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.
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.
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!