EASY GUITAR MODS
Hello everyone! Welcome back to the Corner. This week we’re going to discuss some easy modifications for your guitar that can affect both tone and playability. There are many factors involved between the vibration of the string and the output of an electric guitar. There is hardware (bridge, nut, tuners, etc.), pickups, wood, electronics and the strings themselves. Most guitars come from the factory ready to play but with the varying quality levels of guitars out there, sometimes it’s necessary to swap out some parts or do some re-wiring in order to get what you need from the instrument. Now keep in mind, if you spent a few thousand dollars on a custom made guitar, these mods are probably not for you but if you’re like most of us and cringe at a price over $1000, then these tips can help turn your budget instrument into a rock-solid tone machine.
Change Those Strings!
I’m not sure this point can be stressed enough. A fresh set of strings is vital to performance, tone, and intonation. More than this, different gauges of strings as well as th
e material used in their construction make a fairly large difference in the playability and overall tone of the guitar. First, size does matter! The most common gauges used by electric guitar players are 9-42 or 10-46. Those are the in-between of electric guitar strings with one gauge lighter and two gauges heavier commonly available. Lighter strings are easier to bend as well as tap/hammer-on/pull-off. A lot of rock lead players and virtuoso “shredders” tend to use lighter gauge strings for that lightening fast, fluid feel. On the downside, lighter gauge strings tend to have more intonation problems and less overall volume. They also tend to be more prone to fret buzz when playing aggressively or on a guitar with very low action. A heavier gauge string is more stable and tends to have less tuning issues. The higher tension of the string also causes them to vibrate in a shallower arc than lighter strings, which in turn allows for lower string action without buzzing. This tends to be perfect for the aggressive player. Heavier gauge strings also have more fundamental content than lighter strings giving them a slightly darker overall tone.
Electric guitar strings are also made from different materials. Most commonly found are “pure” nickel, nickel-plated steel, and stainless steel. Early on in the 1950’s strings were commonly made with “pure” nickel. Pure is quoted because the nickel was not necessarily pure but that was how they were referred to. Pure nickel strings tend to have a warm, round tone that could be described as “vintage”. Most commonly found today is nickel-plated steel. This is steel wound with a nickel-plating on top. The nickel plating reduces finger noise and enhances the overall feel of the string. These tend to have a brighter tone and a touch more sustain than the pure nickel strings. Lastly, there are stainless steel strings that are wound with a magnetic stainless steel. These have a different feel than nickel plated strings and are a bit harder on the frets but they provide more sustain and a brighter tone than nickel-plated strings and also are more resistant to corrosion from sweat and oils.
So, if you find your favorite axe sounding a bit thin, try moving up a gauge in strings. Sounding too dark? Try some stainless strings out. Basically a small change that costs $6-$10 can make a huge difference in tone and playability so it’s a good idea to start here when thinking of modifying your guitar. Keep in mind changing string gauge will usually result in adjusting your guitars set up for those strings, as it will change the overall tension affecting the neck bow and tremolo tension.
This is something often overlooked by the common guitarist. Hardware quality, build, and materials can have a pretty drastic affect on tone and feel. Everything from the bridge to the tuners affects the way the strings’ vibration translates through the body, neck, and pickups. There are a huge variety of aftermarket parts available for electric guitars and most of them are designed to address common problems or enhance certain features of factory-built guitars. If you’ve purchased a guitar on a budget, most likely the hardware will be imported from an OEM supplier that stamps out large amounts of cost-effective hardware. While perfectly reasonable in cost and function, there are some large improvements that can be had by upgrading to aftermarket parts from manufacturers that concentrate on tone and functionality instead of cost.
