My standard upgrade, which Fran actually calls "Gene's job" (!) is the installation of a good quality bone nut and saddle if my latest find doesn't already have them. I absolutely believe that bone improves the sound of ANY guitar, and the better the instrument, the more sense it makes. Bone is an extremely dense, hard material that transmits the vibration of the string to the sounding board (top) of the guitar much better than plastic, which is standard on most guitars including some very expensive ones. This fact has always confounded me. Why would a company use a plastic nut and saddle on a guitar that costs hundreds or even thousands of dollars when using bone would only add a tiny fraction to the overall cost of construction? Some companies use a man-made material called Tusq that is almost as good as bone from all reports, but my experience with the stuff is limited and I have never had the opportunity to replace Tusq with bone to compare the two.
Some guitar supply companies such as Stewart-MacDonald offer pre-made saddles and pre-cut nuts. Dropping in the saddle is not a big deal, although you might need to sand down the under side a bit if the action is too high. Using a pre-cut nut is a little more chancy because the slots may need to be filed a bit to get the string down to the correct height. This involves the use of files specifically designed for this task and while I've known players who've done this job just fine with no previous experience I would rather leave it to an experienced repair person. Your call on that one.
Another good source of bone (and more exotic materials - more on that in a minute) is Bob Colosi. Bob is hugely respected in the acoustic guitar community for the same qualities I mentioned above in Fran Ledoux. He makes saddles, nuts and bridge pins himself and his pins are true miniature works of art that enhance any instrument that is graced with them. Bob encourages contact too, and he is a fascinating guy to speak with. If you happen to be a Red Sox fan, so much the better! I never did figure out why Bob, whose shop is in Georgia is such a hardcore Sox fan, but that adds points to him in my book!
Regarding pins: this is a vigorously debated subject on the guitar forums, i.e., do bridge pins really effect the sound of a guitar? My opinion is - yes, although probably not quite to the extent that bone nuts and saddles do. Pin materials are much more varied and include the standard plastic and Tusq, plus ebony, various kinds of bone and the most exotic and expensive: fossilized walrus ivory and fossilized ivory (regular ivory being illegal to import). I swallowed hard and paid well over $100 for a set of Colosi fossilized walrus ivory pins - referred to in guitar circles as "FWI" -
and I am convinced that they add even more clarity and resonance to my Martin 000028H, which Fran outfitted with a bone nut and saddle. Plus they are Colosi's "antiqued" version with abalone inlay and they look very, very cool. You can even find pins made from metal (not through Bob) that are purported to add a more ringing sound to the strings. In any case, except for the FWI pins, most pins are relatively inexpensive and it might be worth your while to experiment with a few types. Be aware however that guitars have different sizes of holes in their bridges, depending on manufacturer so be sure to determine which size your guitar needs - another good reason to speak with Bob as he will advise you on that. For example, Taylor guitars use an entirely different size than Martins.
Although not technically an upgrade, another hotly debated subject is where and if a strap button should be installed on the heel of a guitar. This little addition is certainly not a necessity but if you're like me and find a strap attached to the head of a guitar to be cumbersome and annoying, there is no question about doing this job. The problem is, this involves drilling a small hole somewhere on the heel of the guitar neck and if you happen to own a true vintage instrument you should think long and hard about how that little hole will affect the value of your prized guitar. Some dealers in vintage and collectible guitars won't even accept an expensive guitar that has one; some don't really care, but all will agree that having a strap button installed does affect the value. Just how much is totally up to the dealer.
I always use a strap when I play, including when I'm sitting down and I am willing to accept a certain devaluation of my guitars for the convenience and comfort of using my straps with a strap button. Be aware though that there is a right and wrong place to install one. Fran taught me that the correct placement is on the treble side of the heel, about a third of the way up from the bottom of the heel, and not too close to the side of the guitar. This position keeps the guitar flat against my body. Some people insist on installing their strap buttons on the underside of the bottom of the heel, that flat surface that is even with the bottom of the guitar. This is dead wrong because the guitar will want to fall away from your body if you let it. I suspect the reason this location is used is that the screw then goes straight up into the progressively thicker part of the heel and is very strong. That may be so but that location is to my mind both uncomfortable and potentially dangerous to your guitar if it was to fall forward and the strap became disengaged from the guitar. Using a device called a "strap lock" will save you from this regardless of where you install the button, by the way.
