How Easy are the GFS Kwik-Plug Pickups to Install?

My very beat up Les Paul Special is now a very beat up Les Paul Junior

If you’ve ever bought after market pickups, you’ve likely heard of GFS, or Guitarfetish.com’s name brand pickups. These have been a bit of a controversial pickup option in the sense that you either love them or hate them. Many guitar modification gurus claim they are the best pickups dollar for dollar, as they are incredibly cheap, usually coming in around $20-40 per pickup. Furthermore, you can usually buy pre-wired harnesses for a variety of pickup options making guitar modification extremely easy.

If soldering is really a no-go for you however, they have recently introduced their Kwikplug products, that allow you to install brand new pickups and wiring controls in minutes without soldering. Curious to see how easy they were AND how they sounded, I decided to mod my beloved (but not often used) 2011 Gibson Les Paul Special. While I’ve loved the design and playability of this double P90 LP, I often felt the pickups didn’t have the output or tone I was looking for. So can these kwikplugs be the cure? Let’s find out.

How Does Kwikplug Work?

Kwikplug is an option you can choose to add to any GFS pickups from their site. It doesn’t cost any more or less to add the kwikplug adaptability to your pickups, but if your wiring harness isn’t already kwikplug enabled, you can affordably get a new harness from them for an additional $30 or so. Overall, you can re-wire your whole guitar for well under $100.

With the new harness, simply remove all the wiring from your guitar, in this case a Les Paul Junior, and screw in your new pots and and input jack, no soldering required. Then, simply plug in your new pickup, after screwing it into place, making sure the headphone jack-style connection is in snuggly. The connection can be found running from the volume pot and fits into the input on the back of the pickup.

How Easy Is It?

Having done this myself, it literally took me more time to remove all the old wiring from guitar than it did to install the new kwikplug system and wiring. It was so easy, it all fit like a charm, and the quality of the GFS pre-wired harness was great. The wires are well insulated and the connections were well soldered and strong. It’s just as simple as putting headphones into an iphone!

So How Does It Sound?

While you’ll have to be patient and wait for a video demo, the dog ear P90 pickup I installed actually sounds great! I went for one with more output and bite than the soapbar’s that came stock on my Les Paul Special. The P90 is clear, punchy, and gets me way closer to the sounds of The Clash that inspired my love of Les Paul Juniors. While my guitar is certainly beat up, and now covered in holes from where electronics were, I can’t put it down and have been re-inspired by it every time I look at it and plug it in. This was easily the best $49 (total price I paid) I have spent in awhile.

Blackstar Studio 10 6L6 10W 1x12W Review

An American-inspired amp powered by a 6L6 output tube for bright, clear tones.

Cost: $549.99 new

Generously sent for review by Blackstar, huge thanks to Jennifer for the help!

How it Works and Final Score: 8.7

The Studio 10 6L6 from Blackstar is a fairly stripped down, affordable tube amp that is the perfect size for bedroom players and small stage players alike. The amp features a 1×12 Celestion 70/80 speaker, with 10 watts of output and a built in overdrive channel controllable by the included foot switch or by a button on the control panel.

Controllable parameters include gain, tone, reverb, and master volume, allowing you to dial in a fairly diverse array of tones, even without a typical 3 band EQ. For an amp at this price point, there is quite a bit of features built into the back of the amp as well such as effects loop and three speaker outputs.

Sound: 8.5

Inspired by many of the classic American amps from Fender that predate the Studio 6L6, it follows through on its promise of bright, clear tones. If you crank the gain and volume enough, you get that classic overdriven Fender tweed sound but in a much smaller package, allowing for more comfortable in doors playing. The amp really sparkles with single coils but loses a bit of the natural drive and output I got with humbuckers via a Dean Modern 24 and Guild Jetstar.

The built in reverb in fine, nothing to write home about, but it does lack some of the depth of that Fender or Vox spring reverb tank I’m accustomed to. My amp arrived with a footswitch for the drive channel, but there are also aftermarket ones from Blackstar that can control both drive and reverb. It seems like this would allow great sound shaping without any pedals or cheap sounding, built-in FX.

Personally, I found the drive channel to be a bit muddy, especially with any neck pickups or the tone knob rolled off on the guitar or amp. I think having a 3 band EQ would really help this drive shine a bit more, but for the price you can’t get everything. Besides a bit of muddiness, I enjoyed how raunchy and noisy the overdriven channel was, as it really mimics the touch sensitivity of a vintage cranked tube amp.

Construction & Reliability: 9

Nothing to be concerned about here, it seems to be solid as rock thanks to its heavy casing and hefty 32 pound weight. All the wiring seems to be correct and sturdy after cracking it open to inspect, the only issue (and it’s so minor), it seems like some of the washers around the input jack and power switches were a bit loose.

Value: 8.5

This single valve amp really mixes the best of solid state and tube amps together into one affordable package. The 6L6 output drives your lead tones but preserves that Fender-sparkle at lower, clean volumes. For $550, I think it is a bit of an amplifier “tweener” in the sense that it is probably too expensive or low volume to be someone’s amp for their first band, but is probably a bit below some of the other standard tube practice amps that veteran players may have in their house. Overall, it’s really a great fit for players like myself, who have expensive tastes but can’t afford expensive gear, as it mimics the sounds of vintage Fender combo’s at a much more palatable price. But based on quality alone, you are getting more than you pay for with the Blackstar Studio 10 6L6!

Dean Modern 24 Review

A stunning, stripped down superstrat for modern, high gain players

Cost: $649.00 new

Generously lent for review thanks to John from Armadillo Enterprises, Dean’s parent company!

Overview and Final Score: 7.8

Dean’s Modern 24 is a mixed bag of luxury features and missing parts. While the tones you can get of the guitar are superb, and the playability is elite, I was often left wanting a few more things on the guitar such as a tone knob or whammy bar. The mahogany body features a 3-piece maple neck with an ebony fretboard and 24 jumbo frets. Two Seymour Duncan Custom Zebra humbuckers are directly mounted onto the body, an APH-1 in the neck and a TB-5 in the bridge. A tune-o-matic bridge, single volume knob, and 3-way selector round out this high quality import package.

Sound: 8

The two Duncan humbuckers are phenomenal in this guitar and create searing lead tones, bruising rhythms, and the zebra design really compliments the all black finish. One drawback however is how bright the pickups are, which could normally be dulled just a bit via the tone knob, which is missing from this guitar. I compensated by messing with the EQ onboard my distortion pedals and was able to get some really great high gain tones for hard rock or metal, especially out of the bridge pickup. Both pickups wonderfully pushed the tubes in my Blackstar Studio 10 and Vox AC15 C1 to create awesome overdriven tones at high volumes. These humbuckers were really made to be pushed into a tube amp, and I bet would sound best going through some huge Marshall stack.

The neck was smooth, but not as buttery as you would expect, again sans tone control. One thing that really knocked a few ticks off here was that the guitar wasn’t super versatile, the pickups didn’t seem to be able to produce the warmness needed for genres outside of hard rock/metal very easily. As you’ll see later in the article, I feel like players will either find this guitar perfect, or put it down for a more diverse ESP or Jackson model. At the end of the day, the sounds and tones you can get out of this guitar are superb, and it’s probably a few mods away from being a 9/10.

Playability: 8.5

Thanks to a nifty neck heel joint, all 24 jumbo frets were easy to access while messing around with scales and improvising. The frets and C-shaped neck were both comfortable and familiar, while still feeling more suited for modern playing styles. The tuning stability was great thanks to the Grover tuners and tune-o-matic bridge, and I barely had to tune up or tweak it once I got it right. At this price, many might expect locking tuners, because of the guitar’s affordable Indonesian birthplace, but they didn’t feel necessarily unless you really beat up your strings.

The neck felt chunkier then expected but the guitar balanced beautifully on the strap, with no neck or body dive to report on. The size of the neck steered me towards playing more rhythmically on this guitar even though the lead tones were great. Players with larger or smaller hands may have to try the neck out first to see how it will fit to them individually.

Finish & Construction: 7

The construction of this guitar was superb, which may surprise you when you see the score, but there are separate concerns from the quality control done by Dean. The finish was spotless and seemed very damage resistant. All wood work, hardware installation, and set up was great out of the box and the guitar tuned up quickly and was instantly playable.

My concerns are with the design and construction choices, something I will touch on more in the value section. To me, this guitar doesn’t seem versatile enough to warrant its status as kind of a stand-alone or flagship superstrat for the company, but perhaps that wasn’t their goal. $649 isn’t cheap for an imported guitar, and I would think they would add some exciting features like a coil tap, trem system, or locking tuners, in addition to a tone knob. I often felt myself going to use features that just weren’t there and it made me want to really modify this guitar into something even better than it already is.

