Some guitarists consider the notion of modifying an electric
guitar from its stock configuration distasteful, while others
consider it mandatory. As a custom builder with a decidedly
vintage background, I fall somewhere in between. Generally, I’m
most in favor of maximizing an instrument’s usability without jeopardizing
the ability to return it to original condition.
However, when I’m building a guitar, there’s a myriad of small
adjustments I can make to steer the instrument on a desired trajectory.
These micro mods are interactive with each other and, depending
upon the combination, offer a wide variety of sonic outcomes. But
these little mods can also be applied to existing guitars—your guitars—in any number of permutations and to great affect. Let’s take a
look at five mods that are easy enough for most players to try.
Foaming Pickup Cavities
The first and easiest adjustment that most
electric guitars can benefit from is stuffing
soft foam into the cavity behind the pickups
in order to stop microphonic squealing.
The first time I used this was when I was
repairing a Gibson Firebird for Johnny
Winter—the foam stopped the pickup’s
back plate from vibrating like a microphone
diaphragm. I have since learned that reducing
the space (the cubic volume) behind a
pickup modifies its sound at higher sound
levels. Discovering this resonating-chamber
effect has altered my approach to routing a
body for pickups on new guitars, too.
It’s easy to remove your pickup or pickguard
and slide some foam rubber behind
the unit. Start with soft foam first, and then
increase the density to find the difference
you like. Conveniently, the gray foam used
in aftermarket pickup packaging makes
great damping material: It’s soft enough
that you can double it up (see Fig. 1 and 2)
to create more pressure on the pickup’s back
plate, too. This is a relatively no-frills mod
that requires minimal materials and tools.
Pickup Magnet Tricks
As we all know, sometimes a pickup isn’t
a perfect match for a guitar. I always
approach pickup selection like a vocalist
would choose a microphone—finding the
one that best brings out the guitar’s character
rather than attempting to change that
innate character with a new pickup.
With this in mind, try swapping your
existing pickups’ magnets instead of replacing
the whole thing. Magnet type and
strength are big contributors to a pickup’s
tonality, so it stands to reason that tweaking
them will affect your sound.
Swapping magnets is easiest to do with
humbuckers. In fact, it can actually be
done without completely disassembling
the pickup—and sometimes without even
The first step is to determine what’s
in your pickup already. The most common
magnets for humbuckers are (roughly
in order of strength): alnico 2, alnico 4,
alnico 5, and then various types of ceramic
magnets. In simple terms, the stronger the
magnet, the greater the potential output.
But you can’t just look at magnetic strength
alone, because stronger magnets also affect
the string’s ability to sustain.
By moving up or down one level,
in terms of magnetic strength, you can
usually add or subtract a little edge from
a pickup. If your guitar is too tangy,
moving down one pickup level (e.g.,
from alnico 4 to alnico 2) may smooth
it out. If you want to add bite, go with
a slightly stronger magnet—like, alnico
5 to a ceramic magnet. The good part is
that magnets are both easy to find and
inexpensive in comparison to buying a
whole new pickup.
Here’s how to swap magnets in a
1. Before you begin, determine the
magnet’s polarity orientation (north/
south). You can use a simple magnetic
compass to do this (Fig. 3).
2. Desolder the main leads and remove
the pickup from your guitar.
3. Remove the protective outer tape
(Fig. 4). This gives you a clear view
of the internal parts. (Note: Be
careful not to pull out the hookup
wires underneath.) You should be
able to see the magnet in the center,
underneath the two coils.
4. Loosen the four small coil-mount
screws on the underside of the pickup
5. Raise each of the adjustable pole pieces
about four turns to release the coil
from the back plate (Fig. 6).
6. Gently pry the coils from the plate to
provide a little gap (Fig. 7).
7. Place a screwdriver in the gap at one
end of the pickup and slowly tap the
magnet out (Fig. 8). Once enough
of the magnet is exposed outside the
housing, you’ll be able to pull the
magnet out with your fingers. (Note:
If your pickup is wax-potted, you may
encounter some initial resistance as the
wax breaks free.)
