A Cheap Archtop Upgrade!

Sounds like MONEY!

I’ve said it so many times, I feel like the parrot of pickups, but here goes again: These days the weakest links on inexpensive Asian and Mexican guitars are invariably the pickups. Upgrading them often yields a princely axe at a pauperly price.

A perfect example is the Ibanez Art Star archtop I just upgraded for my friend Dusty. These aren’t especially sought-after models — they seem to sell used here in the States for for between $400 and $500.

The guitar looked cool and played well, but the pickups were murky and undistinguished. I replaced them with a pair of Duncan ’59s, and man — a merely decent guitar suddenly became very good.

Dusty’s not really a jazz player — more a cool indie-rock-pop guy — so I figured he’d like the option of a brighter, single-coil sound. I requested the ’59 model with four-connector cable (plus chrome covers to maintain the retro look), and used push/pull pots from StewMac for humbucker/single-coil switching. That was also my rationale for choosing “vintage-style” wiring, which keeps the tone relatively bright, even when rolling back the tone pots. Dusty also wanted to keep the guitar’s flatwound string as a departure from his usual roundwounds, which was all the more reason to keep the tone as bright as possible.

Just one disclaimer before you view the demo: Dusty is left-handed, and I am not. I foolishly bravely recorded the performance playing the guitar upside-down without restringing. So you’re going to have to imagine how it would sound played confidently and comfortably! (It was an interesting experience, to say the least, one I wrote about it here.)

Check it out:

Even though I almost never play “normal” jazz, I love having an flatwound-strung archtop at sessions. Many modern players find flatwounds to be to dark and lifeless, but they have helped me nail the right tone in countless overdub situations. An archtop with flatwounds can be short on treble animation, but man, does it impart mass! It’s often a great way to thicken a track without clashing against vocals, keys, and brighter guitars. Even single-note lines can have incredible density. I highly recommend the technique to anyone who likes stacking guitars in the studio.

Many non-jazz players are attracted to the idea of owning an archtop, but can’t afford the luxury for a once-in-a-while color. But I’m now convinced that an inexpensive import archtop with decent pickups can deliver big-body bling at a pawnshop price.

The rewiring for this project was pretty easy — I followed the scheme here, except I “vintage-ized” it by connecting the tone pots to the lug 2 (the middle lug) of the volume pots rather than to lug 3. This, BTW, was the  first time I’ve ever rewired a full-depth archtop. The easiest way to do the work was to disconnect all the pots and pull everything out, much like (I imagine) gutting a carcass. Here’s the victim, mid-operation:

Gutted Art Star

The hardest part was getting the pots back into those little holes. My initial strategy was to panic. My second was to look for someone with hands small enough to reach through the pickup rout. My third was smarter: I threaded a guitar string through the holes, tied it around the posts of the pots, and drew them though. My trusty pair of bonsai tweezers helped my nudge the pots into position.

14 comments to A Cheap Archtop Upgrade!

  • Jeff

    I own an Ibanez Semi-Hollowbody guitar that I hate the pickups on. I’ve been itching to change them out, but am scared of doing the wiring harness through the f-holes. Between this change and the Pagey Project, I’m going to HAVE to do something different.
    Nice playing, as usual!
    :thumbup: :thumbup: :thumbup:

    • joe

      Oh crap — I should have talked about that too in the post! I’m going to go add something right now. :)

      (Ten minutes later.) Okay, I added something about working inside an archtop. :)

  • Oinkus

    I say change everything besides the wood myself , but that’s more like a $ 1k investment. End result is a better guitar. If you are going to do the pups the pots and jack and switch might as well go away too. Wire is worst thing on cheap guitars then pickups !

    • joe

      Do you hear a difference when you change wire and jacks?

      I used to be skeptical about wire, and I even thought that differences between good and bad guitar cables may have been noticeable but minor. I was 100% wrong, of course. After doing some listening back when I was at Guitar Player, I realized the differences are screamingly obvious — almost anyone could perceive a dramatic differences.

      But for the short wire runs inside guitars? I guess I’m skeptical again, but I admit I’ve never investigated it scientifically. Likewise, I can see changing jacks for mechanical reasons, but I’ve never perceived any acoustic difference between “audiophile” jacks and the cheapest Asian stuff. But I’ve been wrong many times, and am always eager to consider new evidence. :)

  • Will

    My Ibanez wasn’t cheap, but the neck pick-up, which had been installed by a previous owner, died so I pulled out all the parts and rewired it with Triple-shots and a phase switch.  The Triple-shots make swapping out pick-ups a lot easier now.  After the initial replacement work I’ve swapped pick-ups two more times and will likely do more.  And yes, working through the f-holes was not easy even for my scrawny fingers.

  • Oinkus

     Wiring is the weakest link has nothing to do with actual sound just working every time you use it , the upgrade of jacks and switches is just habit but you won’t have the same broken cheap part problem again. Whether or not the change is detectable by human ear is something I can’t determine.My high end Epiphone Futura Prophecy came out of the box with a broken switch , same with my Deluxe Flametop Dot and it had some badly soldered wires too.

  • zyon

    I’ve owned a few Ibanez pickups. Now I know that this blog is hosted by SD but Ibanez seems married to DiMarzio. They have always seemed noisy to me as well as lacking in overall tonal expression. I don’t know if the archtops are DiMarzio pups but if they were, I’d toss them in the trash can or evilbay them. Ibanez makes a lot of nice guitars in the mid-priced range. 

  • Chris

    I too have an Ibanez (Artcore AFS75T), with anemic sound, though it does get a bit better just at the breakup stage, but overall lackluster! Does anyone have any experience w/ some of the “budget” pickups, such as StewMac’s Golden Age, or Guitar Fetish, etc. Are any of them any good – in other words, worth the money, or should I keep saving until I can (finally) afford better pickups? 
    Yeah, I know I posted a similar message on the Pagey Project page, but realized this might be more appropriate.

    • zyon

      I know a lot of people who go ape sh.. over those Golden Age pickups. Stew Mac has done their homework. I also like Diesel pickups for vintage sounds. Bare Knuckle pickups are really popular with the folks over at the project guitar forum. However, not to plug Seymour Duncan… you can find ANY tones you’ll ever need or want with some combination of SD’s…. 

      On a side note, if you are looking for EMG alternatives for actives and you don’t want the extreme gain in the Live Wires, look up Guitar Heads pickups. There active pickups sound absolutely amazing without the “dead” sound commonly associated with EMGs… and at half the price too. 

  • JH

    As far as pickups go, you get what you pay for! Try and score some used pickups, unless the previous owner threw em up against the wall a few times, you likely wont have any problems. Try craigslist or your local music shop!
    Haha love the jam Joe! I was just sayin at intro, just needs a bit of heavy 60′s reverb, then it came in.
    Ready to go surfin!
    And yea that thing did sound real good with the coil split! , I guess u’d never know till you try, even tho it would seem like an unlikely match.
    Didnt sound like a dynasonic either!

  • Jim Williamson

    Hey, Our Man Flint! Nice!