Though having nice equipment won't make you a better player, it's true that very good players could get held back if they don't have access to quality stuff. If you're looking into starting a career as a working, professional guitarist, you're going to need some pro-sounding gear in order to really get rolling.
I've never had a ton of money, but I have gotten very savvy at navigating the used equipment market. In my research, I've found that it's possible to take a little money a very long way if you need to. When buying used, there are the obvious options of Craigslist and eBay. I also recommend Reverb, a great online marketplace like eBay, but containing only music gear.
Though this obviously isn't a comprehensive list, I've compiled some of my equipment recommendations for building the most versatile and cost-efficient rig that will get you by in almost any professional live or studio session. I've also included a few specific product recommendations, though the options are so limitless that you'll want to make sure to try as many options as possible in person.
The first thing you'll need, obviously, is a high-quality instrument. This is the item that most players at this stage in their careers already have available to them, but if not, I have a few recommendations.
If this will be your first professional instrument and the only one you'll be able to afford for quite some time, then you'll need one that can cover as much stylistic and sonic ground as possible. My personal recommendation would be to pick up a quality Stratocaster-style guitar. Strats can be heard in every single genre of music, whether it be funk, R&B, rock, folk, country, contemporary jazz, and even some heavy metal bands. These guitars are highly versatile with their three-pickup design, allowing you to get five very distinct and very different sounds from the instrument before you even touch your amp or pedalboard. They are also incredibly modifiable, making it easy and fairly affordable to switch out parts to upgrade the instrument's reliability, or improve/change the sounds you get out of it.
The reason behind this recommendation also stems for the price point. A new standard American-made Strat will run you well over $1,000, but their resale value is quite low. I find quality American-made Stratocasters in the $600 range quite often on the used market, and have even found them for as low as the $400 range. The discontinued Japanese-made models can also be found within this price range, and their quality is often on par with their US-made counterparts. There are also numerous companies (far too many to mention here) that make quality copies of the original Fender design that are worth looking into. Some of these copies do much better than the original designs and can be much more reliable and on the ball as far as quality control goes.
Estimated cost: $600
Alternatives: PRS has an import series under the label SE that are very high quality and can be found used for a similar price range and cover different ground than a Strat-style instrument.
I know plenty of players who spend all of their money on multiple expensive guitars, only to find that they've forgotten to pick up a good amplifier to run their instruments through. In my experience, a high-quality guitar through a crappy amp will still sound pretty questionable, whereas a high-end amp can make almost any guitar sound good. Just like your guitar, you're going to want an amplifier that can cover a ton of ground sonically, and that will make for a good platform to layer pedals on. Thankfully, you can get by, no problem – both live and in the studio – with a small amp rig due to the quality of modern microphones and PA systems.
Regardless of what specific amp you decide to go with, I'd recommend going with the separate head and speaker cab configuration as opposed to a combo amp. This will make your rig much more modifiable and configurable in the long run, and it's cheaper to upgrade a head or a cabinet one at a time instead of needing to replace the entire unit when you want to upgrade.
Fender amps are well known to be great-sounding clean platforms, and very nice vintage Fender heads can be found very affordably. I find vintage Fender heads such as the Bassman, Bandmaster, and Showman models on the used market frequently in the $600 to $800 range. Any of these will make excellent, clean-sounding platforms to use for any genre. The key with older amps (should you decide to go for one) is to do a little research and make sure that it has been well taken care of; if not, you might end up being plagued with issues as you own it longer and longer.
As for cabinets, you don't need anything big. Any 1x12 or 1x10 cabinet with a quality speaker in it is the way to go. You can find something that will work fine on the used market for a few hundred. Even if you find something cheap with a low-end speaker, the speaker is something that can always be upgraded down the line. The most popular speaker options these days are Celestion and Eminence, so any cabinet with one of these brands of speaker should be netting you a decent tone.
Estimated cost: $1,000
Alternatives: Blackstar makes quality, entry-level tube amps that will suit you well if you need higher gain overdrive from the amp. Additionally, Bogner makes a great entry-level tube amp (the Alchemist) that covers a lot of ground.
Here's where things can get really tricky. A guitarist's preference on pedal selection can be totally different from another guitarist; there are easily hundreds of different high-quality builders out there today, and that's not even mentioning all of the vintage and out-of-production gems on the used market. Their price point also varies widely; entry-level Boss pedals can be found used for $50 to $100 each, whereas the high-end builders at Strymon charge you up to $400 for a single unit!
Since selection is so user-specific, I'll try to boil my recommendations down to some general categories of must-have effects with a few of my favorite bang-for-your-buck models in each.
Though many people have started using headstock tuners, I'm still a big advocate of having a tuner pedal on your board. My personal favorite is currently the TC Electronic Polytune, but if you really want to spend as little as possible on a stage tuner, then the classic industry standard Boss TU-2 can now be found used for around $50.
This is to cover the ground that your lighter overdrive can't, or to even stack on top of it. Check out the ProCo Rat or the Fulltone Fulldrive (two pedals in one!). Additionally, Keeley Electronics has great modification options for the light overdrive pedals I mentioned above that add a little more grit (I use my Keeley-modded Tube Screamer constantly).
For that great ambience. Solid options include the Boss DD series (the DD-3 and DD-7 seeming to be the most popular) and the MXR Carbon Copy. Also of note are the TC Electronic Flashback Delay and the Way Huge Aqua Puss models.
Basically, effects such as choruses, vibratos, phasers, and flangers that make your guitar sound a little wacky. Try out the TC Electronic Corona Chorus, the MXR Phase 90, or any of the Boss flangers in the BF series.
I generally don't find reverb to be a must-have, as many amps will have build in reverb, and if not, many front-of-house engineers can add it from the board. However, if you decide a reverb pedal is important to you, definitely check out the TC Electronics Hall of Fame or the Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Neo.
Estimated cost: $50 to $150 each, $600 total
Alternatives: Though I'm not typically fan of multi-effect units, nor Line 6 products in general, I've found that the Line 6 M series is an excellent alternative to the typical stombox options, even if it's just something to use while you save up for high-end boutique pedals. When I need to play a small gig with minimal backline, I'll often run out the door with a small combo amp and my M9 and have no problems getting great sound.
Total estimated cost for guitar + amp + pedals: $2,200
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Dylan Welsh is a freelance musician and music journalist, based in Seattle, WA. He currently plays in multiple Seattle bands, interns at Mirror Sound Studio, and writes for the Sonicbids blog. Visit his website for more information.