Sooner or later you’ll have to make a small hole bigger to accommodate some new piece of hardware — tuners are a common one. You can’t just hack at it with a drill bit so find out how to safely make holes bigger.
If you've ever had to wire or replace components inside a hollow or semi-hollow guitar, you probably know what a pain it is. You have to fish all the wiring and components through the f-hole to work on them. Even worse, then you have to get them back. It's like building a ship in a bottle but there are some tricks to make things a little less annoying.
If you've hung around here for a while, you probably know I’m not a guy that’s big on guitar snobbery. I’ve worked on enough guitars to know that, in many cases, what it says on the headstock doesn’t matter. If a guitar or a bass speaks to you—if it feels right—that’s hugely important.
Of course, I’m not deluded. I realise the components that might go into a three-grand guitar may be of better quality than one that costs three hundred.
I know a lot of players are crazy to get started with upgrades but, with some parts or components, this isn’t as big a deal as popular opinion might lead you to believe. Often, however, it is useful to consider whether there’s something to be gained by an upgrade.
I’m going to leave pickups to another day. They’re the heart and soul of an electric instrument and changing pickups can definitely change the instrument’s voice. Let’s take that as a given and we’ll circle back in the future.
I want to look at a couple of things that I feel are really worth upgrading on almost any ‘budget’ instrument (and even on some less-budget ones). These items are often not as high on a player’s list as they should be.
First up might be a surprise to some:
Output Jack and Pickup Switch
Really. They’ll almost certainly be rubbish. Electronics are an easy area where a manufacturer can save a few pennies. With pots, I’d say don’t worry about them unless they give you trouble. Capacitors? Don’t get me started—they’re fine.
Jacks and switches, though…
A cheapie output jack is much more likely to cause grief. It gets a lot of wear and tear every time you plug in or out. Lower quality alloys and poor manufacturing tolerances make cheap jacks very prone to becoming loose and NOISY.
Nobody likes that nasty crackling racket from a loose jack, much less your audience. Even worse, what if your sound cuts out halfway through that intense solo?
Same goes for switches. Dodgy switches can make your signal cut in and out and can send loud cracks through you amp every time you touch them, never mind switch positions.
Upgrade them! I’d put this right at the top of my list of any upgrades on a budget electric instrument.
Very. First. Thing.
Switchcraft are the go-to manufacturer for good quality jacks (I’m sure there are others but they’re what I use and I’ve found no reason to look elsewhere). They’re not hard to find, they’re not expensive, and they’re pretty easy to install.
Switchcraft also do switches (the clues in the name). Those, CRL, or Oak Grigsby make switches that will see you right. Good quality parts will work well and last ages.
Do it before you have hassle.
Next up, nuts.
Odds are good a budget instrument won’t come with the best nut in the world. There was a time when almost every non-high-end instrument came with an awful plastic nut. Things aren’t so bad any more and many of the newer, synthetic, nut materials are certainly better than plastic.
That said, plastic nuts are still out there and, even the newer and better materials will often be pre-molded, without well-cut slots.
Most guitars and basses will benefit from a well-cut, and well-installed, nut. There are many choices for materials (I’m partial to a traditional bone nut or saddle) but, in my view, the execution really matters. For any nut to be ‘good’ it must be properly slotted and installed.
This is a difficult thing to do well without some slightly specialist tools so I do recommend seeing a trusted tech/luthier for this one. I feel it’s worth it for this particular job.
Of course, if you’ve a nasty plastic nut, any upgrade, even to a pre-cut nut that you can buy off-the-shelf is well worth it.
By the way, all of this goes (perhaps even more so) for saddles on acoustic instruments. A good saddle will do wonders for your tone.
Personally, I’ll consider the jack, switch, and nut pretty early in my time with an instrument. Both my ears, and my sense of anxiety will thank me for it.
If you've had a Telecaster for any length of time, there's a reasonable chance you've experienced Wobbly Jack Syndrome. It's an annoying condition that afflicts Teles from time to time. You know it… That little recessed metal dish or cup that holds the output jack starts to get a little loose. After a while, it's very loose and—sometimes—even causes nasty signal cracks and output loss.
Inside the hole in the side of the guitar, the output jack is mounted through a metal 'retainer clip' and the metal cup. The retainer clip (photo on the right below) should hold it all tightly in the wall of the hole but sometimes works its way loose.
The clip works on a really simple principle: it goes into the hole with its sides bent (as shown above) and is forced to straighten. This causes the sides to dig into the hole-wall and holds it all in place.
Easy. And it's an easy fix if you have the right tool. If you don't—despite the easy principle—it's almost impossible to do properly.
And that ugly looking hunk of metal in the photo on the left is the right tool. Leo Fender may have given it a proper name but, for me, it's just the Tele Jack Clip Installation Thing. It makes it easy to remove an existing clip or to properly install a new one. Without it, you end up hacking aimlessly and hoping for the best.
If you're fed up with wobbly Tele jacks, a device called an Electrosocket can be screwed in to replace the, rather fiddly, clip and cup arrangement. It's not something you'd really do with a nice vintage Tele, though. In that case, occasional wobbly jacks are just part of the magic.
It's great having a guitar at a party. Everyone's singing and you're playing and the beer is flowing and—yikes!
Sometimes guitars can party too hard.
This little semi-acoustic got a bit of a smack as the good times rolled. It was fitted with a side-mounted output jack and it landed (quite neatly, really) on it. The jack disappeared into the guitar and left the side and finished crushed. This image was taken after I'd pulled it back into some sort of shape.
If this guitar was a super expensive thing with huge sentimental value, we might be looking at an correspondingly expensive side-repair. Sometimes, however, that's not warranted and all that's needed is to get the thing playing again with as little fuss as possible. The easiest/cheapest way of sorting this one is to make the damage good, enlarge the hole and mount the jack on a Les Paul-style plate.
The crushed wood had become quite flexible and trying to enlarge the hole in that damaged material would have caused messy chipping and tear-outs. That's not the way to go. I wanted to saturate the area in water-thin cyanoacrylate glue to harden it but even after poking it roughly to shape, the damaged area was still below the surface level and was pretty flaky and messy.
I fished a hefty bolt through the F-hole and gently snugged up a nut on it. This pulled the crushed wood back into something close to its proper shape. I loosened off, saturated the area with super glue and retightened the nut. Incidentally, that white 'washer' you see is a piece of teflon. There's a corresponding piece on the inside too. The glue won't adhere to this and I'm not really keen on ending up with a honking great bolt glued in the jack-hole. The shaft of the bolt doesn't contact the edges but I was very careful to avoid any glue squeeze out contacting there too.
Once it's dry, I can enlarge that hole more cleanly. A little, basic, touch-up and clean-up and the jack plate can be installed. This guitar is ready for the next party.
Super-involved repairs are justified in many cases but, sometimes, quick and easy is the way to go.
Even quick and easy should be done properly, though.