Dave’s Corner: You Don’t Need Great Gear to Make Great Music

A full year and a half after my first submission to Reverb.com, a piece called “The Cost of Tone,” I’m finally getting around to presenting the counterpoint to that assessment of the validity of high-end gear. Now, the intention there was not to say that you have to spend a lot of money to achieve a compelling sound, but merely to acknowledge that serious musicians have always paid dearly for the finest gear available, and that it can often be worth doing so, if you can afford it. This time, however, I want to acknowledge more directly that you don’t need great gear to make great music. Indeed, plenty of truly moving, creative art has been rendered with the most basic, C-list guitars, amps and effects available, and this stuff can work perfectly well for you, too.


Link Wray

Since the dawn of rock’n’roll, plenty of great music has been made on more affordable gear. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, kids who dreamed of setting the world on fire might also have dreamed of owning the Gibson, Gretsch and Fender guitars and amplifiers that their heroes played. Chances are, though, that they lustily perused the Wards and Sears catalogs when shopping for gear they could actually afford. And once that catalog-grade equipment was in their hands, there was no stopping them.

Link Wray is believed to have used a Supro or Danelectro-type guitar to cut his seminal 1958 recording “Rumble,” through a Premier amp with the speakers perforated by dozens of tiny pencil holes to increase its distortion. He might have sounded sweeter and more refined using more expensive gear, but likely wouldn’t have captured the raw, edgy sound that made “Rumble” such a huge hit, while also getting it banned in cities like Boston and New York, where officials were afraid this “punk” music would incite youths to take the title to heart.

Pawnshop Parade

Dan Auerbach and his Harmony

As rock evolved through the ages, plenty of major stars logged legendary tones on pawnshop-grade gear. Jimmy Page frequently used a Danelectro with lipstick-tube pickups for slide work and more, both in the studio and live with Led Zeppelin. Americana supremo David Lindley has long been a fan of Silvertone, Teisco, and National guitars. Mudhoney guitarists Mark Arm and Steve Turner routinely registered mammoth sounds on a Hagstrom and a Fender Mustang in the early days of grunge (ooh, a real Fender!). Kurt Cobain reignited mass-market guitar fury on a bevy of cheapos and, occasionally, a hacked-up Fender Mustang (ooh, another real Fender!). Jack White of the White Stripes and beyond established a new cool on what would have been a bargain-basement red ’60s Airline model, until his use of the thing sent prices through the roof. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys has laid down addictively greasy grooves on fuzzed-up Harmony, Supro and National guitars (similarly sending the prices for these soaring)… Well, you get the picture. And I’m just scratching the surface—please log your own “cheap gear, great sound” liner notes in the comments section below, if any other catalog-grade classic tones come to mind.

Ninety Percent Perspiration

Just as my junior high gym teacher used to tell me that “winning is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration” (paraphrasing Thomas Edison’s “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”), your success in the original-tone game always has a lot more to do with creativity than liquidity.

Attack your playing with energy, attitude, and originality and—as long as you’ve got a good song under it in the first place—you’ll grab more attention than you ever will by delivering a competent but lackluster performance on even the most precious guitars, amps and pedals available. Rewind to Link Wray’s playing on “Rumble”: he’s even slightly out of tune on much of that guitar part, yet the recording launched a sonic revolution, and it remains extremely moving today.

Horses for Course

High-end gear certainly has its place, and for pure, rich, aurally titillating ear candy you often can’t beat the best of the vintage or boutique-grade guitars and amps. It’s conceivable, though, that going high-end just for the sake of it can occasionally get in the way of your artistic ends.

Jimmy Page and his Danelectro

For my own part, my recent bands have been more of the gritty roots/Americana-rock and grungy-blues-groove ilk. That said, while I have never been one for the super-smooth, creamy, violin-like lead tones that are so extremely popular with many Dumble-inspired players today, I can certainly appreciate the siren-call charms of those luscious sounds, and will occasionally find myself seduced. I mean, that stuff can be creamy, sweet, harmonic-overtone-overdose-inducing goodness now and then, right?

Not long ago I found myself going down the high-end high-gain road, simply because I tried a few such amps and had so much fun wailing away that I couldn’t put them down. Fortunately, when I was just this side of plunking down several thousand dollars (and more than I should ever have considered spending) on one such amp, the lotus leaves wore off and I realized that that sound had nothing whatsoever to contribute to the music I was working so hard to make at the time, and would actually bring an unwelcome refinement to my recording and performing efforts. It’s horses for courses, in other words, and sometimes the near-broken-down nag will bray with just the right kind of snarly, swaggering sound to best get you heard.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Hunter is a writer and musician who has worked extensively in the USA and the UK. The author of The Guitar Amp Handbook, Guitar Effects Pedals, Guitar Amps & Effects For Dummies, The Gibson Les Paul and several other books. Dave is also a regular contributor to Guitar Player and Vintage Guitar magazines.

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