3 super cheap guitar tweaks to improve your guitar

Guitar Mods! Not the opposite of rockers (you’ll have to be fairly old to get that!), but modifying your guitar to make it better. There are a lot of things you can do to improve your guitar – some simple, some a bit technical, some expensive and some very cheap. Here we’re going to look at 3 really cheap mods that will improve your tone.

1. Pickup height

Let’s start off with a totally free mod that can really improve your tone – the height of your pickup. Part of setting up a guitar is adjusting the height of the pickups on the guitar. This is done as part of a setup in a guitar shop, but many guitars are sold online in their boxes, missing this stage.

Don’t worry though, as this is really easy to do. Rule of thumb is to get your pickups as close to your strings as possible.

Each pickup has screws at each end of it – 2 for most pickups (3 for a Telecaster bridge pickup). Simply turn the screws to raise or lower the pickup. Normally set the end of the pickup nearest the thinnest strings higher than the end at the thickest strings. This is because the thinner strings produce less output – i.e. they are quieter.

They shouldn’t touch the strings, so leave a safe gap of a millimetre or two, so that your vibrating strings don’t touch the pickup. To check this, play a note at the 1st fret and the last fret (normally 22nd fret) – pick it hard to give it the maximum movement and check it’s not touching the pickup at all. Get the whole pickup as close as you can and then lower the side nearest the bass E string (thickest strings) a millimetre or so.

Now your pickups are setup up. Play your guitar through an amplifier – you should hear your guitar is a bit louder and the tone clearer. It also gives you more head room to vary the guitar’s volume and tone controls.

2. Volume high pass filter

Ok, that sounds complicated, but it’s not really, even though it does involved altering the guitar’s electrics.

Altering the volume control on your guitar is a very powerful tool for changing your sound. It’s not just a case of on/off, but by turning down the volume control, you are controlling the amount of signal going into your amplifier – think of it more like the gain control on an amplifier than the volume. You can set your amp to a nice crunchy sound, turn down the volume to get a clean tone and then steadily increase back up again. Here’s a quick demo, recorded using our demo gear, after this mod has been fitted to our Knoxville:

Volume mod Knoxville into our iD:Core10, plugged directly into a phone to record. Volume starts down, then increased at the 15 seconds point.

Sounds great, but there’s a problem with lots of guitars. In simple electrical terms the volume control is a dimmer switch. When used for audio, the more you turn down the volume, the “muddier” the sound gets. This is because the control rolls off the treble of your sound first. But, you’ve guess it, there’s a cheap mod to fix this – the High Pass filter.

By fitting a resistor and capacitor across 2 tabs of the volume control, you leave the treble signals alone and roll off the bass signals. You need a 150k resistor and 0.001uF capacitor, but the easiest way to do it is go on eBay and search for a guitar treble bleed kit. I picked up a double pack for £3.95 (nice to have a spare just in case!).

Treble bleed kit

The two components came presoldered together, with a helpful simple diagram on how to fit it.

Now this does involved soldering – it’s simple, but bear in mind you need a soldering iron and some solder. Also bear in mind the soldering iron gets phenomenally hot, so make sure you choose a suitable workspace.

You need to access the back of the controls. I applied this to our budget Telecaster, which has nice simple access to the controls. So, unscrew the panel that gives you access to the guitar’s electrics and look for the volume control.

Before making any alterations, take a picture of the original state of the wiring. This is good practice in case you need to do any fault finding later.

You will see there are 3 tabs sticking out of the volume control, 1 of which is soldered to the body of the control – I’ve marked it with an X on the photo. The other 2 tabs are the in and out and you are going to solder the bleed kit directly across these 2 tabs. Heat up the solder that’s already there on a tab and poke an end through and let the solder harden – then repeat with the other tab.

Beware the components will heat up too, so if you’re not able to be quick, use a pair of pliers, tweezers or something that holds the components for you.

Refit the control panel and you’re all done! Plug in and give it a try.

If you plug in your guitar and no sound comes out, don’t panic. It normally means that you have created a short (put solder across 2 parts you shouldn’t have), or accidentally pulled out a wire. So remove the control panel again and check what you see against the picture you took of the wiring to start with, looking for new joins or broken wires.

3. String Trees

We mentioned these in our Anatomy of a Guitar Youtube episode and they can be found on the headstock of the guitar, between the nut and the tuning keys on the thinner strings. Their job is to pull down the strings so they have enough of an angle over the nut to make a clean sound. Often they are shaped pieces of metal – strong and hard wearing, but prone to snagging, as the strings are also metal. This causes problems with your guitar’s tuning.

However, they also come in other materials. Graphtech are a company that make lots of guitar contact point products out of graphite and teflon impregnated plastics. They have great tone and unlike metal are naturally slippery, which improves your tone and tuning. Our Knoxville came with metal string trees and a quick look on eBay turned up a double set of Graphtec replacement string trees for a tenner. These are a really simple fit – slacken off the string tension (detune them), unscrew the old string trees and screw on the new ones in their place. Then retuning the guitar and you’re done. Do make sure to loosen the tension of the strings before unscrewing the trees – otherwise they can flick off, hit you in the face and damage the wood!

And that’s it – 3 cheap modifications that will make your guitar sound better!

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