John is a fervent writer, gamer, and guitar lover. He is a former automatic-transmission repairer, welder, and hobbyist game developer.
Acoustic Guitar Upgrades to Make Your Old or Cheap Guitar Sound Great
Guitars, like most things in the 21st century, have become widely accessible and inexpensive. Where even a low-end guitar would once have set you back the better part of a thousand dollars, it is now possible to purchase a perfectly serviceable mass-produced guitar for less than a hundred dollars!
However, as with all things, you get what you pay for, and, for most of us, a really nice guitar that would likely cost multiple thousands of dollars is completely impractical and something we simply can’t justify. That shouldn’t mean you can’t get the absolute best out of your budget acoustic guitar without spending a fortune. Here are a few things you can do to make your cheap acoustic guitar sound like an expensive guitar without breaking the bank.
6 Steps to Improving Your Guitar Sound
- Get Some New Strings
- Tone Up From Plastic
- Install New Tuners
- Upgrade Your Pickups
- Ensure It's Properly Set Up
- Make It Your Own
1. Get Some New Strings
The easiest and most obvious thing to do to your guitar is to give it a nice set of new strings. This is especially recommended if your budget guitar is second-hand, as the previous owner will likely not have put new strings on just to sell the guitar on. A decent set of Ernie Ball strings will run you less than $10, but there’s more to it than simply buying a set of strings and fitting them.
Do a little research into the way you play. Look for guitarists who play in a similar fashion and try to find out what strings they use. Using strings that suit your playing style will make a noticeable difference to the sound of your guitar than simply buying a standard pack.
2. Tone Up From Plastic
If your guitar cost less than $200, there’s a very good chance that the nut, saddle, and pins are made of plastic. Plastic is fine, it does the job, but it doesn’t do it as well as other materials.
Research is your friend. What kind of tone do you want? Bone, for example, gives you a softer, warmer sound, whereas brass will give you a brighter sound with more bite. A complete set of bone pins, a saddle, and a nut can be found for less than $20, and with little more than a bit of sandpaper, a flat surface, and some glue, you could upgrade the sound of your guitar in less than an hour.
This upgrade isn’t limited to guitars with plastic components, however. If you have a guitar with ebony components but would prefer the tone you get with bone, treat yourself. The guitar might not sound empirically “better,” but it will be better to you if you’re getting the sound that you want. Also, if you have an older second-hand guitar with the right components for your taste, take a good look at the state of them. These parts wear with time, and they may benefit from being replaced even if you’re happy with the materials being used.
3. Install New Tuners
Though a new set of tuners won’t necessarily improve the sound of your guitar, it may well improve your playing experience with that guitar. If you find that it is difficult to tune, or that it goes out of tune often, there’s a good chance that it is fitted with sub-par machine heads. A good but inexpensive set of tuners can come in at under $20, with a high-end alternative still being under the $70 mark.
4. Upgrade Your Pickups
If you’re planning on using your guitar to record music, and especially if you want to play performances with it, you’ll want an electronic pickup in there to carry the sound directly into an amp or PA system. It is possible to buy guitars for less than $200 with these fitted; however, many aren’t.
Fortunately, you can pick a piezo guitar pickup complete with tone controls and a built-in tuner for less than the price of a new video game. They can be a little fiddly to fit, but, as always, take it slow and use the multitude of resources available to you on the internet.
5. Ensure It's Properly Set Up
Perhaps one of the most effective things you can do to a guitar—old or new, cheap or expensive—is to be sure it is set up properly. This applies to brand new production guitars even more so than it does to second-hand guitars, as there is a good chance a second-hand guitar will have been set up at some stage in its life.
Unlike the above tips, I will say that the recommended way to go about this is to take it to a professional who knows what they’re doing. However, if you’d rather tackle this yourself, there is a wealth of tutorials and information on the Internet to help you. Just remember to take things slow, don’t over sand, file, or tighten anything.
There are many aspects to setting up a guitar but the main aspects are as follows:
- Neck relief: changing the “action” of the strings by adjusting the truss rod, nut height, or saddle height can greatly affect the playability of your guitar. Obviously, if it’s easier to play, it will sound better when you play it!
