Upgrading Your Budget Guitar vs. Buying a New Guitar

It's time to upgrade from your starter guitar. Is it best to upgrade the parts or buy new? Read here to find the best guitar upgrade for you!

James Hurman

James Hurman

At some point in any guitarist’s journey, they start thinking about upgrading their gear, particularly if they’ve started on an entry level guitar. So, when the time comes to upgrade what are your options? Upgrade your guitar or buy a new one? Both are excellent options, and this blog will help you decide what’s best for you!

Upgrading your Guitar

If you’ve become attached to your guitar or particularly like the feel, but you’re looking for a new sound, then modifying it may be the way to go. There are many ways you can modify your electric guitar to create your own custom sound, that you can’t necessarily find in a new guitar off the shelf.

Upgrading Pickups

Perhaps the biggest modification you can make to your guitar tonally is to change the pickups – and it’s probably the most popular modification too. Most budget guitars will come equipped with ceramic pickups which have a reputation for being powerful and bright. Whilst most higher end guitars use Alnico pickups, which are renowned for having a warmer, clearer, and more dynamic tone. This choice is entirely down to personal preference, but generally players prefer the sound of Alnico pickups because they sound closer to those classic guitar tones that we’ve all heard from our favourite music, from warm, clear Strat clean tones (à la Jimi Hendrix, Nile Rodgers, or John Mayer) to punchy open sounding Les Paul tones (like Jimmy Page or Slash). First, let me explain the two most common styles of pickups…

Single coils vs Humbuckers

Without going into too much detail, as the name suggests, a single coil comprises of a single coil of wire wrapped around a magnet. Humbuckers are two sets of wire wrapped around two sets of magnets in opposite directions. This opposition cancels out (or “bucks”) the hum that single coils produce when exposed to electrical energy.

Characteristics of a single coil

  • Low Output – Generally single coil pickups are lower output than humbuckers (typically 5k-7k Ohms), meaning that they will drive less signal do the amp and are therefore cleaner than a humbucker (will produce less distortion), which is perfect for lower gain genres like blues, pop, indie, funk or country.
  • Bright – single coils produce more treble and clarity than humbuckers, meaning that the can produce rich sounding chords with plenty of note separation and definition. Single coils are often described as “chimey”, “glassy”, or “bell-like”.
  • Dynamic – Because of their lower output, single coils retain more dynamic range, meaning that the difference in volume between picking lightly and heavily produces a more appreciable difference in volume. Picking dynamics can add a lot of texture to a rhythm part, or produce a greater variety of lead tones, as you can produce a cleaner or more overdriven sound based on how hard you play.

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Characteristics of a humbucker

  • High Output – With two sets of coils, humbuckers tend to produce more output (typically 7k-10k+ Ohms), which will drive more signal to your amp, producing more overdrive. These are perfect for higher gain playing styles such as rock and metal for a thick crunchy sound, but also work well for a warm smooth tone that suits blues and jazz.
  • Warm – humbuckers are known for their thick, warm tone, producing more midrange and bass than a single coil, making power chords and riffs sound huge, and adding additional sustain to solos. Humbuckers can transition seamlessly from a smooth clean sound to crunchy distortion.
  • Hum Cancelling – because of their construction, single coil pickups will amplify electrical interference which can cause an annoying hum, especially in a live setting with lots of lighting and electronics. Humbuckers will cancel out this noise almost completely, making it a far more practical option in certain situations.

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You may want to change the type of pickups you have in your guitar to provide a new sound or improve versatility. One popular modification is to change the bridge pickup in an SSS (3 single coil) configured S-type guitar. You may find that with your single coil bridge pickup it sounds thinner or brighter than you’d want for those crunchy rock tones. Many pickup brands such as Seymour Duncan and DiMarzio make single coil sized humbuckers, so you can change your sound without having to route out your guitar and potentially damage it.

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Upgrading Electronics

There’s far more to a guitar’s electronics than pickups. Potentiometers can have a huge impact on your guitar’s sound and capabilities. Most entry level guitars will use cheaper “dime-sized” pots (potentiometers), which are usually not as accurate as the full-sized pots. They also may not taper as evenly – i.e. you may find that when you turn your volume or tone down, nothing much happens and then all of a sudden there’s a massive drop off. Most higher end guitars use CTS pots, because of their build quality and reliability. Not only will they taper more smoothly, but they may add more clarity to your sound, because their superior construction causes less treble loss. The most common values for potentiometers are 250k and 500k. All you need to know is that the higher the value, the brighter your instrument will sound. This is why single coil guitars use 250k pots and humbucker guitars use 500k. Changing pot values is a very inexpensive way to change your tone. Perhaps your humbucker guitar sounds a bit dark and muddy? Try 550k pots, or your single coil guitar is brighter than you want? How about 220k.

