Cheap Guitar Makeover!

A while back a couple of readers brought up Jimmy Page’s Les Paul wiring scheme, which made me want to set up a dual-humbucker guitar with lots of those tricky series, parallel, and split-coil tricks. Meanwhile, I wanted to do a sequel to my last cheap guitar makeover, but this time with a solidbody instead of a semi-acoustic. Also, I’d been meaning to try a pickup combo recommended by the mavens at Seymour Duncan: a pair of P-Rails combined with Triple Shot Mounting Rings.

So I slaughtered all three birds with a single stone: I picked up a late-’80s Aria Pro II for $200 and retrofitted it with that absurdly versatile pickup scheme. Have a listen!

This was a fascinating experiment. I’m usually not much of a pickup blender — I’m likelier to flick between pure bridge and neck tones. (Also, a nasty little guitar I had when I was young soured me on parallel/series wiring tricks. You could choose between nasty, brittle tones and dull, farty ones.)

The P-Rail is a clever design consisting of an alnico blade pickup and a P-90 mounted side-by-side. When combined with a Triple Shot mounting ring, each pickup yields four distinct colors: each coil solo, or the pair combined as a humbucker in either series and parallel configuration.

The Triple Shot Mounting Ring.

Installation was shockingly simple. P-Rails are four-connector pickups. When used with Triple Shots, the color-coded wires are soldered onto the mounting rings’ pads. The output from the mounting rings is single-connector, so linking the Triple Shots to your tone and volume pots is a breeze. It’s way easier than making all the four-connector connections inside the control cavity, at least if you’re a klutz like me.

Once everything’s installed, you select coil combinations via a pair of mini-toggles on each Triple Shot. It feels a bit odd at first switching sounds this way, but within minutes, I had the four settings under my fingers and could select tones by feel alone. It’s a fun rig to play, one that yields a ridiculous number of sounds, especially when you blend the pickups and start fiddling with their relative volume and tone settings.

A word about the guitar: It’s a perfectly decent instrument, but definitely nothing special. I just wanted a stout block of wood with acceptable hardware and electronics, routed for two humbuckers. It looks vaguely Paul-oid, but its bolt-on neck rules out the sort of ringing sustain you’d expect from a fine Les Paul. You can probably achieve similar results at a similar price with any number of non-trendy used axes.

Now please be so kind as to share your mongrel makeover adventures!

34 comments to Cheap Guitar Makeover!

  • Nuno Carmona

    I’m so waiting for the opportunity to apply this mod on one of my guitars! Thanks Joe

  • Nuno Carmona

    I already did a Frankentrat that allowed 9 different types of sound: 3 Humbucker positions (Neck, bridge and both), single coil (Neck north pole. neck south pole, bridge north coil and both), out-of-phase (either humbuckers or single coils). And for that I only used 2 push-pull potentiometers. In addition I installed a floyd bridge with piezos that could be played alone or blended with the pickups.

    It became a guitar that I can use for any style I play.

  • Brian Mikulyak

    I do have a question about “questionable guitars”.
    What if you glued the “bolt on” neck and bolted it on? Would that create the tighter connection?
    On a cheap guitar it may be a choice. I have an Ibanez Talman which might be resin, but it sustains well with a bolt on neck. I wouldn’t dream of gluing it. A garage sale special might be improved with glue. Just a curiosity . . .

    • joe

      I don’t know that glue would make a huge difference, unless it’s compensating for an abnormally loose neck joint. With a neck-through design, you have a MUCH larger common surface between the neck and body thaN with any bolt-on. That’s not necessarily better — just different.

      Hmm — a Talman would be a great guitar to modding experiments. I bet you could unleash some pretty cool tones!

    • The debate between bolt-on, set neck and neck through has raged for a long time in regards to sustain and tonal quality. You can find loads of threads on the Project Guitar forum on this topic as well as Neal Moser’s forum called “The Shredder.”

      I’ve been repairing and building guitars for over 22 years and also build for C.F.Martin & Co. We all know what opinions are like so take mine for what it’s worth. Tests have been completed with each of the three styles of necks and machines built to measure sound can barely determine which one is better. The human ear will not know the difference when it comes to sustain or tone. 

      Now, with that said, a weak neck joint is the actual issue here. A set neck with a short tenon, such as those used on the older Guild S100 SG stye guitars tend to let the neck move when shaken. This can create an unwanted vibrato effect. Therefore, a set neck with a long tenon is preferred for tuning stability.

      A bolt-on neck with a tight pocket and properly tightened bolts will not allow a neck to move. if the neck fits loose in the neck pocket, it can move slightly and cause the same tuning issues. Although it’s possible to remove a set neck and replace it if needed, I personally like a bolt on neck better due to ease of repair/replacement. 

      As for neck through, well, obviously it won’t move. The big drawback to a neck through is the fact that you have to cut the wings off to replace the neck. Not an easy task for anyone.  

