customize nearly every facet of your guitar to your specific liking, and perhaps most rewarding, teach you an immense amount about electric guitars.
Upgrading today’s guitars has never been easier. There are more aftermarket options than ever before and a slew of online tutorials detailing any guitar upgrade you could think up. From simple string changes to installing pickups or new pots - the information age has made it possible to quickly learn how to do many upgrades yourself even if you’ve never held a soldering iron before. Not quite ready to fire up the soldering iron? The Arizona Music Pro guitar techs have decades of experience and can get you the custom sound and feel you’re looking for without the stress of messing something up on your prized possession.
No matter the route, hot-rodding your guitar remains one of the best ways to improve its playability, sound, and tone. Compiled below are the things that are most readily customized, will add the most bang for the buck and can truly turn your guitar into a higher-end, better playing instrument altogether.
When guitar tone sounds thin, shrill or muddy it can really dampen the experience of playing any guitar. If that means that your guitar sits in its case or stand more often than perhaps upgrading your pickups is a great first step toward upgrading both your guitar and your level of enjoyment while playing it.
There are hundreds of pickup options today that can really beef up the quality of your sound and tone, and they are the exact same pickups used in all the high-end models. Pickups like Fender’s Noiseless and Custom Shop single coils which come in nearly every professional iteration of their famed US Strats and Teles and make great single coil upgrade options. Top rated humbuckers by the likes of Seymour Duncan, Gibson and EMG can really amplify and upgrade the warmth and depth of your lower-end humbucker guitars as well. Hand-wound in the US by experienced pickup makers with variations that will allow you to truly craft your sound, an upgrade in pickups can quickly set your guitar apart among the sea of mass produced guitars.
Often disregarded as an afterthought or something that’s the same within all guitars no matter the price - the potentiometers, wiring, capacitors, and selector switches are among the best, cheapest and easiest upgrades you can offer your guitar.
On lower-end guitars trying to dial in the volume and tone potentiometer knobs (pots) can be a frustrating attempt resulting in two options: zero or 10. High-end pots like those made by CTS allow for the proper ability to roll off the volume or tone giving you very different sounds at 8 versus when maxed out at 10. It’s something that often just cannot be attained with low-end pots by design.
Similarly, the quality of both wiring and capacitors can offer up very different tonal ranges and quality. Cloth wiring, like that used in vintage Fenders and Gibsons of the ‘50s & ‘60s, is an impactful upgrade for two reasons. First, the lack of plastic insulation results in a far superior resonance within the wiring creating a wonderfully natural sound. Second, it is incredibly easy to work with given its wax coating and easily pushed back cloth cover that will last years of further upgrades. When it comes to capacitors, trying different values can change the tone voicing, allowing you to carve out a custom sound that is yours alone.
Even the selector switches that change which pickups are chosen suffer from low-end flaws like scratching or popping or interference while flipping between selections and poor soldering. Many are even made using cheap PCBs or Printed Circuit Boards that tend to easily fry out especially when doing changes like installing new pickups.
Between the pickups and the electronics it may seem a bit overwhelming from a schematic perspective. You can even find pre-loaded pickguards that have everything already in place for the most minimal amount of soldering possible. Or better yet, our team can easily help you break down exactly what you’ll need from pots to pickups, getting you the sound you always dreamed of.
When it comes to a guitar’s neck, besides the location it’s made, the cost in additional labor to fine tune, round out and really butter up a guitar’s neck is the difference between expensive and cheaper versions.
High-end models will have rolled necks, meaning that attention and detail have been given to meticulously round out any sharp edges along the neck that both softens and simultaneously speeds up playing.
To further the soft feeling and general playability, fret dressing softens any blemishes along the frets leaving them just as buttery as the rolled neck and delivering an overall experience that would have you swearing it was a different guitar.
Additionally, the nut, that small piece near the headstock that guides and aligns the strings up the neck offers an array of sonic variance when replaced with higher quality materials. Most cheaper guitars come with nuts made from cheap plastic and quickly cut with not much care. Purchasing a new nut made from popular materials like graphite or the more traditional bone, and having it professionally cut and installed can add to your guitars sounds immediately.
We do recommend leaving these ones to the experts though simply because they have the proper tools, expertise and skills to truly craft your neck, perfectly cut a new nut and fully polish and crown those frets all to maximum perfection. You can even schedule an appointment online and get the ball rolling now.
Many of the tuners included with entry-level guitars tend to be rather poor iterations of their higher-end counterparts. Worse gear ratios mean that you’re cranking them more with less ability to really find and stay in tune. The gears slip, skip and stick often leaving your guitar out of tune and less stable overall.
It’s easy to get better feeling and operating tuning pegs. Many makers from Fender to Gotoh and Grover have sets ready to be installed. You can even opt for locking tuners a surefire way to ensure that your guitar will always be ready to jam and sounding its absolute best.
Professional Set Up
This is one that nearly any guitar of any caliber can find benefit from, so it’s likely your guitar could use a professional set up to get everything dialed in. It’s possible you’ve been battling a poorly set up guitar that is actually making it harder to play. What does that mean exactly? A poorly set up guitar can be harder to chord, strain your hand and fingers easier, slow down your playing and sound noticeably imperfect even when your playing was perfect. A proper set up will include adjustments to intonation, ensuring that the neck is properly relieved and that the action is measured correctly and low enough to make depressing chords easy while not buzzing at all.
A tightly set up guitar will fly effortlessly and feel fun to play for longer periods of time. It will sound tonally correct with proper intonation and can make a world of difference. This balancing act is generally left to those with some experience working on guitars, but can greatly increase the enjoyment of your instrument all around and is among the cheapest options available in upgrading your guitar instantly.
Knobs, Pickguards and Pickup Covers
Alright, so you’ve dropped some change towards addressing the playability and sound of your axe. Sure that’s where the majority of your attention should go, it makes sense of course. Secretly though, we all know that the greatest way to make a guitar your own is by changing out the plastics. The options are nearly endless these days too. If you can think of the color or design, there is probably a pickguard, set of knobs and covers that match. Tired of your boring white on black look? With a few bucks you can quickly convert that boring tuxedo look into a virtual light show of colors. Purportedly, it won’t change anything beyond aesthetics, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter and anything that makes you happier is certainly worth the small investment.
Upgrading your instrument can be a fun way to explore how your guitar works and what makes it all come together. It can add sonic value and improve it’s tone while also making it a better instrument all around. It won’t improve its value much, but if its a guitar that you plan on keeping in your arsenal for a long time it may be worth it to you to begin upgrading your guitar today.