As a working musician, there’s never been a better time to be alive and wanting. There’s a near-boundless array of instruments, pickups, pedals, and amps for just about every budget, not to mention the increasingly convincing digital paths to previously out-of-reach tones now made available by modeling, profiling, and impulse-response software. In fact, as time goes on it often feels as if the lower end of the price range is where the real values are.
Some might mutter under their breath at that notion, and I get it. When I was coming up as a guitarist in the ’80s and ’90s, the more affordable models were almost universally shunned. Most players felt they simply weren’t up to snuff and were replete with tuning problems, inconsistent quality, and uninspiring tonal and visual aesthetics.
However, things have certainly changed in the modern era. Computer-aided manufacturing and other industry developments (such as boutique pickup builders developing improved designs for budget instruments) have streamlined production, broadened the types of instruments available, and greatly reduced variances in quality control. As a result, there are killer deals to be had in the sub-$500 range no matter what your taste. Whether you’re looking for your first instrument or one you can take to the pub in place of your irreplaceable 1960s custom color No. 1, there’s a guitar or bass out there that will scratch your particular itch with a price tag that’ll make your jaw drop.
But besides the killer deal that many of these models present in and of themselves, if you’re into modding—or having someone do mods for you—these more affordable designs can represent the perfect low-commitment value: For a few hundred bucks, you can often end up with a customized axe that, in many ways, is essentially on par with much pricier instruments, or you can explore unconventional new sounds on a familiar platform without having to worry about whether, say, adapting new hardware or expanding pickup cavities will devalue your high-end version. Whichever persuasion you hail from, breathe easy—you’re among friends!
For this year’s annual DIY issue, PG asked me to take a look at four of these common, low-cost models—three 6-strings and one bass purchased from an online retailer—and walk you through how I’d recommend turning them into more reliable stage and studio mainstays. (Before I get started, I want to give a big shout of thanks to Dan Michael of Rawton Customs for letting me make a mess of his workspace.)
If you’re new to modding, visit premierguitar.com/soldering101 for our comprehensive guide on soldering techniques and tips.