Having a cheap electric guitar doesn’t mean it has to sound it. There are plenty of ways you can make your guitar sound loads better, and without spending much. So if you’re a new player, or just don’t want to buy a new guitar, then keep reading to find out how to get the best out of your instrument!
How to Make a Cheap Electric Guitar Sound Better
- Set your guitar up properly
- Learn your amp settings
- Freshen up the strings
- Upgrade your pickups
- Throw in some effects
- Improve your playing
Set your Guitar Up Properly
One of the main reasons why your guitar doesn’t sound as good as it should, is nothing to do with the cost, but with how it’s set up. Usually when you purchase a new guitar, it’s set up pretty well, and you won’t need to make many adjustments. But if you’ve picked up a second hand electric guitar, then the chances are that it may need some tweaks to improve the tone.
I remember when I bought my second electric guitar, a knock-off Les Paul that was second hand and cost under £100 (or $125 for you Americans out there). I was really pleased with it, until I noticed the dreaded fret buzz. At first I thought it was the way I was playing, but then I realised that it was the guitar itself.
Now there are a few causes of fret buzz, or other things that make your guitar sound rubbish. But luckily, a lot of the time they can be fixed, by setting them up properly.
Setting a guitar up refers to a lot of things including:
- Bridge height
- Saddle height
- The frets
- Truss rod position
Now if you’re a beginner, then taking your guitar to a professional repair shop is the best way to find out what’s causing the problem. Then they’ll be able to fix it for you.
It could be a result of a number of things, from uneven frets, the action (string height compared to the frets) being too low or the amount of neck relief (the neck should be bowed slightly but not too much).
If you’re not sure if your guitar is set up properly, and you don’t want to pay for a professional to assess it, then here’s a quick guide to checking the intonation of your guitar.
Checking your Guitar
- Play a note on the 12th fret
- Play the 12th fret harmonic of the same note
- Compare the pitch of the two sounds.
- If it sounds off, then you’ll need some adjustments.
Learn your Amp Settings
You’re probably aware of how important your amp is in terms of making your electric guitar sound better, but have you taken the time to properly understand it and figure out how to get the best out of your setup? If this answer is no, then you should definitely be giving this a try.
Your electric guitar itself is of course really important, but your amp should not be underestimated. Some guitarists swear that the amp is even more important than the guitar.
The first step to getting the most out of your amp, is to understand the settings. Most amps come with the following controls:
- Gain: refers to the amount of distortion.
- Bass: higher bass produces a thicker sound, but too high and it’ll sound muddled.
- Mids: a low mid-setting causes the sound to be “scooped” which means it gets lost when you play with backing.
- Treble: the higher the treble, the sharper and brighter the sound will be, but if it’s too high then it can sound harsh.
The best thing to do when sussing out your amp, is to go back to basics. Set all your controls in a neutral position (at number 5 or 12 o’clock). Then you can start making adjustments, one at a time to each control. Listen to how this affects the sound of both your chords and individual strings. Keep trying this until you figure out the best settings for you. It can take a bit of patience, but it’s well worth the wait.
Here are a few quick tips to making your electric guitar amp sound better. Head over to out post on the 7 best tips for improving the sound of your amp for some more information.
How to Make your Amp Sound Better
- Use less gain to improve the clarity of your tone.
- Increase your mids to prevent your guitar being drowned out.
- Elevate your amp off the ground to prevent feedback.
- Avoid playing in rooms with hard surfaces as this can lead to feedback.
Freshen Up the Strings
Another way that you can use to make a cheap electric guitar sound loads better, is to change your strings. There are loads of factors that affect how your strings sound.
Worn Strings = Bad Sound
Older and worn guitar strings produce a duller sound than new ones which sound clear and crisp. Old strings are also harder to bend and slide on, and make your guitar go out of tune a lot faster.
It may come as a shock if you’re a new player, but the general rule is that you should be changing your guitar strings after every 100 hours of playing or every 4 months, which ever comes first. It may sound like a lot, but it’ll do wonders for your tone. It’ll also make it a lot easier to play.
If you’re not sure if your strings need replacing yet, then look out for these three signs. If you’re experiencing any of them, then it could be time for a fresh pair.
- Your strings feel stiffer
- You feel friction when you slide your fingers along the strings
- Your guitar goes out of tune very quickly and easily.
You can make your strings last longer by keeping them cleaner. This means using a specialist string cleaner, and by having clean hands when you play. This prevents a build-up of dirt and grim which causes corrosion. You can also store your guitar in a case to prevent dust accumulation, again leading to dirty strings.
Use Thicker Strings
Thicker strings (also known as higher gauge) produce a thicker sound than thin strings. They also have better sustain and a higher volume. If you’ve got light strings, then consider getting a thicker pair. New players find thicker strings hard to adjust to at the beginning, but if you persevere, it’s definitely worth it. 0.010 is a good gauge to start with. It has a good balance between being easy to play, but also sounding great.
If you want to know more about guitar strings and how they affect the sound of your instrument, then head over to our post on the 4 ways that strings affect tone.
Upgrade your Pickups
Now you know some really simple ways to improve the sound of your electric guitar, without really modifying it, let’s jump into a more advanced option.
