Is it viable to consider purchasing an affordable and very basic guitar, and then over time, modify this guitar to get an instrument that is as good as the higher end? Yes, it is possible to do this. But before embarking down this road, be prepared that at the end of the day, you will have spent the same amount of money altogether as the cost of a higher end instrument, possibly more, yet if you sell, you will not recover the costs of the high end hardware. The fact is, it will still only trade at around it’s pre-mod / stock config. blue book value. The benefits behind this sort of approach are that you can make small improvements when you can afford to do so, and you don’t have to part with a guitar that you have formed a connection with, when it is time to trade up. You will end up with an instrument that exhibits a great deal of character, one that is completely unlike any other. One that has grown and changed along with your story and fortunes.
The basic idea is to take a good, solid, and affordable guitar, and over the years, keep improving it. You can start with the intention to build something completely unique, or take a guitar that is based on a modular design, and make it like its more expensive cousin (for example: Squire to Fender, or Epiphone to Gibson).
My modification story involves a late 1980’s Japanese Stratocaster in Candy Apple Red. These guitars were very popular among my peers in the early 1990’s because being budget conscious, we could pick them up for a bargain on the used market. They looked the part, and played every bit as well as a standard Strat, with real Strat tone. I have taken this guitar through two rounds of modification. Once in 2001 and again in 2015. On both occasions there was some work that I was comfortable doing myself, and when I got in over my head, I went to my guitar store and contracted the help of their guitar tech. I also had very clear ideas about what my goals were.
The stock Japanese Stratocaster came with single coil pickups, a vintage style tremolo, and vintage style tuning heads. The tuning heads and tremolo on mine had corroded badly, creating tuning stability problems. The pickups were also buzzing and humming more than they should, probably due to buildup of gunk.
In 2001 I worked with a guitar tech to replace the tuning heads and the tremolo with those found on the Deluxe Strat. I also replaced the pickups with Fender Gold Lace Sensors. The tuning stability was improved, and changing strings was made much simpler by the better designed newer style tuning heads. The Lace Sensor pickups really woke the guitar up, tremendously improving the tone and sustain.
In 2015 I had the plastic nut replaced with one made from a synthetic bone graphite material, to improve both tone and sustain. I also wired the bridge pickup to the bottom tone control. In a standard configuration, you cannot change the tone of the bridge pickup on a Strat. The goal here was to add a greater range of tonal possibilities when playing with over-drive. Lastly I made a significant cosmetic change by replacing the white scratch plate with a pearloid black scratch plate. Having a guitar tech at the store really helped here, because although the Strat is based on a modular design, there are variations over the years, and the newer scratch plates are not countersunk in the same way as the older ones. Based on the age of the guitar, and amount of play it has seen, there was significant cleaning, adjustment, setup, and setting the intonation also required at this time.
The picture below illustrates these changes:
(left: Stock Japanese Strat)
(center: New tremolo and tuning heads, new Lace Sensor pickups)
(right: New nut, bottom tone control changed to also control bridge pickup, new black pearloid scratchplate/ pickguard).