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.