Turning Your Budget Guitar Find Into An Every Day Player

The DIY spirit is at the heart of guitar innovation. What would the guitar-playing world be like If Eddie Van Halen hadn’t created his “Frankenstrat” Les Paul his world-famous Gibson, or Leo Fender and the first guitars that inspired so many? Many of us would never have picked up a guitar in the first place.
There is a little bit of that spirit in many guitar players. We’ve all been there. Whether it’s your first guitar or a pawn shop find you just couldn’t say “no” to, almost every guitar player out there has purchased a guitar with the idea of making some improvements to it or turning into a project. In fact, some of us purposely seek out this type of project guitar so that we can turn it into the guitar of our dreams. Is it possible? Can you really make something that you bought for $100 sound that much better? With a few minor tweaks, I’m here to tell you that it is indeed possible to turn that Craigslist or Kijiji find into a guitar you’ll love to play every day.
Let me first begin by saying that some things are to be avoided at all costs unless you want to sink a significant amount of money and/or time into – like warped necks or a neck in serious need of a fret job. Broken truss rods, fingerboards that are peeling off of the neck, and broken headstocks are also things that I avoid in my search for project guitars. Assuming that you don’t mind a couple of cosmetic scratches or dings, and that you are comfortable with minor soldering jobs and the handling of electronic components, here are some steps that you can take to help you make that classified ad score into a dragon slayer.

Change the Pickups

A simple swap of pickups can resurrect even the most boring of guitars. If you’ve picked up an old super Strat style guitar with an HSS pickup configuration and you know you’re going to be using it for some heavy metal riffs, consider some of the high output pickups available. Invaders, the SH-6, Black Winter, and Nazgul are just a few of the options available from Seymour Duncan. In one guitar I recently rescued, a $120 BC Rich STiii, I dropped a Nazgul in the bridge and two SSL-4 Quarter Pounders in the single coil slots, including a coil-tapped version in the neck for a bit more clarity. The results were so drastic that I felt like I was playing a completely different guitar.

20150117_194759_1Nazgul & Sentient Demo

Change or Repair the Pots

Often a neglected guitar will have scratchy or noisy volume and/opr tone knobs, and that is easily remedied by tightening the pot where it is screwed to the guitar, or replacing them altogether. Seymour Duncan offers several options for this and if you’re handy with a soldering iron, you can often do the job yourself when you change the pickups.
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Change The Tuners

If your cheap find has broken, missing, or damaged tuners, you can use this as an opportunity to upgrade the machineheads and ensure greater tuning stability right along with it. Options vary, and you’ll have to decide how much you want to spend in order to make your find worth it, but in many cases, you can find used tuners that are a significant upgrade for a reasonable price. Depending on what kind of deal you got on the guitar itself, you may want to splurge on your tuners. As an alternative, you may be a part of a Facebook group or forum that has a classified page or trading list that opens up the possibility of getting a cheap upgrade for your machine heads. Totally up to you.

Restore The Bridge

For some reason, on many of the used guitars I’ve come across, the bridge (tremolo or not) has been neglected or worse yet, abused. Rusty, corroded parts or a misplaced saddle, screw, or tremolo unit spring can often create a situation where the guitar doesn’t play right, and it looks just as bad. You can fix some of these imperfections rather easily, while others might cost you a few dollars in replacement parts. Have a look at the bridge before you buy the guitar and research what it will cost – both in time and money – to fix it. On one particular guitar I recovered, all it took was some elbow grease to get rid of grime and corrosion, and I had a “brand new” old-school Kahler that has now become the part of the guitar everyone notices first. The bridge itself is easily worth $200, and I only paid $100 for the guitar.

Clean and Condition

It’s a little known fact that many of the modern (read: non-nitrocellulose) guitar finishes can be treated the same way you’d treat a finish on a Corvette or Ferrari. Using my background of auto detailing, I was able to buff and polish my way into the same “wet” look that you’d see on an expensive car on guitars that previously had swirls, scratches, and even writing on them. With knowledge of a low-power mini rotary buffer, and some approved and guitar-friendly polishing compounds (from companies such as Big Bends), you can bring a neglected old guitar back to its glory. The cleaning and conditioning also applies to the fretboard, where years of dust, grime, and who knows what else, can pile up and suck the life and tone out of your guitar. If you have an ebony or rosewood fingerboard, using some “000” grade steel wool, gently rub the spaces on your fretboard that lie between the frets themselves. You may notice a dark, grimy dust gets kicked up. That’s normal, especially if the guitar you have picked up has been locked in a case for over a decade and hasn’t had a string change in way too long. Once your fretboard is clean, give it a wipe, and then condition it with a conditioner appropriate for the fretboard you’re working with. A lacquered maple neck generally doesn’t need conditioner, but your rosewood and ebony fretboards can use a little love.

Put on Some New Strings, Intonate, and Tune

Now that your new project is all cleaned up and ready to go, put on a new set of your favorite strings, make sure the guitar is intonated properly, tune it up, and get ready to rock!
The beauty of a project guitar is that you can do whatever you like. Some may say “It will cost you more than buying a better guitar brand new” while others will wonder why you’ve invested the time and/or money into the instrument, but having done this several times in my life, there is nothing more rewarding that customizing a guitar exactly to your liking without spending the astronomical amounts that custom shop guitar will cost you. In fact, with one guitar in particular, all it took was some time to clean things up and a fresh string change – a grand total of $8.99 in “upgrades” It plays as well as my Les Paul and it cost me a fifteenth of the price.
What project guitars have you transformed or put together from a collection of parts? Are there any that you dream of restoring to their glory? Let’s hear it!

Join the Conversation


    1. It could be out of reach for some casual hobbyists like myself to change a nut though. Nut files and the skill to use them properly aren’t really what novices like myself possess although it is something I would like to learn.

      1. one of the best bone nuts ive seen was cut to exactly two widths – narrow blade/file for unwound strings, big blade/file for wound, to my surprise when i examined it. sounded just awesome.
        also, the file dont cut idea seems to be a little misleading. you want to file/sand the “bottom” point to be smooth and without any jaggedness, but your best way of evenly spacing it is clamping and miter sawing most of the way thru first. file to finish doesnt mean file to shape.

  1. This is my Ibanez GAX70. I installed a SD JB & Jazz set, Bournes 300K volume pots, Bournes 500k tone pots, .022 Vitamin Q caps, Switchcraft 3-way toggle and output jack w/ 24 awg wiring. I LOVE this thing!!! Awesome tones through my Marshall JCM600!!
    I have a special kind of bond w/ this guitar because it’s the one I learned how to do guitar electronics on.

    1. Nice! I have a Hamer / Slammer that is tricked out pretty much the same way. I don’t have to worry about it at the clubs & I can leave my les paul at home!

    2. Well, in the end it is still a piece of shit (regardless the dollars you have sunk into it). Sorry.

    3. pots and cap type near-irrelevant, wire gauge irrelevant (unamped tiny signals), switch brand only relevant if others you tried didnt work reliably
      exception: best type of pot and cap is NO POT. if you dont use it, leave it out of the circuit. youll notice a 5-10% output boost from such spartan circuitry.

      1. I disagree, pot values and cap values do play a big factor in the tone and so does the wire.
        500K is the standard for Humbuckers, but in recent years a lot of companies use 300K, where 250K is the standard for single coils.
        Sure some people will wire the pickups directly to the jack, but this doesn’t give you any flexibility, basically wide open all of the time.
        Eddie Van Halen for years just used a Volume pot.

        1. i refer to branding, “smoothness”, and other properties making one expect higher quality…it isnt a signal-improvement device, and as such can never ever ever make your signal “more” than leaving it out
          a variable resistor aka potentiometer aka pot can only – AT WORST – get stuck in a certain position (which with 90% likelihood is wide open at full volume). it doesnt ALTER the signal, it just reduces its strength by the resistance dialed in.
          same reason why, at wide open, all pots are roughly equal (except those failing to measure 0k true zero at full volume). 10 ohm or 10M ohm doesnt matter long as you arent actually using it (“10” = actually 0 = resistor OFF).
          SAME WITH SCRATCHINESS, GRADUALNESS, AND SMOOTHNESS – IT ONLY MATTERS WHEN YOU DO IN FACT USE THE DARN THING (evh did, hence the low friction special volume pot…hence also the high friction tone pot, to stay in place and not move drastically at a stray unintentional touch)
          ps 300k is the old gibson standard, it’s quite accepted and acceptable. very conservative in fact. such pots can be found in stuff from the 70s.
          wire gauge matters sh!t-all, because guitars cannot generate enough signal to overload a wire, and said overload’s main problem would be fire hazard anyway. do not comfuse with speaker wire, that’s serious amplified current that can shock you and melt thin wire…here, though, thicker wire can only make you more likely to pick up radio signals, if even that. though really using big gauge speaker wire does nothing for the worse, just nothing for the better either. (you may be blaming the signal deterioration from sloppy cold solder joints on wire “quality”…the two are only related in that sloppy cheap looking wire jobs and sloppy QC often go hand in hand)
          pps theres like thousands of feet of coils of SUPERTHIN 42-44 GAUGE WIRE in a humbucker, and all the guitars signal travels thru that. adding a few inches of wire 10x thicker is gonna help that how???

  2. One of the nice things about Kahler bridges is their ease of installation. It’s a bit more advanced than dropping in a direct replacement for a currently-installed bridge, but still much easier than routing out a “swimming pool” for a Floyd or other fulcrum whammy. If you’re patient and careful, you can even cut the small route for the trem block without a router.

  3. Most of these involve a fair amount of cost. Before you spring for new tuners, make sure the nut is slotted just right. Most tuning problems are the nut’s fault. Next, make sure the frets are PERFECT. Next, adjust the pickup height and polepiece stagger. Next, make sure the bridge saddles are slotted right (if they have slots). If the guitar seems naturally anemic, put on bright strings. Note that ALL of these fixes are covered in a good setup. THEN start replacing parts. A cheap bridge can’t save good pickups, so start there. Then try new pickups. Then a nut, but you’ll only notice a difference on open strings. Cheap pots don’t affect tone unless they are faulty. You can try a new cap, but even the electronics guru at a major guitar company told me he doesn’t hear a difference with expensive caps, much as he wishes it were true. And unless you use the tone pot, the cap is out of the circuit.

  4. This is my favorite game, get an obscure gem and convert it into a better-than-Gibson sounding guitar. Nothing more rewording than that and you will never let it go everafter….

    1. Almost ANYTHING I’ve bought off craigslist or even from GC used sounds better than a gibson, and I adhere to a $100-150 price ceiling for most of my projects’ starting points. Done dozens of projects like that.
      Btw, never ever seen a single Japanese axe that didnt have the potential to play like a pro axe, at worst with some small fixes, but mostly just some elbow grease and a setup
      Full Disclosure: part time used & vintage dealer, garage tech

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