Top 5 Guitars to Mod with New Pickups and Parts

I heard Paul Gilbert say in an interview once, "As a guitar player, you must tweak." This is true: no other musicians, save for synth players, revel in the amount of knobs, switches and micro adjustments to be made than the electric guitarist. The 1980s gave us the "hot rod" and "Super Strat" era, and heroes like Van Halen inspired not only with chops but with mods as well.

With so many options in the pickup and replacement part world readily available these days, let’s look at five less expensive guitars that, with some new parts and passion, can become your most versatile instrument.

The rules: guitar must be a standard run and go for less than $600 on the used market.

1. The Super Vintage Strat

Here we can take a readily available guitar, the Made in Mexico Fender Stratocaster. On the used market, you can pick these up for around the $350 mark—a steal for such a serviceable ax.

The first new addition would be pickups. There are likely a million options, but for the vintage vibe we can go with Custom Shop Fat '50s.

Next, with a bit of routing help, upgrade the tremolo to a vintage reissue and throw on some vintage-style locking tuners. Now, you have a vintage tremolo system that actually works but still looks like it belongs in the 1950s. Finally, throw on the pickguard and knobs of your choosing, and you have a vintage Strat for less than the price of a case from the Custom Shop.

2. The Super Les Paul A La Jimmy Page

As a Led Zeppelin nerd, this is one that I've always wanted to do and not have to take out a car loan to make it happen. A nice candidate is the Schecter Solo 6 series or the Ibanez ARZ series.

The real magic for this one will depend on your soldering iron. Once you swap in the pickups—Seymour Duncan’s Whole Lotta Humbucker or Bare Knuckle Black Dog are both great sets—and buy a push-pull for every pot, you are good to go. Wire in a coil-tap and a series parallel switch, and you are ready to send your playing "over the hills and far away."

3. The Blues and Twang Machine

Many semi-hollow guitars are aimed at blues or rockabilly sounds. But, with some work, both can be covered well without dropping a fortune. A great model to use as a platform is the Epiphone Dot.

These can be had on the used market for $350. Throw on a Gibson 490T and 490R, which are readily available and usually affordable on the used market.

4. The Shredder

There are many directions you can go to make the perfect shred machine. Nothing beats the Jackson Dinky. These come in all pickup combinations, so choose a configuration that fits you best.

For my taste, I like the true Super Strat HSS pickup combination. Here, I would go with EMGs for maximum shred power and clarity. The EMG SA/SA/85 set is perfect and can be cobbled together very cheaply, along with the other EMG components. For extreme performance, upgrading the Floyd Rose to a higher-end model will add stability and adding a big block will add sustain.

5. The All-In-One Tele-style

I own a Godin SD series guitar, and these are great Tele-style guitars that can be had at great prices—usually in the $300-or-less neighborhood. Tons of options here, due to the HSH pickup format. For all-out versatility swapping the stock humbuckers for Seymour Duncan P-Rails gives endless tonal options.

Also, Duncan’s website gives wiring options for getting all three sounds of the pickups with just two push-pull pots, so no crazy routing needed. For the middle single coil, a stock Strat pickup will yield great results, and is a cheap replacement.

Throw on some locking tuners, and you have an all in one tone machine. There's also the three-pickup Fender Deluxe Nashville Telecaster that allows for easy, versatile pickup swapping.

In all, any guitar can be a great guitar, so long as you're willing to put in a little bit of extra effort. With a few choice after-market pieces and some careful soldering skills, you can transform your cheap ax into a your own proper signature model.

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