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Can you make a cheap electric guitar good by switching the pickups for good ones? What else can you do to it to make it sound better?

Yes but there are a few upgrades that you can do to keep improving it. In order, I think these are the tone upgrades you should be looking for.

  1. Adjust your bridge saddles, pickup heights, action, and intonation – this costs 0$ and will improve the sound of your guitar greatly. Also if you have a strat, take off the back tremolo cover. This is a simple thing that Eric Johnson, John Mayer, SRV etc all did because it improves your tone and it takes like 1 minute to do.
  2. Pickup swap – pickups are the most significant guitar hardware upgrade you can do, and this can cost anywhere between $30 for GFS pickups to $1000+ for Seymour Duncan Zephyr, Abigail Ybarra or Tom Holmes pickups, pickups makers can really run the gamut and there’s a whole cottage industry out there. Also keep in mind you are using the correct pots and cap values, and with Fenders you should keep your volume and tone at full unless you have a treble bleed circuit or ‘Greasebucket’ circuit that correctly balances the treble/bass with the volume.
  3. Strings. Upgrade your strings, I’ve used Elixir coated strings for many years, but some people may prefer the traditional pure nickel strings, or nickel plated steel or some of Ernie Ball or D’addario’s or Dean Markley Blue Steel or DR Veritas new strings.
  4. Cables. If you are using a longer cable, try using a shorter one. The longer the cable length, the more highs you will lose from your tone.
  5. Pick. You can change out your picks, and Dunlop has virtually every pick type covered, different picks will produce different tone
  6. Tremolo / bridge / springs – you can swap out the bridge saddles for titanium ones (ie. KTS), add a brass sustain block (Schaller, KGC etc), and change out the springs (i.e Raw Vintage )
  7. Nut. You can change out the nut to get better tuning stability and a minor improvement in tone (i.e Graphtech)
  8. If you are using a few pedals, getting true bypass ones are fine but if you have many, make sure you put at least one buffered bypass pedal in your chain to offset the treble loss

There’s also other upgrades you can make to improve convenience and playability (locking tuners, different bridge types, neck radius, locking straps etc) but these won’t generally improve your tone.

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Does the type of wood of an electric guitar have an effect on its tone?

Probably, but its extremely minor.

In fact here I am playing a guitar made of an oil can; the wood in there is mostly agathis (very cheap wood) and is only used to line the frame – the majority of the body is completely hollow.

Gear used: Bohemian TNT (modified with Lollar Gold Foil pickups) + Vox MV50 Boutique head+Vox BC108 cabinet
Total cost of gear: $250 (guitar) +$400 (pickups) +$300 (amp+cabinet) = $950 

Do you think I got less sustain than I did with my Fender Stratocaster (with alder body)? Surprise! Not really. The amount of sustain was way more affected by my guitar pickups, amp and pedals than from me using a guitar with an oil can body.

In fact I changed the pickups on there so I know that inside the body, the pickups are connected by a piece of cardboard I had superglued in there since there wasnt enough wood on the neck to mount the pickup (and as mentioned the body was completely hollow inside). The neck was barely even making contact with the body. You’d think that would affect sustain too but it didn’t.

So this seems to be a conclusive experiment for me, which tells me that no, wood does not really matter all that much in an electric guitar- it might affect the tone but it gets completely drowned out by other factors.

So take from it what you will – all that marketing that guitar makers do about how nitro vs poly lacquer, short tenon vs long tenon, large mass trem blocks etc take it with a grain of salt because in the end I don’t think that stuff really makes that big of a difference. Unless you play your electric guitar without an amp. But who does that? lol

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Tips on improving guitar tone, equipment

Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix

Alright, a break from politics for a while. Since I’m one of the rare Asians that can play guitar better than piano, some ask me for improving their tone on guitar.
Well, there’s several key guidelines to follow.

