Take it from someone who works on guitars regularly, with some attention and TLC, almost any guitar can be made to sing sweetly. I’ve listed a few tips below. While I have listed these in what I consider to be in order of importance, feel free to make changes you feel are right for you.
Ok, here goes…
Tighten all the screws on your guitar.
That’s right, it’s time to get a screwdriver and make sure all the screws are snug. It never ceases to amaze me how common loose screws are. Just make sure they’re all tight, especially the neck screws that attach it to the body.
Fresh, tuned strings.
They will breathe new life into any guitar. Keeping them fresh, clean, stretched out and in tune will help your guitar find its voice. For a more detailed look at guitar strings, take a look at my article, “Did you see that girl’s string bling?”
Graphite in your strings’ nut and bridge saddles.
To do this, tune down your guitar so you can lift each string out of its nut slot and bridge saddle. Next, take your trusty #2 pencil and color in the nut string slots and the bridge saddles. What happens is that the graphite lubricates the strings’ points of contact. Doing this will greatly help your guitar stay in tune.
Adjust the string’s height. This refers to the “action” or the distance between your strings and the fretboard. The higher your action is, the harder it is to fret notes and chords. The lower it is, the more likely you’ll have “fret buzz.” So you guessed it that you want your action’s height where it’s comfortable to play but with no buzz. Adjusting the action usually requires some technical knowledge, some small hand tools and precise measurements. I talk about string height here so you’re aware of it. It’s not too hard to do so if you’re comfortable with it. Educate yourself on the subject and jump right in. If you’re not sure about what to do then take your guitar to your local tech. Make sure to tell him your playing style and what you want (ex. strings easy to fret and bend).
Set your intonation. This usually goes hand in hand with adjusting the string height. A string’s intonation refers to the distance between the nut and bridge saddle so it’s in tune with itself. This usually involves adjusting the bridge saddles either towards the neck or away from it. You’ll need a tuner and the tools necessary to adjust the bridge saddles; this is usually done with a small screwdriver or an Allen wrench. In brief review, one string at a time play the harmonic at the 12th fret and make sure it’s in tune. Then play the 12th fretted note. The two should be in tune. If not you’ll want to adjust the position of the bridge saddle either towards the neck or away from it. Then rinse and repeat the process until the harmonic and fretted notes are both in tune and then move to the next string.
Adjust you pickup’s height. This is one of my favorites because it allows you to fine tune your guitar’s tone. Here you’re either raising the pickup towards the strings or further away from them into the pickguard. To do so, you’ll notice for most pickups there is a small screw on each side of it. Turning it will either raise or lower that side of the pickup. The two things you want to focus on are clarity and tone. More specifically, as your pickup gets closer to your strings the signal is louder but muddier sounding. First, adjust the overall height for clarity (i.e. both sides of the pickup are the same height). Next, adjust each side for tone. An example is how your bridge pickup is bright sounding in comparison to your neck one. So lower the pickup towards the pickguard for your higher strings and raise the bass side towards the strings. The end result of this makes your pickup look slanted but sound great. No one ever said, “Her tone was awesome but her pickups looked slanted.” So get in there and adjust the height to fine tune your tone.
Tremolo back plate.
If you play a guitar with a tremolo back plate like a Stratocaster, by all means, take it off! This helps the guitar resonant or breathe better. If you don’t believe me, try it both ways and decide what’s right for you (cover on or off).
OK, here is the #1 modification for all electric guitars…(are you ready?) It’s strap locks. Seriously, it’s cheap insurance to help prevent your precious guitar from accidently coming off its strap and crashing to the ground – usually headstock first! So spend the $20 or so to get them and put them on or have someone do it for you. Your baby will love you for this.
Your output jack.
Unless your guitar was kind of expensive, chances are very good that your output jack is a cheap one (your output jack is where you plug in your guitar cable). Admittedly, this involves soldering as you’ll have to unscrew the old one, unsolder it and solder/screw in a new one. I use Switchcraft ¼” mono jacks as these serve as a professional grade upgrade. People rarely think about their output jack but a faulty one can ruin your signal in a heartbeat. So get ahead of the game and have a quality one put in there.
This one isn’t the end, it’s only the beginning – Pickups and electronics. There is an ocean of really good pickups out there and they can make most guitars sound way better. Some big names here are Fender, Gibson, Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, Lace and EMG. For reference, check out what your favorite players are using as chances are they’ve done their homework. It’s no excuse for not doing your own research but seeing what others are using helps. This also holds true for the electronics part here, too – the controls, wiring and switching assembly in your guitar’s belly. There are important choices going on in there. Ask around and find out what’s uber-potent and what works for you (ex. Gibson 50s wiring, Orange Drop capacitors and CTS pots…sonic, yummy goodness!).
So, there you have it. Of course, this isn’t an all-inclusive list but it will give you a good start. If there’s something you don’t understand or feel comfortable with, please contact me or ask others as there are many resources available.
Knowing these technical tidbits will help both you and your guitar become extra awesome.