- Nut filing and shimming: This can be done as part of altering the action of the strings; however, it can also be done in order to fix the issue of strings jumping out of their nut during playing. This will be necessary any time a new nut is fitted, as the chance of it being exactly the right height for your guitar out of the box are very slim.
- Fret work: If your guitar is old, it will likely benefit from being re-fretted. If it’s a new but inexpensive guitar, it will probably have had the bare minimum of work put into the neck and frets, and a proper leveling and crowning may make a world of difference. Unfortunately, this isn’t a beginner task. It is definitely possible for your average enthusiast or guitar owner to tackle, and there is certainly enough knowledge freely available online to help you out, but this, more than any of the above tips, will likely benefit from a professional hand.
6. Make It Your Own
Once your guitar sounds as good as you can get it, you might want to make a few cosmetic modifications to improve the appearance of your guitar, or perhaps just to personalise; make it your own.
The easiest way to go about this is with stickers or decals. The Internet can turn up a wealth of options in this department, and the good thing about decals is that they can always come off if you change your mind. Of course, you can paint or refinish your guitar, but that’s more involved and beyond the scope of this article.
You can also look at changing the inlays on your fretboard. Changing dots for trapezoids—or some other shape alternative—is again beyond the scope of this article. Swapping plastic inlay dots for abalone inlay dots, however, is easily within the realm of possibility for the average guitar owner.
So there you have it. With this guide and access to the wealth of information available to you online, you can take your budget guitar and make it sound . . . well, like a somewhat more expensive guitar. Perhaps more importantly, you can make it your guitar. You can give it the look and tone that you want, and that will make it unique.
© 2016 John Bullock
Chris MacDonald on March 04, 2020:
Hi John, I have just had a shot at doing up a cheap guitar for a friend (Glen) who is just learning to play and I am teaching him to play properly (reading music, correct chord finger placement etc).
He has an Ashton which was given to him for free.
I installed a bone bridge and saddle, lowered the action buy a combination f bridge height and truss rod adjustment, lubricated the fret-board and saddle with a silicon free furniture oil (they were extremely dry) and installed a decent set of strings.
I am surprised how good this cheap guitar now sounds as is my friend as this is my first attempt at doing a near complete setup. I am now going to purchase a second hand guitar to do up and take away on camping and holiday trips. I normally don't travel with a guitar due to the fear of damaging it.
My go to guitar is a high end copy of a Gibson Hummingbird which was made in Australia, Cedar top with rosewood back and sides, purchased from Rose Music in Western Australia in December 1973 at the cost of $150.00 which was about 3 weeks average wages at the time. I have played many a Gibson Hummingbird but they have never played or sounded as good as my copy (my opinion only).
I am now 63 pushing 64 and am considering setting up cheap guitars and teaching under privileged teenagers to play and read music when I eventually retire and as I have done in life I will probably bear the cost. The reward/satisfaction that I will get from giving kids the opportunity to do something constructive will far out way the cost.
I do note that I was a poor performing student when I attended school and this changed when I eventually learned to read music at aged 28 after playing guitar for approximately 14 years. Something clicked inside me, my mathematical memory improved so I went to night school, finished high school Tertiary Education Entrance (TEE) and went on to get a degree and post grad. Music changed my life and it could help others change theirs given the opportunity.
I do know that I don't need good luck to make the above happen as I have always finished something when I set my mind to it.
John Bullock (author) from Yorkshire, England on October 05, 2017:
Hi Marie. It's a shame you don't play anymore, but as long as you're happy I suppose it's not really important. Thank you for the editorial pointers.
Marie Flint from Jacksonville, FL USA on October 05, 2017:
A well written article.
My passion for guitar playing rests back in the annals of history for me.
In the '70s I turned over my mother's Martin D-28 to a guitar maker, as my brother, who was six at the time, had kicked a hole in the end of the body. The instrument was in sad shape. The maker said he used bull dung to mend the hole. Eventually I sold the guitar to a young musician in the Denver area. The young man wanted a second guitar with a different sound, and that old Martin did have a seasoned, warm sound.
I'm beyond guitar playing today. It takes time to develop the necessary finger-tip calluses. I do love listening to classical guitar music; it's among my favorite instrumental music choices.
A couple editorial tips: articles and short prepositions aren't capitalized unless they start the title, and avoid ending a sentence with a preposition (I wrote an article on how to fix dangling prepositions).