Firstly, tone is subjective. What kind of tone do you want? Hendrix? Metallica? Slash? Those all have very different tones. Personally though, my tone tends to go somewhere in between Jimi Hendrix and John Mayer with a bit of Eric Clapton on the side. Though I do play blues, it’s not the overwound, in your face, Stevie Ray Vaughan type. For this reason, I tend to play clean alot. Here is an overview of what equipment I use and what tips I can give people:

1) Amplifier: Your amplifier is probably what constitutes most of your tone. I recommend a good tube amp, because tubes sound more natural and organic than solid state, plus they can be driven louder. However, tube amps are pretty expensive. That’s why I suggest starting out with a solid state amp and then progressing to a tube amp. Good tube amps for clean tone include Fender Twin Reverb, as well as Fender Vibroverb, Fender Bassman, or any other Fender amplifier. Vox are also a good choice for that British sound. If you are looking for a more boutique amp, try Victoria Amp. I personally use a Traynor YCV20.

2) Speakers and Tubes: This kind of goes along with the amp thing. Speakers and tubes affect the amp, which affects your tone. Popular tubes include JJ Tubes, Electro Harmonix and Groove Tubes. 6L6 power tubes tend be a better fit for clean tones than EL84 or EL34s. For speakers, try Celestion, Jensen, Tone Tubby and Eminence. I personally use a 12″ Celestion Alnico Blue for my small amp.

3) Strings and Cables: Yes, the type of strings and cables you use for your guitar affects your tone. Use a good quality set of both. For strings, there’s Ernie Ball, D’addario, and Dean Markley. I personally use Elixir Strings because of their longevity and smoothness. For cables, there’s a bunch: Pro Co, Monster cable, Planet Waves, but personally I just use Fender cables.

4) Guitar: yes, obviously the guitar affects the tone. I prefer and have always used Fender Stratocasters for their versatility and gorgeous clean tone compared to any other type of guitar, but for clean tone, good calls can also be made for Fender telecasters, Epiphone Casinos, Gibson ES-335, Gretsch Country Gentlemens, etc. I usually prefer nitrocellulose finished guitars as opposed to polyurethane finished because the nitro lacquer is a thinner layer of paint, which gives the guitar more room to resonate, and therefore more tone. However, most new guitars these days will be poly finished, and the only way to get nitro finished would be to get a vintage guitar or a vintage reissue. I personally have a 1960s reissue American Stratocaster in sunburst with nitro paint and it plays wonderfully.

5) Pickups: Yes, guitar pickups affect tone. There is evidence that handwound pickups sound better than machine wound pickups because of their uneven wind and dispersed frequencies. Therefore, try to get handwound pickups, even if they are expensive. The big three pickup makers include Dimarzio, Seymour Duncan and of course, Fender. More modern pickups are Lace and EMG. However if you want handwound pickups, try Lindy Fralin, Lollar, Bareknuckle, Rio grande, and a whole bunch more of small pickups businesses.
Generally, Alnico magnets sound better than ceramic (Alnico II, III and V are most used for single coils). Either formvar or enamel wire is used for vintage pickups, and make sure they are staggered for your neck (ie. vintage radius 7.25″ should have vintage stagger and modern necks should have flat stagger pickups).
I personally use a set of custom wound Rumpel pickups, and they have been amazing.

6) Pedals: What I’m going to say is… try not to use too many pedals. Too many interferes with tone purity. If you are going to use alot of pedals, make sure they are true bypass so that they don’t color your tone when they are bypassed, and use an equalizer or compressor to smooth out your dynamics. A side note that analog effects tend to be warmer sounding than digital effects, but that’s just personal preference for me. It’s almost like a vinyl record vs a CD player. They sound similar, but the analog sound is created more naturally. You have many different effects makers today. Digitech, Boss, Dunlop, and most large gear manufacturers such as Ibanez, Vox, Marshall, Fender, and even Seymour Duncan. I personally use BBE and Tonerider (who also makes a great set of pickups), because they are cheaper, and are good quality. But if you really want the best tone, there are boutique effects makers such as Keeley, Fulltone, Teese if you really want to spend more money to get the best.

7) You: Most importantly, tone is in your fingers, so you can’t really improve this one with money. You’ll have to practice and get better, make sure notes have vibrato, smoother licks have legato, and quicker licks have alternate picking and staccato, and so forth. You can visit Ultimate guitar if you want tabs or tutorials.

And that’s it! I’ve been working on my tone for a while now, and I think it’s getting better and better. I will continue to post more videos as soon as I get some more songs recorded. I’m also thinking about getting a good microphone, studio monitors and mixer so I can do a professional video recording, but that will have to wait until my financial situation clears up.


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