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This past Christmas my wife was kind enough to get me a guitar. She knows I’m passionate about guitars, guitar playing and music in general. She also knows guitars aren’t cheap. One night I saw a Fender Squier Bullet Mustang, with two humbucking pickups. Finished off in a nice seafoam green, it was only $150. I dropped a few hints, and I was still shocked when she brought out the large rectangular box on Christmas day! I was beyond psyched.
Now it’s Indonesian made, and out of the box it was OK. Sound-wise, I had no complaints. The pickups are amazingly decent. Clean tones were nice and rich in each position, and with overdrive they were big and focused. However, it did need some attention. The intonation wasn’t that great, the action was all over the place, and the frets and the nut were really rough. After a proper setup, fret polishing, neck adjustment, nut slotting, and a fresh set of .10 strings it was much nicer.
Even with all that, it was still a little rough when it came to tuning stability, so my attention went to the tuners and the bridge.▼ Article continues below ▼
I’m a big fan of locking tuners, even on non-tremolo guitars. It makes re-stringing a lot easier, and the strings don’t need as much break in time, compared to standard-style tuning pegs. Yes, tell me you don’t have a problem with non-locking tuners, good for you.
May I continue?
The problem with replacing tuners is, pretty much every attachment method on the back side of the headstock isn’t anywhere near uniform or universal. The mounting holes and pins on the back side vary from guitar to guitar. There are tools/jigs/templates out there that can ensure a near-factory style install, where all the tuning pegs are lined up perfectly, but unless you’re planning on installing multiple sets of tuners on multiple guitars, spending the money for just one install can be a little excessive. While I have no problem doing some tasks, drilling into even this inexpensive Squier’s headstock didn’t excite me. I decided to head to see Adam Fields at AF Precision Setups in Boylston, MA to see what the best options were, and if need be, turn over any drilling tasks to him.
Enter Hipshot. They’ve been making great guitar hardware for decades, and a lot of their tuners and bridges are now becoming standard parts on a lot of production guitars. They developed a universal mounting system that doesn’t require any drilling! Now it’s a modular type system, with two plates that take care of three sets of strings each. Removal of the existing tuners went quickly, and simply installing the plates on the headstock, and then inserting the new tuners was just as easy, with no alignment issues or any drilling. Now the tuners themselves do have a screw hole, if you wanted to opt out of using the mounting plates, and drill a hole for a mounting screw.
I was hoping to get some photos of the install process, but it went so quickly that they were installed in less than 10 minutes, they went in THAT fast! The locking mechanism is super smooth, and the open gear adds a neat aesthetic to it. The overall result is fantastic! The tuning ratio is a lot more sensitive, so there’s no going back and forth to get a string to pitch.
I’d highly suggest to anyone with a guitar that they like, but might have any tuning issues look into these Hipshot locking tuners. With the universal mounting plates, there’s no holes or mods really needed, and they go in very quickly. And at around $80, they’re not an expensive upgrade.
This falls into the no-brainer category.
We then turned our attention to the bridge. We noticed the intonation screws were a bit long and in some cases actually pinched the string a bit. After removing all the intonation screws we realized that they were actually three different lengths! They were also an odd metric size, and might be tough to replace at a local hardware store, so Adam attempted to grind off about 1/16” off the longer screws. The threads were really not cut well, and running them through a die, even to use as a handle while grinding was rough, and on the second screw, it bent after just touching the grinding wheel. Not a good sign.
So, we thought of options. Thankfully Adam has a plethora of old parts he’s acquired over the years he calls “the boneyard.” Bridges, odd screws and nuts, fittings, switches, you name it. He had a bridge with a set of Graph Tech saddles on it. Size-wise, they looked like they would do the trick, but again the intonation screws were a bit too long for this installation, but at least they were a more standard size.
So, a quick trip to a local hardware store, and we grabbed 6 that were 1/16” shorter than the standard, as well as 6 that were 1/8” shorter, just to give us some options. 12 screws came in at $3.27. Not bad. We ended up using the shorter length ones, and the rest of the setup fell into place, with no intonation issues.
Plugging it in, immediately the guitar changed. A lot of the jingly, ratty sharpness that it had with the stock bridge had vanished, and was replaced by a more focused output. Even unplugged it rang out more evenly across all of the strings with no rattling or odd string buzzing. Adam immediately said, “This guitar has completely changed”. Now it’s still a short scale Mustang, but the “cheapness” element of it was gone.
A nice feature of the Graph Tech saddles compared to the stock metal ones, is the smooth surface that makes resting my picking hand on it a lot more comfortable.
My big string break-in test usually means big bends around the 12th fret, and trying to knock everything out of tune. It’s a brutish manhandling kind of method, and in most cases after three rounds of doing this to each string, the guitar stays in tune, with minimal break-in time. I did one pass of this exercise, and hit a D chord that rang true!
The Graph Tech saddles Adam had in his Boneyard were well worth the upgrade. I was planning on upgrading the bridge, or even just the saddles at some point, but I just lucked out on this aspect. Graph Tech was on the top of my list, and again, I’ve learned if you really want to change the tone of an instrument, the bridge should be the first area of focus, rather than the pickups or electronics. Saddles come in at around $55, so even new ones wouldn’t break the bank.
Squier Mustang – $150
New Tuners – $80
Graph Tech Saddles – $55*
Screws – $3.25
Misc. Strings – $10
+ Setup Cost – $40
So, the total cost of everything is a whopping $338.25. Now I must note that Adam gave me a deal on the saddles, so the actual cost was in my favor. Again, I’ve put more money into an instrument than what it was worth. I still think this is not a bad thing, though, especially for “keepers.”
Fender does have a Mustang/Duo-Sonic offering that comes in at $499, that again I would probably change the tuners and do an electronics upgrade, at the least. Yes, I could spec out some really wild and crazy stuff through a company like Warmoth, like a maple top or exotic neck construction, but part of the allure of a Mustang is the cheapness, not top-of-the line feel.
As far as future mods, it’s such a minimal instrument, and already has been modded enough that the only thing left would be some pickups that could accept coil taps, and could get some more single coil tones out of it, but at this point the only other item on my immediate checklist is changing the knobs to a more Tele/P-Bass style knurled dome.
So, to get an inexpensive instrument configured to suit my tastes, I’m still ahead of the game. The tuners alone make it a more functional instrument. It’s nice when a couple of simple bolt on upgrades and a decent setup really improve an instrument. These mods really took the “cheapness” out of a cheap guitar, and made it a hundred times better. Hopefully you can implement similar upgrades to your modestly priced instrument to make it play like a champ, as well.