First, I want to make sure everyone knows the difference between a guitar tech and a luthier. A tech does repairs, mods, setups and assemblies. A luthier is a professional that has gone through an insane amount of training to learn how to build guitars from scratch. There’s a whole world of difference here. We aren’t trying to create luthiers haha, we are trying to create DIY independence to enable more gear love.
I have been into doing my own mods and figuring out how stuff worked for some time now. I’d fix roommates’ guitars and other instruments and eventually I ended up learning a lot more from a couple of local tech friends. I have saved tons of money doing things myself but it takes time to get good at. You’ll burn your fingers a lot, probably cut yourself, ruin a fret or two but in the process, you will learn. Go slow, don’t skip any steps.
WARNING: We take no responsibility for anyone’s instruments and please do NOT practice your skills on your most prized guitars until you feel you won’t really screw it up. Believe me, you will make mistakes but try to make most of them on instruments you buy for practicing on.
To avoid wrecking your prized instruments, I have trusted and true method to get started. First, get yourself a beater guitar wherever you can, it doesn’t have to work, as long as it’s fixable. Get something preferably with 2-3 pickups. Put a post up locally on whatever marketplaces you are comfortable with looking for junk / broken / crappy guitars, basses and necks. This will be the stuff you can practice on without fear of ruining it.
I have a couple of these even still for trying new techniques and tools. These can be no name brand with no name pickups, it’s just for practice. That said, if you find a nice guitar in rough shape for cheap and want to fix it up, grab it.
Let’s talk quickly about the resale value of guitars and basses. With lower quality instruments, say you pay $450 for a guitar brand new, the second you walk out of the store, you cut the value in half. So when you install a set of nice pickups and some new tuners, don’t think you will be able to get $500-600 because that’s not how this works.
For the most part, as instruments get more expensive, they hold more resale value but when you modify a more expensive instrument, you take the resale value down. Let’s say you have a $2000 guitar in absolute mint condition and you do a flawless job of upgrading the pickups. Even if those pickups are nicer than the stock pickups, the resale value still goes down and the guitar cannot be sold as being in “mint condition”.
This to me is why guitars like the Ibanez RG series, Mexican-made Fenders and a few others make for amazing mod project canvases. They are cheap, easy to mod and with mods the guitar will at very least stand out in a sea of used guitars and sell quickly if priced properly.
What you can do for repair work really depends on your skill, tools, materials and most importantly, the repair itself. If you are new to things, please don’t try and fix the headstock you broke off when your strap fell off the button. That’s a very experienced repair but something like a faulty volume/tone pot, a damaged fret and other smaller steps can be no problem to fix. Know your depth when it comes to repairs, nothing is impossible but make sure you really consider everything before trying a major repair yourself. Consult forums, do extensive research and go the extra mile.
PLEASE, before you go anywhere near one of your favorite guitars or any guitar you don’t want to ruin with the intention of doing fret work, have the skills down first. I say this because it’s really just too easy to destroy a fret accidentally. I would post on the local online marketplaces looking for junk necks to practice on.
Frets are very tough to do but learning to do them might save you the most money of all the techniques involved. There’s a way to do fret filing using only the average 3-sided file. There’s a few ways to do it so please do look it up. Otherwise, having good tools for fret work, learning how to use them with pinpoint accuracy and GOING SLOW are all essential factors.
I just want you to know that learning to do this properly can really make almost any instrument playable. Really good fretwork drives the cost of any instrument way up because of the skill and labor involved. You’ll be able to take $500-600 guitars and make them play like a dream. Put in the work, practice and you’ll get there.
SET UP WORK
You will never be able to fully appreciate a guitar if it’s not set up properly. factory setups on even $1000 guitars are usually pretty poor which is part of what keeps the cost down. A proper setup isn’t quick or cheap, especially on a guitar with a Floyd. The factory setups are also designed to be sort of universal being that everyone likes something different.
I’ve seen people give up guitars because of one fret or a badly filed nut. How many guitars have you and I played in stores and passed because it didn’t feel right. A bad factory setup is one thing but even a good factory setup might not feel good to you personally. When you are able to do your own setups, you can begin to see past the factory setup and let factors like neck shape and features guide your decision.
Learn how to set your truss rod, this is a must especially when you live in a place where the weather and climate change frequently with the seasons. Humidity or lack of it can cause neck issues as well. Adjusting the truss rod is extremely easy and there are many videos that show a few different ways to set your neck tension / truss rod.
I use a method that involves putting a capo on the first fret, my finger on the highest fret and then seeing how much of a gap there is between the 12th fret and the string. Too much, tighten it up a bit, if they’re touching, loosen. Remember, righty tighty lefty loosey :). Obviously there’s a lot more to it but you’ll find a method that works for you.