8. Slide in your new magnet, being careful
to match the same magnetic orientation
you observed in step 1 (Fig. 9).
9. Return the adjustable pole pieces to
their prior position, replace the coil-mount
screws and tape, and re-install
the pickup in your guitar.
Modern vs. Vintage Wiring
Another relatively drastic but easy and
cheap way to hot-rod your guitar’s sound
with its current components is to alter how
and where its volume and tone pots are
connected to each other. The difference
can be subtle—and it’s more a matter of
preference than what’s “correct”—but it can
make the difference between a guitar that is
just OK and one that really is a joy to play.
With this mod, what you’re essentially
doing is changing the way the tone and
volume control interact, based upon how
they “load” each other. I’ve mocked up a
control setup here showing one volume and
the corresponding tone control.
Fig. 10 Vintage wiring—which has pickups
wired to the volume pot alone, and the tone control’s
capacitor being attached to the output—yields minimal high-end roll-off when you turn
the volume down.
Fig. 11 Modern pickup circuits often have the
tone control affecting the pickup’s tone before it
gets to the volume knob, yielding a decrease in
treble response as volume is reduced.
In the vintage setup, the pickup is
wired to the pot lug alone, with the tone
control capacitor being attached to the
output side. This tends to allow the volume
to be rolled off without losing too
much high end. This is great for those
who play clean rhythm by just lowering
their guitar volume as opposed to switching
amp channels or turning off a boost
pedal. It’s old-school, and it works. The
downside is that the tone control sometimes
has to be rotated a bit more before
its effects are heard.
In our so-called modern configuration,
the tone cap is attached to the pickup
before the volume pot. This presents the
volume control with a totally different
signal, resulting in a more colored sound
as you reduce the volume. This can be useful
if you like to turn up the guitar to cut
through more. For me, the downside is
the way it makes the tone control a bit of
a hair-trigger affair. If you’re the type who
avoids the tone control, this won’t be a factor
If you have two sets of volume and tone
controls (e.g., on a standard Les Paul), you
may or may not decide to wire them differently,
which can potentially open the door
to even more tonal variations.
Add Steely Twang to Your Strat
There are times when a single-coil just doesn’t
have enough twang. I’ve encountered Strat
neck pickups that are just too wooly to provide
me with that saucy, SRV/Hendrix-style
rhythm juice. Or, sometimes an anemic bridge
pickup just needs an extra dose of snap to
push it into Tele-like territory. If so, this simple
mod could be just what you’re looking for.
When Leo and the boys at the big “F”
ranch developed the Tele, they put a big slab
of steel under the bridge-pickup coil. This
reflected the magnetic field up and toward the
strings. In the words of Seymour Duncan’s
Evan Skopp, this gives it more “crack”—which, if you’re addicted to twang, is a good
thing. The better news is that you can attach
a plate (sometimes called an elevator plate,
because of how it elevates the magnetic field
toward the strings) to any single coil whose
pole-piece magnets are exposed at the back.
To do so, purchase a small piece of
.047"(18-gauge) sheet steel from your local
hardware store. Then:
1. Trim it to a manageable size and
shape—about the same dimension
as the pickup bobbin (Fig. 12).
Then trim it so that it fits within
the perimeter of the base plate
without touching the lead wire contacts
2. Using a small piece of thin, double-sided
tape, fit the plate over the
bottom of the pickup, and then
secure it with dabs of adhesive (Fig.
14). I prefer hot glue, because it’s
easy to remove, but you can use
epoxy or super glue, too.
This mod works great for Strat-type
pickups or aftermarket Tele-style reproduction
pickups that don’t already have
a plate. Some pickup companies make
P-90s that don’t have a metal base plate,
and these can be twang-ified in this way,
too. The best part is that, if you don’t like
the sound, you can just peel the plate off
and be right back where you started.
