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How to Upgrade Your Guitar – Improve Your Sound and Playability

13/04/2022
Guitars, for the most part, are pretty expensive. Some are very expensive. And if you want a good one, you need to be prepared to splash some cash. Oh man, what can a poor boy do? Surely there must be another way… right?

CORRECT! Upgrading your current guitar, or even building your own can be a great way to save some money, whilst still getting a great instrument at the end of it. But perhaps most importantly, this process can be fun too! So, read on to learn about upgrading your guitar, from the pickups through to the body.


The benefits of upgrading your guitar

Tuning Machines Workshop

Sometimes, it really is the little things that make the largest difference. You may have a really good low end or midrange guitar, but the tuning may occasionally go out, or perhaps the pickups just don’t quite push the amp to that perfect level of breakup. Some people will go down the route of getting a new guitar to cure these ailments, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But, if you’d like a little more adventure, you can fix these problems yourself. It’s generally cheaper, and it gives you far more room to customise your instrument and really make it yours. What’s more, there’s so much choice around nowadays, so you can shop around and find the perfect fit for your instrument.

By upgrading your electric, you’ll also learn the fundamentals of how your guitar works, and be able to maintain it yourself. However, you can also take the parts to your local guitar tech and make them do all the dirty work if you so wish!


What can you upgrade?

Now onto the juicy stuff: how to improve your guitar. You can upgrade virtually any component, but there are certainly some which will make more of a difference than others. Here are the main things you can change on a guitar to improve its sound:

  • Pickups – The magnets that are set into the body of an electric guitar. They generate all the stunning tones by picking up the vibrations of the strings and sending that to your amp as an electrical signal.
  • Strings – The twangy things which vibrate and make noise. Most guitarists change these fairly regularly anyway, but a fresh set of strings will sound slightly brighter, with more ‘snap’.
  • Bridge – The big hunk of metal that holds your strings in place. Upgrading this will usually mean improved tuning stability and intonation, and you could also add a tremolo system for injecting your riffs with vibrato.

Jackson Close Up

If you’re looking for enhanced playability, then fear not! There are a few alterations you can make to really help you get your chops perfect:

  • Neck – A new neck means new possibilities, as it can help you play faster, smoother, and with a greater degree of comfort.
  • Body – As you might imagine, changing the body of a guitar is quite a big job, and it’ll be mostly those who are building their guitar from scratch who explore different guitar bodies. However, replacing the body can help you reduce (or increase) the weight, as well as improve the overall balance.

Pickups – Give Your Tone the Ultimate Kick

Often the first port of call for any guitarist looking to significantly change their tone. A new set of pickups will be relatively inexpensive, and could make the world of difference. They’re also fairly easy to install. All you have to do is unscrew and de-solder your old pickups, screw the new ones in, then solder them to the relevant pots in the back of your guitar.

Seymour Duncan Pickup

Still sound a bit technical? Watch this video to see just how easy it is!

The type of pickups you choose is very important, as different options are suited to different genres and tonal desires. Bare Knuckle Juggernaut humbuckers, for instance, have a super high output, which makes them perfect for metal and the realm of high gain. A set of single coils will, in general, have a much lower output, and a brighter, twangier sound – perfect for snappy blues and old school rock.

You’ll also want to think about whether you want active or passive pickups installed. Here are the main attributes of both:

  • Passive – Found on most electric guitars. These pickups do not require a battery, and simply turn your string vibrations into an electric signal (which is then amplified by your amp). They’re the original pickup design, and are still loved by guitarists across the world.
  • Active – These use a preamp circuit powered by a battery to cut out all noise and significantly boost output. They can be slightly more difficult to install, especially if you’re changing from passive to active. That being said, some brands, like EMG, have released solderless pickups which are much easier to install.

So, for anywhere between £70-£300, you can massively change your sound for the better. This is a great way of getting a professional sound from a low-level instrument, or simply getting the perfect tone and output from a premium one.

Make sure you do your research and test a few different options to see which will work best for you.


Strings – Make Your Guitar Sing

Probably one of the cheapest ways to instantly improve your guitar, a fresh set of strings is guaranteed to keep you inspired. There’s nothing quite like peeling open that smooth, unblemished packet, and being greeted by a beautiful, shiny set of strings. It’ll make your day.

Ernie Ball Paradigm Strings

The main advantages of a new set of strings are as follows:

  • Brighter – Old strings tend to have a build-up of dirt and grime, which dulls their sound and makes them darker, with less output. New strings bring back the brightness and twang in your tone.
  • Smoother – It’s hard to put your finger on it, but new strings feel much more satisfying to play. Maybe it’s because they’re ultra clean and smooth underneath your fingers. This makes you look forward to picking up your guitar and giving it a good strum.
  • Higher output – You’re also likely to get a slightly more powerful sound from thicker strings, given that they have slightly more pull on your pickups (to create a more powerful electrical signal).
  • Stronger – New strings will have far less chance of snapping onstage compared to strings you’ve been hammering for months.

It’s important to think about which gauge you’ll need (if you’re exploring lower tunings then you’ll probably want much thicker strings than normal), as well as which string brands will be best suited to your needs.

Elixirs, for example, cost more, but their special coating ensures they last much longer (because less dirt and grime gets into the grooves), as well as retaining that ‘fresh string’ tone. They’re also great for players with sweaty hands.


