Which is better – expensive guitar & cheap amp or vice versa?

Being lucky enough to own quite a few of each, It thought I’d tackle this thorny question.

I actually found it very easy to reach a view.

First thing to say is that it’s important because it’s not just the guitar that’s the instrument.  With electric guitar, it’s the amp too.  The interaction between the two is crucial.  A Les Paul, for example, doesn’t sound that great clean.  Heresy, you might say, but it’s when the amp starts to break up that the magic begins to flow.

This begs the question, why buy a 50’s ‘burst when you’re only going to mash up its sound?  The answer is that it’s the interaction, what the amp does with the guitar’s sound that makes the overall tone.  And what a cranked Marshall does for a vintage Gibson, for example, is the stuff of legend.

Second thing is guitars can be really sexy whereas amps are boxes. Guitars come in all different shapes and colours and are front of stage, hell, front of player.  Amps are behind the player at the back. If you’re image conscious – and who in a band isn’t? – you worry much more about what’s hanging round your neck than the box behind you.

Moreover, guitars are what you touch – though the better the amp is, the more you’ll feel it too.

Then there’s the retail experience. Guitars are arranged in rows at eye height or slanted back on stands, all the different designs and colours complementing each other and drawing the eye. Amps are typically at floor level, sometimes stacked for economy of space. Like boxes. And most tend to be conservatively housed in black Tolex or maybe tweed.

All of this favours the guitar, but in my considerable experience – and in my dealings with the serious players I’ve got to know – it’s the reverse.

Sure, they don’t tend to have dud guitars – though that does not mean they only use expensive instruments, far from it.

Ever since the early Tokais, pro players on a budget have used cheaper instruments which they have professionally set up and onto which they load hardware, notably pickups, of their choice.  Even at today’s prices, it’s quite possible to put a really pro guitar together for about £400, most likely based on a Strat or Tele.

The trick lies in kissing a lot of frogs to find your princess – a good basic chassis onto which to drop better hardware.

Rather, all the pros I know tend to obsess about amp tone, power, headroom and preamp, power amp and speaker breakup.

There are some really nice, low power amps around, and some are incredible value. My 6-watt VHT sounds great and cost me little more than £200 for the head and cab, though its forte is obviously overdriven and not clean headroom sounds.

But these aside, you get close to £1k territory fairly quickly, whether a charming but inflexible vintage Fender Champ or a Deluxe Reverb reissue. Between £1&2k there are a multitude of goodish amps which see you on the way to a nicer sound. By the time you get past £2k you should be finding great-sounding, dynamic, touch-sensitive amps which are big enough to gig with. Or else you’ve been ripped off!

So £500 for a guitar and £2k on the amp takes you to £2.5k for a top-flight rig a pro could happily use.  If, however, you spend, say, £1.5 on a really good US guitar, that only leaves you £1k for the amp.  Ok, you could get a Deluxe Reverb, a classic workhorse.  But in all my experience the cheaper guitar and more expensive amp combination will give you a better tone still and more flexibility for the money.

Case in point : my Chinese Tokai Firebird 1, aka The Comedy Firebird, cost me £200.  I dropped in a custom P90 from the talented and charming Matt @ Monty’s which cost me <£100, making it <£300 all in, and the sound through my Ceriatone Overtone Special (<£2k) or either of my 633 amps (£2k++) is fantastic.

So there you have it. This is only my personal view, but for me it’s clear.  Assuming the care and attention most players put into buying an instrument anyway is diverted into buying the right chassis and aftermarket upgrade parts and a decent setup, within a budget I would have the cheaper guitar and more expensive amp every time.

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