How to Make a Cheap Guitar Better

A few minor changes can improve a cheap guitar.
A few minor changes can improve a cheap guitar. (Image: Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

There are several approaches to making a cheap guitar sound better. You can improve the quality of tone by replacing the strings. Adjusting the action – the height of the bridge and the nut – can make it easier to play. If the guitar doesn’t stay in tune, you can change the machine heads. Playing the guitar through a mixer allows you to adjust the tone to compensate for any problems with the acoustic sound.

Choose a budget brand from a reputable maker if you haven’t yet bought the guitar. Check guitar reviews online, find a brand and see who makes it. Many high-profile guitar makers have a budget range sold under a different name. Price is lower than the main brand, but quality is likely to be reasonable because the manufacturer has a reputation to protect.

Change the strings. This is sound advice for any guitar, but even more important for cheap guitars. Manufacturers aim to keep prices down by keeping costs low, so the original strings are unlikely to be top quality. According to the Gibson Guitar Corporation, strings of different designs, compositions and gauges can have remarkably different characteristics. Choose a set of branded strings in the gauge you prefer. Fitting new strings is a quick and easy way to make an immediate improvement in tone.

Ask a guitar dealer or repair specialist to lower or raise the action – the gap between strings and frets. The original factory setting may cause several problems. According to the website, a poor setup can lead to bad tuning, buzzing and rattling, intonation problems, and electrical nightmares. Raise the action if the strings are too close to the frets and make buzzing sounds. Lower the action if the clearance between fret and strings is too high. High action can make it difficult to hold down chords.

Replace the machine-head tuners. This is important if the strings do not stay in tune or if the guitar is difficult to tune. Cheap tuners may stick when your turn them, making it difficult to get a precise tuning. If they fail to hold the strings securely, your guitar will quickly go out of tune. Try lubricating the tuners with a light oil. Replace them if that does not solve the problem.

Play the guitar through a mixer unit or graphic equalizer to adjust the amplified tone. If you have an acoustic guitar, fit a simple pickup that sits inside the sound hole or attaches to the body with sticky pads. Adjust the treble, mid-range or bass settings on the mixer in stages until you find a tone that you like. Although this does not improve the guitar itself, mixing can improve the sound.

Try a different playing style. Strum with your fingers to achieve a softer sound if the guitar sounds harsh when you use a pick. Try finger-style picking to get more control over the sound. Choose a softer or lighter gauge of pick. Experiment with different combinations of string and pick gauges over a period of time to find the most pleasing results.

Tips & Warnings

  • Make any changes one step at a time. You may find that one change solves your problems.
  • Consider leaving major adjustments, such as modifying the action, to a professional.

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