There are guitar players that stand out from others because they play so well. Then there are players whose guitars stand out just as much because they are so unique. Then there are players who are both amazing players and creators of those instruments. This list is dedicated to those willing to push the limits of their guitar to become the customized instrument of their dreams.
Malcolm Young had the same 1963 Gretsch Jet Firebird guitar for pretty much his whole career. He acquired the guitar from his older brother’s bandmate. At that time, it was a lovely red color. It also once had two pickups, and then Malcolm added a third in the middle. He also added the controls for the new pickup in the upper horn of the guitar. At one point two of the pickups and controls for them were removed. Malcolm came to the conclusion that all he needed was the one pickup to perform his rock’n’roll duties night after night. Even though these modifications were simple, it was the exact right thing for Malcolm’s guitar playing. His guitar was efficient and nothing fancy, like Malcolm himself.
Eddie Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen was one of the best guitar playing to live. He was also one to never stop trying to improve his instrument by tweaking every aspect. I own one of his inventions called the D-Tuna which allows a Floyd Rose Bridge to drop the low E string to a D with the pull of a little knob.
Eddie was not afraid to tear his working guitars apart to see what made them work. He did this sometimes without the knowledge of how to put them back together. This is evident in his Frankenstrat guitar where there is a pickup and lots of wiring that ended up not being used at one point. You can also see evidence of his experiments on that guitar.
There is a quarter screwed into the top that looks cosmetic, but it had a function at one point. Eddie likes to have his bridge hit the body in the resting position for better tone/sustain. Most strats, including his, allow the bridge to pull and release tension on the strings due to the fact that they “float” in the bridge cavity. Eddie solved the floating part by screwing a quarter to the body so the bridge would rest against it when he wasn’t using the whammy bar. It would act like a fixed bridge for tone, but still allow him to do whammy bar tricks.
He taught himself by doing. Eddie made these modifications because he didn’t have the money to buy the instrument he wanted in the beginning. He continued because the instrument he pictured in his head probably didn’t exist yet. Later his vision would become the Wolfgang guitars made by Ernie Ball, Peavey, and then the EVH brand.
For more info about the Frankenstrat: https://www.ultimate-guitar.com/news/general_music_news/eddie_van_halen_how_i_built_my_frankenstrat_guitar.html
Brian May is best known for his iconic guitar work in the band, Queen. He is not so much known for having a degree in Physics. He also used his brain power, along with his father, to create his guitar from scratch. Where most people take a working guitar and refine it to their likings, Brian worked from the ground up.
Seeing the guitar on its own is enough to signal who’s guitar it is. It is that unique. Most people would never imagine that Brian and his dad made or customized almost every piece of this guitar from pieces they found laying around. The neck, for instance, was carved from a piece of a fireplace mantle that his dad salvaged from an old house. The whammy bar was part of a bicycle basket. The floating bridge used springs from a motorcycle. Every part of this guitar was analyzed to see if it could be made better.
Yngwie Malmsteen has a very interesting modification for his guitars. He took a centuries old technique used on stringed instruments and applied it to his modern electric guitar. The result is the scalloped fretboard. Yngwie is heavily influenced by classical music, so why not continue down that road with his instrument?
Scalloped fretboards were originally used to create the fret positions in the neck before met fret wire was used. Modern instruments, like the electric guitar, use a metal fret wire to create the neck positions. Playing a scalloped neck is tricky and the player must not press too hard or the note will go sharp. For Yngwie, it was something he first saw on a lute that came into the shop where he apprenticed at. He was intrigued by the concept and tried on his Fender Stratocaster. He also replaced the frets with a bigger version, and also replaced the original pickups.
For more info about his “The Duck” guitar. https://fender.fandom.com/wiki/The_Duck
Jaco Pastorius was an unique player with a instantly recognizable sound. Jaco’s sound is based on the fact that he played a fretless bass known as “The Bass of Doom.” Jaco wanted the sound of a traditional stand up bass, but the playability of an electric bass? He took a Fender Jazz Bass and popped out the frets with a butter knife. Then he filled in the fret slots with wood filler and covered the neck with a Poly Poxy to fill in the remaining gouges he created during the process. Jaco also removed the pickguard as he thought it helped the sound of the wood come through.
For more info about The Bass of Doom,: https://mixdownmag.com.au/features/columns/gear-rundown-jaco-pastorius/
Les Paul is one of the original great modifiers. He is also known for inventing many of the things used in modern recording today. Les is probably known best for his signature model guitar that are seen all over the world and in many famous artists’ collection. Les Paul wanted a guitar that could be heard over the top of his fellow horn players. Hollow-body guitars were all that were available and were only as loud as they could be played acoustically.
Les came up with the idea of making a guitar that had a pickup that could amplify the strings and “The Log” was created from this thought. It was basically a 4×4 piece of wood with a neck and electronics screwed to it. Then Les added to pieces to either sides of the 4×4 to make it look like a normal hollow-body guitar. The rest is history and Les continued to modify guitars until he died.
For more info about Les Paul and his many inventions: https://www.les-paul.com/timeline/red-hot-red/
Scott Aumann (The Legit Musician)
I have always been interested in tearing things apart to see how they work. My first guitar to modify was a guitar I got from my cousin who took it completely apart to paint, then couldn’t figure out how to reassemble it properly. I was interested in the challenge and decided to do some mods in the process. I ended up reshaping the body, the headstock, and rewiring the electronics. When it was complete, it was again a fully functional guitar.
This lead me to modify other guitars like my Fender Jazz bass that I use almost exclusively on stage. I never was a fan of the two-volume setup that came with the Jazz Bass. I decided to add the three-way toggle switch like a Les Paul in place of one of the volume knobs. For me, this was perfect. I also replaced the bridge, pickguard, pickups, and swapped one tuner with a Hip-Shot tuner for more tunings. This bass that started out as just a standard Mexican made model is now my customized signature model. At least it is to me.
If you are interested in modifying your instrument, then I can recommend some resources for you below. If you are brave enough then you can always just jump in headfirst and tear things apart. However, I wouldn’t try this if you don’t have the gear to spare and you need it to survive. If you have a spare guitar then it would be a great candidate for experimentation. It can be lots of fun and you might discover your unique sound in the process. It might even save you some money.
Dan Erlewine’s book HOW TO MAKE YOUR GUITAR PLAY GREAT is a great resource. It is mainly to help you repair or maintain your guitar. It helps you understand how the guitar and its parts work properly. Knowing this will allow you to start tweaking things in a more focused direction.
I am also a fan of stewmac.com’s Trade Secrets. They cover all sorts of topics for repair and modification. You might get some good ideas looking through the catalogs of past secrets.
Let me know what your favorite guitar mod is in the comments below. Leave a link to a photo so others can check it out too. What mod have you been wanting to do, but haven’t been brave enough to do it? What guitar mod or feature of somebody else’s guitar is the best one out there? I would love to see your comments!