Written by Bear Greenholtz
Updated on April 10th, 2023
Bear is a guitar player who is knowledgeable in upgrades and modifications. He has also produced some of his own music and is an accomplished piano player.
We guitarists are a fickle bunch. We crave the great craftsmanship and care that go into a great instrument. With terms like “custom shop” and “master built” being thrown about, we want these guitars until we see the price tag.
The sticker shock always sends us crashing back to earth.
We also find ourselves surrounded by a plethora of more affordable instruments.
While still well-made (some of them), can they hold a candle to the pricier options? Can a cheap guitar be made to sound good?
Let’s see how we can do it.
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We should first define what we mean by a “cheap” instrument.
Do we mean cheap in price? There are hundreds of guitars that can be acquired for a couple of hundred dollars that play and sound decent. There are also some inexpensive off-brands that may fall short in sound and playability for the same price.
What about “cheap” in terms of quality?
This can be tricky since guitars in any price bracket can have their problems. An inexpensive Epiphone Les Paul can come out of the factory looking and playing great, while a substantially more expensive Gibson can have issues right out of the box.
Unfortunately, like with most things, price does not necessarily mean quality with guitars. There is the expectation that if you spend $3,000 on a Gibson, it should be pristine, while we may shrug off the fact that a $200 Harley Benton may have some issues (“What do you expect for the price?”) You can also find stories of horrible $3,000 guitars and excellent $200 ones.
For this thought experiment, we will assume that the “cheap” guitar is probably an off-brand guitar that costs a couple of hundred dollars. We’ll also assume that the only parts of the guitar that will remain untouched are the body, neck and fretboard. At that price for an off-brand, we expect corners to be cut at the factory.
To improve this guitar’s sound, we will look at three different categories:
How does it play
It may seem odd that a discussion on making a guitar sound better would include playability. Most would think that we would be talking about swapping pickups and other parts (that comes later). But playability does have a significant impact on a guitar’s sound. If it’s hard to play from the start, good luck getting a good tone out of it.
Here are some of the things that affect playability on an instrument:
If the action is too high on a guitar, it may be hard to play. If the action is too low, strings will start buzzing against the frets, producing undesirable notes. Here's what to look for and how to fix it.
How straight is the neck
Ideally you want the neck to be straight. If it's bowed backwards, the strings will hit the frets, causing the aforementioned buzzing. If it is bowed forward, then the strings will be too high. The solution would be to adjust the truss rod.
What this does is apply counter-tension to the force exerted by the strings. The adjustment tool can be found on most necks at the headstock, and you will need an Allen wrench, or a hex wrench to make adjustments. Following the “lefty-loosey-righty-tighty” principle, tightening the rod will add counter tension, moving the bow of the neck back.
Loosening the rod will relieve some of that tension, allowing the neck to bow forward.
It is best to make adjustments a quarter turn at a time until your neck is straight. Be sure to sight your neck constantly (looking down one side of the neck from the headstock down to the body) to see how your adjustments are going.
Read more: Making truss rod adjustments
How high are the saddles
Saddle height should be set so that your strings pass over the body and fretboard at just the right height all the way to the nut.
If your neck is straight and your action is still too high or low, you may need to adjust the saddles’ height. Most saddles on a Strat or Tele-style guitar will have little Allen screws that act as feet to set the height.
Make adjustments here a bit at a time until the height is properly set.
With individual saddles it’s important to make sure that the individual string heights follow the radius of the fretboard (this is why the outside strings are lower than the inside ones). Making them all even will make some strings too high or too low on the fretboard.
Saddles on tune-o-matic bridges (like the ones found on most Gibson-style models) have a global adjustment for the whole bridge by way of a large screw on either side. Just make quarter-turn adjustments on each one until the strings are at the right height.
Frets that are properly installed and dressed will ensure that all the notes on the fretboard sound their best. Here’s what to look for to ensure good playability. Note that because repairing and replacing frets requires special tools and skills, these fixes are best left to a luthier.
How well are the frets dressed
When frets are installed, a good technician should ensure that all the frets are level with each other and are properly crowned so that the apex of each fret is the same from one to the next.
This will ensure proper intonation across the neck and easy playability.
They should also look shiny and new, a sign that they’ve been worked on. Inexpensive instruments will have this corner cut pretty often. If you’re noticing tuning issues, or the frets feel weird under your fingers, you may want to have a luthier do a proper fret dressing.
If you decide to get your frets worked on, maybe consider replacing them with ones made from different alloys such as nickel silver (the most common material which has a balanced sound), stainless steel (which has a brighter sound and is more durable), brass (which offers a warmer sound but wears out faster) and other metals.
The fret has two parts to it: The crown (which is the part we see on the fretboard) and the tang (the part that is inserted in the wood and holds the fret in place). With changes in temperature and humidity, the wood of the fretboard can shrink, allowing the tang and edges of the crown to protrude from either side.
While this doesn’t affect the sound, the fact that you may have sharp edges on either side of the neck will definitely affect playability.
Once again, best to take the instrument to a luthier to have this problem fixed. They will basically refile the edges of the frets down to be even with the fretboard, eliminating the problem and preventing it from coming back.
