1090 words · 5–6 min

Getting The Instrument

If you don’t already have an instrument that you plan to mod the hell out of, you’ll need to get one.

On Kits

I’m not a fan of overpaying for gear; manufacturing technology has reached the point where even cheap guitars — Squier, Cort, lower-end Ibanez models — are usually really good. Having said that, not even the best setup and components in the world could make some of the really bad guitars out there enjoyable to play. I would recommend staying away from the lowest-end lines of most manufacturers (Squier Bullets and Affinities immediately come to mind; the low-end lines are usually fine, it’s the absolute lowest-end you need to be wary of) and from DIY kits.

It may seem like a DIY kit is the perfect way to get a guitar that is truly yours, but most the kits out there are absolutely abysmal in quality, with misplaced and mis-measured holes for mounting hardware, neck pockets that either don’t fit the neck or only vaguely contact the neck wood at all, the absolute worst quality hardware anyone produces (often reusing parts that failed the quality assurance process and couldn’t be used for an actual instrument); they require a tremendous investment of time and money to build into anything resembling an instrument (the finish is, imo, the most tedious, time-consuming, and one of the costlier part of making an instrument), and most luthiers won’t touch kit guitars because there’s nothing less pleasant than fixing someone else’s mistakes, much less fixing both your- and the kit manufacturer’s mistakes. Buy a kit if you want to build a kit and don’t necessarily require the end result to be enjoyable to play. Don’t buy a kit if you want a good instrument.


DIY kits may generally be awful, but “Partscasters” are often a tremendous way to get a great guitar. You can easily find brand new or secondhand Fender necks and bodies online, and building a Strat or Tele from parts can often result in a nicer and more personal instrument than what you’d get for the same money if you bought a complete guitar.

Fender neck compatibility

Tele and Strat necks have the same width and sit at the same distance from the bridge, but have different-shaped heels — the Strat has a rounded heel that rounds the corners of the Tele’s square heel.

For this reason, a Strat neck will fit in a Tele body (although it will leave a gap at the end of the heel), but a Tele neck will not fit in a Strat body.

Jazz and Precision bass necks are interchangeable.

StewMac have a very detailed guide on building a partscaster.

Shopping for Complete Guitars

If you don’t have a guitar that you plan to mod already, and you’re not building a partscaster, you’ll need to buy a new instrument. There are a couple things to keep in mind when buying a project guitar:

  • Make sure the guitar plays nicely out of the box, has a solid fret job, the wood and finish are nice. Changing the frets and finish is very costly, difficult, and time-consuming so you probably want to avoid it if possible.
  • To make it easier for yourself, find a guitar that has all the routing necessary for whatever mods you want to do. If you plan to put in humbuckers, it’s easier to buy a guitar that comes with humbuckers already. If you want to put an active preamp into your bass, you might want to look for a bass that already has a battery box and enough potentiometer holes for your preamp to fit.
  • If buying a hollowbody as a project guitar, try to find one that has a removable control plate on the back. A lot of hollowbodies have solid backs and the electronics have to be put in through the F-holes, which makes mods after the fact extremely annoying and difficult.
  • Keeping to standard designs (Strats, Teles, Les Pauls, Jazz/Precision basses) will make it a lot easier to find replacement hardware. In the component-specific sections of this guide I will run through the standard variants of each piece of hardware and how to recognize them — a lot of designs, even if they’re non standard, will use standard hardware. Do your research; make sure you’ll be able to find a replacement bridge before you buy a guitar planning to replace the bridge.

Now, shopping.

Make a list of the features you’d like, starting with the most important to you and ending with the least important. Such a list might contain points like:

  • Body shape (e.g. singlecut, LP-style, offset, semihollow, telecaster, strat; contoured heel, etc.)
  • Body wood (ash/alder/poplar/mahogany)
  • Brand (Squier, Fender, Ibanez, Gibson, Cort, etc)
  • Bridge (hardtail, jazzmaster trem, strat trem, floyd rose, bigsby)
  • Color (yellow/natural/white/sunburst)
  • Control layout (1V1T, 2V2T, 1V2T, push-pulls for switching, 3-position toggle vs 5-position blade switch, etc.)
  • Active electronics (yes/no)
  • Fretboard wood (maple/rosewood/ebony)
  • Fret count (20, 21, 22, 24)
  • Fret material (nickel, stainless steel)
  • Hardware color (nickel, chrome, gold, black)
  • Headstock angle (straight, angled, headless)
  • Inlays (dot, block; black, white acrylic, mother of pearl)
  • Neck mounting system (bolt-on/set-in/neck-thru)
  • Neck profile (C, D, V, etc)
  • Number of strings (mainly relevant to bass: four, five; on guitar: six, seven)
  • Pickup brand (Seymour Duncan, Fender, Fishman Fluence, Bare Knuckle, etc)
  • Pickup configuration (e.g. HH, SSS, SS (tele), PJ (bass), P90/P90)
  • Scale length (guitar: 24 3/4“/25.5“/multiscale; bass: 34“/35“/multiscale)
  • Truss rod style (bullet, vintage bottom-of-heel access, Music Man-style)
  • Tuners (traditional, locking)
  • Weight (e.g. sub-7lbs)

Now that you have your list ready, make a copy and remove the points that can be easily changed in the future (i.e. without sanding down the finish or woodworking). That will be your shopping list.

Go to your preferred online music store (I’m a big fan of Thomann in Europe; Sweetwater in the US also have a very nice selection of guitars), click on the appropriate filters, and go through all the guitars that match what you’re looking for at least in part. Write down those that have a price that doesn’t make you flinch.

Chances are, you’ll find plenty of instruments that work for you.