November is just about done and a lot of the major gift-giving holidays of the season are just around the corner which means that many of you aspiring young guitarists out there might be the recipients of a brand new axe by the end of next month. And if your first electric guitar is anything like mine, chances are you’re probably not about to get that genuine Gibson Les Paul under the ol’ Christmas tree anytime soon – probably something much closer to a Squier Stratocaster by Fender. There might also be plenty of you out there that have long since moved on from your Squier Strat towards something a bit more professional and have left your beginner’s axe collecting dust in a closet somewhere. It’s no a big secret that a “value guitar” such as the Squier Strat just won’t measure up in quality when it comes to the sound and manufacturing of a $1000+ guitar but with a few minor tweaks, upgrades and a little bit of love, that budget beginner’s guitar can be made to play like a beast!
In today’s article, I would like to take the time to look at a few of the most popular upgrades for the Squier Stratocaster by Fender. But before I get to that, I do want to say that the Squier Strat is by no means a junk guitar, not at all. Compared to many of the “budget” guitars made in the past – as well as plenty today – the Squier brand can definitely hold its own and is actually a very popular brand. But with that said, it’s also far from perfect , but with a little bit of attention, they don’t have to be. So, whether you’re a brand new guitarist about to christen that first axe or a veteran player that is ready to give that old Squier the resurrection it so desperately deserves, read on and check out some of the most popular upgrades available that is sure to take your entry level axe up a few notches!
One of the most common complaints that comes hand-in-hand with the Squier Strat is the inability of the tuning machines to hold a perfectly tuned guitar in place. It’s not that they’re terrible to the point you can’t play, not at all, it’s just that when you consider the live stage environment, it becomes a pain to have to tune that guitar after every other song or after executing a vicious solo. A brand new set of good quality tuning machines should run you less than $100 and although that might seem a bit pricey considering that’s about a third of what the guitar itself costs, it’s well worth the investment .
The Tremolo System
Another cause of rapid de-tuning with Strats – and this applies to the actual Fender version too – is their use of the tremolo bridge system. Eric Clapton for one loved the Strat but wasn’t at all keen with the tremolo system’s propensity to un-tune the guitar. In fact, he was one of the first well-known players to lock down the tremolo on his Fender Strat and I recommend doing just that. If you simply must have a tremolo bridge in order to do those signature whammy bends, you’re going to have to live with the drawbacks of the system but if you’re like most of us who will probably rarely use it, I suggest locking down that tremolo for the added benefit of better holding a tune. There are plenty of these available but probably the most popular are those made by Floyd Rose. They will keep the strings in tune although I should warn that they do take a bit of getting used to and make re-stringing the guitar a bit more difficult and time consuming.
Another huge upgrade but one with plenty of choices to choose from is changing your guitar’s pickups. Seeing as how the Squier Strat is made to use three single coil pickups, you have to make sure that your next choice in Pups are able to fit your axe but luckily, the Strat and its copies are so popular that it should be relatively easy finding a set that will work. You also have to choice to move away from the sound of single coils and into some humbucking territory. All you have to do is make sure you find yourself a set of stacked humbuckers which are simply humbuckers made to fit the size of a single coil. You can check out a few that we carry ourselves right here.
All of the veterans out there already know this but far it must be said simply because I’ve seen far too many new players keep the original strings on the guitar for way too long. Old strings lose tone and sound flat after prolonged use but as far as strings on your brand new guitar goes – which should be new themselves – it’s more of a matter of what sound you’re going for. Different string gauges will sound different. If you feel as though the tone of your Strat is too thin and weak, try getting a set of heavier gauged strings. They will be harder to play with at first but can actually help improve your technique and hand strength overtime. They also have the benefit of sending a stronger signal to your pickups, giving your guitar a bigger and fuller sound thanks to the added size. Be aware that changing the string size of your guitar will have an effect on the intonation and action of your guitar due to the change of stress in the neck. This is fixed by adjusting the truss rod inside the neck of your guitar. If you are new to guitars of have never performed a truss rod adjustment yourself, I highly recommend that you let a professional take care of it. Although it’s not a particularly long or difficult process, mistakes made can permanently break your guitar. You can break the neck by tightening the rod a bit too much or even risk stripping the bolt if you try using a tool that’s not the exact fit and once that bolt is stripped, there’s no turning back. You can check out our selection of electric guitar strings right here.
Alright, this is probably one of the most important upgrades you can do to just about any brand new guitar. Play it for a while and see how it feels and sounds. If the guitar sounds in tune in some places but out of tune in others, your axe has poor intonation. If that’s the case, you should probably try getting it fixed at your local guitar shop unless you feel you have enough experience to do it yourself, come back tomorrow for our guide on fixing intonation. If you feel as though the action is not to your liking – the action being the distance between the strings and the fretboard – you should have that fixed as well which means adjusting the height of the bridge but just remember that although action for the most part is all a matter of personal preference, having it set too low will create an unwanted buzz caused by the strings vibrating against the fretboard while action set too high can make the guitar a literal pain to play. Trust me, setting up your guitar so that it feels good to play is probably the best upgrade you can make, especially if it’s your first axe. Chances are you might not want to stick to learning if the setup of your guitar makes it that much harder to play on.
Alright, there you have it, a few key upgrades that can turn your beginner’s guitar into an axe worthy of the Fender name. While there are certainly a few more things that can be done to up the ante of your axe – such as changing the electronics or even customizing the pickguard – most of these upgrades should cost you a few hundred bucks depending on your choice of pickups and tuning machines but in the end you will have a guitar that sounds twice as nice as what you invested in it. Happy shredding everyone!