Parts and Hardware
Now let's look at the second aspect that affects sound and playability, the parts. Again, corners can be cut here to keep costs down. Fortunately, there are some pretty easy solutions.
Good quality tuners are essential to keep tuning stable on an instrument. The keys themselves should feel nice and snug when you turn them, and the gears should also turn smoothly. If they don’t do either of these, then tuning the guitar will be a frustrating experience, making a tuning hardware replacement well worth it.
The nut has a greater impact than one would think, affecting the tone and tuning of the instrument. Here are a couple of factors.
What is the nut made of
If the instrument was inexpensive, then likely the nut is made of plastic, which doesn’t sound good and is susceptible to breaking should the guitar fall, or even from just regular use. There is now a wide range of materials available, from bone to graphite, that offer better durability and sound.
How are the slots cut
If the slots are too narrow, the strings won’t sit properly and will pop out while playing. If the slots are too large, then the string will move about, affecting the tuning by pulling certain notes sharp while fretting.
Properly cut slots will hold the string sturdily in place, allowing it to glide freely when tuning.
Special care should also be taken when dealing with guitars with three-tuners-per-side headstocks where the strings don’t go straight past the nut to the tuners. These would be Gibson-style headstocks where the string breaks at an angle when leaving the nut to the tuner. These need to be cut properly to keep that break angle to a minimum, allowing for better glide and tuning stability.
Cheap guitars mean that bridges were probably made from cheap alloys that may not sound the best. A simple upgrade here would be to swap out a bridge made of better metals, such as brass, titanium or stainless steel. Not only will you get a better tone and sustain, but you will also get better durability.
The last element to look at is the electronics. This is probably the most obvious upgrade that many players will make to a cheap guitar, usually revolving around some kind of pickup upgrade. But pickups are just one part of the entire equation.
If there was ever a plethora of options, it’s here. Hundreds of pickups are available in all different flavors and colors (single coil, humbucker, P90, active, passive, high output, low output, stacked, etc.). Pickup type and sound are definitely a personal choice, and you might be happy with the pickups you already have. However, if the guitar is cheap, here are a few things to look for.
How high is the output
This refers to how loud the pickup actually is, affecting how hard the guitar’s signal will hit the front of an amp, effects pedals, etc.
Cheap pickups may use lower-quality magnets in them, leading to a lower overall output. Depending on the style of music you play, this may affect your sound by not driving the signal chain hard enough, leading to a thin and brittle sound.
If this is the case, you may want to swap out the pickups for a higher-quality set.
Besides the fact that single coils and P90 pickups are noisier in general, it should not be overly noisy on a clean sound, though it will be more apparent if you play with a lot of gain (distortion).
Lower-quality materials and poor quality control could mean that your pickups may be noisier than what is typically expected. The first check would be to see if the pickups are properly grounded (usually by way of a ground wire being soldered to a piece of metal in the guitar, such as the bridge). If they are not grounded, that may be the solution.
This would also apply to the control cavity of the guitar. Most will be shielded with special tape or paint, reducing electrical interference, and therefore noise.
If it isn’t, you may have found a culprit for the noise. If all else fails, replacing the pickups may be the solution.
If it's a Stratocaster or Telecaster, the Fender Noiseless series single coils are fantastic.
Read more: Best Fender Noiseless single coil pickups
For humbuckers, the Fishman Fluence series should get your guitar close to zero noise, even if the internals aren't perfect. Active humbuckers in general are better for reducing unwanted noise and hum, hence the name.
The output jack
The output jack should hold your guitar cable properly.
There should be no movement when the cable is inserted and should also be noise free when you move around on stage. Cheap jacks won’t be as solid, introducing intermittent noise due to a poor connection, and even cutting the signal in and out while playing.
Replacing this is an easy fix and a good-quality jack will last a long time.
The volume and tone pots should have a smooth taper and be noise-free.
The pots aren’t smooth or durable
If the manufacturer cuts corners here, you’ll be able to tell.
The controls won’t be smooth, there may be noise, or they will fail easily (cutting your signal out completely). Many companies offer good quality pots that are more durable and smooth, giving you way better control.
The tone control is too dark or too light
Different tone pots use different capacitors to determine the range of tonal control you have. Cheap ones will go from bright to dark way too quickly, reducing the overall range of the control.
If you’re good with a soldering iron, the capacitor can be replaced with a better quality one, giving you a better tonal range.
The guitar’s tone gets dark when the volume is turned down
Single coils and P90s should retain some clarity when the guitar’s volume is turned down, while humbuckers will likely darken a bit more than single coils will. A better-quality volume pot should help keep the tone even when turned down.
Another option would be to install a treble-bleed circuit, which retains the highs when turned down.
This is a great upgrade for players who use their volume knob to go from clean to dirty.
We just covered a ton of upgrades and repairs to make your cheap guitar play and sound its best. These may not all be necessary (or not all necessary at once), but fixing and upgrading the trouble spots will definitely improve tone and playability.
It's also a balancing act, as many of these upgrades can come with a hefty price tag, ultimately making you wonder if you should have saved for a better instrument in the first place.
The best course of action is to fix the essentials and upgrade as you go. By doing so, you’ll end up with a great instrument that is truly your own.
If you have questions, leave them in the comments section and I'll help out.