I've installed a couple dozen strap buttons on my students' guitars and my own and it is quite easy if you follow some simple precautions. Drill a hole where the screw will go and use a drill bit slightly smaller than the diameter of the screw. Be sure to put a piece of tape around the bit to mark the exact depth you want the bit to penetrate. This is VERY important so you don't drill all the way through the heel. Put a small piece of masking tape in the location where the hole will be made to ensure that a "wandering" drill doesn't scratch or gouge your guitar. Be sure to use a variable speed drill or better yet, a Dremel tool and keep the RPM very slow. Take your time and you'll be fine! Be sure to use a felt washer between the bottom of the button and the heel to avoid cracking of the wood over time.
Whether or not to upgrade your plain acoustic with some sort of pick-up is a subject for an entire discussion all on its own. Because I play out and need to be heard I almost always have one installed, specifically the K&K Pure Western Mini, which I feel is the absolute best passive pick-up on the market. But you can certainly debate whether or not this is an upgrade at all. I certainly would not do it on, say, a 1950s vintage D-28 or Gibson J-200. Doing so would severely affect the value of such vintage guitars, in a negative way. Collectors and vintage guitar enthusiasts generally want their instruments to be as close to original condition as possible. With a new guitar, its another story as far as I'm concerned, but remember: I play out and need one. If that doesn't describe your playing situation, think it through before going through with a semi permanent installation. Who knows? It may actually enhance the value. But maybe not. Do your homework on this and a great way to do that would be to pose a question about it on a couple of the guitar forums.
One upgrade that may be worth a try is the new "O-Port" from Planet Waves. I haven't used one but they get generally good reviews and are pretty reasonably priced. It is a plastic device that clips onto the inside of your guitar and supposedly adds volume and resonance to any guitar, while eliminating feedback in acoustic electrics. Worth a look.
An upgrade that cannot be seen but may well be heard is the use of a Tone Rite devise. I've written about these gadgets before and while the one I bought didn't seem to have any effect on my guitars, many people rave about them being able to "open up" the sound of new guitars, a process that normally takes many years. The company has a very responsible return policy so if you're willing to at least temporarily risk about $150 it may be something that will make your new guitar love it even more.
Some upgrades are purely cosmetic, such as replacing the pickguard with a reproduction vintage-style one. Supposedly this is a pretty easy job but I have never done it so I can't comment on that. Be sure to determine if the one that's already on your guitar is just glued on or is under the finish. If it is under the finish, you're out of luck.
Some guitarists are unhappy with the case that came with their guitar and will opt for a new one that is fancier, either in a cosmetic or structural sense. A good quality hard shell case is a necessity with a valuable guitar and most guitars costing more than about $500 come with one. Do NOT depend on a gig bag protecting your guitar from anything more than a rain shower between your house and your car. I happen to be attracted to the traditional arch top, black colored 5-ply plywood cases by TKL , otherwise known as "Geib-style" cases. They are standard with the more expensive Martins and some of the boutique makers. However, the reality is that the molded and padded hard plastic cases used by many companies work just fine for most normal transport and protection. Beware of plastic cases though - some can twist and flex in the process of transport. Fran showed me a guitar that was literally nothing more than firewood after making a plane trip half way around the world. The kicker is that there was NO outward damage to the case. But when Fran applied pressure to the top of the case it easily twisted in his hands. This was what happened in transit. Airline baggage people are notorious for their abuse of guitars. If you want to see a funny (but oh so sad) take on this subject check out this site with Dave's You Tube video.
There are some great cases out there that will protect your instrument but they can cost as much as some guitars! If you plan to travel a lot with your guitar, pack and pad it very carefully in a good quality hard shell case and carry it to the gate in hopes the flight personnel will let you carry it on board. If you do have to give it up before boarding, a well protected guitar will *probably* be OK. Good luck on that one.
There are other upgrades but I'll now get to the most important question. Are they worth it, in terms of adding to the monetary value of your guitar? Unfortunately, in many cases the answer is no. However, the fact that a guitar has been upgraded with bone and is housed in a better case may be the things that sway someone into buying it, should you decide to sell. In most cases there are many, many guitars out there that are similar to yours, so why not get ahead of the pack? And if you're keeping that guitar for the long haul those upgrades may very well make the playing experience just that much more enjoyable.
Peace & good music,