      I find that the construction of a budget instrument ($400 to $900) typically requires very little to bring it up to snuff. I swap out the tuners, pickups, electronics to start. I often make a new nut and inspect the bridge. If needed, IU upgrade the bridge.

      • joe

        Thanks for an informative post, Zyon! 🙂

        I so agree with you about the quality of budget guitars these days. I can’t believe how GOOD some of them are. I just got back from a day long session, where I played a lot of that lipstick-tube Strat I just wrote about. Just your basic, off-the-rack Mexican budget model (plus cool pickups and preamp), but I had NO complaints about the way the instrument handled. Loved it, in fact.  :thumbup:

  • Brian Harrower

    a cheap guitar still feels, plays, and stays in tune like a cheap guitar even if it sounds decent.

    • joe

      You say that like it’s a bad thing! :smirk:

      I partially agree, Brian. Yup, good pickups won’t probably won’t turn a good guitar into a great one. But so much of guitar pricing has to do with fashion. If you shop imaginatively, there are always good bargains. This particular instrument isn’t crappy — just inexpensive and “uncool.” The workmanship Is decent. The neck feels fine. The tuners and hardware are solid. Quality-wise, it’s probably about equal to a new guitar at about three times the price. 

      But even if it was a really messed-up guitar, it still might be worth working with. Sometimes cheap guitars bring out sounds and emotions that it’s hard to tap into on a high-end ax. I think of the many pro photographers who own great gear, but also enjoy the expressive possibilities of cheap, funky cameras like Holgas and Lomos. Or for that matter, iPhones. Like Pulitzer-winning New York Times photographer Damon Winter, who took amazing photos of US troops in Afghanistan using a $1.99 photo app:

      Sometimes using cheap stuff helps you say things you can’t say with expensive stuff.

  • very nice…like it alot…..thanks fror sharing

  • JJ

    I am absolutely getting a set of P-Rails, I was interested in them before… but now I MUST have them! I absolutely love the cheap guitar + cool pickups = awesome tone. Maybe I’ll build a guitar body and a add used neck… hmm not sure yet… 
    Anyways, great blog Joe!

    • joe

      I was at a session the other day, and there was this poor, neglected ’60s Tele neck just lying around gathering dust. I SOOO wanted to take it in and give it a good home…

      • JJ

        You shouldve taken it, by any means necesary! Tele necks are awesome! however on e-bay I always find them to be somewhat overpriced… A Tele style guitar is definitely what I want to put together. Right now I’m just seein what I can scavenge for the build.

        • Tele’s are great for Mods. A client brought this fender to me. We changed the single Coil neck pickup into a humbucker, changed the single coil bridge pickup to a Seymour Duncan humbucker that retains the single coil look and we added a third humbucker into the middle position. If I recall, the traditional humbuckers are the Seymour Duncan HotRod set. 

          I added a simple mini toggle into the control plate that activates the middle pickup so you can have virtually any combo. Updated the pots and added a Sprague cap.

          With about $200 or so in pickups, we took his under powered Tele and turned it into a fire breather.

          • joe

            Ooh! I’ve really, really been wanting to do some three-pickup Tele experiments. Like being about to fade in the middle pickup.

          • I used a mini toggle to turn on the middle pickup in that Tele. You could easily swap that for a blend pot. Put one side to the pickup and the other side to ground. You could dial the middle pickup in just the way you like. 

            Other than the usual tuning wobble due to the Bigsby trem, the Tele was a monster tone machine with those Seymours loaded in there.

  • 1reeper

    I used to have series/parallel and phase switches on my guitar, but then it was too hard to switch while I was playing, so I took them off.  The only switch I find useful now (aside from the pickup switch) is a switch to connect the pickup straight to the output jack, the tone is much better without the load of the volume pot.

    • joe

      That’s a real nice mod if you don’t use your volume knob for anything other than muting the output. I like riding the pot myself, especially when I’m playing through distortion pedals, but if I didn’t, I’d strip out all that stuff and do what you did.

      • 1reeper

        Woops, I guess I forgot to clarify, I used a 3pdt on-off-on switch for the switch, so for each pickup, I can connect it to the output jack or the volume pot, and the center off gives me a kill switch to keep it quiet.

  • I put a Custom Shop pickup in a cheap :ban: China. It sounds great!

  • Aceman

    I am forever seeking the PERFECT Epiphone Dot Studio for P-rails and Triple shots.

  • Mika

    I have the P-Rails and Triple shot combo in an Epiphone LP. It’s sexy. I find that the neck rail is my favourite setting – hardly what you’d regularly associate with Les Paul ‘type’ guitar.

  • Gary

    Here’s my plan.

    I got a black/white Ibanez AMF73 which seems like cross between a Rickenbacker and a Danelectro.  Has the standard 2 Ibanez Artcore ACH  humbuckers and 2-tone, 2-volume.  It is not a bad sounding guitar.  BUT…

    I’m gonna replace the ACH’s with some white P-Rails.  These will look nice against the black body paint.