The action on your guitar is how far the strings are from the frets. I have a couple issues with my left hand so I like my action as low as possible on most guitars and a bit higher than that for Telecasters. Doing the action is a huge part of the setup and it can really make or break my enjoyment of an instrument.
This can take some time to get used to as well as figuring out where you like it. Knowing how to do it right allows you to experiment while also being able to give all of your guitars a similar feel if you’d like. The nut can be an issue when trying to do the action so you can capo the guitar at the first fret to do the action. Then take the capo off and you’ll be able to figure out if the nut needs filing/cutting.
Ok, let’s talk nuts (haha nuts).. Ugh, nut filing. This was a pricey and extremely frustrating thing to learn and I still struggle with it a little on the high strings. My advice here is before you start, get a PROPER set of nut files. The garbage nut files do a garbage job and basically just ruin nuts. Spend a little on a good set and you will save money in the long run. Next tip here is GO SLOW and press lightly with the files. When you rush this job, you go too deep and you’ll need to replace the nut. The files can be expensive but nut filing can be very expensive to have done by a tech. One full fret job might cost you more than a set of files but once again, the experience here is key.
Intonation is massively important in a setup. If your guitar has an intonation problem, you’ll notice it when you know your guitar is in tune but chords and anything involving multiple strings sound off or out of key. This is another thing that can go out over time but another thing that’s easy to fix. Tune the open string perfectly then play on the 12th fret of the same string. Are they both perfectly in tune? If not, you need to fix it but it’s really not complicated. My tip here is to put something thin on the guitar behind the bridge to protect it just in case your screwdriver slips. When it slips (and it will) the screwdriver can take a chunk out of the guitar.
When I started wiring, the only experience I had even opening up guitars was just to change the battery for active pickups. Most people are content to leave that lid on for the life of the guitar. You may not ever want or need to open it to be honest but being able to change pots, the input jack, pickups, switches is a good skill to have for any guitarist.
If you are going to tackle wiring, get a soldering set up that can handle it. A $20 soldering set from Amazon is not going to cut it and the $40 kit probably won’t either. For minor stuff and just the odd fix I recommend the Weller WLC200 for under $100. However, if you know for sure that doing your own wiring is a road you are going down for a while, spend a little extra and get a nicer soldering unit like the Weller WE1010.
You’ll need a little collection of tools for wiring. A few sizes of needle-nose pliers are key for wiring in tight spaces. You’ll also need a pair of wire strippers (don’t use your teeth, dental bills are more expensive), a small set of wire cutters, shrinky-dinks aka wire shrink wrap, solder, a solder sucker and a few other things. After you have what you need, watch YouTube and practice! Practice a lot on a junk guitar or just soldering random wires together cleanly before you crack open your faves.
The vast selection of wiring diagrams available across the internet can provide wiring for any job you could ever want but reading the plans takes time to get used to. Seymour Duncan has an unreal wiring diagram library that I use all the time and most pickup companies have at very least the diagrams for every product. When I am wiring, I have my laptop open nearby (not too close, solder can pop so let’s not wreck your laptop).
The wiring colors can differ between manufacturers so when you get a new pickup, learn which color represents which part of the pickup. This will make it easier to use generic diagrams when specifics aren’t available. Again, most companies provide diagrams and tech support but there will be many times that you will blend types of pickups which can get confusing. Always go slow and be thorough, a rushed wiring job is a shitty wiring jobs and shitty wiring jobs cause problems. It doesn’t have to be neat and tidy but your soldering should be.
If the company has nothing on their website, tech support is slow or you can’t find a diagram you need, there are also many Facebook pages and forums dedicated to helping people with wiring issues. Start with the specific manufacturer’s forum. The Seymour Duncan forum is great for stuff that is SD related and stuff that’s not. There are many skilled techs on those pickup related forums that routinely help newbs but before you ask a question please do a search of the forum first as it may have been covered.
One thing, I don’t touch the wiring on Hollow bodies anymore. There’s no back panel, there’s fishing line involved and it’s just a giant pain in the ass. So, the only advice I can give to hollow body guitar owners is hit YouTube be ready to probably get a wee bit frustrated.
That’s about it for wiring, we aren’t really here for wiring advice which is why I’ve left the real advice portions to the pros you’ll find with many followers on YouTube. Find the experienced professionals that explain things the best way for your needs. Everyone learns differently so not every tech on YT will lay it down clearly and concisely for your style of learning. I can’t recommend anyone direct but I will say watch as much as you can on the various skill sets I talked about above.
You will screw up (probably real bad once or twice), you WILL burn your fingers and you will probably give up on more than a few jobs more than a few times but you will save money in the long run. You will also end up knowing how to make a guitar play exactly the way you want it while making cheaper guitars play and sound like much more expensive instruments. None of this can happen with out time, patience and practice.
The sky is the limit for what you can accomplish with the right skill and budget but even with a tiny budget, guitar modification is still very much possible. Let us show you how!