You've seen it happen, maybe to you. Maybe it has happened to you many times. You get a guitar, and it loses that certain something as time passes.
You trade it in, and if you are lucky you get half of what you spent on it. Worst case scenario, you probably lose 70% or so. But hey - it doesn’t have to be this way. With a few dollars and a little bit of care, you can make the guitar you have now your future's longest lasting relationship. In the spirit of our times, let’s look at options for repairing your guitar, from the least expensive on up.
The sound of your guitar starts with your pick. This is far more noticeable on an acoustic guitar, as a thin pick can actually be heard along with the strings as they jangle. But electric guitars are not an exception, and there's definitely a sound difference between medium and hard picks. We also have picks made out of celluloid and nylon and a whole world of everything else. Some people swear the color of the picks will make a difference. We suppose color added will change the chemical makeup, so why not? If nothing else, just try a different pick. It may change your playing and it’s not a huge investment; better still, if you don’t like it, just throw it into the crowd.
When have you changed them? Have you ever changed them? Do you wait until they break? You can get some of the most popular strings in the industry for about $4-$5. There’s no way your guitar is reaching full potential with strings caked with gunk. After all, music is sound and sound starts with vibration. Dirt stops the string from vibrating to its fullest. Wear also makes strings dull over time. Except for a few bass players who really want their electric bass to sound like an upright, everyone sounds better with new strings. Try something new each time and pay attention to whether your strings were nickel or stainless steel, or the percentages of bronze and phosphor if we're talking acoustic. Coated strings are another option. They can be about twice as much, but usually last about four times longer. In any event, they will probably be more cost effective than that publicist you hired.
Do you plug your guitar in with something you found left on your rehearsal space floor by some guy who shared the room with you about four bands ago? Or was it free when you bought your guitar? Cable can cost a good amount of money for a reason. Cables can include expensive components like higher grade copper and thick shielding. They're designed to get signal from one place to another without losing much at all, and a cheaper cable can lose highs and lows and be noisy as well. A quality guitar cable can be over $100 now, but that’s still less than a new guitar. A good music store will have either demo cable or allow you to take a cable out of the packaging to compare against other cables. If they don’t, shop elsewhere or find a good online dealer with a reasonable return policy.
We’d all like to think that a group of angels descended on earth with a mission to make the perfect instrument for our ongoing musical creations. The cold hard fact is that our instruments come from factories that crank out as many instruments as they possible can. To get a guitar out the door, each factory will usually do a set up and intonation, but that's minimal at best. The nut will be a little too high, the action a little too low and the intonation off on a couple of strings. If you have never had a pro set up, get one; it’s not expensive. It depends on the city, but we'd say $30-$80 at the most. You'll need someone good to do it, and be aware that good people are usually busy and you’ll have to wait a week or two. Signs that your repair guy is good would include the use of tools to measure the nut, string height and pickup height. A guy who picks it up and plays it and then sights down the neck is what we like to call "a hack." That is a guy who played guitar and started fixing his own. He’s probably okay, but you can do better.
On the one hand, aftermarket pickups often improve the sound of an inexpensive guitar. On the other hand, they will turn a fairly nice guitar into an inexpensive guitar when trade-in time comes. Be very careful when getting into aftermarket pickups. If your guitar is $300 or less, it’s hard not to lose with new pickups. You know that factory that doesn’t care about your set up? They put the cheapest pickups in your guitar that they can afford. With a guitar that runs $500 or over $1000, we'd would give serious thought to replacing the pickups. Whatever you do, don’t route it for something new, and keep the originals in case the operation isn’t a success. One more word of caution - you don’t know what a pickup is going to sound like until it’s in the guitar, and very few companies offer a return on installed pickup. You could be embarking on the first steps of a long and awkward journey.
Here's a timeless Zen kōan - when is a bad-sounding guitar not a bad-sounding guitar? Answer: when you have a bad-sounding amp. An amp discussion could be a whole new article, so we'll keep it brief. If you have a tube amp, the factory put the cheapest possible tubes in there. Companies have to keep their products competitive, and that’s one way they do it. The problem could also be the speaker. You can find companies out there that only do replacement speakers, and who do them very well. A lot of amps are made from decent schematics but cheap components, so the watts and preamp tone will be the same. Put a new speaker in that amp a see if it doesn’t change everything.
Maybe You Suck
Okay, none of your friends will tell you, and now you aren’t going to invite us to your birthday party, but we can take it. Here’s the thing - tone is in your fingers. If you have searched long and hard and nothing sounds good and you’ve gone through multiple instruments, it may be you. If you have had Fender and Gibson on the headstock and Fender and Marshall on a grill behind you, think about all the greats that have had exactly that combination and made history. So, what shall we do? First off, take lessons. Take just one if there are multiple teachers in your area and see who you like. Second, pride aside, join a band as a second guitar player or try playing bass in a few bands. Bands always need members and you can fall in with someone who has been doing it longer than you.
These aren’t everything, but it’s a start. It can’t fix “irreconcilable differences,” but you and your partner have some options now before the big split. If a break-up still looms in your future, try a trial separation first - rent, borrow, or try a second guitar you don’t often play. Sometimes coming back to an old instrument after a few months with fresh ears is all it takes. If it’s still not the sound you’re looking for, remember the number rule since the guitar was first invented - turn it up.