Guitars. We've all had to start learning on something, and chances are good that our first axes might not be enough to keep us going, as much as we might love them. It's not uncommon to start on a particular guitar then switch to a much more expensive model a year or two down the track. If you're a sentimentalist, you might hang on to that first guitar, pick it up from time to time, give it a nostalgic strum then pop it back into the closet. That's cool; there's a certain satisfaction in keeping your old axe as it was when you first sweated over nailing that tricky F chord or your first pentatonic box shape. But what if your first cheapie didn't have to become a personal museum piece dedicated to your formative years? What if it was to become a fully functioning pro player that would stay with you throughout your musical education and evolution?
There are quite a few neat little tricks you can perform to enable your guitar to survive and thrive despite your desire for new, tricked-out gear. Let's look at a few ways of turning your dear old starter axe into a pro player you'd be happy to take with you on any stage or recording session.
The very first and most ideal place to start is the pickups. Starter guitars typically come with perfectly functional pickups that get the job done, but may not have a lot of character or dimensionality. Spend a few bucks on some higher-spec pickups, though, and you'll instantly unleash the hidden potential of your guitar's innate sound. The first thing to think about is, what kind of tone do you want? Fat? Harsh? Warm? Bright? Clean? Jangly? Distorted? How distorted? How are you generating your distortion? Pedals? Digital modeling? A tube amp? All these things can have a huge impact on what kind of pickup you choose, but most pickup manufacturers have very well laid-out spec sheets which can tell you at a glance what a given pickup will sound like. Getting your gain from a tube amp? Try medium to high output pickups, which will push the amp to greater levels of distortion. Using an overdrive or boost pedal to do that already? Try lower-output pickups and you may be pleasantly surprised by the clear, smooth tone.
It's also important to set your pickups to their ideal height. Don't immediately jack them up close to the strings, as the magnets inside the pickups may interfere with the natural vibration of the string itself, causing it to sound out of tune and to lose sustain.
A guitar's electronics don't start and end with the pickups. You can instantly boost the reliability of your guitar by replacing the pots and switches with premium quality parts. This is where it gets really fun, because if you're a bit of a tinkerer you can start toying around with custom wiring options while you're at it. A personal favorite of mine is the treble bleed mod, a simple capacitor installation, which will retain the high end when you turn down the guitar's volume control, rather than muffle out slightly like it usually would. Simply solder a .001uF capacitor between lugs 3 and 2 of the volume pot and there you have it! Once you have this mod installed, you'll find yourself using your volume control as a makeshift gain control, because if you're already playing with a distorted sound, your guitar's output volume won't actually change too much when you use its volume control but the level of distortion will reduce. Some players prefer to use the volume pot as the equivalent of channel switching: need more distortion for a solo? Crank it all the way up! Playing a rhythm part that needs less grit and more clarity? Roll it back to about 7. Need a sparkly clean tone? Bring it down to about 3 and have at it.
While you're installing new pots and switches, you can also consider adding a coil split switch — either a dedicated switch or a push-pull switch built into a volume pot. Use this with pickups that have four-conductor wiring and you can turn off one of the coils of your humbucker, turning it into a single coil and immediately increasing your guitar's musical flexibility.
Tuners, Nut and Bridge Saddles
A lot of beginner guitars tend to be a little lacking in the tuning department. Ones' first inclination is to replace the tuners — I did this myself on my first electric after about a year. But as I found, that doesn't always solve the problem. In fact, many cheaper tuners can take a pretty good beating and still hold their tuning. Most tuning problems tend to originate at the nut. If the nut is loose, is not cut properly or has developed a crack or burr, it can wreak havoc with your tuning. You need the nut slot to be perfectly fitted to the string gauge you're using, so it's well worth having a professional tech replace your stock nut with one designed or filed specifically for your preferred string gauge. This is especially true for those of us who spent their formative years experimenting with various string gauges and tunings. That sort of thing can wreak havoc on a nut, and your tuning stability will definitely suffer. You can also increase the tuning stability of your guitar by using a graphite lubricant in the nut slots and any part the string makes contact with (as well as the tremolo pivots if you're using a guitar with a whammy bar).
Often beginner guitars need a re-fret or a fret dress after a few years, especially if you put as many hours into them as your teacher recommended! This is another of those things that will instantly breathe new life into your guitar, making it play smoother and more in tune. Frets can go bad so gradually that you might not even notice that it's a problem, but once you get them re-crowned or replaced you'll wish you did it sooner. Also make sure you check your guitar's neck, and adjust the truss rod accordingly if needed.
I put my money where my mouth is recently by performing a huge overhaul to my first electric, an inexpensive, not-quite-accurate copy guitar that came in a starter pack. I replaced the pickups and electronics, the bridge saddles, the whammy bar, most of the actual wires themselves, and when I realized the neck had become too unplayable I bought a replacement with immaculate fretwork. It's now ready to become a front-line stage guitar, and although all the original parts are carefully packed away for the day when nostalgia takes over and I decide to take it back to original spec, for now it feels quite special knowing that the guitar I received for Christmas in — gulp! — 1990 is now a fully-capable pro-level axe that I can take on stage with me 20 years later.