As simple as a guitar design is, it still amazes how much difference basic electronics can make for the tone. Having spent years searching for the best pickups, I realized I had underestimated the rest of the electronics importance, from the pots to the wiring. In this article, I’ll walk you through a deep dive into affordable and easy electronic modifications that will improve your guitar tone.
As I like to say now, your dream guitar tone might be just one wiring away, and you might not even know it.
Why Modify Guitar Electronics?
There comes a time when you want to explore new sounds from your guitar. Wanting to achieve a specific tone and then projecting it unto your guitar through new pickups is something we all have done.
I have watched endless youtube videos and pickup demos to find that they don’t sound quite right when installed on my guitar. Going deeper with the modding and learning from skilled techs, I found that a few simple electronic modifications could have almost the same effect as new pickups and make your existing one sound different.
Apart from searching for a better tone, I modded guitar at times as I needed more versatility. My classic Stratocaster turned into a rock machine with humbuckers and coil split is now my main guitar as the electronics allow it to switch from clean surf rock to 80s overdrive with just a tap.
Most of the time, I tweaked affordable guitars’ electronics to reshape their sound. In our series “Hot Rodding Your Guitar,” I have included some of the guitars I think are the best to start your modding with and achieve brilliant results. Look at our list first and see if the guitar you want to modify fits our criteria.
Read also: How to Find the Best Guitars to Modify.
Even though I want to focus more on other electronics, there’s no denying that your quest for a new tone should start from the pickups. We have a separate guide that goes into detail on that, yet basics you should know first.
How to Maintain Your Pickups?
Most players, including me in the past, don’t even consider putting any work on maintaining the pickups. It’s very simple to do so and rewarding, as all the sweat and dust over the years start to mess with them.
Make it a routine every few months to clean the pickups with a dry cloth and compressed air to clean the cracks on the guitar. Removing the strings first is best, so choose when you are changing the strings and dedicate 10 minutes to this process.
If the pickups are rusty, there’s no need to worry much as some rust doesn’t affect the tone. If it’s too much, you can use any non-acidic rust remover.
I suggest you purchase a maintenance kit with all you need for the hardware and electronics. Home Solutions will also do fine if you are on a budget.
Affordable guitars that look good on the outside usually use poor components on the inside. The wiring could either help you get the tone you like or completely ruin excellent pickups.
Typically when you get great pickups, you will change the wires that concert them to the output jack and pots. Beyond those, all the others affect the sound, as you’ll read on the wiring dedicated part of the article.
No need to stress, as beat-up wiring is part of any guitar sound, and it’s rarely as bad as to hinder the guitar’s tone in serious ways.
Wiring Combinations To Try
There are multiple ways you can wire your guitar, especially if you use a 5-way switch. You could either go the Van Halen way and use only one pickup 99% of the time, or the opposite and set each position of the pickup switch to your liking.
- If you own a Strat, I suggest you try the out-of-phase sound of the middle pickup. Out-of-phase pickups sound too thin on their own, but in the context of a band, the bright, clean tone could prove helpful.
- If you want to make your guitar super-versatile, coil split wiring with split coil pickups is the best way to go. My rock-oriented Les Paul Custom has turned into a jack of all trades guitar I always use on your due to the faux single coil tone on the bridge.
- A Partial coil split is an ingenious way to blend the single coil and humbuckers’ tone using a pot.
- Parallel wiring is another excellent way to have the best of both worlds in a Less Paul. It’s very similar to coil split with some slight differences. The logic is that you send each of the two humbucker coils independently to the output jack with an overall lower total output.
- The Strat 7-way switch mode is a David Gilmour favorite when you can use all three pickups simultaneously and the bridge and neck together. You need to install push/pull knobs to get it working.
There are numerous others wirings your can try and even some that you can discover yourself.
A common misconception I want to “tap” into is regarding coil tap.
A coil tap is different from than coil split. Coil tap is where you take a tap from the wiring of pickups to get two voicings. Form it.
Even though we have a detailed list of the best pickups to buy for your modded guitar, I want to share with you a few of the favorites I always have in some of my guitars.
My favorite single coil-sized humbucker can turn any Strat or Tele into a versatile rock guitar. Avoid changing pickguards for carving the guitar’s body with this small-sized pickup.
P-90s are my favorite rock pickups. They live in between humbuckers and single coils, going from crisp clean to aggressive and distorted by tweaking only the guitar’s volume pot.
The legendary PAF tone is the sound legacy of the 60s and 70s guitar. Either creamy or trebly, You can use it for pretty much anything.
Volume and Tone Controls
Any part of the guitar where the signal goes through is part of your rig and will affect your tone. Even if you are one of those players who never tweak the tone or volume control, they will affect your tone.
I can’t stress enough the importance of the volume and knob control to make it get the sound right before considering different effects or pickups. Spend time getting used to using them live just like the great Joe Bonammas teaches us on his Les Paul.
It’s easy to tell when your pots need maintenance. The glitching noise whenever you turn them means they need cleaning.
