I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
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
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 $500 range. I figure if you are going to buy a really expensive guitar you probably don't need help from me.
Those looking for a good guitar for an affordable price need to consider not only which brands and models are their best bets, but also differences in individual guitars. Most instruments and amps in this price range aren't built in America; they're made overseas or across the border in Mexico.
That doesn't mean they're bad, but it does mean quality control can sometimes be an issue. Always purchase from somewhere with a good return policy.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Mercy on December 30, 2019:
I've been playing the same 2002 Squier Mini Strat through a 100$ Vox Pathfinder for almost 6 years and I've never been impressed enough by better gear to consider spending a dime to upgrade. Having a cheap guitar is a great way to learn how to adjust and modify one to play better, and not waste hundreds for a better guitar when all your's needs is a setup. The only thing ive done is put an EVH signature humbucker in it, and for around 200$ in all it plays like a dream. I'm sure a super nice fender or gibson would be leagues ahead in terms of quality but unless someone's giving me one there's no way I'd ever spend that much on a guitar. Tone is in the hands. If I don't like the way I sound I know there's something I need to do to get better.
Lafayette on November 28, 2019:
Cool article. I play guitar for about 20 years, and just about 2-3 years ago I could afford better, expensive gears. As I got along with not so expensive guitars, amps and pedals I had to learn how to tweak my rig and get the best of it. Not with expensive gear it's just easier to get the tones I want. And if it weren's for the experience with all the cheap ass gear I had, maybe I woudn't be as experienced and as good as I am know, both in gear tweaking and the playing itself. With cheap gear you also have to learn how to set up your guitar and mod it to get the best of it and now with better gear it's almost like if I didn't have to put much effort into it to get a good tone.
Anyway, I think its part of the learning process to have cheap gear and learn how to maximize its potential and the as you progress your playing and needs, you get better gear, each with his own time.
It's funny how back then I coudn't even tell the difference between a cheap strat or a MIA fender. As you progress your tone skills and train your ear you can notice the difference between a good and a bad instrument.
Jedi One on August 13, 2019:
I found my sweet spot in MIM fenders..
Russ on June 14, 2019:
My brother recently started playing guitar. His wife bought him a fender squire strat and a cheap solid state amp. I can truthfully say it sounds like shit compared to a custom shop strat and nice tube amp. I’m no Eric Clapton but there is a big difference.
RL on February 06, 2019:
I have an electrified acoustic from Fender. Its their 400ce. Its cheap and its all laminate but the quality of construction is excellent and the next plays like an electric which is my primary instrument so I like it. I find even the expensive all wood acoustics can play stiff. In my case I like it because its easy for me to play. I have gone in and tried expensive guitars but they are harder to play. Sounds crazy but there ya are.
joe on October 07, 2018:
Everybody's response should be that they're too busy practicing to worry about any of it
Michael James (author) on September 04, 2018:
@Ed - I think the most important thing to play gear you are happy with, no matter what it costs. Sounds like you have nice lineup of guitars!
Ed Curry on September 03, 2018:
My first rig was an Aria lp copy and a peavey black widow deuce. As I got older and my pay increased I got an Explorer, still with the peavey. Eventually I got it, your stuff does not make your sound, you do. I had to sell a boat to pay off credit cards that were run up by living with the wrong woman but I said to myself if I was going to have to sell it I was going to have something to show for it. I got a 97 or 98 LP Studio, not the highest end but what I could afford for the 1000 I kept in reserve. I went on to purchase a few more through the years but not all went up in price. The herd now consists of a Tex Mex Strat with Lone Star mods, a Ibanez Artcore Semihollow body with Dean Cadillac pickups, The LP with a set of Pearly Gates in them, and even a Fender T-Bucket acoustic which looks great and sounds better even with a laminate top. Point being not all of my stuff is super high end and that is ok by me.
Joe on April 12, 2018:
If you cant make a bad guitar sound great, then a great guitar wont help you.
Michael James (author) on November 02, 2016:
Hi Benjamin. Keep on practicing hard with what you've got and don't worry about what anyone says. Everybody starts out with an inexpensive guitar, so there is absolutely no reason to feel embarrassed. While you are getting better you can save your pennies for a better guitar, but even then don't feel like you have to play something expensive.
