How we turned three affordable Squier, Ibanez, and Yamaha axes into custom instruments like no other.
From YouTube to Instagram to myriad DIY forums, the internet is filled with modders showing off their latest projects. Name your flavor of guitar gluttony—from Gibsons to Fenders, offsets, and shred machines—and there's a virtual place you can go to both feed your craving and feel better about how much time you spend obsessing over how to make your axe sound and play more to your liking. "You think my tweaking tendencies are out of control? Check out this guy…."
Because there are so many places to get each other's take on which pickups or nut material will yield such-and-such sound, this year's No-Brainer Mods outing (our fourth so far) takes the same tack as last year's. As with all past NBMs, we've purchased a handful of quality affordable axes, but rather than just upgrading them with one of the innumerable sets of great pickups on the market, and maybe a fancier bridge or set of tuners, we're taking a more adventurous approach. Guitar shops the world over are full of well-made instruments you can get brand-new for $300–$500 and then turn into something you'd never be able to buy off the rack simply by investing a little more time and money. In the process, you'll have a whole lot of fun and hopefully end up with an inspiring new "custom" instrument. If something goes a little haywire or the experiment's end result isn't quite as mind-blowing as you'd hoped, at least you haven't lost a ton of dough—and unless you've really botched things, you can always try out your next great idea on the same "canvas."
Considering how many cool, well-made affordable guitars there are, what's a "no-brainer" about all this isn't so much what we do in our No-Brainer Mods series—it's that you take advantage of the waiting gold mine of possibilities to do the weird stuff that occurs to you. We're just here to stoke your imagination a little.
Last year, we had a blast walking the mod path less taken. We turned a T-style into a 12-string, gave a Squier Starcaster the Jazzmaster trem so many offset aficionados feel it needs, and made a semi-hollow Ibanez's dreams of sounding more orchestral a reality. This year, we're taking on a couple of mods that are roughly as ambitious as those, but we've also thrown in one for folks who need something a little less invasive to chew on during pandemic downtime. We've again enlisted guitar-repair guru Dave Helmer, a two-time Red Wing lutherie graduate based in Iowa City, Iowa, to carry out these glorious transformations. —Shawn Hammond
Before and After Mods Video Demo
Squier Semi-Fretless “Cabronitar”
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Squier instruments have long been a staple for modders looking for an affordable, solid-playing axe to put their own personal touch to. Beyond the brand's usual classic looks and respectable build, the Paranormal Cabronita Telecaster Thinline ($399 street) we've chosen for our first mod has a couple of additional neat things going for it. First, it's lighter than virtually any thinline/semi-hollow guitar we've encountered in this price range. Second, the fiesta red finish is so upscale looking it's easy to almost overlook the Fender-designed alnico Jazzmaster pickups. We thought about swapping them with a set of Seymour Duncan Antiquity or Curtis Novak pickups, but then we remembered our "more adventurous" MO. Besides, the pickups sound pretty good (astute JM fans are bound to note the unusual inclusion of adjustable pole pieces).
As I pondered what sort of specialized sonics might be cool to add to the Cab, I hit on the idea of turning this familiar-feeling guitar into a fretless sitar.Having done fretless conversions before, Dave called me a little after starting the project to make what ended up being a fantastic suggestion: Why not keep the frets on the lower half of the neck and ditch 'em on the upper portion? That way the "Cabronitar" could be used as both a chordal and a lead instrument. Genius! In the end, we decided on fretless past the 10th fret.
At first we thought we'd just buy one of those Gotoh sitar bridges that Danelectro uses on its Sitar and Baby Sitar instruments. However, as of publishing time, it appears Gotoh is no longer making them. This actually turned out to be a boon, though, as the Gotoh wouldn't have fit in the space between the Cabronita's bridge and bridge pickup, and would have required more drastic measures with the bridge and/or other hardware.
Even so, keep in mind that—at a quick glance—the ebony "buzz bridge" portion of this mod looks deceptively simple. Like us, you'll likely end up needing to fashion two or three bridges before you've got all the minute cuts and surface angles right. This fine-tuning by trial and error is why you'll notice successive photos below sometimes show the guitar with strings on, then unstrung with protective tape on the surface, then strung-up again. That's because the only way to know for sure if you're getting things right is to string the guitar and see how it sounds at various points throughout the process. So you'll want to have a few sets of your chosen strings on hand. Luckily, Dave did a lot of great research and built a few prototypes himself, and the lessons he learned should help you get the nuances right, regardless of the guitar model you're modding. —SH
Ibanez JEMJRSP with “Monkey Grip-u-Lator”
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Steve Vai's innovative, aesthetically vibrant signature guitars have been turning heads since his 1987 debut as Ibanez's most prominent and influential artist. The JEM777 started it all. But while Vai—then fresh off both his first tour with David Lee Roth and filming scenes as the Devil's flamboyant guitarist, Jack Butler, in Crossroads—has always put the guitar's unusual "monkey grip" feature to good use, few mortals seem to be able to pull it off with similar aplomb. So we thought we'd take advantage of the grip anatomy on the JEMJRSP ($499 street) to facilitate something more practical—yet weird enough to hopefully still meet with Vai's approval. Taking inspiration from another virtuosic experimentalist, avant dreamscapist/sound mangler /former Bowie sideman David Torn, we've decided to use the space already carved out for the monkey grip to house a circuit similar to the "Tornipulator" he's had installed in guitars by luthiers Uli Teuffel, Saul Koll, and Izzy Lugo at Ronin Stringed Instruments.
Our "monkey grip-u-lator" circuit has three momentary pushbuttons for engaging 1) a lo-fi "sampling" microphone (a Shaker-brand harmonica mic) that's been added under the guitar's pickguard, 2) a 60-cycle hum (great for conjuring anarchic/deconstructionist vibes), and 3) a 1/4" auxiliary input you can use to connect, say, your phone, an old cassette player, or another outboard device to aid in your havoc-wreaking sonic adventures.
Yamaha Revstar Mojo Pickups Dual Foil Mod
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For those of you who've been shaking your heads at the two previous mods, first—in the immortal words of King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail—"You make me sad." Second, thank you for sticking with us anyway. We're rewarding you for your valiance with this straightforward mod. Although the Yamaha Revstar RS320 ($399 street) comes stock with pretty respectable pickups, we've been intrigued for the last little bit by U.K. outfit Mojo Pickups' recent Dual Foil designs—which are humbucking interpretations of the unique gold-foil pickups found on old Teisco and Harmony guitars. As we can attest, the Mojos sound delicious—which is why luthiers at boutique outfits such as Abernethy Guitars, Uma Guitars, and Deimel Guitarworks have recently been gravitating toward them.
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Sporting custom artwork etched onto the covers, the Railhammer Billy Corgan Z-One Humcutters are designed to offer a fat midrange and a smooth top end.
Billy Corgan was looking for something for heavier Smashing Pumpkins songs, so Joe Naylor designed the Railhammer Billy Corgan Z-One pickup. Sporting custom artwork etched onto the covers, the Railhammer Billy Corgan Z-One Humcutters have a fat midrange and a smooth top end. This pickup combines the drive and sustain of a humbucker with the percussive attack and string clarity of a P90. Get beefy P90 tone plus amp-pummeling output with the Railhammer Billy Corgan Z-One.
Patented Railhammer Pickups take passive guitar pickups to a new level with rails under the wound strings lead to tighter lows, and poles under the plain strings offer fatter heights. With increased clarity, the passive pickup’s tone is never sterile.
Railhammer Billy Corgan Signature Z-One Pickup Demo
For more information, please visit railhammer.com.
Designed for utmost comfort and performance, the Vertigo Ultra Bass is Mono’s answer to those who seek the ultimate gigging experience.
Complete with a range of game-changing design features, such as the patent-pending attachable FREERIDE Wheel System, premium water-resistant and reflective materials, shockproof shell structure and improved ergonomic features, the Vertigo Ultra Bass takes gear protection to the next level.
The Vertigo Ultra Bass features:
- Patent-pending FREERIDE Wheel System that allows for wheels to be attached on the case in no time, giving you the option to travel with it seamlessly
- Upgraded materials, including a water-resistant 1680D Ballistic Nylon outer shell, plush inner lining and new reflective trim for maximum backstage and night visibility
- Enhanced protection with a shockproof shell structure and heavy-duty water-resistant YKK zippers for protection from the elements
- Improved ergonomics and functionality including added back support and load-lifting detachable shoulder straps with side release buckles
- Flexible storage options with added space for touring essentials
The Generation Collection of acoustic guitars features the exclusive Gibson Player Port designed to offer a unique and immersive sonic experience.
The G-Bird, the newest addition to the Generation Collection--represents the glorious legacy of the Gibson Hummingbird colliding with modern sonic enhancement through the Gibson Player Port to add a new dimension to the G-Bird sound. The Gibson Player Port allows players to hear more of themselves as the audience hears it. With a tone that is crisp and resonant, all of the Gibson Generation Collection acoustics are designed to be comfortable to hold and play for long periods of time. All Generation Collection guitars feature the Gibson Player Port, slim, lightweight bodies, a flatter fingerboard radius, Walnut back and sides, Sitka spruce tops, and a stunning Natural finish. Additionally, the new G-Bird, and the G-200 and G-Writer are equipped with LR Baggs™ Element Bronze pickup systems which amplify deep bass and crystal-clear highs.
