Three entry-level axes and the DIY projects that turn them into secret weapons for the stage and studio.
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Sometimes you don’t want to throw down a couple thousand dollars on a guitar. Hell, for the large majority of players, that never has been nor ever will be an option. Once upon a time, that was a pretty big conundrum for hardcore guitarists—an existential crisis, really. Thankfully, well-dialed CNC machines and a whole host of production and OEM-parts refinements over the past few years have been obliterating those old worries about not being able to sound and look good (or play comfortably) without decimating your savings account or making credit-card bandits giggle with glee.
PG has long celebrated this fortunate new reality. For years now we’ve invested a lot of time, effort, and money in cooking up DIY mod projects that show you how to get more out of your existing guitars. And May 2018 marked our first foray into an annual feature that ups the ante considerably by helping you suss out inexpensive new guitars that are hiding in plain sight, just waiting for anyone who can wield a soldering iron without burning down the house to turn them into killer gigging and recording machines.
For many players—whether relative newcomers or mod-savvy mad scientists prowling for the victim of their next tonal heresy—the realm of worthwhile entry-level instruments rarely extends beyond brands such as Squier, Epiphone, and perhaps lower-priced Gretsch or Ibanez guitars. And with good reason: These companies have a long, laudable track record of serving up instruments that look like what our heroes play, and sound and play fairly close, too. All for just a couple hundred bucks and some change.
But there are many other solid contenders for the hard-earned dollars of the DIY addicted, too. For this year’s no-brainer mods installment, we’ve assembled a diverse trio of guitars that make stellar “canvases” for upgrades that take them to a whole new level. The instruments and parts were purchased online, which means they were subject to the same rigors and dice rolls as most web buys—particularly those that aren’t from the handful of retailers notable for their pre-purchase guitar setups. (Plus, you never know what havoc will be wrought going through a half-dozen climes and the hands of at least a couple of careless delivery people.) Given this, it should come as no surprise that a few performance tweaks were necessary here and there, too.
New to modding? Check out this DIY article for a comprehensive guide on soldering techniques and tips.
Click here to enter for a chance to win this expertly modded guitar.
AgileHarm 1 Toast FG
$399 — rondomusic.com
The first guitar up for some cool mods is the Agile Harm 1 Toast, a Rickenbacker-esque design made in South Korea and available in North America and western Europe direct from Rondo Music, an American-owned importer of various overseas-made guitars and basses. It features a semi-hollow mahogany body, an ebony fretboard with 22 jumbo frets, “toaster”-style pickups controlled by two volumes and one tone control, and Grover Rotomatic tuners.
Immediate impressions of the Harm 1 out of the box? It seems like a great foundation for anyone looking for the Rick vibe at a fraction of a real Rickenbacker’s lofty price. With its 18:1-ratio Grover tuners and a Tusq nut, the Agile’s tuning stability was already set for success. That said, I did immediately notice splatty, choked notes on the fretboard and could tell that a fret level would be necessary to achieve perfect intonation and full playability.
In my experience with most sub-$500 guitars, you usually end up with cheaper components under the hood. In the Harm’s case, the stock pickups were a bit dark and muddy, lacking the clarity most players prefer in this sort of instrument. To instill the Harm with the bright, jangly tone that made Rickenbackers legendary, we went with a set of Creamery Mid-63 toaster-top single-coils. Website specs put the bridge unit’s output at 7.5k, and the neck’s at 7k, but, once they arrived, I measured them with a meter and found the bridge to be at 9k, while the neck was 7.7k—a bit hotter than expected, but that’s okay. Once I removed the old strings and set aside the bridge and tailpiece (the latter of which can easily slip off and damage your finish if you’re not careful), swapping the Creamery pickups into the Agile was painless. It didn’t require any additional drilling, mounting, or routing (Photo 1). That means I got to the next step, wiring, very quickly.
Photo 1 — Once I removed the strings and stock pickups, I was stoked to find that we didn’t need to widen the existing pickup routes to fit our new Creamery units. Just be sure to remove the bridge and tailpiece during this process so they don’t slip off and ding your finish.
Next up for the electronics was replacing the volume and tone knobs’ cheap potentiometers and 3-way pickup selector with premium components. I love what Emerson Custom offers in this department, and these replacements are always a “no-brainer” for anyone who wants a road-tested, practically bulletproof setup. In my opinion, these pots really are the best option currently available. With a proprietary custom audio taper, they offer a balanced swell through the whole rotation of the shaft. This takes away that annoying on/off shutoff point found in most economy pots.
The first step in installing the new pots is, of course, to remove the old ones. Once I did so, I realized the Emersons wouldn’t fit the original mounting holes. The Harm’s stock pots have a smaller shaft, so the mounting holes needed to be slightly enlarged to accommodate the upgrades. To do so, I used a tapered endpin-jack reamer bit (item #4323 on StewMac.com, Photo 2). If you don't have one of these, you can also use graduated drill bit sizes up to 3/8". Caution: Make sure your drill is in reverse mode during this widening work, as this reduces the risk of chipping the guitar’s finish.
Photo 2 — The shafts of the new Emerson Custom potentiometers we added to the Agile wouldn’t fit in the original pots’ mounting holes, so I used a tapered endpin jack reamer to widen the holes.
