upgrade

Fitting Nuts: Pre-Shaped Nuts Part 2 - Installation

Fitting Nuts: Pre-Shaped Nuts Part 2 - Installation

Installing a pre-cut/pre-shaped nut requires a lot of patience to do well. It’s easy to hack off some bits and glue it in but, doing it well and getting a good setup… that takes time and some Buddha-like levels of patience.

Most of the nut manufacturers don’t tell you that. Go figure.

Check out how to get a great result…

Fitting Nuts: Pre-Shaped Nuts Part 1 - The Right Nut

Fitting Nuts: Pre-Shaped Nuts Part 1 - The Right Nut

Installing a pre-cut/pre-shaped nut starts with measuring your existing nut to ensure you choose one that’s right for the job. Most of the measurements are obvious and are those that the nut manufacturers recommend in their own documentation. But… There’s one they rarely mention. And it’s important.

Check it out…

How to Shrink a Hole

How to Shrink a Hole

A while back, I wrote about some methods for enlarging holes — for instance, if you wanted to fit larger tuners or a larger control pot into a hole that had housed something smaller.

But what if you want to go the other way? What if you want to remove some hardware that’s bigger than the stuff being installed?

The First Things To Upgrade

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.

Nut

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.

Make Me Sound Like That Guy

Make me sound like that guy. Anyone that works in this business hears variations on this request pretty often. 

When I started playing, all I wanted was a Les Paul because heaps of my favourite players used a Les Paul. When I had a Les Paul, I’d try to make it sound like Jimmy Page. Of course, then, I’d hear Clapton or Gilmour and think I needed a Strat. I got a Strat but it didn't sound like Pink Floyd. Now what?

I got a Strat but it didn’t sound like Pink Floyd.
Now what?

To an extent, we all do this. And there’s nothing wrong with it. However, the make-me-sound-like-that-guy request can be a tall order. If your favourite player uses a Les Paul, you might get a Les Paul. Then you might find your hero’s Les Paul had its pickups swapped out for Lollars. You ask your guitar tech or repair person to spec out a set of Lollars. 

It’s not the same, though. It still doesn’t sound like the album or the gig I saw last month. Maybe something else is missing. What sort of capacitors should I put on my tone control?

The thing is, the noise you hear coming out of a PA array at a gig, and especially the noise you hear coming out of your stereo when you listen to the CD, is the sum of a lot of parts. 

Everything from the grey meat in the player’s skull through his or her fingers, the pick, the strings, the pickups, the guitar/bass, the electronics, the pedals, the signal run, the amp, the room, the mic, the preamp, the desk, the compressors, the reverb, the plugins, the engineer, the producer, the tapes/DAW, the mastering tools, the mastering engineer…(phew—deep breath)… Everything has an impact on the sound to a greater or lesser degree. 

You can’t possibly replicate all of these things so have a think about how far you feel it’s important to go and what's actually important to you

An anecdote might help. Gather around…

A number of years ago, I had a customer tell me they wanted to upgrade the pickups in their Strat to sound like Guitarist X. Now, I knew that Guitarist X tended to play Strats with Fender Texas Specials so after some conversation (and a shortened version of the list above), he asked me to order up some Texas Specials and install them. 

This done, he collected his guitar. A few days later he called me back saying the sound wasn’t what he wanted—it was ‘too weak’. We chatted some more and I double-checked the guitar to ensure it was working properly (it was). I offered to reverse the changes for him but he didn’t feel comfortable with my doing so any more. 

He loved the bloody things
— Frustrated Repair Guy

I later learned he’d visited someone else who had installed a set of Duncan Hot Rails. He loved the bloody things. 

Now the Hot Rails is a fine pickup but it’s not really a Texas Special. My customer wanted the sound he heard in his head when he listened to Guitarist X but Guitarist X’s axe and pickups through my customer’s rig didn’t get close enough for him. 

I wish that I’d been clearer with the caveats so my customer understood the risks and pitfalls of trying to sound like someone else. However, I also wish that I’d been able to better understand his needs instead of taking him at face value. I lost a customer and that’s not something I like. 

So, by all means chase a particular player’s sound. I’m not going to get into the ‘tone is all in the fingers, dude’ argument but, even if we stick to hardware, there’s a lot to consider.

Do some research (there are a number of great sites with rig-rundowns and gear lists) and decide what parts of the jigsaw are realistic and will give you the most return for your upgrade-dollar 


Of course, we haven’t even mentioned the disputed and ‘secret’ gear. Did Jimmy Page use a Tele for the Stairway To Heaven solo? I heard the opening licks in Sweet Child O’ Mine were played on a ukulele. You’re on your own for this sort of question. ;-)

Guitar Hardware School: Frets I - Size

Frets are frets, right?

Well, sort of. For the most part, the frets we use in our instruments are made to essentially the same style: A rounded crown (the bit you see on the fretboard) and a tang protruding from it (the bit that gets jammed into the slot in the fingerboard). See Hastily Drawn Diagram™ below.

Where things can get a little different, however, is in sizes and materials.

