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Top mods for cheap guitars
A lot of great players I see in my workshop use cheap and cheerful HotRodded Asian guitars. The main advantages are low initial cost and availability of a vast array of aftermarket replacement hardware. Guitars based on classic designs [copies] are ideal for modification. Substandard hardware is replaced with quality parts providing a cost effective pathway into a custom built guitar.

Modern guitars made with CNC machines are very accurately cut and many are mechanically sound copies of well proven designs. Despite being well built you will notice primitive tone, the feel is not great and tuning is problematic.

Where do I start?
You may already own one or more guitars that fit the bill. If you don’t, a good starting point is research on the web. It is helpful if can put out of your mind brand names and country of origin. Once you have honed in on a few prospective models, looking at both new and used guitars at your local guitar retailers is very helpful in narrowing down your choice. Never buy sight unseen as it too often ends in tears.

Guitar Tech
Once you have chosen a guitar, find a good guitar tech or luthier to check it over. It is not hard to find one through Aussie guitar forums [AGGH] or word of mouth from friends. Many are happy to modify guitars as it is easy work and often the bread and butter of many small workshops. You will always get a good response if the tech knows you are happy to pay a bench fee or to have the guitar set up.

Get it playing right.
The objective is to get the guitar feeling great, playing and staying in tune.  The tech will give you an appraisal within a few minutes as to whether your guitar is a good prospect. If it passes the test a setup including a fret dress if necessary is the first step. This will make it a pleasure to play and is 90% of the battle won. It will make the difference between a guitar that never gets played to one that is your go to.

Tuning Stability
Extra work recommended to improve tuning stability should be included with the initial setup. Cheap guitars will often have a soft nut which causes string binding causing tuning problems. Have it replaced with bone or quality synthetic nut.

Cheap tuners are often the culprit in tuning problems. Quality tuners are not expensive to buy or install. I recommend hi ratio non locking tuners as the best buy. Locking tuners are great but fiddly and expensive.

Once the guitar is feeling great, playing and staying in tune the next step is installing a decent set of pickups. Weak, scratchy or excessively dull tone indicates shoddy pickups and electronics.  Great pickups need to be carefully built and the money spent buying them is well worth it if your purchase is well researched and based on solid advice.

There is a huge range of pickups available in Australia from the finest quality hand wound reproduction vintage sets down to absolute rubbish. Second hand sets or singles are available through forums, Facebook and EBay. Get educated on pickups by researching guitar forums, YouTube and taking advice from your tech. You will be amazed at how much difference a carefully chosen set of pickups will make.

Bridge and saddles
This is a critical area for stable tuning and good tone production. Soft, pot metal bridges and saddles cause string binding, poor vibration transfer and rattling. Replacement with quality units will help stabilise tuning and make a solid contribution to tone.

Replacing the pots, capacitors, switch and output jack with top grade replacements will help smooth out the tone. The best pickups deserve the best electronics. Small mods can be included such as adding a bleeder to the volume control[s] which will enhance your tone at little extra cost. Even the very best electronic components are dirt cheap in comparison to other hardware.

If the guitar has single coils ie Tele or Strat, consider having the cavities shielded. This will go a long way to quietening down mains hum inherent with any guitar equipped with single coils.

Switching options
Non standard guitar wiring can add a range of extra tones using mini toggle switches or push pull pots. This area is a complex one and worthy of an article in its own right. A quick search on the internet will reveal a huge amount of information on modifying guitar electronic circuits.

Re Finishing
Don’t bother. Contrary to prevailing opinions a polyester finish does not suck tone and a thinly applied nitro finish does not allow the wood to breathe somehow enhancing the tone. It is expensive and you’ll do much better spending the money on another guitar.

Modding your guitar will not significantly increase its resale price. The objective is  is to make your guitar a great player not increase its resale value. Potential buyers may not see it as worth much more than comparable models carrying original hardware. You put back the original parts before selling. Another guitar can be built up around the boutique parts or sold separately.

Ray Carlton is Melbourne-based luthier and guitar repairer

Next article: Buying a new guitar.

Got an opinion on Ray’s article? Got more questions? Ask away in the comments box below

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