    Rather than use Triple-shots (I bought some on eBay but they’re for archtop, not flat-top, anyone need an archtop set?) I’m going to use 4-pole 5-position switches for each pickup, replacing 1 tone and 1 volume.  I will move the volume and tone to post 3-way toggle.

    Now 4 of the switch positions per pickup will be: series HB, parallel HB, Rail, P-90.  But for the 5th position (tee hee, I just about can’t contain myself)…  I’m going to experiment with the Yamaha AES-800 wiring for positions 2 and 4.  Check out this schematic I posted some years back at the Duncan forum: 

    One approach (position 2) uses the bridge pickup wired as series humbucking, but connecting a capacitor from the center tap point to ground.  Position 4 uses Bridge wired as single coil, but with the other coil hanging there with a pot and a capacitor in series to ground, forming an RLC load.

    Both of these approaches will create a resonant notch in the response.  Position 4 with the pot at minimum creates a super twangy scooped sound that is almost piezo-like in its crispness.   It’s almost like a fixed Varitone implementation, although using the second coil as part of the resonant circuit introduces some phase cancellation that you wouldn’t see if the series inductor was a separate component.

    So given that there are two pickups, I will try a position 2 on the bridge and position 4 on the neck, and experiment with capacitors until I find a few good settings.  I don’t want infinite flexibility like on a 16-position switch.  I’d just be wearing that thing out.  But there are some 2-pole 6-position rotaries that would let you choose a few settings for each pickup with discernibly different character.  Might use one of those 16-position things to do the cap value experimentation.

    This goes farther than the AES-800 because that only did this cap trick on the bridge pickup and didn’t allow combination with the neck pickup in any way.

    So, end result, a 5-way toggle on each P-Rail to select all standard combinations plus 1 position for “Varitone”.  In that position the 6-position switch gives you 6 variations on that.  By the time you have it all dialed in the gig’s over and you can collect your $1.50 without playing a single note!


    • Gary

      Ah woops, I’m sorry, in position 4, there is one coil from both neck and bridge in parallel, and the RLC circuit formed by the other half of the bridge pickup loads them down.  So there is some notchiness from the 2-separated-single coils in parallel already.

      Hmmm… must ponder it some more… 

      • joe

        That sounds super-cool! Don’t suppose it would be possible to make some test recordings, would it? 🙂

        • Gary

          Well OK here’s where some R&D experimentation is required.

          The 4 standard positions and wirings for P-Rails are obvious and straightforward.

          Now then, going VARITONE (said with great gravity)…. caused all sorts of questions to come flooding into my mind:

          1) What cap values to use?  Would need to experiment.

          2) What combination of values for neck/bridge, assuming that a single rotary knob switches caps for both pickups at one?  As in, you could have a bright tone at the neck combined with a muffled tone at the bridge, and then as the switch goes around, have the resonant frequencies go in different directions?  What would the combined tone of such a thing sound like?  This is where I started freaking out.  There’s no good way to predict what any of this would sound like, or what combinations would ultimately be the most useful. 

          3) Should I just use one set of caps on the master output tone control instead?  I saw a Strat mod that did this, sounded nice.

          For now I may just put 5-pos rotaries in place of one set of vol/tone, move the other set of vol/tone to after the 3-way switch, and leave the 5th position of both knobs open.  It will be good for John Cage numbers and audience requests for the time being.

          A fully flexible switching setup where all of these options could be explored winds up with many settings that are no good, or simply not much different than other settings.  I found a cap decade box for about $75, could probably get one cheaper on eBay, but it’s not real practical to take it to your friend’s place with the guts dangling out. 

  • Shadowgolem

    Inspired by this project (and others) I have taken an HH Tele (MIM) and replaced the factory pups with P-rails and Triple Shots. Minor mod to the pick guard and they fit great. I also replace the controls with a Baja Tele setup (4 way switch with series and parallel and an OOP push pull on the volume).
    Crazy lot of fun sounds to be had! Both P-Rails in Humbucker mode in Series and in Phase with each other is a bit too muddy but otherwise all usable tones.

    Thanks again for all the great info you share here!

  • Shadowgolem

    It does! My fave combo so far is the bridge rail in series with the neck P-90 out of phase with the tone cranked. Crazy old school hollow body with low power pups like sound (with a bit of box car clank). Plenty of twang too when you dig into it.

    The classic humbucker tones have a great dynamic range too but holy wow are they HOT! Not sure if you ran into that on your rig. Almost seems like it has a built in pre-amp. If you let it start feeding back at all it gets away from you quickly even with volume on guitar and amp pretty low. I don’t have a proper stack to run it through so no idea what you would get with big tubes and a cabinet.

  • craigs63

    Great information Joe! I just picked up a thinline Samick IH-10 MR at a flea market for $25 (Chicago burbs are cheaper than San Francisco I guess).

    I got the P Rails and will probably order the Triple Shots soon. I think I want to put push/push pots in so I can put the neck and bridge in series/parallel and in/out of phase. Maybe move the jack to the side and make it vol/vol/tone too.

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