Aftermarket Upgrades: Worth the Trouble & Expense?

Guitar players love to tinker. For some, pickup swaps are as common as string changes. With the rise of precision-crafted hardware and its ready availability over the internet, you can pick from a myriad of tuner, bridge, saddles, tailpiece, nut, knob or strap button options — in any material or style you can imagine — at virtually any price point.

You could, for example, pay $30 for a basic die-cast stop tailpiece or $250 for a machined titanium model. With this in mind, is it worth it to dive into aftermarket upgrades? Will it help or hurt resale value? Is it worth the trouble? Let’s weigh the options.

Tricking Out a Husk

Epiphone Les Paul Standard

Epiphone Les Paul Standard
$200 — $350

We’ve all seen a pawn shop beater with potential, an abandoned project guitar or a low-end import with good bones. For older instruments, especially vintage guitars, returning to stock is usually more desirable than turning out another piece of eye candy for the stage. However, many beginner models and newer instruments are solidly built and offer good playability, albeit with less desirable hardware, pickups, switches and potentiometers.

Many mid-range models by Schecter, LTD, Epiphone and Fender Mexico have well-crafted wood components and need only a little push to be a long-term main players. Remember that when tricking out a husk, you should already like the sound or vibe of the stock model. Nothing will change an Epiphone Les Paul Studio into a ‘59 Gibson Custom Shop reissue.

Remember, if it rocks stock, you can only improve it. If it’s not quite right to begin with, you will have a hard time getting it perfect.

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Upgrades for Playability

If you have a model that sounds good but its playability could be better, diving into the world of upgrades is a good choice. Simple mods like a roller bridge, roller string trees, high-mass sustain blocks and strap locks are DIY projects that are inexpensive and easily reversible.

Simply changing a knob to one that is easier to grasp or has a set-screw can make all difference in creating a smooth playing experience. More complicated upgrades, such as a nut or saddle replacement, new tuners, routing, adding a Bigsby without a Vibramate, and complex switching, are best left to professionals and can change your sound in unexpected ways. Watch your budget on these improvements and take the time to anticipate the sonic changes with these non-reversible upgrades.

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Upgrading Pickups

While many playability upgrades will have an effect on sound, nothing will have more impact than a pickup swap. This is true not only for electrics but acoustics as well. While a pickup change is an easy and reversible change in most cases, the cost of quality pickups and installation can be expensive. A typical install cost is about $75, so take care not to blow the budget on a stepping-stone or short-term instrument. If you can change pickups yourself — a surprisingly easy skill to acquire — you can always keep them for the next upgrade. Finding the right pickup is not as easy as just an install, however. Just as every guitar is unique, every pickup can vary, and you may not like the combination when installed in your instrument.

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Flip or Flop?

Finally, we’ve all dreamt of buying an instrument for low dollars, turning it into an incredible playing and sounding beast and flipping it for double the money. Unfortunately, this is just a dream. Other than standard line or better models from the major U.S. or Japanese manufacturers, used instrument resale is a tricky business. The most incredible sounding Squier, Epiphone, LTD or Rogue, despite custom-wound pickups, new bridge and locking tuners, will still be a lower-end model and will resell accordingly. Plus, that non-reversible mod may limit the next buyer as well. Keep your money and invest in an instrument you would be happy with as is, and upgrade it till you grow out of it or can’t put it down.

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In the end, if you are looking to make an instrument a personal keeper, then do what you please with it. If the changes enable you to sound better, play better and feel better, then it’s worth it. If you’re looking for a short-term improvement on the road to a better instrument, then make an upgrade budget and stick to it. Also, if you are looking at flipping, remember: not everyone will share your taste for green pickup bobbins, black hardware, diamond plate pickguards, pink speed knobs, stickers and a vintage Washburn Wonderbar.

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