Are You a Guitar Snob? Why Gear Isn't as Important as You Think
Gear Snobs and Cork Sniffers
If you play guitar you've probably noticed that some players are way more impressive than you are. No, I'm not talking about skill, tone or even songwriting ability. I'm talking about their gear.
Surely you've run across some of these guys on guitar forums. They'll laugh at your Squier, poo poo your Epiphone and make you feel like a bum for playing through a solid-state amp. Clearly, these are guitar players who know what they are doing, and when they cast their disapproval upon you it can really make you question yourself.
You can practice four hours per day, but you'd better be doing it on a gear-snob-approved guitar, through a tube amp via a signal path lined with boutique pedals or else you're never going to get anywhere. Worse still, who could ever take you seriously playing such inexpensive gear?
But before you sell off you're precious Epiphone Les Paul along with your car and other worldly possessions just so you can afford a Gibson, take a moment to read this post. You might end up feeling better about your gear, and maybe even a little proud.
The Difference Between Tone Freaks and Guitar Snobs
Tone matters, and there is no doubt that there are some very expensive guitars and amps out there that sound incredible. There's nothing wrong with being a tone freak, and if you require custom guitars and boutique gear to get you the sound you want there's sure nothing wrong with that either.
Personally, when I eventually achieve my dream of unlimited personal wealth, my house is going to be packed with more high-end guitars and amps than the nearest Guitar Center. I'm not going to feel a bit badly about it either! I love guitars, and my wish list looks like one of those long scrolls that Santa carries around.
Collecting and playing expensive guitars can be a lot of fun, as long as GAS doesn't get too out of control. But I don't think all the expensive gear in the world will mean a whit when it comes to my value as a guitarist. I truly believe your sound is about you, not your gear.
If you're a bad golfer, an expensive club just means you'll hit the ball a little further into the lake.
If you're a slow cyclist, dressing like Lance Armstrong won't make any difference.
If you're a bad guitarist, a 100-watt boutique tube amp will just allow a few more neighbors to know how bad you are.
It's okay to be a tone freak, as long as you keep things in perspective. When you find yourself relying on gear to make you sound better, you might have problem. Worse still, if you're looking down on others because you think their gear isn't good enough, you've lost sight of what's important.
Do you have to drop a bunch of cash on a guitar to get great tone? You tell me: The guitar below has a street price of around $250. In fact, there are a lot of amazing guitars under $300 out there.
Squier Vintage Modified Stratocaster HSS
My Guitar-Gear Epiphany
I think of myself as a tone freak, if I do say so. I never thought of myself as a gear snob, but looking back maybe I once was. There was a time when I surrounded myself with expensive guitars and amps, thinking they were what I needed to get my sound. After all, by that time I'd been playing guitar for two decades and knew what I wanted when it came to tone.
Nowadays, I play through affordable gear and I worry a lot less about what other people think of my guitars. Frankly, I don't care. But back then, I probably did look down on certain brands of guitars and amps. Maybe even a little bit on the players who used them.
My mind began to change a few years ago when I saw a local jazz band perform. The guitarist was playing an inexpensive semi-hollow-body guitar through a small Peavey solid-state amp. And he sounded absolutely fantastic.
This guy was an excellent musician who'd obviously been around the block. He didn't seem to think he needed thousands of dollars worth of gear to sound good, so why should I? His rig was simple, and the whole thing could have been replaced for about half the cost of one of the guitars I was playing at the time.
There's a certain beauty in that, especially if you're a gigging musician. If your gear gets lost, stolen or smashed up in the back of the van, you can replace it easily. And you won't be as devastated as if it had been your expensive Gibson or PRS.
There's also a beauty in the idea that the sounds coming out of this guy's amp were all about him, not his gear. He was playing essentially through a newbie's setup. Well, intermediate guitarist's, anyway. But he had the skills of a pro.
Gear didn't matter. His playing was what made him sound so good.
Check out the Peavey Bandit, one of my favorite affordable solid-state amps.
Peavey Bandit 112
Does Gear Ever Matter?
If this guy had been playing through $5,000 worth of guitar and amp would he have sounded even better? Maybe, and if your guitar playing is the primary way you put food on your table these are the kinds of things you need to consider. But most of us aren't on that level. Even most gigging musicians can get by with inexpensive gear.
Does that mean you should feel guilty if you can afford, and want to own, expensive guitars? No way!
One of the fun things about being a guitar player is checking out different guitars and even building up a collection of cool instruments, amps and effects pedals. I see nothing wrong with that. And I sure don't think people should feel bad if they prefer a vintage Gibson Les Paul over an Epiphone. Play what you love.
But I also don't think it's fair that so many guitarists feel pressure to play instruments that are simply beyond their budget.
Of course gear companies want to pedal their wares, and they are going to continue to make their guitars look as appetizing as they can. Frankly, I hope that never changes. I love getting the news from Winter NAMM every year and seeing what newfangled ideas the major guitar companies are going to put out.
However, much of this pressure comes not from advertising, but from fellow guitarists. Look, of course some guitars sound better than others, and the further you advance in your career the pickier you deserve to be about the gear that gets your sound.
But the part where guitarists look down on certain underrated guitar brands and models has to change. For some guitarists, lower-priced instruments are all they can afford. Others really ought to be concentrating more on their chops than their gear.
Then there are those of us that prefer the simplicity of an inexpensive rig, knowing our sound is more about us than the gear.
The Cork-Sniffer Poll
Are you a Guitar Gear Snob?
- 22% I play expensive gear, but I don't look down on other musicians for their choices.
- 3% I play expensive gear and feel sorry for the losers who think anything less is acceptable.
- 52% I play what I can afford and I'm perfectly happy. To each their own.
- 8% I play what I can afford but feel like a hack because of my pathetic guitar rig.
- 15% I'm too busy practicing to worry about any of this.
How to Find Quality, Affordable Guitar Gear
When you're looking for a guitar in the $300-$500 range you need to be wise. You can, and should, expect a $2,000 Gibson to be top-notch when it comes to quality and sound. In most cases you won't be disappointed, and in many ways you really do get what you pay for.
But you can also find lower-cost guitars that can sound amazing in the right hands. You just have to go about it the smart way.
Honestly, that's part of my mission here. I rarely write about a piece of gear that costs more than $1,000, and most of the guitars I review are in the $500 range. I figure if you are going to buy a really expensive guitar you probably don't need help from me.
Those looking for a good guitar for an affordable price need to consider not only which brands and models are their best bets, but also differences in individual guitars. Most instruments and amps in this price range aren't built in America; they're made overseas or across the border in Mexico.
That doesn't mean they're bad, but it does mean quality control can sometimes be an issue. Always purchase from somewhere with a good return policy.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.