Value: 7.5

As stated above, I think this is a case of a guitar you really have to try before you buy. Some people may love how simple and stripped down it is, some people may be looking for more bang for your buck or simply more sonic features. I keep comparing this to the Chapman ML-1 Modern V2 I reviewed awhile ago, and that guitar just felt like it had more at a lower price. It was $150 cheaper, had a thinner and faster neck, and had an awesome coil split function that I fell in love with. While this guitar is fantastic and a joy to play, I just don’t feel it sets the standard for superstrats in this price range. Definitely try it out before you buy it because you never know if it’s the one for you!

Ammoon Nano Chorus Pedal Review

One of the most underrated, affordable chorus pedals on the market.

Cost: $29.99 new

Gifted to me by my brother and been on my board ever since.

How it Works & Final Score: 7.8

If you’re looking for a big sounding chorus pedal that won’t take up a lot of budget or pedalboard space, look no further! The Ammoon Chorus is a true bypass nano pedal with two modes: “Deep” and “Normal”. These two modes, controlled by a small switch, basically control the intensity of the modulation type.

Both these modes are further modified via the “level”, “depth”, and “rate” controls. “Level” is fairly straight forward, and controls the level of the modulated signal mixed over your original signal. “Depth” on this pedal essentially controls the number of signals that the pedal recreates and layers over your original, also controlling how thick or heavy the chorus effect is. Lastly, “rate”, controls the time of the delays that help thicken up that chorus sound.

Sound: 6.5

Don’t get me wrong, this chorus pedal sounds great and can get you all the famous chorus tones from EVH to Andy Summers, but it is just missing a few things. The “deep” mode is almost too modulated and can really only be used for intense atmospherics or shoe-gaze performances. While this isn’t a big deal, I felt it kind of neuters that whole feature for most players.

However, the “normal” mode is reliable and produces great sounds. One of the major criticisms that lost it some points was that the depth knob is just not capable of producing quite as rich tones as say the Boss CH-3 pedal, especially when it comes to the lower end of the control knob. Once you crank it, it really shines through however, and makes for some inspiring lead sounds. One interesting note: The “normal” mode sounds phenomenal with both the depth and rate cranked to create the sound I hoped the “deep” mode would with dense layers or rich modulation, fast delay, and a really thick sound.

Durability: 8

While it’s no Boss or MXR pedal with a rugged metal casing that could survive a nuclear blast, it has lasted several years on my board without any issues that couldn’t be fixed. After some heavy use, the washers on the in- and outputs came a bit loose but were easily tightened. While this isn’t a big deal, it still keeps it from a perfect score despite the aluminum alloy seeming pretty reliable. Plus, as a nano pedal, it’ll take up barely any space on your board and can be cheaply replaced.

Value: 9

Another piece of guitar gear that really shines in the value department, this is one of the best cheap pedals you can get. It will do 80% or more of what most chorus pedals do for a fraction of the price. I mean, it’s like $30 on Amazon, maybe cheaper elsewhere? If you have a budget to stick to, this has to outcompete $100 or even $50 chorus pedals, even if the sound isn’t totally there.

Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal Review

There is a reason this is one of the most popular pedals of all time

Cost: $49.99 USD new

Purchased this pedal recently after realizing I needed a simple, reliable distortion.

How it Works and Final Score: 8.7

The Boss DS-1 Distortion is one of the most straightforward and popular pedals of all time. Known best for its punchy, classic rock-style distortion, the DS-1 has been used by everyone from Kurt Cobain to Steve Vai. With 3 easy controllable parameters, “tone”, “level”, and “dist”, you can dial in a dynamic range of gain sounds. The “tone” and “level” controls are your standard output and treble/bass ratio controls, while “dist” controls the amount of gain. There’s really not much more to it, sometimes the best circuits are just the simplest ones!

Sound: 8

Start with each knob at 12 o’clock and you’re quickly in classic rock mode thanks to the big, mid-range sound that still retains note to note clarity as you bash out power chords and riffs. The “dist” knob can slowly take you from subtle overdrive tones to saturated, high gain, making it a truly diverse distortion. I even started to get some borderline fuzz sounds as I cranked the distortion but limited the level controls.

Overall, I think the best feature of the DS-1’s sound has to be the harmonic richness. It’s almost inexplainable but it just adds that missing something that can make each string vibration feel warm, full, and musical. The spread on the tone control is fantastic, meaning you really have full control over how bright or dark you make the sound.