You may have come across the term “push-pull” or “coil-split”. You can but push-pull pots to which you can wire to give you the option to split and humbucker pickup. So when you pull your tone knob up, it kills the signal from one of the 2 humbucker coils, which turns it into a single coil. They you can push it back down to return it to a full humbucker, making your instrument far more versatile.

At Andertons we also sell wiring kits so you can upgrade all your electronics at once. These include specific kits such as the Stratocaster Mid Boost kit, used by Eric Clapton, to really customise your instrument and make it unique.

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Upgrading Hardware

Whilst changing pickups and electronics requires the additional cost of a guitar tech, or some basic wiring and soldering knowledge, changing hardware can be as simple as taking out a few screws, dropping the new part in and screwing it down. Upgrading the bridge on your guitar can be a very straightforward modification which can make a real difference. Not only are you getting upgraded materials which will alter the tone and improve the sustain of your guitar, upgraded string saddles which will improve your tuning stability and help prevent string breakages. You can also buy retrofit tremolo systems for Tune-O-Matic style bridges that don’t require and drilling or modifications to the guitar’s body.

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Strap locks are another straightforward and cheap modification you can make to your guitar, to ensure that your strap always stays put and your prized instrument stays safe while you play. The simplest upgrade you can make is to change the string trees. Simply unscrew the old one and screw the new one in. A good string tree will reduce friction on the string, allowing it to stay in tune, especially if you use the tremolo or bend strings a lot.

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Tuners can have a huge impact on the tuning stability of a guitar, so may be a very worthwhile upgrade for an entry level instrument, as the original tuners are often parts that manufacturers can save money on to bring down the price of the instrument. Locking tuners are a popular choice for upgrades as it makes restringing easier, faster and reduces the chance of strings slipping out of tune as you play. Tuners come in all different shapes and sizes, so be sure that you find a set that will fit your current guitar, so you don’t have to drill new screw holes into your headstock.

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Loaded Pickguards

If you’re not confident with wiring and soldering, but you’re looking to upgrade all of your pickups and electronics at once, a great option is to buy a loaded pickguard, with pickups and electronics pre-wired, so all you need to do is solder a couple of wires to your output jack. If you’re not confident enough to do that, you will still save money on hiring a guitar tech, since it is a quick job. Loaded pickguards are the best way to make the biggest difference to the quality of your guitar with one upgrade.

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Upgrading the Neck

A change you could make that can make your guitar feel like a premium instrument is replacing the neck. The neck dictates how the guitar feels. Your hand is always on the neck, so the shape, finish and fretwork make all the difference to the feel of the guitar! If you have a Squier guitar, you can retrofit a fender neck onto it.

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Buying A New Guitar

If you’re not looking to modify your guitar, there are a lot of great guitars you can buy under £500 that will be a huge upgrade on your entry level guitar. Squier and Epiphone are the market leaders in this price bracket, with a huge range of quality-built instruments. But if you look beyond the obvious brands, you can find excellent value guitars that punch well above their weight for the price.

Sire

Sire have collaborated with legendary jazz fusion guitarist, Larry Carlton on a range of electric guitars ranging from S and T-style guitars to single cuts and hollowbodies. The guitars focus on using premium tonewoods and pickups to create rich, clear-sounding and resonant guitars. They feature premium specifications rarely seen on instruments in this price bracket, such as rolled fingerboard edges for extra comfort and locking tuners. The pickups are custom made to Carlton’s specs, engineered for clarity and warmth – reminiscent of his famous LA Studio guitar tones.

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G&L

G&L was founded by Leo Fender and his DNA runs through the classic guitar designs, with new innovations from his earlier designs. The Tribute range features a wide array of guitars including S-types, T-types and offset. Each style has a variety of pickup options from vintage style Alnico pickups to modern Leo Fender designed MDF pickups made in the USA. Very few guitars in this price bracket will include American parts.

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Chapman

Chapman guitars specialise in offering premium guitars and high-end modern specs on affordable guitars. If you’re looking for a high performance guitar with striking designs and enticing prices, the Chapman ML1 or ML3 could be the answer. With colourful finishes and beautiful flamed maple tops, they look the part. With both Hybrid and Modern variants of both ranges, find the spec that’s right for you.

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Conclusion

Upgrade or buy new? Both are valid options. Upgrading may be the better choice if you’re confident in modifying parts yourself, and you have a specific idea of what you want to do with your guitar. Buying a new guitar is a better option if you don’t have an exact vision and you’re just looking for something that plays and sounds better than what you’ve got now. We’re now living in a time where you can get incredible value and quality for under £500.

Check out Chappers and the Captain on Andertons TV where they shoot out an upgraded guitar vs a new guitar at an equivalent price.

If you enjoyed this read, check out more of our labs articles!

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James Hurman
James Hurman

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