The practice of DIY guitar modding is a rewarding and rich experience for most guitar players once they jump in headfirst. Each player not only gains a better understanding of how to care for and fix their instrument, but can customize it to their exact specifications and desires over time. However, there are few things to consider before spending a small fortune on hardware or electronic upgrades. There will be skills and tools necessary, as well as patience and research. So before you run out and buy the latest, greatest name brand pickups to install in your guitar, here are four questions to ask yourself as an amateur guitar tech.
Is Expensive Always Better?
With the quality of affordable guitars increasing at a rapid pace, many players find only a few mods are necessary on their Squier or Epiphone product. Probably the most common and important tone shaping mod is swapping in new, upgraded pickups. While brand name options from TV Jones, Seymour Duncan, or Lollar are all the rage, is it really necessary to shell out hundreds for some magnets wrapped in wire? In fact, many people spend as much on new pickups as they do on the affordable guitar they purchased.
But just as cheap guitars are improving, so too are cheap pickups. With a bevvy of options available online, you can honestly try out several different brands of quality pickups while spending less than you would for one pair of name brand options. True, if you want to create a replica of an iconic guitar perhaps maybe you do need to shell out for that Trembucker or TV Jones Filter’tron. But if you just want to upgrade from the boring old Strat pickups in your Squier Affinity guitar, you can easily improve tone without spending a fortune. Brands like Musiclily, Dragonfire, and GuitarFetish offer great sounding pickups in all sorts of configurations and voicings!
How Will Upgraded Parts Fit Into Your Guitar?
This is one seriously underrated deterrent to DIY mods that is not discussed often enough. Not all parts are going to physically fit into the guitar you want to upgrade. Will the new loaded pickguard fit exactly to your guitar? Will the pickups fit the body cavity or pickguard cuts? Will larger pots fit in the tight electronics cavity of an overseas guitar? These are all important aspects to consider.
To be more detailed, the company or country of origin for each guitar can lead to several differences in build specifications. Overseas made, affordable guitars that you would probably be upgrading, often have very small, tight electronics cavities. That means that installing a high end loaded pickguard with nice pots and coil splits may not fit right into your guitar. You may end up frustrated, trying to figure out if you can route the cavity bigger or finding someone to pay to do it for you. Likewise, you never know what the body cavity on a Strat might look like until you take the pickguard off. Will your SSS Strat be routed for a HSH configuration? Or an HSS configuration? This is why it is highly recommended you research your specific model before contemplating modifications. Likewise, it wouldn’t hurt to take it apart the next time you change strings to see what is really under the hood.
You may already be pretty frustrated if you find yourself with a new set of pickups or a wiring harness that doesn’t fit your guitar body. But then the question becomes how can you make them fit? While the skills themselves, such as routing or dremeling, may not be hard to learn, they do require you to have access to the right tools. If you’re on a budget, you may not be willing to shell out extra money for your own router. Moreso, you may not have the facilities needed to properly use a router whether it is space, a workbench, or the self confidence to not take a chunk out of your guitar.
The point isn’t to scare anyone away from DIY mods, as most of them can be done very easily without any of these tools! But rather it is to emphasize that you should carefully look into what will fit into your guitar. Many companies, like Guitarfetish for example, even make their pre-wired harnesses with upgraded pots that are smaller, and meant to fit overseas made guitars. That way you can still upgrade your electronics without having to rout a bigger cavity yourself or pay someone else to do it for you. A more common recommendation though is to make sure you have a soldering iron, extra solder, and a handy screwdriver or two around when it is time to install the new parts.
Are The Pickups The Problem?
Oftentimes players want to change the pickups because they feel they just aren’t getting the right sound out of their instrument. And while pickups can be a serious roadblock to that perfect tone, they are only one ingredient in the complex recipe that is how your guitar sounds. A guitar that doesn't play or feel right in your hands may never sound inspirational. Make sure that before you tear apart your new or trusted affordable guitar that the neck is properly set up to your liking so that you can feel and play your best. Improving the action, tuning stability, and feel is just as crucial to getting your guitar to sound the way you dream of.
Likewise, cheap or old, corroded strings could be the source of your less than stellar tone. Regularly replacing strings with the gauge size and feel that you prefer is also essential. Many guitars, such as short scale Fender-style Jaguars or Mustangs may actually sound different, or just worse, if you aren’t using the right string size. With the shorter scale length, a thicker string will help add more tension across the neck, resulting in more response, snap, and bite coming out of your guitar. Furthermore, if you are a fan of downtuning, make sure you have the right gauge of string to help prevent your guitar from sounding muddy or dull. If you use too thin a set of strings when downtuning, they will sit loose, with less tension, across your fretboard, leading to lower quality sound regardless of the pickups.
These Aren’t Strict Rules However
While you should always take the time to properly prepare for DIY guitar mods, there are no hard rules to follow. These recommendations are meant for players who are modding a guitar they plan to rely on and use heavily. If you are tearing apart a cheap guitar to practice guitar tech skills, sometimes it is okay to take risks. If you want to force parts to fit together and truly see what you are capable of, why not grab a drill and router and jump in head first. But if you want to take the beloved guitar that you learned on and seriously take it to the next level, than you should ask yourself these 4 questions and make sure your vision becomes a reality!
About the Author and Contributors
A journalist from southern Rhode Island who focuses on DIY guitar mods, gear reviews, and opinion articles and has been playing guitars since he was 14.
When he's not writing or installing P-90s into guitars, he's pursuing a graduate degree in chemical oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. Follow him on Twitter @MDunn_33.
Jason Horton - Editing and Illustrating.
Main/Top Image: Original photograph by Matt Dunn Copyright 2020 - All rights reserved. It was reproduced here and modified by Gearank.com with permission from Matt Dunn.