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Brett McCarronIt's Your Gear
Why not make it your own?

By Brett McCarron

I'm surprised how many players of high end gear -- especially guitars -- are afraid to make even the slightest change to their musical investment.

The mindset of being too careful with new musical gear can rob the owner of one of the greatest joys of ownership: that of customizing the piece to his/her personal specifications. Properly done, the instrument becomes an extension of the artist, providing not only joy of ownership but musical inspiration as well.

Starting small

Small changes to an instrument can pay big dividends, especially if you plan to use it in live performances. Does it hang balanced when hanging on a strap? If not, relocating the bottom or neck strap button to the balance point can make a huge difference. Many owners elect to add another button, while the frugal owner will simply move the button and screw up or down as necessary.

Anther easy change is to swap out the factory guitar pickups to a different set that is more consistent with the other guitars in your arsenal. One example preferred by many musicians is upgrading to a set of Seymour Duncan Seth Lover humbucking pickups to improve tone. Upgrading all your performance guitars helps prevent needing to make volume changes to your amplifier when changing instruments in the middle of a set. Keeping the original pickups in the guitar case is like an insurance policy in case you decide to swap back (maybe your taste in pickups changes over time) or sell the instrument (you can decide which set of pickups you want to include with the guitar).

Other changes you can make without altering the form factor of the instrument include changing electronics, such as swapping a 5-way rotary pickup selector (as from a PRS) for a more traditional 3-way toggle switch (as used on Gibson electrics). Or changing the string tuners from a vintage style to a locking version, such as those made by Schaller or Gotoh.

Another popular change for stop tail guitars is switching out the factory stock tailpiece (as used on many Gibson Les Paul and 22-fret PRS guitars) for a locking tailpiece, such as the style offered by Tonepros.

Radical, dude!

The author performing with a modified Guild S-100. Of course, taking a bigger swing at customization can pay bigger rewards. Especially if you're not concerned about affecting the potential collector value of your instrument.

I once took a saw to my Guild S-100 solid body electric guitar to convert it from an SG form factor to that of a Flying V. (That's a photo of that very guitar on the right. Click it to see a larger image.)

The result was a killer playing instrument that I was proud to perform with. Years later, Kim Thayil of Soundgarden fame would make the Guild S100 a desirable piece among collectors. Of course, my conversion ruined any collector value. But at the time, I was concerned more with practicality than with any eventual increase in instrument value.

A less-radical bit of customizing is to have a luthier replace the tailpiece of your present instrument with a 2Tek bridge. I can't say enough about this particular hardware solution that adds clarity and sustain to the existing tonality of your guitar or bass. Numerous famous artists have a 2Tek conversion made to their instrument. You may want to consider having this done to a member of your own musical herd.

Color My World

Sometimes you just don't like the color of a guitar or bass. Or you have too many instruments that share the same shade or tint. You have some options in this case: you can sell or trade an instrument in hopes of finding one that plays as nice and stays in tune as well as the existing one, but only in a different hue. Or you could simply not perform with the guitar or bass and buy another in a different color to use on stage. Or you could have your existing instrument refinished.

Advantages to having a "refin" performed on an instrument are many. You can end up with an instrument in a color of your choosing. Perhaps one that the factory never made, or one that the instrument manufacturer no longer uses. You'll end up with the same instrument, as far as sound and setup, once your luthier installs the hardware back on it. You'll have an opportunity to cover up any blemishes or repairs resulting from previous stage accidents or performing incidents. And of course, you'll have something shiny and "new" that you can't wait to show to the world.

Disadvantages to instrument refinishes include cost, preparation and finish time, no guarantee that you'll like the finished color, and some lack of eventual collector value for that instrument (unless you're a famous performer already, in which case just having owned the instrument adds extra value on its own).

Check with your local music retailer to see who they recommend. You can also look for referrals from other instrument owners, guitar shows, online forums for the same guitar brand, and the instrument manufacturer directly.

Total Restoration

Sometimes an instrument needs a ground-up restoration. Perhaps it's your all-time favorite, and you'd like to reconnect with the original joy you felt when you played it for the first time. Or you've rescued a bastardized woodworking project that you'd like have restored to it's former glory. In any event, a restoration project can result in an instrument that you'll be proud to own.

Many instrument manufacturers offer restoration services. You may have to obtain an estimate in advance through an official dealer. The process is that once you agree on a price and consent to the work, you deliver the instrument to the dealer, they ship the instrument to the dealer, the instrument is stripped of hardware, repairs made, a new finish applied, hardware and electronics reinstalled, and the instrument is then shipped to the dealer or sometimes directly to the customer.

Your local luthier may be able to perform restorations as well. The quality of the work varies with the skill and capabilities of the luthier.

Whomever you trust to perform this work, do your homework by asking for -- and checking -- the references supplied. Did they like the work? Was the initial cost estimate accurate? How long did it take? Would the owner go through the process again? What did they like and dislike about the ordeal? Be sure to insist that your instrument be insured both ways and sufficient to cover replacement value of the instrument before and after.

whether you perform a simple hardware swap yourself, have a luthier update the electronics or perform a fret replacement, or go for a total refinish of a favorite guitar or bass, making it your own will result in an instrument that's unique to you. And one that will inspire you to make more and better music.


- Brett

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