Pickups are super important when it comes to determining to tone of your electric guitar. When you pluck a string, it vibrates, and these vibrations are received by your pickups. They then send a signal to your amplifier which plays the sound through the speakers.
Pickups consist of a core material wrapped in coils of wire. The materials used to make the pickups, and the number of coils dramatically impacts the tone of your electric guitar.
Unfortunately, most low-end electric guitars come with cheaply designed pickups. They are sometimes poorly built, which can lead to issues like feedback, or a lack or clarity. So one way you can improve the sound without having to buy a new guitar, is to simply upgrade the pickups.
Now unless you’re an experienced guitar repair expert, then it’s not usually a great idea to make the change yourself. But you should definitely look into the different kinds of pickups to decide what the best choice for you actually is. Here’s a quick guide to the two most popular pickup designs, (single coil and humbucker) to give you more of an idea.
Single Coil Pickups
These consist of a wire which is wrapped around six individual magnets. Single coil pickups produce a bright and sharp sound, sometimes described as twangy. They are famously used on Fender guitars like the Stratocaster and Telecaster. Single coil pickups are well suited to jazz, blues and genres which do not use a lot of gain or distortion. This is because they can have a slight buzzing sound if you turn the gain right up.
The main difference between single coil and humbucker designs, is that humbuckers have two coils paired together rather than one. They produce a thicker sound than single coils and are very versatile so suit both high and low gain. They’re most famously used on Gibson guitars like the Les Paul and ES-335.
Throw in Some Effects
Another way to upgrade the sound of your inexpensive electric guitar, is to add some pedal effects. Not only can these help compensate for a cheaper guitar, but they also give you the ability to create a higher quality unique tone, that you can’t do with just your amp and guitar alone. That’s why even guitarists that have spend thousands of their electric guitar still have pedal effects.
There are tonnes of different pedals on the marker, each offering you a different effect. Here is a quick guide to get you started.
These imitate the kind of sound you would achieve if you cranked a valve amp to maximum volume. They produce a unique tone that gives you more crunch, but without upping the gain and losing the clarity. They’re used in loads of different genres and are most suited to classic rock, indie and blues.
If you play hard rock or heavy metal, then you’ll definitely benefit from using a distortion pedal. This allows you to add more sustain and gain, but without harming the quality of your tone, as much as if you put your amp on max setting.
These allow you to sound as if you were playing in a large empty hall, as they add more depth to your tone without adding gain. They’re a really popular effect in loads of different genres and a really helpful if you play lead guitar as they give your sound some more presence.
This allows you to control the bass, mids and treble. It’s a great addition to your setup if the controls your amp and guitar give you for these settings doesn’t give you enough option.
Other Popular Pedals
There are tonnes of other types of pedals, here are a few of the most popular.
- Fuzz: commonly used by guitarists like Jimi Hendrix to add a unique tone.
- Tremelo: sounds like the volume is increasing and decreasing rapidly.
- Phaser: adds a kind of “whooshing” noise.
- Chorus: this sounds like multiple guitars are playing at once.
- Boost: gives you an extra kick for solos or lead guitar parts.
- Delay: adds an echo effect by playing a note and repeating it back.
Improve your Playing
The final way to make a cheap electric guitar sound better, has nothing to do with the instrument, the amp, or pedals, but it’s all down to you.
It’s true that one of the best ways to make a guitar sound better, is to play it better. Think about it, if you gave a complete beginner a Gibson Les Paul, they’ll still sound like a beginner.
The best thing about this way, is that it doesn’t cost anything at all. It just takes a bit of time and effort, but it’ll give you the best improvement to your sound. Here are some of the most important ways to improve your guitar playing.
Work Smart Not Hard
The old saying is true, practice does make perfect. But this only works if you practice properly. It’s no good messing about on your guitar for an hour a day but not making any progress because you’re not pushing yourself, or worse, because you’re exercising bad habits. Instead of spending ages playing, allocate less time and make sure it’s of a higher quality. I guarantee that it’ll make you improve a lot faster.
Learn from the Best
Learning from an expert doesn’t mean that you have to go and hire a professional tutor, although this can be very helpful. Fortunately, there are tonnes of resources on the internet that help you learn guitar without having to spend anything at all. YouTube is the perfect place for this. In fact, I am a completely self taught guitarist and relied on YouTube and articles on the internet to learn how to play from scratch.
Practice on Clean Settings
Gain sounds great. Bur unfortunately, it can mask a poor performance, and prevent you from improving, If you’re used to playing with high gain, then you probably won’t know how your playing truly sounds. Practising playing using the clean channel on your amp allows you to hear everything a lot more clearly, and helps you figure out your weak spots more easily.
Learn Something New Every Day
This is the best way to ensure that you’re always improving. It doesn’t matter what new thing you’re learning, where it’s a new technique, a new song or some exercises. Just the practice of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and experimenting every day will ensure your playing comes on leaps and bounds in a shorter space of time.
So there you go! Those are the 6 best ways to make a cheap electric guitar sound great! I hope you’ve found this article helpful, thanks for reading. Here are some other posts you might find useful: