No matter how many guitars we own, we always need another one. Just ask my wife! Guitarists always need something new to fill that gnawing chasm of guitar lust. It’s unavoidable. But if you find yourself trying to decide between eating this month or spending all of your grocery money on that killer sounding ES-335 at the guitar store, then you better put down your wallet and read on. You might not have to buy anything new to get better tone out of your current guitar. Here’s how to eek some sweet tone out of your low-end (sub $300, made-in-somewhere-other-than-the-US) electric guitar and have some cash left over so no one has to go on a crash diet.
Change the strings
- Cost: $5 – $15
- Time investment: 20 minutes
- Skill level: beginner
Take a look at your strings. Do you see rust? Do the top, high pitch, (G, B, E) strings look a little discolored in spots. Do you remember the last time you changed them?
Changing your strings is the easiest way to get better tone out of your guitar. Tired strings sound lifeless and dull. New strings can make your guitar sound bright and full. I love putting a fresh set of Ernie Ball’s on my electric because I can suddenly hear the full spectrum of sounds in each chord. This is a great $5 – $15 investment that will give your tone a boost.
Get your guitar set up
- Cost: $50 – $75
- Time investment: 1 – 3 days
- Skill level: Intermediate. Do it yourself or take it to your local guitar shop
.Getting your guitar “set up” means a luthier or guitar tech will adjust the action, or distance between the strings and fretboard, so your guitar will sound better, feel better, and stay in tune. Fret buzz should also be minimized or eliminated. There’s nothing worse for a beginning guitarist struggling along with a guitar that has strings 4mm off the neck at the 12th fret, ain’t in tune past the 8th fret, and has a bad case of fret buzz.
A good setup will also include setting the intonation, which makes sure your guitar will sound in tune up and down the neck. A guitar that is not properly intonated will sound ok at one end of the neck, but the same chords will sound a bit sour at another spot even after you’ve tuned it up. This sort of thing can be particularly frustrating for a beginner.
So what does this have to do with guitar tone? Well, if your guitar plays well, you play better. And if you play better, you sound better. You’ll probably practice more, too. I’ve had times when one of my guitars was a dream to play, and the other had problems and was difficult to play–the strings were too high off the neck and it sounded sour in the first position. Guess which one I always played? A crappy playing guitar is a bus ticket to Quitsville.
Upgrade your wiring
- Cost: $50 – $150
- Time investment: 3 hours
- Skill level: High
If you have a custom $5000 Gibson Les Paul, hand crafted to your exact specs, then you can skip this step. But if you are a poor guitarist like me and you have a made-in-Mexico/Korea/Indonesia/China guitar that you like and plays well, but is lacking a little in the tone department, consider changing out the wiring and electronics. It doesn’t matter what style of guitar it is: Stratocaster, Telecaster, Les Paul, SG, whatever–swapping out the wiring and electronics can really give your axe a tone boost.
I’m constantly amazed at how well the new low-end guitars play. But to keep costs down, manufacturers will typically skimp on the innards: tone pots, volume pots, capacitors, pickups are all usually poor quality. Simply swapping out the stock electronics with quality components can make a huge difference. Most people immediately think about changing pickups, but you might be surprised how much tone can be gained with quality electrical parts. You may even decide after adding new wiring that your stock pups are fine.
For a real world example: check out Guitar Tone Network’s podcast 007. They upgrade the wiring on a nice LP, and it really makes a difference. –Dave
If you’ve got a made-in-wherever guitar and you are on a budget, give guitarfetish.com a try. They’ve got custom wiring setups for most Strat, Tele and LP style guitars, among others. And are ready to help if you have any questions. Oh, and their wiring setups, tone pots, capacitors, pickups, etc. are usually inexpensive and get pretty good reviews from the guitar playing community.
Install new pickups
- Cost: $50 – $250
- Time investment: 3 hours
- Skill level: Intermediate
If you are handy with a soldering iron, changing out the pups on your electric is a sure way to up the tone quality on your electric. If your current bridge pup is thin and screechy but you need some crunch; or you want a nice warm, full, Jazzy sound out of your neck pickup, but ain’t getting it, swapping out the pickups is a nice upgrade. Some long-time guitarists will immediately swap out pups in a new made-in-Mexico/China/Indonesia, etc. guitar–they know what they want and don’t waste any time getting there.
If your electric is a sub-$300 instrument, swapping out the pups should be a no-brainer. A nice set of Seymour Duncan Antiquity humbucker pickups in your made-in-Korea Les Paul copy should make a huge difference. If you’ve got a low-end Squier Strat or Tele, spending $50 to $100 on new pups is an excellent way to give your rig a tone upgrade.
Once you get into the higher-end guitars that have quality pups from the factory, it boils down to what sound you want. If you ain’t quite satisfied with your current sound in your upper-end electric, testing pickups is an option. Talk to your local guitar store and do some research.
Swapping out pickups is an involved process. So make it count. Do your research before taking the time to install a new set. And don’t toss or trade the old ones before installing the new ones. What if the new ones sound worse than the old ones?
- Cost: $0
- Time investment: unlimited
- Skill level: all
An obvious, but often forgotten idea in the mad tone chase, is that becoming a better guitarist through practice is a key ingredient to getting the best sound you can. A huge slice of the tone pie is in your hands and in your head. Let someone else play your guitar and the guitar will sound different. At a very core level, a good guitarist’s tone stays with him no matter what guitar he or she plays. The way your pick hits the strings, the way your fret hand presses down each string to create sounds, and a ton of other factors all add up to a distinct sound: your tone.
I hope this helps you find a little extra tone love. Whether its metal or jazz, or something in between, the hints above should help you on your way to improving your guitar’s output and finding your own sound. Hit the comments if you want to add an idea of your own. –Dave
I have a Deluxe Lone Star Strat which has the humbucker in the bridge position (HSS). It’s Mexican and I thought about changing it (the single coils are wonderful though) but after removing the pick guard cover, everything was affixed to the pick guard in one measure or another. Unless I were to buy a whole new pre-wired pick guard with better components, it seems impractical to change a pickup. Am I right to be reticent? Or is it relatively easy to replace one or some components on a pre-wired pick guard for Stratocasters? Thanks
It’s all a matter of what sounds good to you. If the pups in right now seem to be lacking, then swapping them is an option. If you don’t feel comfortable playing with the guts of the wiring harness then find a friend to help or take it to your local guitar shop. But don’t the LSS humbuckers sound pretty good?
I am a begginer but I can tell my blaster e6 encore sounds awful specially playing on high strings. I am tempted to buy a Yamaha Pacifica from Argos but dont want to waste what little i have chasing a sound like I hear the blues players play. I noticed they sound so different from my guitar so much that the song I have learnt to play sounds completely different. I know you said its down to the individual but even i can tell the sound just isn’t the same at all. My strings I haven’t changed but only had guitar a few months How often does strings needs changing? Should i invest in a Yamaha Pacifica from Argo or stick with Blaster E6 encore ?
Hi David. I don’t know anything about the Encore guitars but do know the Pacificas are great entry level guitars. If you are unsatisfied with your sound you might want to consider one very important factor: the amp. You can play a mediocre guitar through a $1000 amp and be blown away, and play a $1000 guitar through a $50 amp and sound like poop. You might want to try and play your current guitar through a nice amp and see how it sounds. Good luck and have fun in your guitar journey!
Thanks for the tips. I just got a short scale fender tele and I’m going to take it to get set up this morning. However- you don’t need to put “(or she)” in parentheses- I’m a woman and I’ve been playing for 10 years. Female guitarists are everywhere and every when- see them. Thanks!
Hey Ingrid, thanks for the comments. Hope the set up helps your playing.
Hey, I’m getting my first electric guitar for my 14th birthday. It’s a Stratocaster copy which is quite low end being 125 U.S.D. How would a Seymour Duncan JB with 250 k pots sound? Please reply
Oh, I believe the Duncan JB’s would sound oh so sweet indeed. Remember though, your amp also is a huge piece of the tone pie, which I probably should have mentioned in the post!! But you can slap on a mid-range guitar and plug into a big Marshall and I don’t care what you play it’s going to sound awesome. (Yeah, a bunch of dudes just puked, but I’m sticking to that.) I just know that when I plug my own little Squire Tele with its stock, mid-range bridge pup, into a big Marshall JCM xxxx, the sound, to my little ears, is sublime.
For now I’m just playing electric in my bedroom. (I do outdoor performance with my acoustic but otherwise I’m just practicing and enjoying the cheap electric (Cort g250) in my lounge. I wish you were hear to listen. But that withstanding, right now I am enjoying simply playing through a Line 6 Pocket Pod. So I wonder, can I really change my Tone significantly for what I am doing? Just headphones through a modeling amp anyway? I set up the guitar so it plays very nicely. Low action, new strings, intonation’s pretty good. That being said. Playing a cheap guitar through a cheap amp, sounds pretty cheap. The Pocket POD is much better. Is it worth fixing anything for just pocket POD into headphones?
Hey great post I’m buying a Ibanez Electric guitar I’m 48 with plenty of time to practice I have a background in electrical. I have decided to go with Ibanez GRGA120 Gio Series Electric Guitar (New, Black Night) as my 1st guitar based on recommendations from a couple of local guys that play regularly I like rock and metal but I enjoy a lot of different kinds of music except for country to whiney and slow for me. I don’t want to buy a guitar that is going to tie me down to any one type of music I don’t want to spend a fortune since I am a beginner and I don’t want to buy a pos that I’m gonna have to spend hundreds of dollars to have a guitar that sounds only as good as a used $50 guitar I’d rather spend a couple hundred dollars on a guitar that may need some set up by a pro but not need to have the pots, wiring, pick ups replaced unless I should buy a $50-$100 guitar and replace the parts and end up with a $50 guitar that sounds like a $1000 guitar. Guitar fetish and there parts seem to be quality parts at a fair price. Soooooo I would appreciate your advice one the best path to accomplish having a great sounding guitar whether I should buy a $50 guitar and replace guts and end up with a great sounding guitar no matter what style of music is being played. Thanks for your time. Brian
I had an Indiana strat (stolen from me) that was great. Walked into Sam Ash and they wanted 60 bucks. Bought it before I touched it. It was really nice. (Little blurb for Indiana’s since they aren’t too famous.