The Five Best Ways To Upgrade That Cheap / Old Guitar

Titanium Knobs

Read Time 4 Minutes

Your Old Beater Guitar Might Still Have Some Life In It!

Maybe you’re stuck with an old guitar due to financial circumstances, or maybe you’ve got one laying around that you’ve upgraded from and you’d like to make it a little more useful – possibly as a backup.

There are plenty of ways to upgrade a guitar depending on your cash flow and obviously – the guitar in question. We’ve put together a list of 5 things that are really the most likely to make the biggest difference quickly and cheaply.

1 – Upgrade the Knobs.

Titanium Knobs on a Stratocaster
Titanium Knobs

Type of Change: Cosmetic
Cost range: $10 -$20
Complexity: Easy

This is purely cosmetic, but it’s one of the cheapest options and it can make a world of difference in how your guitar looks. It won’t change how it plays, or sounds, or how well it does or doesn’t stay in tune, but hey. They’re knobs.

Think of them in the same regard as upgrading your old shoes you’ve been wearing since the 80s to a more stylish and hip pair of shoes. The function is the same in that they’re supposed to keep your feet safe from the dangers of broken glass, nails, and the scourge of our time, dog crap. But from an aesthetic point of view they’ll make you look so stylish I’m sure you could get that job delivering pizzas if you wear them into the job interview.

You can usually find knobs for less than $20 that are probably better than most knobs that come on the cheaper guitars. Plus it’s a less expensive way to look more stylish than buying new shoes.


Image Gallery: Cool Guitar Knobs To Twist Your Image

2 – Set It Up or Have Someone Do It for You.

Guitar Neck Set ActionType of Change: Playability
Cost range: Free – $60
Complexity: Can be difficult, depending on your experience.

Especially if that guitar is one of your first – or IS your first, it’s probably not set up correctly and you can most likely make it play better than you’ve ever felt it play before – just with a good setup. In fact. It’s not uncommon at all to buy a guitar that could use a good setup itself. If you’re buying online from, oh say Zzounds, you have to consider that the guitar might be shipped through several states and thus different temperatures and humidity levels. The wood can expand and compress and only in a perfect world does it return to its normal shape.

In the end it can never hurt to take a look at your string height, your intonation, or your pickup height. If you’re not sure how, there are plenty of tutorials online, and we’ve got some right here for you:


Electric Guitar Setup: Intonation

Setting Your Guitar’s Action

3 – Replace the Pickups.

Joe Bonamassa PickupsType of Change: Sound
Cost range: $25 – $300
Complexity: Can be easy or difficult, depending on experience and the type of guitar.

If really terribly muddy sound is what keeps you from picking that old guitar up, try swapping out the pickups for something better. Actually improving in this area can be expensive depending on the pickups you’re replacing. If you’ve got a Stratocaster, you’ll find this really easy because you can get loaded pick guards on eBay for fairly cheap. Beware – if you get a whole loaded pick guard for less than $60 or so on eBay, you’re probably not going to like the sound much better than your Mexico / Squire Strat. You have to be practical here, and do the research.

If your guitar uses humbuckers, you’ll pay a little more, but cheaper humbuckers sound better than cheaper single coils.

4 – Replace the Tuners

Peavey T-25 Guitar HeadstockType of Change: Sound / Playability
Cost range: $30 – $125
Complexity: Fairly easy, if you get a direct replacement (Shaft size and screw hole pattern)

The price range for tuners can go quite a bit higher than $125, but here we’re talking about upgrading an old beater, so I’ve capped it at $125.

Having good tuners can be a make or break deal on a guitar, because if you’re going out of tune every 5 minutes, you’re not going to enjoy playing the guitar, and your band-mates are going to beat you up. Fortunately there is a wide variety of tuners to choose from. Standard tuners, locking, and even tuners that clip the excess string off as you tune up that new set of strings your band-mates threatened to beat you up if you didn’t finally put on your guitar… but that’s a whole different discussion.

With tuners, price is a big deal. The more you pay, they better they are going to stay in tune.

5 – Rewire! Replace the Tone and Volume Pots, Switches, and Wiring.

Liberator Volume PotType of Change: Sound / Playability
Cost range: $30 – $80
Complexity: Can be easy or difficult depending on experience, and of course – the guitar.

If you’ve got lots of noise when you twist a knob or flip a switch – in the form of static and crackling, you can probably fix it with a rewire or just by replacing the offending knob or switch. It depends on how bad your problem is. A lot of times there’s nothing wrong with the knob or switch and it just has a bad solder joint, which is fairly easy and very cheap to fix.



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9 years ago

Thanks for the story. IMHO you just forgot to improve lutherie, which is not very hard to do but very important because it’s the making of the sound that the PU will transmit. First, check the whole contact surface between the neck and the body where they joint (neck pocket). Use a torch to enlight the side of the neck heel. If you can see light “leacks” when watching from the other side that means the neck and the body joint with some room. And it’s not good for sustain nor sound in a general way. You have to bolt off the neck and use a file or sand paper on the contact sides of the neck, sometime in the neck pocket too, to achieve a perfect fit.

Brian K. Anderson
10 years ago

Good article. I can vouch for this. I have a beater Ibanez that I didn’t like the sound of, but was comfortable to play. I had a friend set it up, swapped out tuners and pickups, and now it’s one of my favorite sounding guitars. I haven’t swapped out knobs yet, since the stock ones are nice enough, but have considered doing it at some point.

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