Our “Hot Rodding Your Guitar” series has covered all possible modifications you can apply to your guitar and even suggested the best guitar to modify. In this article, I will detail some of the easiest and most effective hardware modifications you can do to your guitar, from the headstock to the bridge.
Why Modify Guitar Hardware?
Hardware might not be responsible for how your guitar sounds but is almost entirely responsible for how it plays. When something doesn’t feel right, it’s most likely the hardware fault.
The right player can make even the worst pickups sound decent out of skill and the right choice of style alone. If the hardware is faulty and the guitar does not stay in tune, there is nothing any player can do. Your favorite guitar can be useless even if a small dent appears on the nut.
The first thing to do if a guitar is not in proper shape is check the hardware and adjust or replace it. Changing the hardware could also make the guitar more inclined to a specific genre or more versatile and reliable.
Hardware also is an essential part of the look, so a good reason could also be that.
How To Know What Hardware To Modify?
An experienced player can quickly tell in most cases what piece of hardware is faulty or what he needs to replace to get a new feel/look out of the guitar. It’s not always easy, though, as some minor issues can only be diagnosed with precision by a luthier. You need some experience in modifying guitars to know where the limit is.
Some basic rules to keep in mind when figuring out which hardware needs replacing are the following.
- The first thing to look out for is the guitar action, and any ‘weird’ feel on the left hand.
Adjusting/replacing the bridge or the nut might be the solution.
- The second sign is any fret buzz.
If there’s an issue even after a truss rod adjustment and action, then the guitar is due for refretting. Usually, you can tell fret buzzes better if playing at a loud volume on a clean amp.
- The next thing to look out for is intonation and tuning issues.
Whenever you buy an affordable guitar you want to improve, the first thing to consider is ensuring it stays in tune and is intonated. Again, the whole mechanism from the bridge to the tuners could be responsible, so a closer look might be needed from a luthier.
- The last thing is not related to issues, but to any stylistic changes you want to make.
Remember that not all guitars are good to modify however you wish. Certain modifications require body alterations that you rarely want to go through.
The guitar’s most important part is the headstock for keeping it in tune. On the guitar’s body, the strings run only through the bridge. All the other hardware the strings pass through is on the headstock.
If you ever want to modify an affordable guitar, the first thing to do is change the tuners. You need at least average quality ones to keep the guitar in tune nicely and excellent ones if you’re playing on stage.
I have encountered many cheap guitars that stay perfectly tuned when I play them at home. The real issue comes when I take them on the road where the bumping and temperature changes are beyond cheap tuners.
Some of my favorite tuners to fit most guitars are the following:
Fender-style ones are relatively affordable, and Les Paul-style ones tend to be more expensive. I added a lesser-known brand in the mix that has some inexpensive solid tuners.
How To Maintain Guitar Tuners?
First, you should clean your tuners. Open gear ones are relatively easy; for closed ones, you can use a can of compressed air. Then tighten the screws to where they are not overly tight, and apply some grease or oil. Vaseline works well too.
Have You Tried Locking Tuners?
Locking tuners might be a handy fix to make tuning even more solid and save time while changing strings. Make sure all the rest of the hardware is set correctly before replacing your existing tuners, as you might not get the expected result.
My experience with locking tuners is good but not great. They mainly served to make changing strings easier, and I didn’t notice much difference between them and other quality regular tuners.
If you own a Fender-style headstock, you have probably noticed that the high E and B string pass through 2 tiny retainers before going through the nut. These are called string trees, and their role is crucial in making the guitar playable. They create the proper angle and build the correct tension for the string to sit nicely on the nut.
If you ever accidentally put a new set of strings and forgot to run the string through the trees, they would not stay in tune after the slightest bend. I can’t say I have never forgotten and only noticed after a closer look.
Check to see if they are rusted, and make sure you don’t twist them when changing string. The string trees could change your string’s tensions, if not completely straight and at the right height.
You don’t necessarily need to upgrade them on any guitar. They might do their work just fine as cheap metal string trees, and you don’t want to be drilling new holes on the headstock. If you want to be sure all your hardware is top-notch, you could upgrade to some better ones just to be on the safe side.
The nut is crucial to how the guitar stays in tune and feels. Most of the time, I had a problem with string tension, and tuning, tweaking, or changing the nut fixed it. It’s normal when you consider all the stress from the strings and the short life span of 3-5 years.
Always look for tiny cracks on the nut or buzzes the strings make. Whenever I buy a used guitar, that’s the first thing I check. All the grooves should be the same length, and the string should run smoothly but not loosely on them.
A small trick most players use is putting some graphite on the nut to make the string sit better, and another lesser known I use is pressing down the string just beyond the nut if the string is slightly sharp. Often a string is sharp cause it does not sit perfectly on the nut.
Read also: TUSQ vs Bone Nut: What’s the Difference.
Does a Guitar Nut Affect the Tone?
The nut and the bridge dictate the string’s vibrating length and, thus, indirectly, the guitar’s tone. The difference, though, can be minimal depending on the guitar. What’s always present is a sympathetic ringing whose intensity differs from guitar to guitar.
Different bone materials contribute differently to the tone. Again, choose materials cause of how they keep the string in place as the tonal difference is sometimes minimal.
TUSQ Nut vs. Bone Nut vs. Plastic Nut?
Cheap instruments typically use plastic nuts. A plastic nut will do its job but won’t last long and slightly hinder the string’s vibration. Never change to another plastic one. If you’re replacing a plastic nut, always upgrade to TUSQ or bone to improve the guitar.
