• James Leitch

My New Old Guitar: 3 Lessons I've Learned Shopping for Guitar Upgrades

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

Lesson 1: Good guitar hardware and electronics is pretty expensive.

It’s been two full decades since the last time I fell down the electric guitar rabbit hole, and there is just… so much gear. They make bridges and tuning pegs that don’t take your guitar out of tune by looking at them funny, and you don’t have to break out your allen wrench set and clear your schedule to change a string or use an alternate tuning! And there are So. Many. Pickups. I started getting excited at the idea of turning my $150 Ibanez RX20 into an awesome, cool-looking, high-end monster. Gold hardware. Locking tuners. High end pickups. Fancy vintage knobs? Push-pull pots so I can coil split and get tons of different sounds! So versatile! Everyone who buys a guitar at a store is definitely a sucker. Just drop a hundred, hundred-fifty bucks into a cheap guitar like me, suckers!

Whoops! Turns out I could drop that hundred, hundred-fifty bucks on any one of the pickups, bridge, or tuners. Easily. Without even really getting the fanciest gear. Those Gibson ‘57 Classic PAF pickups? $160 apiece. And they’re not like, actual antique pickups. They’re name brand copies. Those awesome gold locking tuners? At least $65, and you might have to drill holes in your guitar, or get a tapered reamer to make current holes bigger. Fancy bridge? Same, but more like $100. Knobs and pots and miscellaneous (but important) electronics and hardware? Another $120. All of a sudden, my hot-rodded budget guitar is starting to look like it’s going to cost… as much as a pretty damn good guitar in a retail store? Annoyed grunt.

Lesson 2: The marketing for pickups is really, really useless and unhelpful.

The adjectives we use to describe guitar tone are not all that useful. It’s hard to put a subjective phenomenon like guitar timbre/tone into words, let alone have a standard language. But when it comes to pickups, the marketing just makes things so much worse. Here are some descriptions of pickups on manufacturer's website and listicles you get when you <SEARCH_ENGINE> something like “Best Pickups”

“Warmth and meaty tone”

“Thick low-end, defined middle range, fat treble… output and clarity of an active set”

“Rich vintage tone… hugely powerful...delightfully saturated crunch...smooth and clear”

“Thick and meaty humbucking tone”

“Beefy warmth...tonal clarity”

“Classic snap, twang, and bite...good snarl and twang...vintage cleans and surprisingly hot output”

Everything is somehow, all at once, rich, warm, fat, beefy, and clear. I get it: nobody wants cold, thin, cloudy... guitar tone. Just saying something technical like “this pickup has a resonant peak of 7.850 Hz” or “This pickup has an Alnico 5 magnet and is wound with 44 AWG copper wire” isn’t going to make the 18-35s rush out to replace the ones that came with their guitar and were exactly fine. But it would be great if we could find a happy medium between the Food Network Judge (beefy, meaty, greasy, sizzle, “dipped in Texas hot sauce” [yes, really]) and the extremely insider specs.

The good news is that some companies are starting to do this. For instance, Seymour Duncan’s website uses a mix of specs, materials, marketing, and a “tone profile” with visual aids to help you get a general impression of what your pickup sounds like. But generally speaking, shopping for pickups is a dizzying nightmare if you’re even a little bit like me: indecisive and skeptical of marketing. After weeks of researching, I settled on two Seymour Duncan P-Rails pickups. Without getting too technical, they’re like two different types of pickup duct taped together, and with the right obscenely complex wiring schematic you can get lots of different sounds out of one guitar.

Saved like $40 buying separate and out of the box!

Lesson 3: It’s not as easy to swap out very old parts as you might think.

Last week, I mentioned that I bought a faux-tortoiseshell pickguard to replace the old white one I hate, and I was really psyched how it looked but the screw holes didn’t line up. So, my options were:

a) buy another one and hope those screw holes did line up,

b) or start drilling.

After taking option a, it turns out I need a third option -- the screw holes aren’t the only things that don’t line up.

Totally (slightly) different shape!

When I took the pickguard off, I left everything that was screwed in attached -- the knobs and pots, the 3-way switch, and the pickups -- because I didn’t have any particular plan for them at the moment. Priority was cleaning the filthy, filthy body. After the black pickguard that I bought had the same issues, I got curious about how different the shapes of them are -- it was kind of tricky to line up the black pickguard over the like-new paint where the body was covered for 22 years. Turns out, they’re quite different! In particular, the area by the neck joint is a totally different shape, and there’s no way I’ll be able to have either of these pickguards and the neck on at the same time without some serious modification. Even then, it won’t line up correctly. So, now my options are:

a) Find a way to cut these pickguards into a shape that fits, and drill some new screw holes in the guitar.

b) Buy a pickguard blank from an online retailer and figure out how to cut it into exactly the shape of the old pickguard.

c) Find a way to live with or modify the color of the original part.

Guess I’m off to learn about what flavors of spray paint work on plastic!

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©2019 by James Leitch.