Fine-Tuning Your Tuners
This mod is a little different—and definitely
not as affordable as the ones we’ve been
talking about up to this point. When players
think about modifications that involve
tuning machines, the subject revolves
around tuning stability. That’s all well and
good, but I’ve rarely encountered a quality
machine that slips—because the mechanical
torque required to turn the tuner’s capstan
is pretty stout. Problems of pitch are usually
more related to capstan wobble or a bad
However, there’s another aspect of
machine-head selection that I contemplate
when building a custom guitar: weight. But
this is more about sustain and tone than a
question of neck-heaviness.
I’ve written in previous issues of Premier
Guitar about how the size and shape of a
guitar’s headstock affect its sustain and tone.
Clearly, the mass of the tuning machines is
a factor in this, as well. Having overseen the
building of tens of thousands of custom guitars
over the course of my career has given me
cause to consider machine-head weight as a
fine-tuning tool in and of itself. This kind of
mod is more complex than the others I’ve presented
here because it is harder to predict, and
obviously more costly to dabble in because
it involves replacing the existing tuners.
Nevertheless, I put it out there for those of
you who are willing to go to the limit of sanity
in the search for a responsive instrument.
This mod revolves around the concept
that adding mass to the headstock lowers
its resonant frequency, while reducing
mass will raise that frequency. The theory
at work here is that vibration is absorbed
or reflected back into the strings and body
based upon this frequency. Depending
upon the harmonic makeup of your
particular instrument, changing this can
enhance or degrade sustain and accentuate
or attenuate certain harmonics. All of this
is dependent not only on your guitar’s construction,
but also on how large your headstock
is to begin with. If all of this seems
a bit hazy, that’s because it is. I don’t have
a handy-dandy answer like “more mass
equals more sustain” because it isn’t always
true. Suffice it to say that you can make
a difference in a guitar’s character by following
this path. I usually go through this
exercise with my builds because I have the
luxury of time and the resources at hand.
It’s like fine tuning a race car’s suspension
settings to your liking.
Most of the better machine heads on the
market these days use a standard .375" headstock
hole, so swapping tuners isn’t that hard to
do. The problem comes with the mounting at
the rear of the peghead. Luckily, if you use the
type that screw down from the front side with
a nut and washer, you can swap and test before
you drill additional mounting-screw holes.
To illustrate the potential variances in
weight that one can expect with different
tuners, I rounded up three of the most common
choices and threw them on my shop
scale. You can weigh your current machines
to compare. Be sure to weigh all the hardware—
screws, nuts, and washers—because it
all comes into play. (All weights are in grams.)
The lightest of the bunch are minimalist
Sperzel tuners, which look pretty sci-fi.
They clocked in at 138 grams (Fig. 15).
Well-made and beautifully finished, the
Sperzels use a pin-mount on the back
instead of wood screws—further reducing
weight. This can be a game-changer if you
have a substantial headstock.
Next up are the wonderful vintage
Kluson reproductions by TonePros (Fig.
16). These are some of my favorites, and
they weigh in at a moderate 186 grams with
all hardware included. For many of my
builds, the characteristics of these tuners are
ideal. I enjoy the modern engineering these
tuners hide within their vintage-styled exteriors,
and the weight is almost perfect.
Unabashedly brute class, with typical
German overbuilding, the Schallers shown
here are the Incredible Hulk of the bunch
(Fig. 17). At a hefty 272 grams, they have
the might to get noticed when you fasten
them to your axe. If you have a guitar with a
tiny headstock, you’ll hear and feel a difference
with the Schallers. Whether or not you
like the change is subjective, and it depends
on the makeup of the rest of your guitar.
Sweat the Small Stuff
As we’ve shown here, a lot of relatively
small—and inexpensive (many are practically
free)—tweaks can hot-rod your tone and
maneuver it to an array of differing ports of
call. In some ways, it’s like tossing a handful
of dice instead of just two—because the way
small tweaks interact can lead to exponential
changes in sound. For that reason, my advice
is to take it slow and only make a single
change at a time to understand what it delivers.
Besides, it’s more fun (and less stressful)
that way, anyway!