Bone nuts are much denser and more reliable than plastic nuts. Most vintage instruments use bone nuts to keep the string in place and offer better friction. Also, bone nuts help the string resonate better and sustain longer as they don’t absorb vibration like plastic bones.
TUSQ bones are made out of synthetic materials. Simply said, TUSQ is very strong and quality plastic and offers a great middle ground between bone and plastic. Some players argue that it produces a brighter tone, so there’s much to consider.
How to Remove an Old Guitar Nut?
Replacing the nut is a delicate process that is not so hard to get right but tricky to get perfect. If you don’t have experience in tweaking guitar or don’t have the tools, reach out to a luthier.
- Slide out if it wasn’t installed with enough glue
- Use a punch if it’s hard to remove
- If it is difficult to remove, cut the nut through the middle, making it collapse.
- Compare the size of the old nut to the new nut
- Sand the sides if needed to fit snugly into the nut slot
- Adjust the height
- Sand if too high or shim if too low
- Use wood glue to hold in place
- Check the string grooves
The sanding and shimming part can be tricky, as you shouldn’t go too far on either move. Try your hand first with a plastic nut on a cheap guitar if possible.
Carefully choose the nut before you buy because you might get a non-pre-slotted one that needs a lot of filing. Also, a pre-slotted nut is easier to install.
Consider locking nuts if you want to make your guitar perfect for shredding. They go hand in hand with Floyd Rose bridges.
The first thing we all do when picking up a guitar is feel the neck. An easy-to-play neck makes up for the lack of tone, either acoustic or electric.
A poor neck is an immediate dealbreaker for even the best-sounding guitar. Fortunately, some maintenance know-hows could bring your old neck back to shape before going to extreme measures and replacing the neck or even re-fretting the guitar.
Lemon Oil the Fretboard Every 6 Months
Do not overdo it, as to much oil can ruin the neck finish and wood. Also, never use lemon oil on a Maple fretboard; use a fretboard conditioner instead.
Adjust the Truss Rod
The first step to every guitar setup is adjusting the truss rod. Make slight turns and check the neck after each quarter turn of the wrench. I ruined one of my Mexico trying to fit a smaller Allen wrench. One set of tools could save you all the trouble of looking for a wrench.
Beyond Homemade Fixes
In the worst-case scenario, you would need to grind and polish the frets or replace them. The procedures are tricky and sometimes beyond homemade fixes.
Are You Familiar with Plek Machines?
A Plek Machine is a guitar maker industry-standard tool for achieving maximum playability for guitars. The machine rescans the neck of your guitar and points out the instrument’s issues.
It’s the most accurate way of doing fretwork, but also expensive.
You can do all sorts of mods to the guitar’s body, from minor to more elaborate ones. What’s important is knowing what you are doing and why so you don’t end up buying parts and then regret installing them.
We have discussed all the best pickup modifications in another article of our series. Here I want to introduce you to primarily aesthetic improvements you can do for your pickups.
Pickup mounts and covers add style to the guitar and, for some players, arguably affect the tone. I don’t prefer to use rings as drilling holes on the body is not worth it, yet covers sometimes turn a rough-looking body into a classy one.
Humbuckers do not need covers as they cancel noise and interference by themselves. And the impact on tone is either minor or nonexistent, even when using a metal cover.
The good news is that the measure is generally universal, so this PRS pickups ring I listed should work on most humbuckers.
Gold top guitars are my favorite, and so is gold hardware. The pickups are the most visible part of the guitar’s body on a Les Paul due to their large size, so I like to have them look good.
I’m not inclined to use pickguards as I don’t like how my right-hand rests on a Les Paul Pickguard. However, they do look classy on the right guitar and help some players with their picking.
There’s no avoiding a pickguard on a Strat, so upgrade to a good one!
The bridge is my favorite guitar part to modify and the one I failed the most to get right. I loved dive bombs and Floyd Rose-inspired whammy-bar tricks as a teenager. However, my affordable super strat and neither my Squire would stay in tune.
It wasn’t until I acquired the main line Ibanez that I truly understood the difference a quality bridge makes on playability, initiation, and the overall experience.
This tremolo system is expensive, but you’ll need it if you want to subject your guitar to some severe whammy bar abuse and want it to stay on tune. There is just no middle ground and no way to cut corners.
This hidden gem is part of a series designed by session ace Tom Bukovac. It fixes the age-old problem of Les Paul-style guitar intonation issues. It’s the best mod you can do to any fixed bridge guitar you own, especially Les Paul Juniors.
There’s also the modern Evertune system which is probably the most solid one so far.
Switches and Knobs
I like to find switches and knobs that match the design of my guitar. When I hot-rodded my Strat and turned it into an all-around rock guitar, I thought the black paint should be complemented with black hardware.
Some contrast might look good, but that’s only up to your taste. If you’re only replacing the covers, the tone has no impact. If you are changing the pots along with the pickup covers, we have an article just for that.
Another thing you might look up for your modded guitar is strap locks.
I just acquired these for my heavily modded Harley Benton, and they look amazing with the black body paint.
Question: What is the best guitar to modify?
Answer: Overall, any Strat-style guitar offers the most ground to work with. Every guitar, though, has its unique approach to modding.
Question: Can you put a Floyd Rose in a Gibson?
Answer: Wish for some woodwork yes! Check out Alex Lifeson’s guitar to get an idea of how it looks.
Question: Do locking tuners affect tone?
Answer: No. No tuners affect the tone in any way.
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