Famous Guitarists Who Modded Their Guitars (Part 1)

One of the things that attracted me to playing electric guitar was the way it could be modded. When I got my first electric, within a few hours I had taken a screwdriver to it and taken everything apart just to see how it worked. But it’s not just curious kids who tinker and look for ways to improve or modify. Here are a few famous players who have not been able to leave well enough alone when it comes to  their guitars. 

Eddie Van Halen

Let’s start with the most famous modder. Eddie had a number of different guitars that he had altered, including a Les Paul and an ES335, but he is most well known for his Frankenstrat which he assembled from parts. The single pickup was taken from his 335 and the original trem from a ‘58 Stratocaster which he later replaced with a Floyd Rose. A selector switch took up the space in the middle pickup position and a non-functioning single coil sits in the neck position. Decorated with bicycle paint, the finish is often mimicked and is just as famous as the guitar (and Eddie himself). The result is a guitar that did everything Eddie needed and nothing he didn’t. At the time, it would have been unique regardless of the paint job, and not available in any shop for any money. Not only did he create the perfect guitar for his own unique style, he also inspired generations of players and modders to let their inventiveness loose on their own instruments. 

Brian May 

As famous as Mr Van Halen is the guitarist with Queen, although he didn’t modify his guitar but went above and beyond by building the thing from scratch. That’s dedication! The parts and components are well documented, but include found wood, parts made from materials in his father’s workshop, and even a custom made tremolo system. When you don’t have books or the internet to learn from, you have to figure things out yourself. Of course, it does help if you’re a genius in the making and assisted by another gifted engineer (Harold May, Brian’s father). Even though he did have to buy the pickups (Burns Tri Sonics) after his initial set failed to work, he built a unique guitar that became part of the Queen sound. Like Eddie, he spawned countless players to build their own (myself included!). 

Mick Ronson 

While not really an avid tinkerer (as far as I know… feel free to leave comments below), the guitar playing Spider from Mars did some work on the main guitar he played while part of David Bowie’s band. Firstly, he removed the pickup covers from his 1968 Gibson Les Paul to make them sound brighter. It’s a quick job, requiring a screw driver and soldering iron, but also a very popular one. Secondly, he removed the black finish on the top, revealing the solid maple. Some people claim it makes the wood breathe so the guitar sounds more resonant. I think that by the time you’ve removed all that paint, and considering that health and safety in the 1970s isn’t what it is today, you will have inhaled a fair amount of nitro dust that will cloud anyone’s judgement. But if you think you can hear a different, and you play better, who am I to argue? Ronno’s Les Paul became easily identifiable and helped him created some incredible music. 

Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein 

Known as Paul Caiafa to his mum, Doyle is the player with the Misfits. After playing an Ibanez Iceman during the early part of his career, he crafted his very unique Annihilator drawing on his skills as a machinist to design and carve the Batman-inspired graphite bodied guitar. Complete with a Seymour Duncan Invader pickup, it was designed to cope with Doyle’s heavy style comprising down strokes and power chords. Can you imagine the Misfit’s music being played on anything else? It’s another case of a guitarist needing an instrument to match their music and not being able to find anything suitable created by mass manufacturers. 

David Gilmour 

The Black Strat is the topic of a lot of conversations on certain forums. It started life as a 1968 Stratocaster, and had various necks and pickups swapped over the years, It even had an XLR jack and a Kahler tremolo added and later removed, leaving huge cavities that had to be filled in and painted. In its most famous state, it had three single coils and a mini toggle switch to create a 7-position strat configuration, allowing two extra pickup settings. In 2019, Gilmour sold the guitar by auction for USD$3,975,000, making it the most expensive guitar at the time. Usually, when you modify a guitar you do little to improve the resale value, but I have a feeling the fact that it was played by one of the most famous and influential Stratocaster players in the world may have added something to its value. 

Like many others in this post, Gilmour inspired a fair few players to pop off that scratchplate and see what could be broken. 

Eric Clapton

If swapping necks is modifying a guitar, Slowhand may have been one of the first. One of his reasons for doing so could have been the lack of Stratocasters available in the UK due to a trade embargo at the time. 

While visiting the Sho-Bud guitar shop in Nashville around 1970, he came across a rack of 50s strats. Yes, a whole rack of them. And because they were only a couple of hundred dollars each, he bought all of six of them. 

He then took his most favoured parts from three of the guitars and made one which he dubbed Blackie and used on some of his most favourite songs. 

When you just can’t find what you’re looking for, invention is key. 

There are lots more examples of famous players who modded or built their own guitars. More to come in the next episode. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *