Is It Worth Upgrading A Cheap Guitar Or Buying A New One?


One of the most common questions about guitars is whether it is smarter to buy a new guitar or upgrade the one you already have. And the answer is a bit complex. There are so many variables and things to discuss before I can say which one is the right choice. 

So, is it worth upgrading a cheap guitar? Or should you just go and buy a new one? If you own a cheap instrument, say something under $200, I wouldn’t recommend upgrading it unless you are emotionally attached to it. On the other hand, more expensive guitars (over $300) are a great platform for upgrades, and it is a good idea. 

Keep in mind that upgrades can cost a lot based on what you want to achieve, and this is one of the primary reasons why people often go for a new guitar instead. One of the things to consider is the original cost of the instrument, and how much the upgrades will cost compared to it. 

Smaller upgrades can be around $20 to $50, while bigger ones can cost well over $300 if you decide to replace pickups and the bridge, for example. It is also worth mentioning that if this is your only guitar, you might be better off sticking to it instead of making changes. I wouldn’t recommend upgrading even with cheaper parts before you try out different guitars at the store to know what to expect. 

Upgrade Your Guitar Or Buy A New One?

This is the first question you will need to think about, and there is an area where upgrades work great. I am talking about the price of the instrument. 

If you own a super cheap guitar, something in the price range between $100 and $200, most upgrades won’t be a good idea. However, guitars that are over $300, are worth upgrading. I would recommend getting a few new parts that will completely change the way you feel about your guitar

Getting a new set of pickups on a cheap instrument will probably cost you more than the guitar, and the same can apply to other major changes like getting a new neck. 

But you can always invest in smaller upgrades like changing the nut, getting better strings, maybe even tuning machines. Needless to say, if this is your first guitar and you are emotionally attached to it, investing in it should not be a problem. 

After all, if you don’t plan on selling the guitar or throwing it away, upgrading it is a good option. And this leads us to more expensive instruments. I’m talking about the price range between $300 and $500. These guitars are excellent for upgrades. There is a high chance that they already have good wood, which means you won’t need to replace the neck or body. 

One of the main problems with mid-range guitars is that they often have pickups that are not on par with the rest of the instrument, and upgrading them is a good idea. For once, you won’t be able to buy a better guitar for that money, and it won’t cost you as much as you paid for it when it was new. So, probably the best answer I can give you is that the upgrades are a good idea if they are worth it to you.

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When Should I Upgrade My Beginner’s Guitar?

When you start learning how to play the guitar, everything is new. You are still discovering how things work and what is the purpose of each part of the instrument. As you progress through your musical journey, you will start to realize that some parts of your instrument might not be as good as you thought. And this is the point when you should start considering an upgrade. None of us knew what different potentiometers or switches were doing when we bought our first instrument. And that’s perfectly normal. 

But you will notice at one point that you might not like the sound or what your guitar can offer. For example, you might be interested in a heavier sound, and your single-coil pickups are not able to provide it. In general, you should upgrade your instrument as soon as you notice that something is wrong with it or that you can get a sound you enjoy by replacing a certain part. 

Of course, I am not talking about broken or damaged parts. If your tuning machines, for example, get broken, it is an obvious sign that you should get new ones. Last but not least, the upgrades are mostly dictated by your budget. You might notice that you need new pickups but can’t afford them. In this case, wait until you are comfortable enough budget-wise. 

What Should I Upgrade First On Guitar?

This is another situational problem. Each guitar player is different, and the same applies to guitars. One of the most common problems with cheaper guitars is tuning stability. If you notice that you need to tune your guitar all the time, there might be a problem with a part of the instrument. Possible issues can be with bridge, nut, and tuning machines. 

Replacing the nut, for example, can be affordable, and it is an excellent way to improve sustain and tuning stability. Any minor upgrade of the guitar is a good place to start, and you can experiment with them as needed. Naturally, if there are no problems with your tuning machines, there is no reason to replace them. 

So, the starting point should be the weakest part of the guitar. Whether it is something that affects performance or tone, you should consider getting a better part to improve the overall experience. For more expensive instruments, the first thing to upgrade is usually pickups. And this can get quite pricey. But more on that in a bit. It all comes down to what you are trying to achieve and what type of sound you enjoy. 

What Parts Of The Guitar Can You Upgrade?

As I mentioned previously, you can replace so many parts on the guitar. If you take a look at models like the Fender Stratocaster, every single part can be removed and upgraded. On other models with a set-in neck, the process is a bit more complicated. So, let’s start from the beginning. 

Tuning Machines 

If you have problems with tuning stability, this is the starting point for upgrades. Getting a set of tuning machines will do wonders for the quality of playing, and while it won’t affect the sound, it is still a good investment. 

One of the more popular options is to get a set of locking tuners, which will keep the strings in place no matter what. Based on the type of music you play, you can find a type and brand that suits your instrument. As for the process of changing them, it’s quite simple. All you need to do is remove strings, unscrew the old ones, and put the new tuning pegs you just bought. 

Electronics

Now, this is another minor upgrade, but it’s not as common as you’d think. Usually, potentiometers will do their job well even on cheaper guitars, but you might want to buy ones with different resistance. 

Some pickup sets come with potentiometers as well, which means that you can upgrade all of them at once. If you are not looking for something special like push-pull pots, this is a part of the upgrade you can easily skip.

The Bridge

This is another example of upgrades that are different based on the type of guitar. For models with a fixed bridge, upgrades are necessary if the bridge is unpolished and damages strings. If you keep breaking your strings, check to see where the string broke. Breakage on the bridge can mean that you need a replacement. 

For those that own a model with a tremolo or Floyd Rose, upgrades might be necessary if they are looking to do things like dive bombs or use the tremolo arm. This can easily detune the guitar, and upgrading the bridge and tuning machines will solve the problem.

Nut

I already talked about the nut before, and it is something that people replace only if it gets damaged or broken. But you can also upgrade it to improve sustain, and it is one of those upgrades that are not as costly as others. 

Pickups

Upgrading pickups is the simplest way to improve the sound and quality of your guitar. Unlike acoustic guitars, no resonator box will shape the sound, and pickups will have that role. As I mentioned earlier, upgrading pickups is a quite common upgrade, and it is the one that will make the biggest difference. Especially for cheaper guitars. Even if you go for a mid-range model, there is still a high chance that pickups won’t be as good. 

As for the choice of pickups, it is completely up to you and your taste. The most popular brands are Fender, Seymour Duncan, EMG, and DiMarzio. 

Neck

This is another expensive upgrade that’s usually needed in case the guitar is damaged. It also gets a lot more complicated if you own a model with a set-in neck since the replacement will require a professional touch. 

For Stratocaster, Telecaster, and other bolt-on guitars, you can do it at home with a screwdriver. Furthermore, you can also replace parts on the neck like frets, but this is also something you’d want to do in case there are problems with the sound or if the frets are worn out. 

Is It Worth Upgrading Pickups On A Cheap Guitar?

The answer to this question mostly depends on how cheap the guitar is. If you own a $100 model, I wouldn’t suggest adding new pickups. The thing here is that almost every part of the guitar will be bad, and while it will improve the sound, the price will be two or three times as much as the original guitar. And this is something that many players will dislike. 

Instead, it might be a better idea to get a $300 guitar and consider upgrading it down the road. Needless to say, if you are emotionally attached to your $100 guitar, why not make it even better? The cheap guitar will still have other problematic parts, but you can make a nice project out of it and upgrade it from time to time. 

Now, if we are talking about guitars costing between $300 and $500, upgrading pickups is an excellent idea. 

How Do You Know That A Part Needs To Be Upgraded?

Some parts will scream at you that you need to do something about them. For example, dead frets mean that you need to check them out and see which fret is suffocating the tone. One option is to polish all the frets, and it is still considered an upgrade. If this doesn’t work, refretting the instrument is the solution. 

You can mostly hear whether the guitar requires upgrades. Keep in mind that it requires experience, and you won’t know what the problem is if you just started playing the guitar. Other types of upgrades are when there is a part that’s damaged and requires replacement for the proper work. 

Finally, some upgrades will affect the sound, and it doesn’t mean that the old ones are bad. It mostly means that you are looking for a specific sound. A perfect example of this is getting a humbucker in the bridge position if you are into heavier genres. It doesn’t mean that the old pickup is not good, it just gives you a different sound you will enjoy. 

How Much Will The Upgrade Cost?

As you can probably guess, the price of upgrades is based on how many parts you want to replace and whether you go for expensive models or not. But let’s break it down and see some of the possible scenarios.

  • Pickups – Since pickups are the most common upgrade, let’s start with them. Getting a set of Fender pickups is around $160 if you want a good one. You can find cheaper and more expensive models as well. If you want to upgrade a single pickup, the price will be around $70. And humbuckers are around $100 each. 
  • Bridge – A tremolo bridge is around $100, and better models are around $150 to $250. Floyd Rose is a bit pricier, and it’s usually over $250, and Bigsby will easily reach $300. Fixed bridges are often between $50 and $100 since they have fewer elements. 
  • Potentiometers – This is a cheap upgrade and getting a good potentiometer will be around $10 or $20 per pot. And a set of knobs, the price for a set is usually under $10. 
  • Tuning machines – The price of tuning machines is around $50 with bigger brands costing around $100. 
  • Neck – Good necks are expensive. Getting a Fender Stratocaster neck might require you to spend $400. And this is one of the main reasons why replacing them is not as common on cheaper instruments. 

These prices are for good items that you might want to buy, and you can find cheaper models as well. But it won’t be much of a difference if you replace a part with a similar one. 

Is It Worth Upgrading A Cheap Guitar?

The answer to this question mostly depends on how cheap the guitar is. If you own a $100 model, I wouldn’t suggest adding new pickups. The thing here is that almost every part of the guitar will be bad, and while it will improve the sound, the price will be two or three times as much as the original guitar. And this is something that many players will dislike. 

Instead, it might be a better idea to get a $300 guitar and consider upgrading it down the road. Needless to say, if you are emotionally attached to your $100 guitar, why not make it even better? The cheap guitar will still have other problematic parts, but you can make a nice project out of it and upgrade it from time to time. 

Now, if we are talking about guitars costing between $300 and $500, upgrading pickups is an excellent idea. 

Conclusion

Upgrading the guitar can be tons of fun. It will allow you to create a unique and personalized instrument that will be perfect for your needs. The main problem, of course, is the price. Not many beginners can afford costly upgrades, and that is the main reason they went for a cheaper guitar. 

If someone could spend $2,000 on a guitar, they would go for a professional model from the start instead of buying a cheap model they can upgrade. In some cases, upgrades can be quite pointless, and this is mostly reserved for the cheapest guitars. 

But if you are attached to your guitar and you have no plans to sell it, installing a set of pickups and getting new tuning machines can be a good idea. At least if you can afford it.

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Jacob

I have been playing guitar since 2004. As long as I can remember I always had a huge passion for rock music and I extremely enjoy playing it. Helping people on their rock journey is what drives me to keep on playing. Read More About Me

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