Many popular guitar hardware upgrades involve the bridge and parts associated with it. There are lots of aftermarket upgrades available for almost any style of bridge found on an electric guitar. These include everything from replacing saddles or tremolo blocks to replacing the entire bridge in order to enhance stability and tone. Companies like Callaham Guitars offer drop in replacement bridges and bridge parts for Strat, Tele, and Tune-O-Matics. Callaham actually goes to the lengths of machining most of his own parts right down to the mounting screws for the neck. By using nickel plated cold-rolled carbon steel and making minor tweaks such as lengthening saddle adjustment threads and changing the bevel on the bottom of a Strat bridge plate, these upgrades often offer greatly improved tuning stability and less string breakage. A very popular mod to Strat bridges is to add a heavier bridge block. These are offered as standard equipment on some Custom Shop guitars and the Eric Johnson signature but aftermarkets are available from Callaham and in the lower price range, Guitar Fetish has a weighted bridge block that won’t break the bank. This common mod adds weight to the bridge assembly which in turn improves sustain and resonance. For Tele’s, some aftermarket manufacturers offer thicker bridge plates from cold-rolled steel to enhance tone and sustain. A big Tele bridge upgrade is saddles. Believe it or not there is a fairly large tonal difference between stainless saddles and brass saddles. Stainless is brighter with more sustain while brass tends to have a nice balance between bass, mid, and treble. Also, a set of compensated Tele saddles will greatly improve intonation. For the Les Paul player’s out there, finding a replacement TOM bridge that is made from steel as opposed to zinc (Gibson has been using zinc bridges since the 70’s) you will notice an improvement in sustain and clarity. If your guitar is fitted with a Bigsby tremolo in combination with a TOM bridge, roller saddles are a great upgrade to help tuning stability.
Next let’s move to the other end of the guitar to the nut. Most mid-line production guitars are fitted with a nut made from synthetic material such as corian or micarta and some with cheaply molded plastic. Corian and micarta are both great materials for a nut but won’t last as long as a harder material such as bone. Another popular material is Tusq or man-made ivory. These are tough and claim to have improved tone over bone or other synthetics. One of the largest problems with factory-installed nuts is not necessarily the material but the cut. These are made in bulk and slotted by machines and sometimes the cuts can be somewhat rough. Have you ever been tuning your guitar and had a string suddenly “ping” and go sharp? Often, this is a symptom of an improperly cut nut or a nut slot that has some sort of catch in it. This can be remedied easily by rubbing some graphite in the slot from the tip of a pencil or graphite dust. If the problem persists, extremely fine grit sandpaper run through the slot a couple of times will usually do the trick. My personal favorite nut upgrade is to install an Earvana nut. These nuts are compensated on each individual string for more accurate intonation. These really make a huge difference and do not require a professional to install.
A large factor in tuning and intonation is the tuning keys. While this might seem fairly obvious to some, it doesn’t always occur to others to really look at the tuning keys. The most common upgrade in this area is changing over to locking tuners. Locking tuners provide better tuning stability in most cases, especially when using a tremolo-equipped guitar such as a Strat (Floyd Rose equipped guitars don’t count since most of them have a locking nut) or a Bigsby equipped guitar. Another factor is tuning ratio, this is the ratio of tuning peg turns to one turn of the tuning post denoted like this, 12:1. The higher the ratio, the more precise the tuner is going to be. Cheaply made tuners can go out of tune easily and be a pain to get accurate tuning from so upgrading to a nice set of Grovers or Schallers with a higher tuning ration can make quite the difference in taming that wily G string. A common Strat and Tele upgrade is to install staggered tuning keys with a high tuning ratio. This both helps tuning stability and, in most cases, eliminates the need for string trees.
Here’s where we get down to the grit. Electronics play the largest part of the overall guitar tone and as such are the most commonly swapped parts on the instrument. Pickups, pots, and tone caps, can make a large difference in both tone and noise so let’s take a look.
Let’s start with the parts in the cavity, the pots, switches, and capacitors. First of all, if your guitar has the mini pots in it, ditch ‘em for some full size Alpha or CTS pots. These are respectable manufacturers that have been making pots for decades and they know what they’re doing. You’ll immediately notice a smoother taper on the volume and tone making them more user-friendly and allowing you to dial in the setting you’re looking for easier and quicker. The value of the pot plays an important role in tone as well. The normal rule of thumb is 250k pots with single coils and 500K pots with humbuckers. This is what will be commonly found in most off the shelf guitars. But let’s say your Strat has some hot pickups in it and tends to sound a little dull. Try swapping out those 250k pots with 500k. This will allow the pickups to get more high end through, brightening up the overall tone. If these are too bright, some manufacturers make specialized 300k pots just for this. This will brighten up single coils without getting into the ear-splitting treble that they are capable of and are perfect for P-90’s. Basically the higher the pot value, the more treble response you’ll get from your pickups. Some vintage and reissue Tele’s even had 1meg pots installed. I guess this is where the word “twang” came from!
