Upgrading Inexpensive Guitars

Posted: December 26, 2015 in DIY, Guitar, Modification
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I have never had a lot of money.  My only major investment toward playing music has been my Dual Rectifier.  Guitars costing over $800 have been out of my budget and I figure the same thing holds true for many other people.  Fortunately, mid-priced, mass produced guitars are made with higher quality than just about ever before.

When it comes to upgrading inexpensive guitars, the most important thing is to make sure the neck is well made and the frets are properly installed.  Any hardware or electronics can be easily replaced, but the cost of a major fret job or replacement defeats the purpose of upgrading an otherwise good guitar to be great.

For many years now, I’ve preferred Gibson-style guitars, or at least humbucker equipped guitars, at a more affordable price.  Epiphone G Series, LTD, Schecter C Series, and the like are along the lines of what I could afford and like.  I’m going to speak mainly about these types of guitars, since that’s where my most recent experience is.

Even with varying scale lengths and fretboard radii, there are a few common problem areas in any guitar with Tune-o-matic (TOM) type bridges and 3-on-a-side tuning pegs.  The bridge and nut can bind the strings, particularly the wound strings.  If a person finds their plain strings stay in tune, but the wound strings are going out of tune quickly, this is probably the reason why.

Aw, Nuts!

The nut is more often the issue.  Since the tuning pegs are not in line with the nut and angle out to one side or the other, it creates a breaking point for the string to grab the nut.  My experience has been to lubricate the nut or to replace it with a TUSQ, self-lubricating nut.  This allows the string to move more freely, if not completely free of the breaking point on the nut.

Since drop-in TUSQ replacements can be bought for $10-$15 and come in a variety of sizes to match manufacturing specs, it’s a good investment and can be done by a novice with little fear of ruining their guitar.  In case of trouble, save the old nut so it can be re-installed if there is a problem with the new nut.

Bridges and Damns

Another tuning issue are the bridge saddles that come on cheaper guitars.  One of the most common cost-cutting measures is to skimp on the material and tooling.  There are a couple of approaches to combating issues here that may not require replacement:

  • Use miniature files and sandpaper to smooth any sharp edges.  Only use light pressure and be delicate.
  • Adjust the tail-piece to a slightly more obtuse angle.

With string-through bodies, the angle is set and other than removing sharp edges, an upgrade is easier and also holds up better over time, since cheaper aluminum will wear down quickly from friction.

When replacing a bridge, check the manufacturing specs to ensure the dimensions are the same or very close.  At the least, the post spacing needs to be the same unless you plan to fill the old holes and drill new post-holes.

Gotoh, Schaller, Graphtech, and Golden Age are among manufacturers who make good TOM replacements.  My current interest is the Graphtech Resomax NV2 with the TUSQ saddles.  That would resolve issues with string-through bodies causing string-bind on the bridge saddles and also works just fine with a stop-tail.  The TUSQ material is self-lubricating and is also machined to be non-binding in shape.

Machine Heads

I use Sperzel locking tuners on all of my guitars.  Period.  Forget string winding and tying.

Cost of a Guitar and Upgrades

So, what’s the final cost if a person were to buy a decent, el-cheapo, guitar and upgrade it?  Well, let’s take an Epiphone G-400 Pro, round the cents, and add it up:

  • $350 – Guitar
  • $10 – TUSQ Nut
  • $75 – Graphtech Resomax NV2
  • $80 – Schaller Locking Tuners
  • $515 + Tax.

The G-400 comes with coil-tapping, fairly good pickups, and individual controls, so the electronics could be left stock.  If someone really wanted to spend another $100 to $200, the pickups and pots could be swapped out.  Depending on the pickups chosen, the final product can rival guitars up in the $1500 range for (roughly) $650 to $750 after tax and it’s all brand new.

There are less expensive bridges and tuning machines available at several online stores, so the cost of upgrades can be less than listed above; it’s meant to be one example with top of the line parts.

Assuming a person is alright with an opaque finish, the greatest difference between otherwise identically manufactured guitars is based on whether the manufacturer is going to pass the greater cost of better parts (and/or ornamentation) onto a person or if the person upgrades the model afterward and saves some money.  This same principle applies across all manufacturers (and EMG 81/85 comes standard on many inexpensive models for you metalheads).  Just remember to be picky about the frets and neck, and all the other factors can be addressed if they have to be.


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