Hot-Rodding a Kit Guitar
Stepping up a budget guitar with quality parts
Text and photos by Tom Hintz
Posted – 9-24-2012
One of the realities of a budget guitar kit is the cost saving electronics that enables hitting the low price point. It just is not reasonable to expect to find quality controls, pickups and tuners in a kit with a $200 or $300 total price. To be sure, most of these kits can produce playable instruments and that may be all many builders are after. After all, they are an exceptionally cheap way for a woodworker to get a guitar. But, if you like the guitar you build and want to step up its performance you will be happy to hear that many of those cheap parts are patterned after the more expensive versions which are often screw-in replacements for what came in the original kit. In most cases if the aftermarket parts are not drop-in pieces the modifications needed are generally small and easy to do.
When I built the Custom 1 Kit from Rockler I found that the body and neck would make a decent foundation for some higher end aftermarket pieces. After doing some measuring and comparing specs I found that the pickups and tuning machines could be directly replaced with higher quality aftermarket versions.
Schaller Machine Heads
A common issue with lower-priced tuners is a lack of stability in their settings and I noticed that in the Custom 1 Kit I had built earlier. It seemed that whenever I picked it up to play it needed to be tuned, not a bunch but I did have to go through all of the strings to get it right. Many times after playing it a while it would also need some tuning tweaks. Since the body and neck of the Custom 1 Kit were not changing shape the logical suspects were the original tuning machines that came in the kit. I made a quick parts run to the local guitar store and returned with a fresh set of Schaller Machine Heads (#M6CH A) that are commonly regarded as the best by experienced guitar players.
The stock tuners in the Custom 1 Kit are close copies of the Schaller Machine Heads so changing them out was simple. I did have to re-drill the mounting screw holes on the underside of the headpiece but that was it. The Schaller Machine Heads dropped right into the peg holes. After that I installed a fresh set of strings and got out my TC Electronics Polytuner.
Just installing the strings demonstrated how smooth and easy the Schaller Machine Heads operated. Even when the strings reached full tension the keys continued to turn easily and silky smooth. Also, the Schaller Machine Heads have a 12:1 ratio which gives you a wide sweet spot that makes hitting the exact tuning position much easier. I would later notice that after the strings had stretched out the only tuning needed usually accompanied a large humidity change.
Installing the Schaller Machine Heads appears to have cured the tuning problem. Since that change the Custom 1 Kit guitar has stayed in tune and is easier to fine tune in response to humidity changes or new strings. Those appear to be the only things that can require adjusting the Schaller Machine Heads!
Parsons Street™ Humbucking Pickups
It occurred to me that while it is easy to make cheap pickups that look like Humbuckers you just can’t make true Humbuckers cheaply. Because the pickups are so responsible for the overall sound of a guitar I knew I would have to change out the originals from the kit with some good aftermarket pieces. After a little cruising of the Stewart-MacDonald web site I settled on a pair of their Parsons Street™ Humbucking Pickups. (See the link at the end of this section for full specs on these pickups)
I removed the original pickups from their cavities and noted where on which pots each of them connected. After unsoldering the old wires I removed the old pickups from the plastic holders. The new Parsons Street™ Humbucking Pickups came with new mounting screws and springs so I used those to install them into the holders, making sure that I had the neck pickup in the neck holder. The holders are usually different heights and in this case the Parsons Street™ Humbucking Pickups are also different (internally) so I needed to pay attention here.
Because of having to fish the wires through the cavities I installed the neck pickup first and soldered its wires to the pots as per my notes. Then I could install the bridge pickup and get its wires into the control bay and solder them up to the right pots.
Installing the new Parsons Street™ Humbucking Pickups took less than an hour, including stopping for photos and video. Taking the time to draw out where the wires went saved a bunch of frustration and time.
As soon as I strummed the Custom 1 Kit for the first time with the new Parsons Street™ Humbucking Pickups in it I could hear a dramatic difference. The guitar is noticeably louder overall and the sound is way better. Now there is lots of bottom end but with far more mid and high end definition as well. I fully expected a big change but the actual amount of difference was a pleasant surprise.
Strings and Things
Other ways to fine tune how a guitar plays are with string height settings, neck relief and the strings themselves. For most beginning players, following the kit manufacturer’s specs for string height will work fine, at least initially. Once you get proficient at playing you will better understand the “action” or string height and be able to make better decisions on changes to benefit your playing style.
Don’t overlook the strings themselves as a method of tuning. The strings are a consumable and are meant to be changed regularly. Just how long between changes is up to you but most seem to think that with regular playing 4 to 6 weeks is a good life expectancy for strings. Here again once you get more familiar with playing a guitar you will be able to hear the strings lose their brilliance or zing as some describe it. They just start to sound dead eventually and nothing will fix that except new strings.
There are also a huge range of string types and gauges. Some players like slightly heavier strings for the durability and mellower tone they give. Rhythm guitar players often use a slightly heavier (thicker) gauge string for that reason. Lead players or anyone wanting more brilliance or high end tone will use lighter gauge (thinner) strings. The lighter strings also stretch easier for those who “bend” notes during a lead break. You can try somewhat different strings until you hit on a type or brand that you like best.
Following the hop-up changes the Custom 1 Kit certainly sounded much better. Having the extra power of the Parsons Street™ Humbucking Pickups also makes it play a little different because the strings feel more “alive” because the pickups are picking up more and sending more through the amp. The Schaller Machine Heads don’t impact the actual sound (some think they increase sustain, I can’t say that they don’t) but they make playing the Custom 1 Kit easier because it stays in tune. It’s also easier to tune because of the 12:1 ratio.
Is it worth hopping up a cheap kit guitar as opposed to just buying all good pieces and build a good guitar the first time around? If you don’t know how to play or if you will like playing a guitar the lower priced kit might be a better place to start. If you are already experienced you aren’t reading this anyway and already know what you want in a custom-built guitar.
The Custom 1 Kit from Rockler cost $224.95, the Schaller Machine Heads cost $79.99 and the Parsons Street™ Humbucking Pickups (the pair) cost $110.95. Not counting strings and labor I have $415.85 invested. For roughly the same investment I could buy a pretty reasonable factory guitar with the same look but then I would not have built it which is the point here. Building a guitar kit is a good project for woodworkers for all of the reasons we build any woodworking project.
In a coming story I am going to build a guitar similar to the Custom 1 Kit but from all high-end parts, starting with a high end but bare body and neck system. From there I will buy all of the parts needed to build a working guitar. The tuning machines and pickups will be identical to those used in this hop up. Watch for that story on GeezerGuitar.com in the future. We will also have more How-To stories on tuning and adjusting guitars in the How-To section of GeezerGuitar.com in the future so check back there!
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