How to make a cheap electric guitar much better

Caveat : I’m no expert on this, but has worked well a few times. I was first shown most of these tricks by a guitar builder at the London College of Furniture, since then have applied them and picked up other bits, learned a bit from practice.

This is a friend who plays jazz guitar, really likes a guitar I tricked out :

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Like a fool I spent a lot of money on pickups, trying to make a Fender-style guitar also sound like a Gibson. What you see above is about €300 spent on pickups on a €100 guitar. I had dollars at the time, experimented.

The answer to that turned out to just buy a relatively cheap Gibson-style guitar, put on some half-decent pickups.

To The Meat

So, a cheap electric guitar. Probably Chinese-built. Modelled on paper to a Fender Stratocaster or somesuch. Thing is, they’re about 90% there, but it can be disheartening trying to play an instrument with problems, which out of the box, these things have.

The meta message here is to use your eyes and ears, and have confidence.

Step One

This is the most scary of all. Truss rod adjustment. Sight down the neck, with strings on, if it is bowed, probably needs adjustment. An Allen key (you can get sets really cheap online), it’s usually 1/8″ – yes, Imperial measures. If there’s a hollow along the neck, very common,  bowed like a U, tighten clockwise. Very gently. Just a quarter turn might well be enough.

Step Two

Clean up. Damp soapy cloth, also use a scalpel to get the bits of finger grunge off the frets,.

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Step Three

Bandages. Hit the masking tape. You will need scalpel again at the higher frets to trim down.

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Step Four

‘Stoning’ the frets. The word gives away how it was traditionally done. But my favourite now is a diamond thing, cheap online again. Medium or medium-fine. But they’re on a flat metal plate, perfect for levelling things. I stuck this one to a block of wood to make it easier to handle:

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The key thing to remember here is to be gentle, you don’t want to take too much off. Refretting is a total arse-pain, best avoided.

The guy at the furniture college, I got him to grind my frets down way too much, made it almost unplayable in a different way. Live and learn.

The guitar here is Jacopo’s he plays jazz. Really noticeable which frets he used the most, almost grooves in them. But was very useful to see how not to go too far.

After that, some careful sanding of the frets. Some years back I bought a pack of sandpaper from Stew-Mac, I think intended for acoustic guitar builders mostly. Cost a lot (postage, ffs), but I’ve had a thousand uses.

On this, used 600 then 1000 grit to smooth off the frets. On this instrument the edges were really catchy, I hit them quite hard. Then finished with wire wool, gives them a nice polish.

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If using wire wool, don’t forget to get the bits that go on the pickup magnets. Sticky side of masking tape works.

Here’s a tip from someone who’s been a shite guitar player for nearly 40 years now. Mineral oil. Not sure what it might be called in the UK or US, here they have it for topping off wine bottles. Maybe 3-in-1 might serve same purpose. A bit on a cloth, over the strings (they last longer). Same on fretboard & the back of the neck. Makes playing much easier.

Also brightens up the contrast of the fretboard:

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So, that done, now to the niceties. Strings on.

Oh, there is something so joyful about putting new strings on. But dear Leo Fender – the idea of making them go through the body was a bad move. Though I guess it keeps roadies in a living.

Grr. My Djinn has run off with the top E string, have to make do with another 2nd.

I favour 10s. My style being thrash chords, occasional bad blues lick. The compromise between breakage and bloodshed.

Tip : when you put new strings on, tighten to nearly-right, then grab the string at the octave and pull. The weight of the guitar is about right, so dangle is an option. Pre-stress them, get stable sooner, stay in tune.

Yeah, niceties.

Step Five

A lot of guitarists I’ve met, even if they are good on physics, get scared by this bit.

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First thing is the action, height of strings above fretboard.

Allen key either side – these seems to be metric, 1.5mm. Fender & co. have hopeless documentation, you have to dig. Better though is play it by ear. The guy that plays this guitar does lots of wibbly bits, so I reckon as low as possible, without buzzing. Have to follow the curve of the fretboard.

After levelling the frets, you will be surprised by how low the action can go without buzzing. Annoyingly, this machine of Jacopo’s has quite a height limit to how far down you can take them, flat on the ground there’s still quite a gap. But hey-ho, should be better than it was.

Step Six

Intonation.

Now turn off the radio and shoot all the birdies. Need your ears.

The technique is to gently get the harmonic on the 12th fret, octave. Then press down so the string is on the frets. Cross head screwdriver at the bottom there. Match those two sounds.

Bizarrely this guitar of Jacopo’s was pretty much spot on.

Step Seven

Pickup height.

Here we start drifting into subjective territory a bit more. But I’d say that is, if you want to enjoy the thing at it’s best, is worth taking note of.

Crosshead screws either side of the pickups. Up & down.

Up, closer to the strings, more volume, to be aspired to. But there is a danger there, they have magnets in, so too close and you get ghost harmonics, as if putting a finger on the string. Personally I wouldn’t worry about the overall volume, low is ok, just try to get it so flipping between the pickups doesn’t make a huge change in the volume.

Steps Eight+

On a cheap Les Paul style guitar, I’d strongly recommend getting some different pickups. I got a guitar for not much over €100 from Thomann. Very playable, physically well made, but the tone was a bit rubbish. Forked out €50 or so dollars more and put some more normal pickups in it, bloody lovely sound. Is really Julian’s guitar now, dug the sound, has a lovely mellow, he took it around Europe (without asking! – but he did return it).

Strat style guitar, unless you have plenty dollars and wish to experiment, I’d advise against getting other pickups, the bog standard monsters work ok. I spent loads of dosh playing with that, but still never really managed to improve things. I did fork out a lot for better pickups on a Mexican Fender Precision Bass, that was worthwhile, it was a hum magnet, well-behaved now.

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This one of Jacopo’s, has really horrible tuning/machine heads. You can get them for less than a tenner on Amazon, my recommendation there.

But what you really want to do is make your own guitar, to your own requirements. Is surprisingly straightforward. I did it back to front, made the Vinocaster first –

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, only much later a cigar box guitar. They are fun, and take away any mythology about such machines. I make a lot of mistakes, but hopefully makes me a better player, knowing it back to front.

 

 

 

 

 

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