The tone capacitor also plays an important role in the response of the tone knob. There are several different types of caps commonly used for electric guitar. Both the material used in the cap and its value will affect the tone and response of the control. The most commonly found cap values are .047uf and .022uf and these are usually for single coils and humbuckers respectively. The larger the cap value, the more treble is going to bleed off and darker the tone control will be able to get. Here is where experimentation is key, try different values and see what you like. The lower .022uf value tends to be great for blues and rock as there are many subtle shades available as you sweep the tone control. The .047uf is great for jazz players who want to get that darker tone as well as being great for taming bright single coils. There are also many different materials used for capacitors. A large portion of mass manufactured guitars come stock with a small ceramic disc cap. These are fine and some people don’t even use the Tone control so they never bother switching them out. For the serious tone-seeker there are plenty of aftermarket caps available from metal film to paper-in-oil, to polyester/foil. These too will have an effect on the overall tone of the guitar as well as the response of the tone control. This is where doing some research is useful to help you find the tone cap that will provide the sound you hear in your head. If you’re not into experimenting that much, there is a product called a ToneStyler that can be found in Fano Guitars. This passive tone circuit adjusts the treble content and resonant frequency in 1/3 octave steps and is easy to wire in. While a little on the expensive side, this is a fantastic mod for any guitar.
Another cheap and easy mod (this one is extremely useful for single-coil equipped guitars) is to shield the control cavity. This helps eliminate noise and hum and is especially useful for quieting the inherent 60 cycle hum of single coils. There are a couple of ways to do this; there is copper shielding tape or conductive shielding paint available readily from Stewart McDonald or Digikey. With a properly shielded cavity and either shielding tape or a shielding plate used under the pickguard, a noisy Strat can get very quiet and lose a lot of the hum. An even more cost effective way to do this is with some good old fashioned tin foil glued down in the cavity and on the back of the pickguard. While not necessarily a tone upgrade, the shielding will eliminate a lot of noise if done properly and is almost a requirement for anyone using a single-coil equipped guitar in conjunction with a lot of overdrive or distortion.
When most people want to change something on their guitar, the pickups are the first place they start. This can turn into an expensive endeavor as aftermarket pickups can run anywhere from around $35 all the way up to several hundred per pickup. In order to not break the bank, I’ll offer a piece of advice. If you’re looking for slight tonal changes or to change small characteristics of your guitar’s tone or response, try some of the other mods we’ve discussed first. What $250 worth of pickups might accomplish may be had with a simple re-wire and new tone cap. New saddles might liven up that dumpy sounding Tele knockoff. It’s likely you can save some dough and improve tone before starting in on the pickups, which for a lot of us tone tweakers, turns into a never-ending quest to find the perfect set, just like pedals. Most people will agree that OEM pickups leave something to be desired in most production model guitars. Thus there is a huge market for pickups. Are yours too bright? Try a pickup that is overwound for hotter output. This usually will dampen the high end a bit and bring out a bit more midrange. Noisy single coils bothering you but you love the single coil sound? Several manufacturers offer noiseless versions of Strat and Tele style pickups that retain the vintage tone while eliminating the noise. Do your research and talk to your local guitar techs and salesmen. These guys have experience and can help guide your purchase. A good portion of manufacturers also offer sound or video clips of their pickups that can further guide you. Also remember, expensive is not always best.
Guitar Fetish has some incredible sounding pickups at bargain prices. If you find you want to experiment with a few different ones, Seymour Duncan has a new product out there called the Liberator. This is a replacement volume pot that has screw terminals for quick pickup swapping without soldering.
The End, or Just the Beginning…
Hopefully this article can provide a guidepost for those of you wanting to make that Squier sing like a Custom Shop. Keep in mind though, these mods while not individually expensive, can add up quickly so you must make a determination if you want to drop the money into your existing guitar or just look on the used rack for a good deal on a better quality instrument. Also keep in mind that companies like Guitar Fetish provide affordable alternatives to the boutique guys like Callaham. Both are great companies with great products but some of the parts, like the weighted bridge blocks, can be had at quite a bit of savings from GF. I myself have had great luck with both of these companies and there are plenty of others out there that offer quality parts and upgrades for electric guitars. When modifying the sky is the limit but as always, if you’re unsure about something, check with a qualified professional especially when changing bridge types (i.e. Strat tremolo to Floyd Rose) just in case some routing has to be done. Happy modding everyone! We’ll see you next time, in the Corner.