Durability: 10

Boss pedals are built like tanks, they very rarely break on you and I trust them more than any other pedal to perform time and time again. The sturdy metal casing, the foot pedal, and the knobs all seem to last a lifetime. When buying a pedal, going with a trusted brand is always a safe bet, and Boss is arguably the safest brand possible. There is reason guitar heroes like John Frusciante, Rivers Cuomo, and Joe Satriani all use these products.

Value: 8

The DS-1 is so damn cheap, coming in around $50 at most major retailers, and probably even cheaper on the used market. At that price, you’re getting one of the most trusted and reliable distortions on the market. Some players are quick to point out that the DS-1 is not the most inspiring of all distortion pedals, and that for just tens of dollars more you can get a wider range of fantastic drives, distortions, or even fuzzes. While the TC Electronic Dark Matter or EHX Muff series may add more diversity for the price, the DS-1 is still an insane value and should be a staple on every player’s pedalboards.

Fender Classic Series ’70s Stratocaster

Discontinued too soon, but still popular on the used market, check out this gorgeous guitar!

Cost: $849.99 new

This stunning MIM-Strat belongs to my good friend Sam who left it at my house all weekend, thus making it reviewable.

Overview and Final Score: 8.1

While we normally stick to new or best-selling instruments to review here at GFI, this guitar has a very robust second-hand market is quite the eye catcher. Seeing it is much sought after online, I decided to take it for a spin when my friend left it at my house all weekend! Featuring a ’70s gloss polyester finish and big headstock, this Mexican-made Strat mixes killer looks with classic sound. The 3 vintage alnico single coil pickups scream, slap, and spank depending on how you use them, and create a very full, familiar Strat tone. Much of the ’70s influence is built into the aesthetic as opposed to the sound, and the distinct natural finish doesn’t hurt the cause either.

Sound: 8

Even though the guitar may cost a bit more than your average MIM-Strat, the pickups are fairly similar themselves. They sound like the real vintage deal, but have just a little bit less depth to them, making them feel just the slightest bit thin, especially in the last two positions of the selector switch. However, the neck pickup was smooth and buttery, and using the in-between selections conjured up beautiful recreations of Hendrix, Mayer, or Frusciante with ease.

The bridge pickup really came alive when I cranked the tube amp or added external distortion effects, and soon was churning out crazy, rich lead tones I hadn’t imagined it could via the clean tone.

Playability: 9

The neck, action, and frets were almost perfect on this guitar and it was a joy to play. The 21 vintage-style frets feel large and comfortable, with no rough edges at all. The U-shaped neck was stable, held tune for hours at a time, and felt easy to traverse up and down.

My friend had converted it to a hard tail via some extra springs, so I did not get to check out the synchronized tremolo arm’s performance, but I have to imagine it is as good as a MIM Standard model or better for the price. The vintage-style tuners were also a nice aesthetic touch and were easy to turn, and kept tune wonderfully along with the bridge and nut.

Finish & Construction: 8.5

After seeing the finish on this guitar, I knew I had to play it, and it was even more gorgeous up close. The finish was glossy, well polished, and had no visible flaws that I could find. The clear, gloss polyester on the neck had a few marks, perhaps from ware or use, but overall felt fairly strong and resistant.

The 3-bolt neck plate was stronger than I expected, though I’m not sure how it would hold up through vigorous live usage compared to the 4-bolt styles on most Strats. The frets were fantastic with no rough edges, and were very comfortable to play up and down the neck. Overall, it seems like quite a well constructed instrument, I expect it to hold up to quite a bit more abuse.

Value: 7

I’m slightly less bullish on the value of this guitar than any of its other features. At the end of the day it plays and sounds only marginally better, if it all, than other Mexican-made Stratocasters. Really, the only noticeable upgrade is the vintage, glossy finish. By my ear, I hear little to no to difference when it comes to the pickups. I do love the MIM Fender guitars and think they are a great value, thus the high scores in other categories. But it just isn’t necessarily worth the extra hundreds they up charge for the ’70s moniker and I would steer towards shopping for a used one of these.

5 Quick Ways to Upgrade a Cheap Stratocaster (Without Soldering)

Even if it doesn’t play perfect, it is quite the looker!

Recently, we took a look at the uber affordable Glarry GST3, a $60 Stratocaster alternative available online through Glarrymusic.com. While a functional guitar at that price is a great deal, let’s take a look at a few ways we can make the guitar more playable and hopefully better sounding.

