The Chicken Or The Egg – Is It Better To Upgrade Your Guitar Or Amp First? Or Can Both Be Upgraded On A Budget?

chicken or eggLet Me Set The Stage

So you’ve been playing guitar for a few years now.  Santa Claus brought you a Squier Stratocaster starter pack for Christmas a few years ago (who knew even he outsourced his toys to Chinese factories?).  You’re having the time of your life.  Some of your friends with lower IQ have taken up drums and bass (it’s a joke people….). After all, playing with other musicians can take the noise you’re making to annoy your parents and neighbors and increases it exponentially, YEAH!

Maybe by the next Christmas, Santa saw you were taking it serious and brought you a 40 watt solid state amp to replace that initial 5 watt amp that came in the Squier starter pack.   Let’s say it’s a Fender Champion, Marshall MG, Blackstar ID:Core, or something else in that level.  In close quarters in the corner of your buddy’s garage next to the Ford Ranchero his dad is restoring, any noise you can make just turns to clutter. But it’s so fun!  Your proficiency is growing. 

Fast forward another year. You and your buddies have enough material to say you can play a set, you even have a band name! You’re ready to play in front of an audience down at the community center for the June 15th World Jugglers Day celebration (it’s a real holiday, look it up).  You know you need to bring the heat and impress.  

At this point you realize your tone just isn’t what you want it to be.  It’s not quite what you’re used to hearing from your guitar heroes.  “Is it the guitar that’s holding me back? Or is it my amp?” you ponder out loud.  But you’ve scrounged together, lets say, about three hundred bucks by raiding couch cushions, mowing lawns for a summer, and your relatives were generous in the birthday cards this year.  With funds in that range, what is the biggest bang for the buck for a one-way ticket to tone-ville? 

Ok, You’ve Convinced Me I Need To Upgrade My Rig, Where Do I Start? 

Glad you asked. So basically, this is aimed at someone who is taking the step from jamming with buddies to initial gigging and calling yourself a band.  You have an amp that can technically get the job done, but maybe not the most inspiring to play.  You are also still rocking your first guitar, lets just say it’s a Squier Bullet, Epiphone Les Paul Special, or something similar, it’s also a guitar that can get the job done, not the best, but it’s all you’ve known.  

I chose $300 for a budget because that’s about the bottom of what I would call “mid-level” guitars and amps, and a reasonable amount that someone could save up.    

Reasons To Replace Your Guitar First: 

1- A better playing guitar can be more inspirational to play, thus provoking more practice.  
2- You could get a guitar that is different from your first guitar, which would expand your tonal palate.  If you have a Strat style, go for a Les Paul style, or a Gretsch, or whatever you want.    

Contenders in the $300 range (mostly used) are: 
Squier Classic Vibe
Epiphone Les Paul Standard
Epiphone G-400
Various LTDs
Gretsch Electromatic Jet
Ibanez Talman

Reasons To Replace Your Amp First:

1- It’s the device that actually produces the sound the audience hears.  A subpar amp will always produce a subpar sound, no matter how nice the guitar is.  
2- Amps are a good cornerstone to build the rig around.  It’s harder to make a good amp sound bad than it is to make a bad amp sound good.  

Contenders in the $300 range:
Boss Katana
Peavey Bandit
Peavey Valveking
Monoprice
Tech 21 Trademark

Pretty much, look for at least 15 watts if it’s a tube amp, and at least 50 watts if its a solid state amp.  There a plenty of oddball deals out there used, you just have to keep your eyes open.  

Could I Upgrade Both For The $300 Burning A Hole In My Pocket? 

Yes!  This would mean making improvements to what you have, not necessarily replacing them. 

Even the cheapest of guitars can contend with those that cost many times more with a few upgrades and adjustments.  An upgrade in pickups can make a huge difference in the tone coming out of the guitar.  For bang-for-the-buck, there are Dragonfire Pickups, Wilkinson Pickups, also Guitar Fetish.   If you’re comfortable with a soldering iron, it’s really not difficult to do this job yourself.  But, if you’re not comfortable with it, please take it to a professional before you burn a hole in your guitar or burn your whole house down.  