The reason to move up to a better instrument should be because you have become more attuned to good tone and the feel of a quality instrument, not so you can impress people.
There's no hurry. What you have now is fine. You can upgrade when the time is right. Good luck and keep on practicing!
Benjamin on November 01, 2016:
I bought a 120$ electric guitar beginner pack and it works but i feel like i need more expensive gear and a better amp and everything and i just dont have the money for it, and since its so cheap i dont like showing it off because i feel emberrassed but i dont know i'm not good at guitar but i'm learning. do i need anything more expensive? the guitar is a standard black and white electric guitar and yeah .
Michael James (author) on July 20, 2016:
Thanks for adding your thoughts, Freddie! I do think eBay is fine if you know what you're looking for, but I agree if you need advice it might be wise to steer clear. I have mixed feelings about the Esteban, etc, guitars. I think anything that gets someone excited to play is great, but of course I think new players can do better with their first instrument if they put a little effort into a search.
Freddie Button on July 19, 2016:
I agree with a great deal of what you have to say here, bravo, but I disagree with the notion that someone spending more than a few hundred dollars on an instrument doesn't need help deciding what to buy!!
1) The salespeople at your typical music store, including the owner or manager, will steer, cajole, subtlety suggest, do whatever they can to get a newbie or an inexperienced player away from from the G Series Takamine to the 4 Series Taylor, it's shameful, and I witnessed it again recently. I almost wanted to pull the customer away from this predator physically, but instead put down the instrument I was putting through the paces, left the store and resolved never to buy ANYTHING there!
2) Fender, Gibson, Taylor, PRS, name your higher end favorites, can have frightening flaws, and I have seen experienced, talented, non-stupid people get burned by these companies. A word to the not so wise ( and no, you Don't know who you are!) Your American made by magic elves blessed with special skills by angels in guitar heaven instrument is Not inherently better quality than the instrument built by diligent, hard-working, motivated people In Vietnam, Mexico, Canada, Japan, etc.
3) It's your money, your time invested in learning to play, why buy an instrument without doing research before you come across the salesman who uses buzzwords to manipulate you into the 2000 dollar, when the 300 dollar guitar is perfect for you, and will be for years!
4) Get an experienced player to help you choose a used instrument, stay AWAY FROM EBAY (evilbay, sleazeball it's called those things for reasons) and Craigslist is sketchy, but at least you get to see, play the instrument...take that experienced player with you when you check it out, same with pawn shops, where you have to keep your common sense level HIGH, but gems can be had.
Keep your head about you, newer playsrs, oh, your music instructor will be happy to help you select an appropriate instrument.
Last word...No Keith Urban, No Randy Jackson, No Esteban, these are all bullshit, they will fall apart, built cheaply but they are shiny and promise to make you sound like guitar gods. Just say NO.
Michael James (author) on January 29, 2015:
Thanks LGP. I bet you remember that Harmony as fondly as any other guitar you've ever owned! I know I think that way about my first guitars, as bad as they were.
stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on January 28, 2015:
Hey very good advice . I think ability and gear are equally important. I think you should buy what you can afford. I did not start out on Martins, I started on a $ 35.00 Harmony. Great Hub. Stella
Michael James (author) on August 08, 2014:
Thanks Wesman! I engage in guitar snobbery myself from time to time, but I try to reel myself in. There are some really amazing guitars out there and they cost big bucks for good reason. It's hard not to be impressed!
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on August 08, 2014:
I've been a total guitar snob. I kinda think that when someone invests in an expensive guitar they are more inclined to then do a lot of playing.
I've had some hand injuries in recent years which really cut into me messing with guitars much....but in that time I've acquired some cheap ones, one was just given to me, and the other I inherited - so now I realize that just getting another guitar is also sort of inspirational insofar as wanting to play one. Very good article :)
Michael James (author) on June 18, 2014:
Hang on to those Gibsons! Even worse than being a Guitar Snob is selling off really cool gear and regretting it! :-)
David Hamilton from Lexington, KY on June 17, 2014:
Before I "grew up" I invested on a couple Gibson guitars. I still have them 15 years later and I think they were a good investment. I haven't really bought any gear in about 5 years so I believe in quality.
But, the sound is in your hands, gear is just a tool!