Without doing any soldering or drilling any new holes, there are still a few things you can do to upgrade the instrument. We’re going to stick to a couple of easy fixes, easily done by anyone regardless of experience. Lastly, all of these upgrades require just a Philips head screwdriver or two, a peg winder, a pencil, and new strings.

Remove the Strings and Lubricate the Nut

Cheap guitars often come stock with awful strings that either feel rough or are already rusted and degrading. One of the first things you need to do is rip those old ones off and while you’re at it, maybe give the neck a quick clean. Using warm water on a rag, gently rub each fret to get any dirt, grime, or wood shavings off.

The Glarry nut we are about to attack with a pencil

After all this, time to make a quick alteration to the (very likely) cheap nut on the guitar. In the case of the Glarry, it is a large, poorly cut plastic piece that seems to be catching the strings and contributing to the poor tuning. So the quick fix here is to take a number 2 pencil and use the graphite tip to lubricate the nut. Use the pencil to rub some graphite into each string slot on the nut, helping the strings move and slide through nut as you play and vibrate each string. Do this every time you change strings, especially if you’re not willing to get a new neck or nut for the instrument.

Swap Out the Bridge

While this may seem like major guitar modification, on Strat-style guitars, it really isn’t at all. A few screws and springs are all that keeps the bridge bound to the guitar, and can be easily removed and replaced. One thing that makes a Strat-style bridge cheap or low quality, is how thin and small the block is. This block is what helps keep tension on the strings, holding them in tune even when the whammy bar is used.

The bridge structure, without whammy bar, the saddles can be seen on either side of each string.

To keep things cheap, I recommend going online a purchasing a second-hand or used Fender Mexican Stratocaster bridge. These bridges can be found for around $20-30, even in brand new condition and can be screwed into place, easily upgrading tuning stability and playability. Once you screw it into the front of the guitar, simply re-attach the springs behind the backplate. You can tighten or un-tighten the springs via the two screws that usually attach them to the Strat’s body, tighter springs or additional springs will result in more of a hardtail-style Strat, where the tremolo arm will not be able to function.

Swap Out the Tuners

With this cheap, Glarry guitar, the tuners are simply held in place by the washer around the tuning hole and one small screw that anchors the whole mechanism to the headstock. This is a common tuning machine style, and many higher quality sets can be found new or used online. Replacing them with almost anything should be an upgrade, and will greatly improve tuning stability and your ability to bend notes, bash chords, or use the guitar onstage.

In depth discussion by Stew-Mac

Even something like these vintage Fender tuning machines from Reverb.com should get the job done. For about $40, you can probably find even more replacement options from Squier’s, Fender’s, or after-market distributors like Guitar Fetish. Just make sure you get tuners that don’t have any pegs, as some newer Fender models do, as they likely will not fit into cheap Strat copies that don’t have them. Tuners can simply be replaced by unscrewing the washer by hand, and removing the anchor screws with a small screwdriver. Then, install the new ones in a similar manner and you’re off to the races.

Put on Better Strings

Everyone has different preferences for what makes strings better, but I would highly recommend Stringjoy’s fantastic made in the USA products. I use their 10s on all my guitars and they provide great feel, tone, and lifespan whether they are on my Strat, Les Paul Jr, or Jetstar. Putting better playing and better sounding strings on any guitar is like a breath of fresh air, and so instantly inspire you to pick the guitar up and play.

Check out this helpful article from Stringjoy for help with changing strings!

Adjust the Action and Truss Rod

Considering you probably didn’t spend a ton of money on the Strat, you can’t expect it to be set up properly. If yours comes with the action too high or low for your liking, you can easily adjust it. Furthermore, if you hear a lot of fret buzz, the neck may be bowed, and can be easily adjusted via the truss rod.

The truss rod can be accessed via the panel on your headstock, usually right above the nut. This access port may be covered or open to the air, and all it needs is a slight twist via an Allen wrench, which usually comes with a new, store bought guitar.

Quick rundown from Fender to check out

Action is the term for high how or low your strings are off the neck and frets of the guitar. Most players prefer it fairly low, as it makes it easier to press the strings down with your fingers. To adjust the action, use a hex key, or the smaller Allen wrench, that comes with your guitar. You can adjust the individual strings by raising or lowering the screws on the bridge saddle. Turning counter clockwise will lower the string, while clockwise will raise it, on most Strats.