As with all other electronics, the best way to maintain pots and potentiometers is to use anti-rust spray and clean them with a damp cloth.
Potentiometer and Capacitor Upgrades
There are a few things to remember when upgrading potentiometers and capacitors.
- The lower the capacitance is, the more treble the sound will become.
- The lower the potentiometer resistance, the more low-end will pass through.
You can derive all possible results from these two simple rules and make your guitar brighter or muddier. Different guitar brands use different values, but that doesn’t prevent you from experimenting.
If you have a very muddy Epiphone, you can start by changing the potentiometers to high-resistance ones. It’s the same as having a high pass installed.
Short Shaft Vs Long Shaft Pot
Thin topped guitars and ones with pots installed on the pickguard generally used short shaft pots. Thick topped guitars such as Les Paul’s generally used long shaft pots.
Have a close look at your guitar and read the specs of pots when you buy them online just to be sure they fit.
Linear vs Audio Tapered Pots
Linear pots give a uniform increase/decrease in volume, while Tapered pots do it quicker. I suggest getting the second as, in theory, Linear pots seem more dynamic, yet the human ear doesn’t perceive sound the same way, and you’ll find tapered pots easier to use.
The best advice I can give you is not to get lured by “vintage” pots advertised online. Brands use a mixture of Liner and Tapered pots, and there’s no standard on what’s best or vintage.
I do not support going all out and changing all electronic wiring on a vintage guitar. After all, the old wiring has been kept working for decades and is contributing to part of the tone.
For new budget guitars, you buy only for modding; I recommend you change the wiring along with the rest if you can., I suggest you purchase a whole kit with the output jack and switch. Going with more expensive stand-alone parts is the best route for a costly instrument or with what the guitar tech suggests.
I successfully raided my Les Paul Junior with this kit and fixed all the buzzing and other issues it had from sitting 20+ years in a warehouse.
The good news is that when it comes to wirings, a guitar can be treated as any other quality device, and you can find suitable parts in every hardware store.
Wiring Combinations To Try
The most basic alternate combination is wiring a tone control to a Strat’s bridge pickup. I never understood why most Strats don’t have it already, as it helps get more sounds.
Another special one I like to use is the faux Booster pedal. It works by using no-load pots, which activate when the volume is at 10 and bypass the tone pot and capacitors. From 1-9 the guitar will work as normal; at 10, it will have a volume/gain boost.
Push Pull Booster knobs are also quite handy as you can gradually boost the gain of the pickups.
Switches and volume control work together to create endless tone possibilities.
Apart from the standard 5-way and 3-way switches, which, like all other electronics, follow the same maintenance rules, there are mini switches or mini toggles.
Mini toggles can be customized to activate all the mods we previously discussed with one switch.
They are not designed for a specific reason and leave you space to get the desired result. Luckily, wiring diagrams for every possible result are available online for free.
I installed one in my old Les Paul Custom as I wanted to get out of phase bright sounds from the middle pickup.
The last piece of electronics I want to detail is the Output, Jack. There’s no denying that most of us never think about it as part of the guitar and almost take it for granted.
Even if it’s not what you should change to tweak the tone, it’s what guitar techs always check first and last. A faulty connection due to rust or physical damage means you won’t have a good show. Either the buzz or the guitar suddenly dying off will ensure that.
Maintenance and Upgrades
As with all electronics, using some anti-rust spray and cleaning them with a damp cloth are the two main things to do.
If the output jack has issues, the best way to go about it is to replace it with another one. The parts are cheap and won’t affect even the fancies vintage guitar look or tone. You will eventually forget you changed it very soon as its only role is to work properly.
Gold-plated ones seem to conduct a signal better, even though I never noticed a difference in quality.
You can try using stereo guitar outputs. A stereo and mono output jack combined can help blend in different tones. It works exceptionally well with an active pickup.
Before doing anything to the output jack, check your cables first and make sure you have good ones. A good cable removes a potential failure point on your rig.
Preferably get double contact heads to avoid the amateur mistake of unplugging your guitar from your amp and scaring the whole club.
Question: Can I use 250K pots with humbuckers?
Answer: You could, but humbuckers usually sound muddy with a lower value pot. It depends much on how the guitar responds to the pickups.
Question: Why do I need a stereo jack for my guitar?
Answer: If you are using active pickups or a preamp, stereo jacks have an additional lug that acts as an on/off switch.
Question: What pots should I use for single coil-sized humbuckers?
Answer: Single Coil-sized humbuckers are usually less hot and muddy than humbuckers. Thus you can use 250k and 500k without having issues with the low-end.
What Electronic Should I Upgrade First on My Guitar?
Always start with the ‘faulty’ one and try to find workarounds before investing a lot of money. Sometimes just some wiring change or a different pot can fix a thin guitar tone without upgrading pickups.
The most valuable advice I can give you is to lower your expectations about achieving exactly the tone you have in your head. All guitars are different; even your playing differs from the person you heard the majestic tone from, so it’s normal to sound different.
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