Dave's Corner: The Cost of Tone

What does great tone cost? Let’s say it peaks at a ceiling of “more than you can afford” and slides downward from there to an entry point of whatever price you’d put on the half an hour of your time it takes to pick through the local junkyard plus the couple hours more to put a rudimentary musical instrument together. I’ve heard cigar-box guitars played by Delta blues guys that oozed more heartfelt creative expression than anything I’ve struggled to achieve on the most expensive rig I’ve ever laid my hands on. But when guitarists start debating the cost/tone equation things usually bounce off in a very different direction, toward the upper end of the spectrum. And one that usually ends up irking several parties, myself included.

Drop in on any gaggle of guitarists discussing the merits of high-end guitars and amps—whether it’s at the pub, between sets at a gig, or on any of a number of internet forums—and you’ll eventually hear someone uttering some variation of the question, “Well, how much better than my XXX can it possibly be for three times the price?” On one hand, the answer depends upon the item in question, and what your XXX is; on the other, the question is entirely irrelevant. Derailing, even. Sure, you need to know if a very expensive piece of gear is worth the cost, if it’s something you’re thinking of shelling out for in the first place, but assuming it’s not a con or swindle, and assuming that piece of gear is worth the asking price to at least someone (or several) out there, that flame-inducing debate of “how good can it be?” is entirely beside the point.

What price divine creative intervention? Harmonic transcendence? Or, put more elementally, what price that ear-to-ear grin that transforms your physiognomy every time you plug in, for a lifetime of playing, world without end? The cost of big-name Custom Shop stuff from the likes of Gibson and Fender gets railed against mercilessly, but the daggers really come out if you dare talk about high-end “boutique” guitar makers like D’Pergo, Gustavsson, Gil Yaron, DeTemple, Michael Stevens and the like. Yet the work these people do, and the sheer intensity of skill and devotion put into their art, is nothing short of phenomenal. And I say that from hands-on experience in each case, not just from years of swallowing saccharined-pablum guitar-forum hype. Expose to the madding crowd a new guitar that costs $6k, $8k, $10k or $14k (vintage still gets a pass, somehow) and you’d better be wearing your flame-retardant leotard.

To put these prices into perspective, though, talk to some classical musicians. Even an aspiring professional cellist needs to lay out something in the region of $15k for an entry level instrument. More established players are likely to be paying figures in the $25k–$50k range and up, for contemporary instruments. Or, let’s look elsewhere to broaden the frame: fans of collectible watches, pens, stamps, or sports cars certainly think nothing of paying far higher figures to indulge their passions. Do these objects, taken in hand, inspire them to higher levels of creation than they had previously achieved? Do they seduce them into producing beautiful art that makes the world a better place? Please forgive my bias, and maybe I’m being unfair, but I’m guessing not, or at least not with the frequency that a superior musical instrument inspires its player to pursue beautiful music, and to share it with others.

And forget just talking about high-priced gear. If you gig with the stuff, you’re probably already familiar with the accusations of being a “rich kid” (or a lawyer… or a dentist…) when you show up at the club. I frequently recall a personal anecdote from many years ago, the early 1990s, when I was gigging in a then-name indie band in London, usually lugging a Mesa/Boogie Mark IIB combo and a PRS CE 22 to the shows. Not today’s exalted boutique gear, sure, but a rig that was pretty rare on the early ’90s London scene, and which frequently drew admiring comments from fellow musicians. A friend who came to the show (Tim Moore, a great and hilarious British travel writer, if you’re looking for a good laugh) told me after the set that he’d overheard a guy in the crowd who looked over my rig and declare, huffily, “Rich college-kid gear. Spoiled brats!” Yea. I had to laugh. We were a full-time working band, with a record deal (on an indie label, but a deal nonetheless), playing in a major London venue, second on the bill for an event being broadcast live on BBC Radio One. What kind of gear did he expect me to be using? I didn’t own (and never have) a Rolex, Ray-Bans, a Harley, a boat, or a new set of golf clubs; my wife and I owned one junker car between us at the time, and I bought most of my clothes at the thrift store. But yeah, I put what money I could lay aside into gear, and I hauled it all the way from America to the UK went I headed off to play. And it paid. It inspired my playing, and my tone was frequently part of what helped to get us noticed.

Does all of this mean you can’t make great music on more affordable guitars and amps? No, not by any means, and plenty of expressive, evocative art is created on entry-level gear every day. But to rag on a musician for owning, or aspiring to own, an instrument that has been lovingly, skillfully, painstakingly produced by a true craftsman, with his or her entire heart and soul devoted to the endeavor and the primary aim of helping artists to make better art (and usually very slim profit margins in the bargain)… Well, that seems rather crass, and very much backward to any notion of a society that values its artisans, that appreciates beauty, that values the pursuit of the good. Chase the tools that inspire you to better things, without necessarily subscribing to the view that cost=ability=success. And when you acquire them, play the hell out of ’em.


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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