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A Pragmatic Approach To Buying Expensive Gear

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Oct 14th, 2009
This post was originally written on the blog.

For every question I get about lessons, I get 3 or 4 about gear. What do I think of this guitar with those pickups? How can I get good tone from this amp?

I think it’s great. I am by no means an expert in various kinds of tone, but I am an expert in what I like and what’s good enough for me. Many times I have to answer those questions by apologizing, because I just don’t know the answer, or just don’t have a knowledgeable recommendation.

There are a few common trends. A LOT of people are looking to save money. But at the same time, there’s an allure of higher priced gear, which causes people to wonder if they are missing out on the holy grail of tone because they’re not using an expensive amp, guitar, pickups or pedals.

My Lesson In Extravagance

Once upon a time, I thought I was going to be a famous musician, and I loved the art of recording. My job had made it possible for me to have some nice entry-level recording gear, but I was gearing up for the future, and was planning on building the studio of my dreams.

I had always been a cheapskate, and had never really considered buying some high-end recording equipment, but I found myself doing the “shouldn’t you have great equipment if you want to make great music?” song-and-dance. Oh, how many precious dollars are lost at the end of that dance…..

I began looking at really high-end stuff. Pro tools HD stuff. I had no idea how I would ever afford it, but hey, if I was serious about recording and music, I had to have the best gear right? After pricing out a few systems I soon realized that it wasn’t going to happen for less than $25k.

The sheer size of that number scared me to death, but still that fear kept gnawing away. The fear that if I didn’t aim high, it meant that I wasn’t serious about my music.


I had no intention of running a studio as a business. I simply wanted a studio in which to record my own music. I had fantasies of getting inspired at 3am, running downstairs to my professional studio, and recording another masterpiece. It was a bit selfish, I just didn’t realize it at the time.

The Fog Clears

I agonized over this for many months. I had no real way to pay for any of the stuff I wanted, but at the same time, I was starting to believe that this was the road I was destined to take.

Thankfully, a wise, pragmatic friend told me what I needed to hear.  I explained to him my dream for the studio, and the huge cost that came with it. And about the fear of shortchanging my dreams.

In a moment of clarity, he asked what my plans were for using the studio to justify having all that equipment. Wait…..what? In a matter-of-fact tone, he stated that I needed to be using it to make money if I was going to justify having all that gear.

He wasn’t criticizing, he was simply stating, what was in his mind, a fact. If you buy 25k-50k worth of recording gear that you can’t afford, you can’t simply keep it for yourself, the responsible thing to do is to use it to earn income. In short, it has to become your job.

Whew… that was close.

In all the mental gymnastics about making sure I valued my own music, one simple thing had been ignored.**Common sense. **The money wasn’t there, there was no musical career to make it a necessity, and I had no plans to use it to make money.

And when you can’t afford stuff, you don’t buy it just to keep it in your basement because you want to have it for yourself. You buy it to use it. Every day. To earn money.

What does this have to do with guitars, amps and pedals?

In my opinion, there are two factors that should determine how much you spend on gear.

  • Can I afford it (financially, relationally, and emotionally)?
  • How will it pay for itself?

Can I Afford It?

The first question has 3 parts. The money part is easy. Some people have lots of disposable income, some do not. It’s a fact of life. If you have enough money to buy gear without affecting your ability to save, invest, pay bills and enjoy life, you can afford it.

If you don’t, you need to ask the rest of the question. Will buying this gear affect my relationships? Will my wife/girlfriend resent me for spending this much on a guitar? Would I ever be OK with her asking for this much money for a purse or a pair of shoes, or a coat, or a weekend at a spa? Sounds ridiculous, but when you’re not using a guitar to make a living, don’t be so quick to judge it’s value over something that might seem trivial to you, but might hold equal value to someone else.

Can I afford it emotionally? If I can’t afford this guitar with money left over, can I afford the emotional strain that will come along with it? The pressure to make the payments every month? The depletion of my savings?

These are all factors that determine whether or not you can afford something. Pay attention to the money alone, and you’re in for a world of hurt. Your marriage might not be great right now, but it’s worth far more than a piece of wood with strings on it.  You might not think you have peace-of-mind right now, but try lumping in payments on a vintage guitar to keep you awake at night.

How Will It Pay For Itself?

If you can answer the first question with a Yes, you probably don’t need to answer this question. If you can’t, you’d better ask this one before you put that credit card on the counter. The truth is, you can earn a living with a $300 guitar if you can make it sing. It might sound like crap to you, you might not play as well as you’d like, but less than half the people in the crowd can tell a Squire strat from an artist signature model if you play it well.

Will you play gigs? Will you record a CD (which brings extra expense before income)? Will you teach lessons? How will this piece of gear pay for itself?

This might not be a popular opinion, but I think it’s wise advice. If you buy a piece of gear you can’t afford financially, relationally, and emotionally, it should be used to pay for itself.

But that’s what the <insert name here> uses….

If you are using the name of a famous artist to guide your gear purchases, you need to keep a few things in mind.

  • That person makes their living using gear.
  • The gear they use goes through abuse that your gear may not.

Every piece of gear that artist buys is being paid for every time they use it. And the gear they use must withstand the rigors of moving, dropping, bumping, falling, etc…

So when John Mayer gets on stage, with a Two Rock amplifier or whatever boutique amp he’s using these days, he can, quite frankly, afford it with his pocket change. But beyond that, whatever amp he’s using did not get it’s reputation by falling apart when it’s being bumped around.

Sure it sounds fantastic. Sure it’s the holy grail of tone. But he can afford it. And he’s earning money with it. And honestly, until you have his chops, it will always sound better when he plays it.

The Pragmatic Approach To Gear Buying

I don’t want to downplay the pleasure aspect of expensive gear. Most boutique gear costs more because it’s built to a higher standard, and sounds better too. Noticeably better. Especially in the hands of a capable player. Playing through a high-end amp with a boutique quality guitar is like driving a finely-tuned luxury car. You can take corners more tightly, accelerate faster, and everything is more responsive.

However, if it comes down to relationships, or emotional peace-of-mind versus the exhileration of driving a Porsche, I’ll take my relationships and peace-of-mind any day. If I can afford the gear I want and not sacrifice those things, I’ll buy it with no apologies and no second-guessing.

But I’ll always remember my last trip to Sweden, when I rocked out on my nephew’s cheap Ibanez guitar and solid-state amp in the spare bedroom at midnight. It might have sounded like bees inside a metal trash can, but I was nearly as happy as I am when playing any of my guitars here at home.

My pragmatic approach to buying gear is this:

** Buy gear that makes you happy, when you can afford it, or when you have a way to pay for it by using it.**

Your relationships will stay intact, you’ll be able to sleep at night, and you might eventually realize that your hands are the best gear you can invest in :-)

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