Your guitar is an extension of your style. Swapping strings, pickups or refinishing your off-the-rack guitar can help project that style.
Owning and playing an instrument you love is one of the greatest feelings on the planet, even if your axe isn't a Fender Vintage '56 Stratocaster. Finding the perfect off-the-rack instrument can be tricky though—some sound great but don’t match your style, others look great but need help with their sound.
Whether you want to goose your sound, or give your axe a cosmetic lift, here are some handy tips to help you turn heads at your next gig or jam.
Do the Right String
Guitar strings come in a range of weights, called gauges. The gauge of a string is measured in thousandths of an inch, but guitar players often leave out the decimal and zeros when referring to gauge size. (A .008 gauge string is an “eight.”) Strings are often sold in sets designated as light, medium or heavy.
If you’re new to the guitar, you'll probably want lighter gauge strings, which will help you build your skills in a relatively comfortable fashion. Sometimes, though, even experienced players can pick a lighter gauge of strings for a few reasons:
- Control—Lighter strings afford more control over your bends and vibrato because they’re easier to manipulate.
- Brighter Tone—A light gauge string will naturally produce a brighter tone.
- Ease of Motion—If you need to fly around the fretboard with as little resistance as possible, definitely go light.
For all those advantages, though, be prepared to change light strings more often. Lighter gauges are less durable than their heavier cousins and the lightest gauges will snap more often under heavy picking. Lighter strings may also tend to stretch more requiring more frequent tuning.
Ernie Ball 2223 Nickel Super Slinky Custom Gauge strings are a popular light gauge option for electric guitars.
Conversely, experienced players sometimes opt for heavier gauges based on their playing style and the sound they’re going for. Heavier gauges will provide:
- Depth—If you need a meaty sound for metal or jazz, go with a heavier-gauge string.
- Diversity—They’re not just about depth. Heavier strings provide a greater range of tones as well.
- More attack—Heavier gauges let you “dig in” with your pick or fingers.
- Hand and finger conditioning—Using heavier strings will develop more endurance and callouses.
Keep in mind that anytime you change string gauges significantly, you may need to reset the action of your guitar to achieve the right string height above the frets. Neck adjustments may also be necessary due to changes in tension. Before stringing up an old acoustic with a heavy set of strings, you may want to consult a guitar tech so you don’t permanently damage the instrument.
Learn more about guitar setup and dealing with fret buzzing with these tech tips:
Of course, medium-gauge strings offer a balance between tone and playability. Blues players who do a lot bends in their lead playing still want a richer tone than a light gauge can produce. Sometimes the middle ground works best.
For more about selecting the correct strings, check out How to Choose the Right Strings for Your Electric Guitar or How to Choose the Right Strings for Your Acoustic or Classical Guitar.
You’ll find a huge selection of strings for acoustic and electric guitars at Musician’s Friend.
Picking Up Pickups That Will Give You a Leg Up
Pickups also play a critical role in your sound and the interplay between your guitar and your amp. There are two types of pickups to consider: active and passive.
- Passive pickups are the most commonly used type. They’re available in a broad range of voicings and types that offer tones and response to match various playing styles and music genres. They can be more prone to noise and hum than active pickups.
- Active pickups use a built-in preamp, which means they need a power source (usually a 9-volt battery), More popular with metal and hard rock players, their higher signal output allows the use of longer cables. They also produce more consistent output through a variety of amps, wireless systems, etc.
Most pickups fall into one of two types: single-coils or humbuckers.
- Single-coil pickups tend to be bright and crisp sounding. The tone they produce cuts through dense band sounds well, but they are also prone to generating hum and are subject to magnetic interference.
- Humbuckers usually have a thicker, louder, more powerful tone when compared to single-coils. While they are very versatile, humbuckers lend themselves to rock, heavy metal and jazz styles.
Check out the huge selection of guitar pickups available at Musician’s Friend.
A new set of pickups can give a so-so budget electric guitar the sound of a much more costly instrument. As we detail in this tech tip, installing a set of premium Gibson pickups in a budget-friendly Epiphone can give your sound a big lift for a modest investment.
Note that some pickups are designed to fit specific instruments. While many pickups will usually fit your instrument, some modification of the pickup cavity may be necessary to accommodate certain models.
Finish with a Great Finish
Do you love your instrument, but feel that it could be even more unique and fitting for your personality? Well customize it! Many legendary guitarists have used one-of-a-kind axes to add a little spice to their visual presentation. Artists like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, John Lennon and Zakk Wylde have helped cement their stage presence with customized finishes and detailing on their guitars. And you can too. A new stain or paint job can help give your axe a one-of-a-kind look that matches your mojo.
A note on stickers: While they’re an easy way to have your instrument reflect your personality, most stickers will eventually fade or peel away. That could leave a discolored patch or dirt-collecting adhesive residue all over that once-pretty guitar.
And before getting too creative, keep in mind that if your guitar has vintage value, any mods you make could seriously reduce its value.