How to Make Your Cheap Acoustic Guitar Sound Expensive

Perhaps the most famous acoustic guitar in the world, Willie Nelson's "Trigger"
Perhaps the most famous acoustic guitar in the world, Willie Nelson's "Trigger" | Source

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 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

1. Get Some New Strings
2. Tone Up From Plastic
3. Install New Tuners
4. Upgrade Your Pickups
5. Ensure It's Properly Set Up
6. 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.

An acoustic bridge with saddle and pins.
An acoustic bridge with saddle and pins. | Source

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 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:

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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 the 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.

A set of Abalone inlay dots.
A set of Abalone inlay dots. | Source

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

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