Now you’re ready to mount the new components and get this baby all wired up! However, rather than install the Emersons exactly as before, our next step was to install a “treble bleed” on our volume circuit (Photo 3). This modification lets you retain the high-end frequencies of your guitar’s overall tone even when you turn down its volume controls. (This step is optional, as some players like how lowering their guitar’s volume knob “darkens” or “warms up” the sound.)
The bleed circuit itself is pretty simple: Just wire a resistor and a capacitor (I used a 150k ohm resistor and a .001µf capacitor.) in parallel between the input and output pins of the volume pot (normally lugs 1 and 2). (Note: When grounding pin 3, use a short length of tinned wire to connect the pin to the back of the pot casing. I see a lot of guitars where this pin is just bent backwards and soldered directly to the casing to make the ground connection. This is not a good practice because, while technically it can work, it can also damage the pot internally.)
Photo 3 — The Agile Harm 1’s modded electronics cavity features new Emerson Custom pots and a CRL pickup selector. Each of the two volume controls (middle and bottom) has a resistor and capacitor between lugs 1 and 2 to create a “treble bleed” circuit, while the tone pot (top) has an Emerson paper-in-oil capacitor to enable the guitar to go from Rickenbacker-style jangle to much more subdued tones than the original wiring allowed.
As I mentioned previously, this particular guitar has a volume-volume-tone control configuration, so I repeated the steps above to have the treble-bleed benefits on both pickups. I also felt like a paper-in-oil capacitor on the tone circuit would help roll off the guitar’s high frequencies more smoothly than the stock configuration. The larger the capacitor value, the more “blankets” you throw on the amp as you roll the tone knob back. I used a .047µf cap, the largest-value paper-in-oil cap offered by Emerson Custom, and I chose it in order to make it possible to tame the guitar’s jangle when wanted, thus making the instrument even more versatile.
After the pots got their wire-up treatment, I felt it was important to replace the original plastic pickup selector—which will inevitably have issues down the road—to a higher-quality unit. I went with a CRL model because CRLs are the Cadillac of 3- and 5-way blade switches, offering long-term reliability and noiseless operation.
The Agile’s last electronics mod was the jack. Switchcraft is the industry standard and for good reason: They’re proven to handle the sweat and grime of extensive live gigging. Once the jack was wired up, our electronics overhaul was complete. When you’re at this step of your own modding project, you can test that the pickups are properly installed by plugging the guitar into an amp, even without restringing the guitar, and lightly tapping the pickups with a flathead screwdriver. If you don’t hear anything at first, make sure your volume knobs are turned up and that the 3-way switch is on the correct position. If you’ve still got no sound, you’ll have to go back under the hood and find out where a wire might have gotten crossed or inadequately soldered.
Before we restring the Harm and thrill to its new “engines,” though, let's also expand its capabilities by giving it tremolo functionality. While several companies offer ways to add vibrato to an existing instrument, we chose the Duesenberg Les Trem II—and for a few reasons. First off, there’s zero drilling required. Anyone can easily add this hardware to a Tune-o-matic-plus-stoptail arrangement between string changes. Secondly, it offers a smooth, Bigsby-like playing experience without adding as much weight to your guitar. Lastly, it’s not just easier to restring than a Bigsby—you can also adjust the length of the vibrato arm, as well as the tension of the spring bar (for either a stiffer or gushier playing feel).
Photo 4 — With the original mounting screws removed, the Duesenberg Les Trem II’s mounting-post holes align perfectly with the anchoring studs embedded in the guitar’s body. Simply place the trem over the studs, then secure the bridge using a tool that fits the slots and doesn’t risk damaging the screws or the anchors.
Because the Agile came equipped with a stopbar tailpiece that slides right off, it was a cinch to remove it and the studs securing it to the bushings embedded in the guitar’s body. The Les Trem II comes with two pairs of mounting studs, one metric and one standard (metric fit the Agile), a combination of spacers that can be used to prevent the trem from touching the body of the guitar (we didn’t need them for the Agile), and the trem itself. To get going, I simply placed the Les Trem over the now-empty bushings and secured it in place by handtightening the new studs. For final tightening, be sure to use something thick that fits the large notch in the top of the screw. I typically use my thick, 6"metal ruler (Photo 4) or sometimes a flattened nickel and vice grips. Why? Using a drill or standard flathead screwdriver can potentially damage the post and/or strip the slot. Once tightened, you’re ready to go!
Okay, on to our final “mods.” The Agile Harm came strung with light-gauge roundwound strings, but we felt a set of heavier flatwounds would instill the guitar with interesting character more in line with the vintage instruments that inspired it. To fit the .011-gauge strings, I had to widen and deepen the nut slots with a set of nut files. In addition, as I mentioned in the section about first impressions of the Agile, the height of the Harm 1’s frets seemed a bit uneven. After a full fret leveling, I was able to set the guitar up beautifully.
The end result of all our mods to the Agile Harm 1 was dope!The new electronics really give the tone a noticeable sonic upgrade. The bright, handwound pickups balance well with the flatwound strings. And the fret leveling and trem addition gave the guitar playability and feel that it simply wasn’t capable of out of the box. This guitar came out to be really rad.
Watch a before-and-after demo of the Agile Harm 1 Toast FG: