To Modify or Not to Modify?

Cort MBM-1 w/ Bellamy-Like Mods via Musician Madness.
1967 Telecaster w/ Bigsby and Refinish via Victor Litz Music Center.
Kaki King's modded Ovation via Reverb.

What’s the point of owning a guitar and not modifying it to suit your needs?

Bill Kirchen’s Telecaster must be one of the most modified guitars out there—because there’s little left of the original instrument. It started life around the late ‘50s, but little did the poor thing know what was to come when Bill acquired it in 1969.

The last time I asked him, Bill told me that every single piece of metal on the guitar had been changed, apart from the six ferrules that the strings run through. "They’re original," he said. "But every peg, screw, wire, strap button, pickup, saddle—everything has been changed numerous times. No matter what you do, though, to me it still sounds like a Telecaster. The thing that gets me is that no matter what I change on that guitar, the sound inherent to that body is always there."

Bill is the musician-as-artisan exemplar. Is this familiar to you? The type of player who thinks nothing of having a guitar adapted and modified as necessary, because it’s a tool, and it simply has to work for the purpose the artisan intends.

Bill Kirchen playing his Tele on stage
Bill Kirchen with his Telecaster in 2004. Photo Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

"My nickname for my Tele is the coal-burner," Bill added. "I tell people I’ve had it so long we had to convert it from coal power to electricity. Young kids are not exactly sure of their timelines—they scratch their heads and have to think about that."

This sort of thing is known in the car world as resto-modding, short for restoration-modification. Take a beaten up old automobile and completely update it by swapping in a new engine, new brakes, new suspension—new pretty much everything.

This approach is more understandable in a car, where you really do want to have recent tires, proper seat belts, and all the rest of today’s safety-conscious features that might prevent you from crashing the thing or damaging yourself, or both.

OK, leave the car now, and consider your guitar. Is there really such a thing as an unmodified instrument? Changed your strings lately? We could probably call that a modification. How does the fretboard feel? Your sweat changes the nature of that surface every time you fret a note. But you might well classify this sort of stuff as inevitable wear-and-tear.

Rory Gallagher knew all about wear-and-tear. His ’61 Strat became frayed and dilapidated, to say the least. He knew all about the theories that the less paint on a guitar, the more it breathes—but he’d just shrug and wink and tell you he simply liked the sound of it. He would also tell you that this Stratocaster was his good luck charm. Worn, trashed, and beaten, but a charm nonetheless.

Willie Nelson playing his worn Martin
Willie Nelson with "Trigger." Photo by Michael Ochs/Getty Images.

And what about Willie Nelson’s threadbare Martin? He picked it so hard he wore a hole in the body, which is about as bad as wear-and-tear can get in a guitar. I’ve no doubt Willie could afford a decent repairer. But he never had it fixed. There was plenty of space for a whole career-full of songs in that hole.

Perhaps you’ve gone beyond wear-and-tear with your own guitar. Many of us experience a gnawing sense that this or that aspect of the sound or feel or look of this or that beloved axe could surely be improved by chopping in a new pickup or three. Or having a tech do a re-fret for you. Or getting someone else to spray on a nice new finish. And so on. The choices are not exactly endless, but they do tend to spiral out into a somehow better future.

It can become something of a distraction from the main business of playing, this quest for supposed improvement. On the other hand, there’s the kind of player who will leave their guitar largely as it was when it left the factory.

This can be down to the fear of changing something that fundamentally works perfectly well as it is. The kind of attitude that prompts the well-known cry: "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it." This attitude that off-the-shelf is just fine might come from sheer laziness. Or perhaps from a lack of interest in the mechanics of an instrument. I pick it up, I play it; nothing else matters.

J.J. Cale was not such a player. He had what seems once to have been a Harmony H-162 acoustic flattop. But an extreme airline accident led to major rebuilding work that resulted, at first, in a new cutaway. Then, J.J. began adding what grew to a mass of pickups and controls, and he left the back off for easy access to the haphazard wiring that (just about) kept the whole thing running.

JJ Cale shows off the construction of his modified Harmony in this video's 4-minute mark.

Rivers Cuomo, too, is not such a player. His best-known guitar, in a few versions, was completely modified—because he put it together from individual Warmoth Strat-style parts, adding two humbuckers and a Black Ice onboard overdrive module. What you might call modified from the ground up.

There are extremes of modification. Up toward the hard end is Matt Bellamy, who added a Korg Kaoss Pad to his Manson, plus a kill-switch toggle for brisk on/off stutters and a Fernandes Sustainer to help elongate those handy stretched-out bits. (The company has since made many production models based off of Bellamy's custom designs, and Bellamy became an owner of the company in 2019.).

Right along at the other end, with a temporary modification, is Kaki King. She worked with the guitar maker Rachel Rosenkratnz to develop the Passerelle—an extra bridge that you slide on top of an acoustic’s 16th fret. Once in position, it creates what she calls a "new instrument" with 12 notes—six on each side of the bridge—that you can then experiment with in the midst of sounds not unlike a Japanese koto or a Chinese zheng.

Meanwhile, Bill Kirchen reckoned his Telecaster had echoes of a philosophical trope that’s been chewed over in various forms through the centuries. "It’s the story of the woodsman who’s had the same axe in his family for six generations," he said, "but it’s had five new heads and four new handles."

You don’t have to look far for variations on this theme. Douglas Adams, best-known for The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, saw a reflection of the idea in a Zen Buddhist temple when he visited Japan. He was surprised in Kyoto to see that the ancient Kinkaku-ji, or Temple of the Golden Pavilion, had survived in such good nick.

"The idea of the building—the intention of it, its design—are all immutable and are the essence of the building. The intention of the original builders is what survives."

His guide told him that in fact it had burnt down at least twice—so Douglas said oh, it isn’t the original, then. "Yes it is," said the guide. But it’s been rebuilt many times, so how can that be? "It is always the same building," the guide explained patiently.

"The idea of the building—the intention of it, its design—are all immutable and are the essence of the building," Douglas wrote in his book about endangered species, Last Chance To See. "The intention of the original builders is what survives.

"The wood of which the design is constructed decays and is replaced when necessary. To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself." Think guitar instead of building, and there’s as good an argument for the value of modification as you’re likely to see.


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include Electric Guitars: Design & Invention and Echo & Twang. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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