The G-Bird represents the glorious legacy of the Gibson Hummingbird with modern sonic enhancement through the Gibson Player Port adding a new dimension to the G-Bird’s sound. The G-Bird features a stunning solid Sitka spruce top and solid walnut back and sides for the ultimate in crisp, resonant tone. This square-shoulder dreadnought delivers all the rich low end and well-balanced mids and highs the original Hummingbird is famous for. The TUSQ nut and saddle, along with chrome Grover Mini Rotomatic tuners, deliver solid tuning stability so you can spend more time playing instead of tuning. The utile neck, with its easy-playing Advanced Response neck profile, is so comfortable you won’t want to put it down. The G-Bird also comes equipped with an LR Baggs Element Bronze pickup system, so it will always sound as good to your audience as it does to you. The G-Bird also comes equipped with an LR Baggs™ Element Bronze pickup system, so it will always sound as good to your audience as it does to you. The G-Bird is available in Natural finish. A gig bag is included.
Modeled after Gibson’s pioneering small-body parlor acoustic guitars from the 1930’s, the G-00 is a top choice for blues and fingerstyle guitar performances. Despite its more compact size, the G-00 achieves a full, balanced sound. The G-00 fills any room with rich tones-which players can hear like never before, with the exclusive Gibson Player Port. Like all models in the Gibson Generation Collection, the G-00 is handcrafted in Bozeman, Montana, by the same highly--skilled craftspeople who make all Gibson acoustic guitars. The G-00 features a beautiful solid Sitka spruce top and solid Walnut back and sides for tone that sounds crisp and resonant. The slightly thinner G-00 parlor-sized body is exceptionally comfortable to hold and play. The TUSQ nut and saddle along with the Grover Mini Rotomatic tuners, deliver solid tuning stability so you can spend more time playing instead of tuning, and the utile neck with its easy-playing neck profile is so comfortable you won’t want to put it down. The G-00 is available in Natural finish. A gig bag is included.
The G-45, a round-shouldered jumbo, adds the Gibson Player Port to its famous “Workhorse” J-45 style body, which is Gibson’s best-selling acoustic guitar of all time. On the G-45, players can now hear more clearly than ever how this beloved guitar responds to every style and technique of playing. Powerful one moment and soft the next, the G-45 delivers all sounds with incredible dynamic range in an elegant, medium body size. The G-45 is part of the Gibson Generation Collection and like all models in this collection, it is handcrafted in Bozeman, MT, by the same highly skilled craftspeople who make all Gibson acoustics. It features a solid Sitka spruce top and solid Walnut back and sides for tone that sounds crisp and resonant. The G-45 features a slightly thinner round shoulder body is exceptionally comfortable to hold and play. The TUSQ nut and saddle, along with the Grover Mini Rotomatic tuners deliver solid tuning stability, so you can spend more time playing instead of tuning, and the utile neck with its easy-playing neck profile is so comfortable you won’t want to put it down. The G-45 is available in Natural finish. A gig bag is included.
Gibson’s impressive range of square-shouldered guitars have become an expressive standard for rock, pop, folk, and country artists. The G-Writer is known for its wide range of sounds, from gutsy and loud, to soft and sweet; they are superb for all styles and shine, whether strumming chords or fingering intricate solos. The G-Writer comes ready for the stage or studio with an LR Baggs Element Bronze pickup system and the ear-opening Gibson Player Port. The G-Writer is part of the Gibson Generation Collection and like all models in this collection, it is handcrafted in Bozeman, MT, by the same highly skilled craftspeople who make all Gibson acoustics. It features a solid Sitka spruce top and solid Walnut back and sides for tone that sounds crisp and resonant. The G-Writer features a slightly thinner cutaway body, is more comfortable to play and provides effortless access to the upper frets. The TUSQ nut and saddle, along with the Grover Mini Rotomatic tuners deliver solid tuning stability, so you can spend more time playing instead of tuning, and the utile neck with its easy-playing neck profile is so comfortable you won’t want to put it down. The G-Writer is available in Natural finish. A gig bag is also included.
Gibson built its first “Super Jumbo” SJ-200 as a custom order for country and western singer and film star Ray Whitley, who desired a big, loud, and deep flat-top over which to croon. The SJ-200 quickly became a staple of cowboy singers and horseback troubadours, and then country music, 60’s folk stars, and onto every acoustic guitar genre that has followed. Ray would be proud to hear the booming sound from the Gibson Player Port on the new G-200, which comes ready for the stage or studio with a LR Baggs Element Bronze pickup system. Like all models in the Gibson Generation Collection, the G-200 is handcrafted in Bozeman, MT, by the same highly--skilled craftspeople who make all Gibson acoustics. The G-200 features a beautiful solid Sitka spruce top and solid Walnut back and sides for tone that sounds crisp and resonant. The slightly thinner G-200 cutaway jumbo body is exceptionally comfortable to hold and provides excellent access to the upper frets. The TUSQ nut and saddle, along with the Grover Mini Rotomatic tuners, deliver solid tuning stability so you can spend more time playing instead of tuning, and the utile neck with its easy-playing neck profile is so comfortable you won’t want to put it down. The G-200 is available in Natural finish. A gig bag is also included.
G-Bird | Generation Collection
For more information, please visit gibson.com.