Bridge – the Path to Superb Intonation and Tuning Stability

SG Trem Showroom

Another worthwhile upgrade you can donate to your guitar is a bridge replacement. Bridges can easily be overlooked when you’re upgrading your guitar – but they can make a huge difference. After all, they are responsible for holding your strings in place, and even vibrato if you’re using a tremolo system.

You’ll definitely need to research which types and models will go with your instrument if you’re replacing your guitar bridge. If you’re looking to replace a fixed bridge with a Floyd Rose tremolo, for example, then you’ll need to make significant adjustments to the body of your guitar to accommodate this.

Take a look at some of the key benefits you’ll get from upgrading your bridge:

  • Increased tuning stability –  A good bridge will ensure that your strings keep singing in tune, with no slippages and fewer breaks. It’s worth noting here that upgrading the stock tremolo system of a low end or midrange guitar will have a profound difference on this, as cheaper tremolo systems are notorious for going out of tune.
  • Better intonation – Similar to tuning stability, intonation refers to each fret position being in tune. A good bridge means good intonation, so you can always sound your best across the entire fretboard.
  • Better action: A decent bridge should also allow you to make adjustments to your action (the distance between your strings and fretboard) to suit your needs.

Let’s not forget that the bridge makes up a significant part of the aesthetic, so you may want to take this into consideration when you’re choosing (there’s plenty of different colours to explore).


Nothing but Neck

Fender Necks ShowroomIf you really want to make a significant improvement to your guitar, or if you’re after a particular feel, then looking at the neck is the way to go. Seeing as you’ll spend most of your guitar career with your hand wrapped around this thing, it makes sense for it to be as comfortable and satisfying as possible.

Whether you want a neck with a smoother satin finish, or one which is much slicker and sleeker – it’s a worthy upgrade for any guitarist. The thickness that will best suit you depends entirely on personal preference.

Generally, though, thinner necks are touted to be for the shredders, as they are said to play faster. Thicker necks are sometimes said to be for those who like to dig into their rhythmic blues and play a little slower.

Many people love the unmistakable feel of a genuine Fender neck – it’s part of what makes a Fender a Fender. They may be expensive, but you know you’re getting world-class craftsmanship and decades of engineering expertise. However, there are also plenty of more affordable options if you’re building a guitar or just trying not to bust the bank.


Body – Building a New Mothership

It’d be hard to talk about upgrading your guitar without talking about changing the body. However, given that this is where your bridge, pickups, strings, and electronics are all housed, as well as where the neck is attached – it is a big job. And almost akin to building a guitar from scratch.

Jackson Body Changing the body may make very subtle changes to your tone and sustain, but the main advantages are as follows:

  • Weight/balance –  A new body will give you total control over the overall weight of your guitar (in combination with the neck). Woods like basswood will help to make it much lighter, or you could go for a heavier wood like mahogany to bring more stability.
  • Finish – Obviously the most important attribute of a guitar. A new body means a new finish and look for you onstage. If you get a blank body, then you can even add your own finish to make the guitar a true expression of you.

New bodies are generally reserved for those building a guitar from the ground up. If you’re feeling really adventurous and you have the right tools, you could consider making your own body, but there are plenty of other options for those who just want a pre-made body straight away.


Tuning machines – Time to Take Tuning Seriously

Jackson Machine HeadsGuitar constantly sound like a whining cat? Trying to shred through solos but slipping up on sour sounding strings? A change of tuning machines could be what you need. These shiny little pegs hold your strings down at the headstock –  a new set can make a big difference to tuning stability.

You’ve probably heard of Gotoh locking tuners – and if you haven’t, you have now. Adding locking tuners is potentially the best upgrade you can make for your tuning, as these keep your strings in a vice grip.

That’s not the only advantage, though. They also make string changes much faster and more efficient, because you don’t need to wrap them around the pegs and awkwardly stuff them through the hole.

Even if you don’t add locking tuners, a new set of high-quality machine heads will make the world of difference. In combination with a new bridge, it’ll be like playing a new instrument.


Adjusting the Electronics – Electrifying Energy

Some final adjustments you can consider when upgrading to your dream guitar relate to the electronics. Often overlooked, these can actually make a big difference to how your guitar sounds and performs. From control pots to new input jacks, there are plenty of little changes you could make.

Strat Controls

  • Input jack – Is your input jack causing you noise issues? You may find one that’s cheap or old succumbs to noise issues, and even cuts out altogether if the soldering is loose. Investing in a shiny new, well-designed jack is a great way to eliminate static and ensure your guitar’s performance is stellar for the foreseeable future.
  • Control pots – You may be surprised to know that these can actually affect your tone, especially on cleaner settings. Higher resistance pots let more high frequencies through, making your tone brighter, whilst lower resistance pots, well, you guessed it.

Even just making some minor tweaks to your electronics can go a long way in adding that extra bit of definition and clarity to your tone.

 


One final note…

So that’s pretty much everything you can upgrade on your guitar. Some of the bigger upgrades, like pickups and necks, can have a hugely positive impact on your instrument, making it sound, feel, and play better. That being said, the smaller upgrades can also make a big difference – they all add up!

So, grab your guitar, your screwdriver, and your creative energy, and get tinkering!


Find out More

Upgrading your guitar is a great way to enhance its sound, but good maintenance is also crucial. Check out some handy tools below:

Shop Now | Toolkits

Shop Now | Fretboard Cleaning

Shop Now | Polish

Guitar Editor

Corin is a trained content writer with a love for all genres, especially metal \m/. If you ever visit his house, you’ll find a horde of neighbours throwing stones at his windows because his amp is too loud.

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