The guitar is a an instrument of detail. And, all of the guitar's moving parts play a huge role in the sound and performance of the instrument, (both on acoustic and electric guitars). Thus, due to its relative ease, many choose to upgrade and modify parts of their guitars, rather than spend lots of money buying a new instrument.
When we hear people talk about upgrading their instruments, it's almost always in regard to the pickups or tuning keys. Locking tuners can certainly improve the guitar's intonation (plus, they make it much easier to change strings), and pickups play a huge part in the way the guitar sounds, but both of these upgrades can be costly.
However, if you were to speak to somebody who has modified many guitars, they will generally say that there are a few simple, affordable parts of the guitar that are often missed, but have a huge influence on the qualities of the guitar. Upgrading these parts will save you money and will likely solve any problems you were having in the first place. Also note that many of these upgrades apply to other stringed instruments as well!
1. Up-Grade Your Guitar's Head-Stock Nut:
The nut is the first thing to upgrade on almost any factory guitar. Anything that comes into contact with the strings on a guitar will have an influence on its tone and intonation, and the nut is an especially important part of this puzzle.
Oftentimes, guitars ship out with nuts made of plastic or some kind of shoddy synthetic bone. The surfaces of the inside of the nut slots are very hard and abrasive with these materials, and often, you'll hear a little "ping" or "squeak" noise as the string slides around in the slot. This causes the guitar to go out of tune. Replacing the nut with a more slippery material such as graphite or TUSQ (synthetic graphite) solves this problem by allowing the strings to slide freely within the nut slot, which also drastically improves your guitar's intonation.
There can also be tonal benefits to swapping out your guitar's nut. Certain kinds of bone or brass have their own unique tonal characteristics, and if you upgrade to one of these materials, you may notice a difference in the sound of your instrument.
Whether you do it to improve tone or intonation, consider a simple $15 to $25 nut upgrade before you reach for the $100 locking tuners or pickups.
The saddles on your guitar's bridge serve essentially the same function as the nut, except that they rest on the opposite end of the guitar. The same problems can plague low-quality bridge saddles; if it's difficult for the strings to move, it will lead to intonation issues.
After frequent use, however, players can also develop a burr in their guitars' saddles (when the metal starts to wear down, leaving a sharp edge on the saddle), which will cause strings to break frequently. Though this can be remedied by rubbing some steel wool in the saddle, you may want to consider an upgrade once you have the opportunity. The same tips for nuts can apply to saddles: graphite is incredible when it comes to solving intonation issues, whereas brass can add a certain sweetness to the high end, making the sound of your guitar a little more lively.
Of course, some guitars have a bridge with the saddles directly attached, meaning you would have to upgrade the entire bridge to upgrade the saddles. This is still a worthwhile upgrade that definitely warrants consideration, though it could easily be the same price as buying a decent pair of locking tuning keys.
3. Swap Out Volume and Tone Dials /Knobs
This is something that not a lot of players think about. The knobs on a guitar can be pulled off, put back on, and swapped out with very little effort. And sometimes, changing to a different sort of knob can make a difference.
Do you ever reach for your guitar's volume knob mid-song and find it a little to resistant to your manipulation? Or perhaps it wiggles too freely, and you find yourself bumping it and turning your volume off when you don't mean to? Is it too slippery and difficult to get a grip on? If make frequent use of the knobs on your guitars, (especially the volume), you've probably encountered these challenges numerous times on various instruments.
A set of two, three or four replacement knobs would likely cost you $10 to $15 at the very most. If you're dealing with any of the above issues, consider trying out a few different kinds and throwing them on your guitar.
4. Fresh /Comfortable Guitar Strings
Strings play a very large roll in your guitar's performance, both in terms of their age and their quality. When players complain that their guitar is always going out of tune or that the tone sounds muddy, the first thing to consider is how old the strings are.
If you're somebody who plays guitar on a daily basis (playing regular uncoated strings), it's ideal to put new strings on every two to three weeks if you want the best tone and intonation your strings can give you.
Many people put new strings on before every gig or recording session, which is a good practice. The important thing is making sure that the strings are properly and thoroughly stretched, which can take; time, practice and patience.
Different kinds of strings can also have a big effect on the sound of the instrument. Take your time and experiment between different brands of strings, coated versus uncoated strings, and different sizes of strings to see what sounds the best and feels most comfortable on your fingers.
5. Strap locks
If you're an actively gigging musician, this is a no-brainer. Having your instrument take a tumble onstage is beyond disappointing. The sooner you put strap locks on the instrument, the sooner you can stop worrying about it.
If you're anxious about drilling new strap buttons into your guitar, Planet Waves has been making a strap that locks on the strap side that might be worth considering, though from the reviews online, it seems much less secure than the full strap-lock upgrade.
6. High Quality Hard Cases and Gig Bags
Another great upgrade for the actively gigging musician are high quality cases. Of course, you will want to make sure that whatever case you own can completely protect your guitar. And, consider which case will be the best for where you are headed. Going to a club 10 min. from your pad may just require a good gig bag. heading to a session at a studio - gig bag. Traveling to another city - hard case. Dropping your axe off at the repair shop - Hard case... But there are even more factors to consider as well.
Each case and gig bag has its own weight, and if you take your time to try a few out, you can find cases that are lighter than others but protect just as well. Also consider the handle(s): if it's not comfortable on your hand, (or if the gig-bag feels bad slung over your shoulder), it's going to be very difficult to carry around, especially if you have to walk a few blocks from a parking spot to the venue.
Some hard-shell cases also have locks, which can be useful as a deterrent to anyone who wants to take a quick peek at what's inside. However, this is not essential, as anybody who really wants to get into the case could simply break the latch and open it up.