Guitar Frets - Parts and Sizes

Fret Sizes

For all intents and purposes, when most people think about fret-sizes, they’re thinking about the width and height of the crown. Frets can be sourced with different sized tangs but these are generally the realm of people like me who have to worry about fitting them to hacked-up slots or for ‘corrective refretting’ where the tangs are used to help control neck relief.

The crown width and height can make a difference to the average player, though.

In the context of this discussion, I don’t want to get into listing sizes—in thousands of an inch (yes, still imperial measurements)—of various fret wires. I’m going to stick with tall, medium and low descriptions for height and narrow, medium and wide for width. If you’ve questions about particular specifications, shout up in the comments and I’ll try to answer them.

Fret wire: Tall

Taller frets make string bends nice and easy as there’s plenty of ‘air’ beneath the string to let your finger get a good grip. Hammer-ons, pull-offs and the like are also easy. Think of a taller fret as a less extreme version of a scalloped fingerboard.

On the downside, taller frets can lead to intonation issues from players pushing too hard (with no fingerboard to stop them) and pulling the note sharp. Also, if you’re not used to them, they can feel like ‘steps’ as you slide along the neck. Moving to taller frets can be a learning curve for many players.

Obviously, though, you’ll generally get longer wear out of a taller fret and can have it levelled/dressed more often (although this latter benefit does mean your tall fret gets slightly shorter each time so that must be considered).

Fret Wire: Low

You’ve probably heard of the Gibson ‘Fretless Wonders’. This was a nickname given to some Les Pauls and SGs that came with really low frets. While these guitars often had very low action and little resistance in the way of that ‘stepped’ feeling you can get when you slide up and down the board, the downside was that they were more difficult to bend or pull-off as it was difficult to get under the string.

It’s relatively unusual to install really low frets these days (unless matching an existing fret) and, in my experience, most guitarists don’t actually get on with lower frets. Of course, the lifetime of a lower fret is going to be much shorter and it often won’t be possible to level more than once (if that).

Fret wire: Medium

The Goldilocks zone in my opinion. Think of this as a best of both worlds scenario. The majority of guitars come with medium frets installed and most of us are quite happy to play on them. If properly installed, they can usually be dressed a few times before a refret is required. If you’re unsure about fret height, medium is the way to go.

Fret Wire: Wide

Jumbo. Gotta go jumbo. Wide and (relatively) tall wire is often installed on guitars at the rockier end of the spectrum. A chunky, wide, wire can give a little more sustain and, if you’ve got a wide and tall wire, this can lend itself nicely to a rocky or a shreddy playing experience.

Wider frets wear a little more slowly so have more longevity. However, as they wear, they flatten on top and this can mean intonation problems creep in (effectively, the string begins to bear off a point closer to the bridge as the fret flattens).

Wide frets are almost exclusively the domain of the electric guitarist. It would be very unusual to see (or to fit) wide frets on an acoustic.

Fret Wire: Narrow

Narrow frets are relatively rare too, these days. You’ll see them on vintage acoustics a lot but even modern acoustics tend to err towards medium frets. Other instruments, like banjos and mandolins and the like often come with narrow frets (frequently very narrow). They can give a good clean tone but have slightly shorter lifespans.

Fret Wire: Medium

See above on Medium Height. Same goes for width. It’s a great place to be for most of us and, again, if you don’t know, you won’t go wrong.

Fret Size Impact on Tone

Different sized frets can have an impact on tone although I’ll give the usual caveat that tone is subjective and will remind you that you shouldn’t expect night-and-day differences. The changes you’ll get from different fret wire are typically very subtle.

Taller and/or wider frets have a bit more mass and this tends to translate as a tiny more sustain and a bit of an increase in ‘oomph’ (technical term). Narrower frets can sound cleaner or a little more well-defined. Remember, though: subtle.

Bottom Line: Is it worth upgrading?

If your current frets are worn and you’re in the market for a refret, it might be worth considering a different sized fret. As far as tonal changes go, don’t expect massive shifts. The real difference will be ‘feel’ and if a change is something you’re thinking about, it’s definitely a good idea to try out an instrument that already has your desired frets. You might love it and it’ll cement your decision or you might decide it’s not really for you.

Not sure if it helps, but I’d guess that more than 90% of the refrets I perform match the new wire to the old for completely understandable reasons. Sometimes, that comfortable pair of slippers is worth hanging on to.


If you've found this useful, you can check out others in the same series of Guitar Hardware School. Feel free to share these on and shout up in the comments if you've questions. 

Guitar Hardware School: Introduction

Understanding the basic workings of various bits of your guitar—and the effect they have on playability and tone—can be useful. It can give you an appreciation of an instrument's limitations and can inform when you're considering any upgrades. 

With this in mind, I thought it might be useful to take a look at some of the individual elements of a guitar and delve a little into the reasons they're there and the reasons they are the way they are. 

So, over the next while, I'm going to do a series of Guitar Hardware School articles looking a little more closely at some of your guitar's bits. Some of these are probably going to be pretty 'deep dives' so be warned: It's gonna get geeky. 

Guitar Hardware

Guitar Hardware