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Is it worth modding a cheap guitar?

(Image credit: Future)

For many of us, a lower-ticket electric is a perfect vehicle on which to practice our modding chops. 

But as many of us will know, by the time you’ve fitted maybe some new pickups, a ‘boutique’ wiring loom, perhaps upgraded tuners and even some new plastic parts, you’ve added considerably to your initial outlay. 

While your ‘Frankenstein’ experiment might work out to be ‘the one’, it might not. A modded guitar isn’t always desirable as a used purchase, either, which can mean that, despite the ‘upgrades’, you’ll be losing money if you need to sell it on.

Always really consider what it is you’re trying to improve and do it bit by bit. Listen and evaluate your mods one by one

A mistake many of us make is to not fully play, listen and compare our guitar before we start thinking some upgrades will help. Getting a new or new-to-you instrument to play properly should always be the first step.

A pro setup after you’ve lived with the guitar for a while will maximize what you have - particularly if you prefer heavier/lighter string gauges, where your tech can compensate, invariably tweaking the neck, nut and saddles to really fine-tune your guitar.

Quite often a professional might spot less obvious issues - uneven frets or even a neck that’s not quite as straight or as stiff as it should be. In the world of mass production, even with consistent quality control, don’t expect every instrument to be 100 percent.

Buying online will always be a gamble as opposed to being able to actually play a few guitars before you purchase - and the better the chassis in the first place, the better your mods will sound.

Nev Marten’s heavily modded Classic Player Strat, originally Sunburst, looks a treat – but basic home modding can’t change fundamentals such as neck profile and wood quality.

Nev Marten’s heavily modded Classic Player Strat, originally Sunburst, looks a treat – but basic home modding can’t change fundamentals such as neck profile and wood quality. (Image credit: Future)

But can you turn your £500 guitar into a boutique beauty? There is a school of thought that the actual quality or type of wood used for the neck, fingerboard and body of an electric guitar has zero effect on its amplified sound.

Few contemporary guitar makers would agree. But it's about context. High-end makers are producing guitars that are certainly aimed at professional use.

If you’re working at an amateur-enthusiast level then that Fender Player might do the job just as effectively as an American Professional series instrument costing considerably more, especially if you think about some pukka pickups.

A pickup swap is often the first thing we consider in an upgrade. Here you can spend a couple of hundred dollars easily, often more. However, changing your control circuit will not only cost considerably less but it will maximize what you’re hearing.

Maybe you won’t need to buy those pickups, at least initially. Likewise, string choice and simple pickup-height adjustments all help to dial in what you have.

A set of locking tuners can be the difference on a guitar with a vibrato.

A set of locking tuners can be the difference on a guitar with a vibrato. (Image credit: Future)

Is reversibility important to you? We’ve already mentioned that modding probably won’t help you sell on the guitar if you need to. If that’s important to you, keep all the old parts, including the wiring loom, should you change it. That way you can always restore the guitar to its original spec or at least offer the purchaser the original parts.

Back in the day you’d rarely think about replacing a tuner or bridge unless it was broken. Yes, things such as Grover Rotomatics were seen as an upgrade to the original Kluson-style tuners on a Les Paul – something that might be debatable today – but that was more likely an improvement in function.

Rarely do modern tuners cause problems with tuning stability; that’s more than likely the way you attach your strings or a problem at the nut. Locking tuners, however, can certainly help vibrato guitars, although only as a part of a ‘system’ that includes the nut, bridge saddles and the vibrato itself.

For some players it’s all about the sound, for others it’s the playing feel - and probably for the majority of us it’s both

Upgrading things like Tune-o-matic bridges and stud tailpieces won’t turn your Epiphone Les Paul into a ’Burst, but a quality replacement can maximize the acoustic response of a guitar that’s factory fitted with lower-quality parts.

As to the actual material used, well, there’s a rabbit hole. Importantly, always really consider what it is you’re trying to improve and do it bit by bit. Listen and evaluate your mods one by one and be honest with yourself.

Before switching out your pickups, think about upgrading your control circuit, where cheaper tone improvements can be made. (Image credit: Future)

Priority Time

For some players it’s all about the sound, for others it’s the playing feel – and probably for the majority of us it’s both. Details such as neck shape, fingerboard radius and fret size really need to be correct at your original purchase. 

Yes, you can easily round off fingerboard edges, fettle and polish your frets to improve the feel, and removing the finish, or giving it a satin feel, on the back of a neck – although not reversible – is easy enough. It’s surprising how a little work like this can quite noticeably improve the feel of the guitar.

What you hear and feel are the important things and small tweaks can often bring better rewards than trying to turn your Telecaster into a Les Paul

Refinishing and/or relic'ing and the like are certainly possible, but neither are advisable for the beginner nor for anyone with resale in mind. More likely a change of a Strat or Tele’s scratchplate is easily done, reversible, and some will say it can alter the sound of your guitar, too.

You’ll read plenty of voodoo in your modding quest, but don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. As ever, what you hear and feel are the important things and small tweaks can often bring better rewards than trying to turn your Telecaster into a Les Paul. Turning lead into gold really isn’t easy.