There’s a lot of appeal to owning something that’s truly unique, and guitars are definitely no exception. While we may not all want something as bold as the Eddie Van Halen Franken-Strat or the Rick Nielsen checkerboard Hamer Standard, it’s hard to deny the allure of a guitar that is one of a kind. We want to look at our beloved instruments and know that they’re as distinctive as our very selves.
But without huge budgets for custom built guitars, how can we do this? Are we forever doomed to settle for mass-produced units that look exactly like the thousands of other guitars that rolled off the assembly line? Definitely not! In this article, we will learn about four very simple – and very low cost – things you can do to personalize your guitar. Whether you try one or all of them, you will end up with something as unique as you are.
If you have a guitar with replaceable pickup covers, like a Strat, give it a try. A distinctive pickup cover adds a little pop to an otherwise dull guitar for very little cost (Strat pickup covers typically cost around $10 for a complete set). If you can handle a screwdriver you can replace a pickup cover. Strat pickup covers are available in nearly any color you can imagine, whether it’s parchment or mint for that vintage look, neon for an 80’s machine, or my favorite: black. I love the look of black pickups on a white pickguard.
Humbucker fans shouldn’t feel left out. Chrome, nickel, or gold covers on humbuckers look ultra classy in the right guitar, and I just happen to have written an article explaining a simple way to install them. If shiny isn’t your thing, you can go with a relic’d chrome cover, black chrome, or white plastic. There are even humbucker covers out there made of real wood. Bonus: if your humbuckers are on mounting rings, you can replace those too for very little cost. Mix and match covers and rings for extra style points.
Seymour Duncan sells pickup covers directly at their new storefront: duncangear.com.
Nearly every electric guitar on the planet has at least one knob, and they’re a perfect candidate for personalization. They cost peanuts, they’re very simple to replace, and they can make a surprisingly dramatic difference in how a guitar looks. Best of all, there is – quite literally – a knob for every style and taste. You can get anything from a coloured plastic knob, to a shiny metal knob, to a beautiful hardwood knob. If you are looking for something really special, you can find knobs that look like dice, skulls, birds, Celtic braids, Easter Island statues, shotgun shells, and probably a hundred other things I can’t think of or Google. Seriously … there are a lot of knobs out there.
The only thing you need to be aware of when getting replacement knobs is whether you have split shaft or solid shaft pots. The easy way to tell is to look at your current knobs. If they have a little screw inside them that holds them to the pot shaft, you have solid shaft pots. If there is no screw, you have split shaft pots. Most guitars out there have split shaft pots (the Telecaster being the notable exception, though even some of those have split shaft pots) which means most after-market knobs you find will fit a split shaft. When buying new knobs, read the description to see which shaft they fit. Some knobs come in a solid shaft and a split shaft version.
That piece of plastic screwed to the front of your axe is just begging to be personalized.
A new pickguard is an especially dramatic change for Fender and Fender-like guitars; a fact that is evident in the range of classic pickguard options they’ve introduced over the years. Think of how different Stevie Ray Vaughan’s number one Strat would have looked with a plain white pickguard!
You aren’t limited to the classics, of course. Companies like Warmoth and Terrapin Guitars will custom cut you a pickguard from a wide range of materials, and the cost is quite reasonable for most guitars. Materials range from the very tasteful, to “my eyes! It burns!”
For Gibsons and their cousins, one of the most popular mods is to go completely in the opposite direction: remove the pickguard altogether. Many famous Les Paul players have shed their pickguard, opting to display the top in all its glory.
I saved the best for last. Changing to a new brand or gauge of string is not only cheap, it can also make a big impact on your guitar’s tone and feel. It’s a shame that strings are so often overlooked when we are searching for an upgrade. They’re the heart of your guitar, after all.
Strings are a very personal thing for guitarists, which is why there are so many options. The choice you make will depend on how you want your guitar to sound, feel, and respond to your playing. If you want easier, more comfortable bends, go with a lighter gauge. If you want something that feels tighter and gives your picking hand a bit more resistance, try increasing the gauge. There are string sets that have heavier wound strings and lighter high strings for a best of both worlds setup. And if the gauge is fine but you just want to change things up a bit, try a different brand. You might like the change, and if you don’t you’re only out a pack of strings and a bit of time.
The most important thing to remember when changing string gauges is to re-intonate the guitar afterwards. Different gauges require different intonation settings. If you make a drastic change in string gauge you may also need to have the nut replaced, or at least re-slotted.
I’m sure there are plenty of other ways to personalize a guitar for just a bit of dough. What sorts of things have you done to your favorite axe?