Running out of creative juice with your current setup, but don't want to go for a total overhaul of all your gear? It might be time to explore the concept of modifying your instrument of choice.
While some players tend to view guitar modifications with an eye of caution - probably due to the amount of beautiful vintage Les Pauls that were butchered by Floyd Rose tremolo cavities in the '80s - a modification can actually prove to be one of the best creative tools a guitarist can have at their disposal.
Whether it's a simple switching modification or even the installation of an entirely new effects circuit, many of the best mods are actually extremely simple to install, and often require nothing more than a few easily obtainable components, a soldering iron and a bit of techy know-how. So, if you've hit a creative roadblock and wish to explore the world of guitar modification, here's some of our favourites to get you started on your way.
1. Kill Switch
Famously utilised by the likes of Jonny Greenwood, Tom Morello and Eddie Van Halen, the kill switch is a relatively mundane modification that simply momentarily terminates the output of your guitar by sending its signal to ground. While snuffing the signal of your guitar sounds relatively boring on paper, in reality, a kill-switch can be used effectively as the secret weapon for any savvy experimentalist.
Rapidly engaging the switch on and off in a rhythmic pattern has proven to be the key to many a great Tom Morello solo over the years, while pairing a kill switch with gnarly, oscillating fuzz or delay tones can create chaotic stabs of sheer noise, as best exemplified by guitarists like Jonny Greenwood or Bloc Party’s Russell Lissack.
While it’s often easiest to install a kill switch as an on/off button on the control plate of your guitar, it’s not uncommon for them to be located elsewhere - for instance, the kill switch on Tom Morello’s recent Fender Soul Power Stratocaster is placed on the lower horn of the guitar to suit his playing style.
Some guitarists have also installed push/pull pots on Les Paul and SGs that function as momentary kill switches, but a push/pull pot would make it a hell of a lot harder to pull off those stutter sounds efficiently.
For those who opt for humbucking pickups in their axes but wish to achieve a more broad palate of tones, a coil-splitting mod could be the way to go. At a base level, humbuckers feature two coils wired in-series and out-of-phase with one another, essentially bucking the hum that you tend to experience with single coil pickups and creating a much thicker tone.
If you’re aiming to achieve that glassy single coil Strat tone for a select song in your repertoire but don’t want to detach that cumbersome Les Paul that’s slinging around your shoulders, adjusting the wiring to isolate one of those coils is the best way to get to funky town.
Typically, coil-splitting humbucker modifications are installed by way of a push/pull switch, making it super easy to engage the modification between strums. These mods aren’t limited to Gibson guitars either - it’s all too common to see HSS Stratocasters or even HSH Super Strats with push/pull coil-splitting knobs, and nowadays, more and more guitar manufacturers are simply fitting their instruments with coil-splitting knobs straight from the get-go to tap into the craze.
Although the names might be awfully similar, coil-tapping and coil-splitting your pickups are two very different modifications that will inevitably result in totally different sonic outcomes. As mentioned above, coil-splitting simply isolates one of your humbucker’s coils, whereas coil-tapping effectively changes the output of your pickup by running a wire off the pickup winding to fall short of the full amount, and can be used with both humbuckers and single coils alike.
By coil-tapping your pickups, you’ll be able to flick between two varying output modes with relative ease, which can present a killer solution for buffering your tone without the use of stompboxes. For example, you may choose to opt for a coil-tapped sound when playing a bluesy solo to take off a bit of heat away from your overall signal and give your tone a bit of vintage sizzle, or even treat it as an ‘always-on’ effect and disengage it at pivotal moments to give your signal a bit of juice, cutting through the mix like butter. Once again, the nature of this mod lends itself towards being controlled by a push/pull knob, but there’s no ground rules for whatever works best.
4. Seven-way Stratocaster switching
Five switching options not enough for you? You might want to pimp out your Stratocaster with seven-way switching. This particular modification is often referred to in online circles as the Gilmour mod, with the Pink Floyd legend installing a similar mod into his Black Strat in order to expand its tonal palate by allowing all pickups to be engaged simultaneously.
What’s more, this switching modification also allows you to blend the tone of your neck and bridge pickup together in order to achieve a quacky, Telecaster-like tone that’s perfect for neo-soul and acid jazz tones, while installing the mod on a HSS guitar will deliver tones you’d have never dreamed to have been possible.
The seven-way switching mod is typically installed just underneath the volume knob, and works best when triggered via a mini toggle switch for ease of operation. Wiring is relatively simple - all you’re really doing is taking a wire and soldering it to the neck pickup contact on your pickup selector switch, with another wire going to a lug on the same switch.
Given the overwhelming popularity of Gilmour’s Strat tone, it should come to no surprise that here’s a tonne of resources online about this switching modification, so it’s safe to say you probably won’t run into too much drama installing this one.
5. Onboard effects
Before companies like Boss popularised the idea of a small, compact effects pedal, it wasn’t uncommon to see instrument manufacturers toy with installing effects circuits into the cavities of their own guitars. A noteworthy example is that of the Vox Phantom VI Special, favoured by Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, which featured inbuilt tremolo, fuzz, bass and treble boost effects, and there’s other Japanese creations from this era that even featured onboard organs or drum machines.
It's far less commonly seen nowadays, but installing an effects circuit into your guitar or bass can unlock tones you'd have never thought were possible. Of course, it saves a whole lot of fiddling by simply opting for a pedalboard, but if you’re devoted towards creating a modded monster of your own, there’s a myriad of effects that can be wired into your guitar.
It’s worth remembering that most effects will need to be powered by a 9V battery, so you’ll want to make sure you’ve got enough cavity space to install such a mod (and easily get back in there when the battery inevitably runs out of charge), or else you’ll have to route out space for the battery on the back of your guitar. Further to that, it makes much more sense to install an effect that’ll require minimal tone tweaking, such as a simple on/off overdrive, fuzz or compression circuit.
Serek’s recent short scale bass build, The Grand, is a great example of how a fuzz circuit can beef up an otherwise bland bass tone and send it screeching to new sonic heights - don’t be afraid to experiment and see what works best for you.
6. Sustainer system
Okay, so this one’s a little less simple than many of the other mods here, but it’s certainly one of the most exciting modifications you could explore. Used by the likes of Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Muse’s Matt Bellamy, the sustainer is essentially a handsfree E-Bow, letting you achieve infinite sustain with a flick of a switch to create immense ambient swells or droning lead lines. These units also let you create shrieking 5th harmonics of any note you might be playing, which you can hear O’Brien achieving during live versions of ‘The National Anthem’ with his own sustainer guitar.
Given the amount of work involved with installing a sustainer system - which will most likely be a Fernandes Sustainer FSK-401 kit - it’s recommended that you enlist the services of a guitar technician to help out for this one. You’ll also need to choose which pickup will be replaced by the sustainer device, and may even have to route your instrument considerably, so we probably wouldn’t recommend this modification for any vintage guitars that might live in your collection - however, if you’ve got a knockabout guitar and a whole lot of ambition, we’d fully urge to go forth and tinker. The world is your oyster!
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