Tuners are also important, and usually overlooked on beginner guitars.  You can find good tuners for under $50.  Just make sure you get the right size, it can be a nightmare trying to widen tuning holes (I’ve done it lol).  Staying in tune is of the utmost importance when playing live. Going out of tune mid song is just an unpleasant for everyone.  

A fret level/dressing can also do wonders for beginner guitars.  This is one of the areas where the manufacturers skimp on the bottom-of-the-line guitars.  Once again, this is a very tedious process that is easy to mess up (I should know, I’ve ruined a few necks lol).  Take this to a reputable luthier and they can probably do a fret job, set up your guitar, and install some pickups for well under $200.  I know, it seems ludacris to spend as much money setting up a guitar as Santa Claus spent for it, but any guitar that costs $200 or less will probably need the same upgrades/adjustments.  

For your amp, an upgrade in speaker can make a significant impact.  The stock speakers that come in budget combos are just abysmal sometimes.  Speaker efficiency/sensitivity is how they measure how loud a speaker will get, usually portrayed as decibels (dbs).  In my experience, most stock speakers will be in the 95-96db range, which is not very efficient.  Every increase of 3db is the essentially the equivalent of doubling your amps power wattage.  Most aftermarket speakers will be in the 99-102db range.  For example, an Eminence Swamp Thang has an efficiency of 102db, the volume your 40 watt solid state amp will produce through that speaker would require up to 160 watts to create through the stock speaker.  Not only that, it will completely smooth out the high end and beef up the low end.  Overall just sound better.  

There are plenty of speakers from Eminence  and Warehouse Guitar Speakers that can be found for under $100 that will improve your amp’s tone by leaps and bounds, and it’s not too difficult to swap a speaker yourself.  Just make sure you buy the right size (10″ or 12″, usually), and the impedance (ohms) matches what your amp is.  This can usually be found in your owner’s manual or on the stock speaker itself.  A mismatched impedance can cause damage to an amp, so this is important.  Also, make sure you unplug your amp first and don’t plug it back in until the speaker is connected to the wires.  Accidentally turning your amp on and having the speaker wires touch can immediate fry your amp.  

I suggest keeping the stock speaker though, because if you ever decide to sell that amp somewhere down the road, you can put the stock speaker back in and transfer the upgraded aftermarket speaker to the next amp you buy.  

Ok, That Was A Lot Of Information, What Is The Bottom Line? 

My thoughts on upgrading a rig is totally dependent on what you have.  Improvements can always be made to what you have.  When gigging, there are two factors: does your guitar stay in tune and is it loud enough to be heard?  Start with those two factors.  If your guitar goes out of tune almost immediately, it’s not going to be good that half of each song you play is out of tune.  If you’re starting with an amp that is 30watts or less solid state (the solid state part is important), I don’t think a speaker upgrade will be enough for gigging (unless you’re always going to mic your amp).   

If your guitar has a warped neck, it’s probably time to replace it.  Or if you’ve just never felt comfortable playing it and have played other guitars that just felt better, it might be worthwhile to replace that first.  Otherwise, it can be upgraded to be on par with much more expensive guitars.  But if you have fun playing that guitar, then the amp is definitely a better place to start.  

Personally, I usually choose the upgrade route in lieu of replacing.  The upgrades are even more fun if you feel comfortable doing the upgrades yourself.  Nothing says fun like a Friday night with a soldering iron and fret crowning files.   But, at least with fret leveling tools, irreparable damage can be done, so proceed with caution.   

Most of all, have fun at those first gigs.  Things will go wrong, you’ll make mistakes, but the important thing is to use the gear you have and make it work.  Keep going.  

Cheers,
Chuck

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