Guitarists love endless discussions about what it is that makes someone a good player and I have participated, read and listened to hundreds of them over the years.
Arguments like: “Is it the pick?”, “is it the talent?”, “is it the amp?”, “is it all in the hands?” etc etc.
The “do you need better gear to be a better player” usually revolves around two opposite arguments.
The one guy will say:
“If I give you a $5000 guitar and I give Clapton a $200 guitar, he will still sound better than you. So gear DOESN’T matter, it’s all in the hands.”
The other guy will say:
“But I want that big, huge Marshall sound, that I just can’t get out of my Behringer practice amp. I need a Marshall. And that Gibson Les Paul just sounds and plays better than my $200 out-of-tune piece of crap guitar. I need it to be able to get that Guns and Roses sound and play solos like Slash. So gear DOES matter.”
So which one is right?
I have been playing guitar since 1992 (I was 16 then).
When I started spending money on gear, it was in the pre-internet and pre-youtube era.
There was no real way of knowing how something sounded, or to compare things, except for in a music store, and we all know how that goes. It’s very difficult to judge sound quality in a music store, and comparing different pieces of equipment is quite hard.
My main source of information were reviews (and pictures) in magazines like Guitar World and Guitar Player and what other guys around me were using (who usually were often as clueless as me).
I ended up spending money on a $2500 Custom 22 Royal Blue PRS. Main reasons? It had very good reviews, it looked amazing, and it was expensive, Linkin Park played on it, so it had to be good right? It sure had to be better than my $300 Ibanez I had at the time.
I later discovered that the wraparound bridge it had gave me intonation problems I couldn’t fix, that I hate the feel of lacquered necks and that I could just as well have bought a Les Paul or top of the line Epiphone that would give me more or less the same sound, or stick to my $300 Ibanez and buy a better amp.
If I knew then, what I know now, I would have spend that $2500 more wisely and end up with much more value for money with a better playing experience.
So one lesson learned is: better gear doesn’t mean that it has to be expensive, often the opposite is true. Now with Youtube I have bought guitars online that I hadn’t even played or heard in real life, and they sound EXACTLY like on the videos, they are cheap and I’m super happy with them. This was impossible before internet.
Now, for the million dollar question: do you need better gear to be a better player?
My opinion is this:
You have to find the bottleneck in what is holding you back in your quest to becoming a better player and musician.
More often than players want to admit, it is actually their technical and musical ability that is holding them back. In that way, the “it’s all in the hands”-statement is true.
If you give the Steve Vai signature guitar and amp to Vai and also to an aspiring player that has been playing for 1.5 years and ask them to play, of course Vai will sound better in every way and the beginner will sound mediocre at best, even though he is playing through the same gear as Vai.
Having said that, it IS possible that gear actually is the bottleneck that is holding you back.
If you take that same beginner with the Vai guitar and amp and take another beginner with the exact same playing abilities, but he’s playing a cheap, thin-sounding entry level guitar through a practice amp, the beginner with the Vai gear will sound much better. In this case the difference in gear does matter.
Also, let’s not forget that playing comfort and appeal is also an issue. A guitar that does not stay in tune, that is not setup well or sounds bad no matter what you do will ruin your playing experience with the risk of quitting guitar altogether. It is extremely frustrating to play a guitar with unsanded fret edges or too high action and trying to play Petrucci solos. You wouldn’t ask a chef to prepare a meal with blunt knives and sticky pans. So in terms of comfort, the quality of gear DOES matter (but inmproving this doesn’t have to be expensive).
Also, many players want to sound exactly like their heroes. Some sounds are simply only available with the right kind of gear. If you want to sound exactly like Korn, it would be a bit odd to buy a hollow-body Telecaster and a Fender Deluxe amp and say “it’s all in the hands, gear doesn’t matter”, because to get “that sound” sometimes gear is very important. In that case it would be wise to start with a 7-string and an amp that gives you that low-end.
- Start by picking out the gear in your mind that comes as close as possible to the actual sound you want. If you want to play metal, don’t buy a hollowbody jazz guitar (unless you know what you’re doing). As a reference point use your “heroes” or even better, youtubers that use that gear you dream about.
Decide what your “ideal gear” would be in terms of sound. For me for example it was the Les Paul through a Marshall sound, but the “modern” version, not the 70s version.
- Second, go on youtube, listen to reviews and comparisons and listen to what other players say about the gear you want to buy. Youtube saved me a lot of money this way.
You will find out that many of them make “cheap” gear sound amazing and others make super-expensive gear sound like crap. There is a Youtuber that plays on super expensive PRS models, and his sound and playing are, put mildly, uninspiring. There are others who sound amazing with very simple and affordable gear. And many Youtubers do comparisons between let’s say a $3000 Les Paul and a $700 Epiphone, and often the results are quite shocking. Many times the cheaper guitar sounds just as good, or even better.
For example, I really wanted a Les Paul ($3000), but when I started searching on YT I stumbled upon the Vintage Lemon Drop. All the reviewers were raving about it and it sounded amazing on every video ($350). I ordered it, it sounds exactly like on the videos and I have never been happier.
- If you are really unhappy about the current sound/playbility of your gear, and you are not sure if it’s you or the gear that is at fault, you have a couple of options.
A. have a player who you admire in terms of technique/sound play through your gear. If HE sounds amazing and you don’t, then you know it’s not the gear’s fault. Back to the woodshed.
B. Go online and watch people play through your gear. If they sound good and you don’t, same as above.
C. If it is confirmed that indeed your gear is crappy for whatever reason, upgrade to the best gear you can afford (not necessarily the most expensive) by looking at comparison videos on YT.
This is the way I decided to buy a Mexican strat, instead of an American. I found the differences way to small to justify the price difference, and I’m super happy with it.
So yes, gear does matter, but you have to make sure that it really is an improvement and that it is not your playing and musical abilities that are actually holding you back in sounding better.
Sorry for the long winded post, but I want to prevent people to make the same mistakes I did and waste their money on stuff they don’t need. I hope it helped.