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Cheap Guitar and Expensive Amplifier, or Expensive Guitar and Cheap Amplifier - What is Best for a Beginner?

This is a question that has been on the minds of guitar players and enthusiasts for as long as there has been guitars and amplifiers to choose from - which should you upgrade first? 


After a while, you will undoubtedly have the desire to upgrade some of your guitar gear - this is commonly known as GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). Perhaps you have saved up some money, or settled on a budget to buy something new - regardless, you have come to a crossroads and you are ready to purchase… something. In this blog post, let’s try and come to a conclusion that will make you happy!


Before we really get stuck in, let us briefly go over some ground rules for buying either item.





Buying a Guitar


A great tip would be to read my blog post here. You should always consider the following:


Look

- Just looking at the guitar should inspire you to play. If you like playing smooth jazz, but love the look of a neon pink, pointy guitar then go for it!


Sound

- Does it make a pleasing sound? This is a personal opinion, so how do you think it sounds as opposed to what someone else has told you to think?


Feel 

- Do you feel comfortable with the instrument? You will be touching it at all times, so if it doesn’t feel nice then it will be more difficult to play nice. 


Buying an Amplifier


Amplifiers can be a little more tricky to figure out. Some people are impressed with all of the fancy buttons and effects, others are more inclined to choose a tried and tested speaker. Making a list of your requirements, but being open to suggestions is highly recommended; writing things down helps you stay grounded in what can be a high pressure situation.


You should always play the amplifier in as similar a situation to what you will be using it for the most often. Bring another of your guitars to try it out, as that’s what you’ll be using if you end up buying it. You should probably think about how you are going to move it around, too!


Tips for Both


As covered in the blog post linked above, never go over your budget or sign up for a payment plan that you can’t really afford - as hard as it is to believe, overstretching your financial capabilities to afford a piece of gear is the absolute wrong thing to do.


In times of extreme confusion, especially when I have one guitar and one amplifier (or other pieces of gear such as effects pedals), I will write a list of pros and cons for each item - you can’t argue with irrefutable proof! Having an experienced friend as a voice of reason can also be very helpful.


The Age Old Argument


Back to the main question - what should you do? I will try to answer this as if I was helping a beginner, but the information is going to be useful for anyone that could use the guidance.


There are countless videos on YouTube giving their opinions on this subject (I have linked some of them at the end), and they all come to the same conclusion - you decide! That is hardly helpful when the reason a viewer is watching that video in the first place is to help them make the decision. There are other videos as well as many articles that give you a definitive answer.That is good, right? Not really, and I will explain why.


If one person has a definite opinion (e.g. “you should buy an expensive amp first!”), there will always be another person that says otherwise. This can be based on fact, opinion or just a desire to go against the grain; there is always going to be an endless dispute of thoughts and facts - my aim is to help you make up your own mind. I will not simply tell you to make a choice of your own volition, but help you do what is best for you.


You know how to buy a guitar and how to buy an amplifier, the time has come to choose between them.


A professional, touring musician needs something reliable that responds as they expect it to. If you are making moves in this direction, considerations for an amplifier would be the size and weight of the item, but also to availability of spare parts and cost of maintenance. A guitar would need to fit any aesthetic purpose (more important from a branding perspective than most people realize!), be devoid of any physical restrictions (floating tremolo systems etc) and stay in tune.


If you are, and plan to continue to be, a bedroom guitar player, you would have the luxury of time to tune a guitar, or change effects on an amplifier that has them built in. Bedroom use often means a piece of equipment is rarely pushed to its limits, meaning it will have a longer life before being in need of repair. Ask yourself a bedroom guitarist, how many times have you had a guitar refretted? Typically, you would not need as much volume either.


A common argument for the guitar being the priority for upgrade is that it is what you physically touch, and therefore the most important. This is very true, and even more so for beginners - this is the key point. A beginner must feel at home with a guitar, and I find it very unlikely that a young kid, learning their first Metallica riff or Beatles song is not going to notice the quality of a hand wired amplifier. A beginner also doesn’t know what they like as they’ve not had the exposure to many different styles of guitar, and the maturity as a musician to know what works the best for them.


It is simply a fact that the speaker in an amplifier, or cabinet, has the single biggest contribution to a change in guitar tone. That is why successful touring artists are often found to be using a high quality amplifier, with a tried and tested speaker combination (in recent years, the profiling and modeling of amplifiers has become extremely popular). Certain speakers need to be pushed to a certain point before they resonate in an optimum way, and this is another thing a professional would know how to achieve, even if subconsciously. At this level, guitar purchases are made more out of necessity (owing to a particular technique or other reason), or simply because they want to. 


So… should I Buy an Amplifier?


If you have a good guitar that you are comfortable with, covers every base you need it to and doesn't have any quirks that get in the way of your playing, then I would suggest buying an amplifier. Your first practice amp has served its purpose, and mostly likely in a very poor fashion. It is also useful to gain some practical experience using basic versions of effects that come with the common first time upgrades. 


Sometimes, all you need in the world is a searing, hi-gain distortion tone that you can’t achieve with another guitar, as much as the ‘metal’ aesthetic might make you feel cooler.


Maybe you could get something with an effects loop? Or an amp head that you can take to a show, rehearsal or friend's house and use with a provided speaker (make sure everything is compatible first!).


Should I Buy a Guitar Then?


If you don’t really care about the sound, and care more about how something looks and feels, then by all means go for the guitar! Try not to fall into the trap of buying lots of guitars that are all quite versatile, and instead aim to have something for each eventuality. 


Remember, a guitar that is very easy to play can only do so much for your skill level. 99% of your progress is going to come from practice, so please avoid buying a certain guitar because you think, or have been told, it will make you better. 





Compromises


There are always compromises, and as mentioned before, you could go down the modeling or profiling route for your tone which is an entirely different can of worms itself. There is also the possibility of breathing new life into your gear, perhaps by investing in an effects pedal of some description, or upgrading specific aspects of your guitar (frets, strings, general cleaning or a set-up etc).


Final Thoughts


Try to refrain from buying something because you have been suggested to, and take a step back to think about what you would really benefit from spending your money on (I could outplay George Benson if I had only put the money into private tuition what I have put into guitars!). I was once hired for a gig that I absolutely needed a wah pedal for, so I got my first wah pedal. However, I bought my first seven string guitar purely because I wanted to (though it was relatively cheap in case I didn’t get used to it).


One really big, almost overshadowing point is that if you really want something, and you can’t get it out of your head, then don’t complicate things by questioning if something else would be a wiser choice. There is something to be said for the ‘x factor’ that a certain piece of gear could have for us, that inspiration could take you so much further.


Good luck in your gear safari adventures, and I hope to have helped you on your way to making the right choice for you!


Alex

 

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