Got an old Strat or any other guitar that you love to pieces, but that isn’t quite fully dialled in yet? Upgrading your guitar’s parts and hardware can improve the tone and performance of your instruments – it can actually make them feel better, and therefore more fun to play! With a few tweaks and upgrades you can actually make a good guitar a great one. In this season of “I want a new everything,” it can also be more cost-efficient than an all-new guitar!
Let’s assume you’re in love with both the neck and body of the instrument and want to leave them as is. Before you even start thinking about upgrading your pickups, what about the basic hardware? Work your way down from the headstock and identify any areas where the possibility for improvement exists. Are the tuners solid? If your tuners are anything less than 16:1 tuning ratio (the amount of turns of the peg it takes to fully rotate the post once; higher ratios equal better tuning accuracy), I strongly suggest upgrading them. There are a variety of quality manufacturers such as Gotoh and Schaller that make great, high-ratio tuners that are direct replacements for Strat or Gibson-type peg-hole reams in both regular and locking versions. You can also get cool pearloid or ebony buttons for the machine heads to add a classy touch.
Personally I prefer locking tuners for non-locking tremolo equipped guitars. If you use a trem you may want to consider roller-type string trees and a self-lubricating nut, if you’re not using a locking trem. Consider graphite: Graph Tech TUSQ makes nice ones and there are plenty of functional and fashionable varieties available.
Another thing any workhorse guitar should have is a good set of locking strap mechanisms. You don’t want to drop your baby, ever – so secure that thing! Once that’s done, how about the bridge itself? Is it durable and functional, or some unstable, string-breaking, tone-sucking knockoff? There’s only a few Strat-style trems I think aren’t flimsy: I like the Fender American Vintage model, and both Callaham Guitars and FU-Tone make great vintage replacement Strat bridges with upgraded blocks for added density and overall tonal fine-tuning.
Once the neck and body are dialled, there are no more weak points hardware-wise that could allow slippage, and even acoustically your beater sounds like a beast, then it’s time to think about pickups! If you have a front-loaded (pickguard) Strat type, you can “peek under the hood” so to speak to see if you’re limited to single-coils only, or if you have humbucker routs in the bridge and neck slots, or perhaps a “swimming pool” rout. That will depend on the make and model of your guitar of course. Having it routed is always another option if not, if you’re willing to make a “destructive” (wood-removing) modification to your beater. And hey, if you’re willing to do that, now’s the time to consider routing it for a Floyd Rose if you’re into that sort of thing. If not – go directly back to pickups!
First and foremost, ask – What kind of output are we talking here – vintage, medium, or high? Will your amp be doing all the heavy lifting, or do the pickups need to help? You can make use of the Tone Wizard to get a foundation of which Duncan pickups will work for your desired pickup configuration, neck/body woods used and musical style, or you can of course come on over to the SDUGF and ask a small army of forum tone-freaks always at the ready to help you out. Would a set of SD Antiquity pickups be up your alley, or some classic SSL-5s? How about some beef in the bridge position, like a Quarter Pound Flat SSL-4? Or maybe you need the noiseless performance of the Stack Plus series for studio and live work? I’ve had great results with the STK-S6 in Koa and Mahogany bodies; the STK-S4 and STK-S9B sound great in the Mahogany. The STK-S7 is pretty killer in the neck position in an Ash body.
If after looking under the hood you can do humbuckers, more fun considerations: Do you want Alnico 8 brutality of the Alternative 8, the thick ceramic grunt of a Duncan Distortion or Custom in the bridge, or would something with a little more finesse like the Alnico 2 Custom Custom suit you? How about the muscular Alnico 5 thunk of the Custom 5? Or you can go for a 59/Custom Hybrid – hugely versatile due to the hybrid coil marriage; the perfect blend of vintage and modern. Each coil senses the strings differently, giving it a unique vibe that no other pickup can match. There’s the Pearly Gates for the vintage vibe with a little Texas sizzle on top, or for the voice of rock, the go-to is the legendary JB… The choices are nearly endless.
And then there’s neck humbuckers! The ’59 nails the classic PAF vibe (in bridge and neck versions – the Pearly is also available in a neck version!) Don’t be dissuaded by name of the Jazz: it can be a great all-around neck ‘bucker. But once your guitar is dialed in hardware and set-up wise, you appreciate pickup changes even more, as you’re hearing your guitar’s enhanced basic tone embellished by the pickups. Plus, your guitar will be like a tank as far as durability and tuning stability is concerned thanks to the improved hardware. It’s an all-around win!