Which is More Important for Tone? The Guitar or Amp

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Someone made a comment on one of my YouTube videos the other day saying this:

Lets be honest, a wet fart would sound good through that amp, let alone any guitar!! 😉

Well, that’s a pretty harsh statement, but it does bring up the question of what should you spend your hard earned money on. A better guitar, or a better amp?

This is a very difficult question and there’s not really a definitive answer. The only thing I want to do is show you a couple of different viewpoints, and then you can determine how you would like to spend your money. It could also be said that your money would be better spent on learning how to play, and this would ultimately give you a better tone. This is very true, but let’s assume you already know how to play at a decent level, and want to get a nice tone coming from your rig.

I will say that no matter how good you play, a cheap guitar and a cheap amp, just doesn’t compare to a nice guitar and amp setup. While the very cheap rig will produce sound, it won’t inspire you to play like nice gear will.

So let’s take the amp. If you own something like a Peavey Bandit, then you will know that there are limitations with this amp. It’s not tube, so you won’t get any breakup when the amp is cranked. The clean channel can be quite harsh if you don’t set it right, and the distortion channel is very unpleasing to me. Having said that, you can make it sound ok and I’ve used them for private lessons many times.

I have put my Gibson 61 Reissue SG through this amp and while it is a pretty good tone, the sound of my guitar through my 66′ Fender Vibrolux is a dramatic change in sound for the better! It’s unbelievable how much difference there is!

Now lets take the Peavey Bandit and use a cheap Squier Strat. While this sound is not amazing, it sounds pretty good and will get the job done. Plugging this guitar into a nice amp such as a 59′ reissue Bassman will lead to a dramatic change in sound. This cheap guitar will now sound really good, but not near as good as my 79′ Fender Strat will.

One of the biggest caveats of the cheaper guitars is playability and inspiration. The feel of the guitar neck on the Squier Strat is just not easy to get around on. It’s not difficult, but it doesn’t inspire me to play. I feel like this is one of the biggest factors with cheaper guitars in general. One of the biggest questions this raises is, Does your guitar inspire you to play?
If it does, then who cares how cheap the guitar is. My Classic Vibe Tele was $299 and it really inspires me to play in a different way than all of my other guitars do. This creates the idea that, Tone and Inspiration created by the amp or guitar are correlated.

This leads me to the conclusion that if a guitar inspires you to play, you will probably play better on it, thus producing a better tone. This is a key concept to keep in mind. While the Squier Strat does sound decent, it never inspired me to play. It gets the job done, but that’s all. I think we should always be looking for guitars that not only sound good but inspire us to play. I’ve played some very expensive guitars that didn’t inspire me to play.

At this point I think it can be said that what we should look for, are pieces of gear that can bring us a decent tone, and also inspire us to play. If these two things can happen, then that guitar or amp can become part of our arsenal.

So this brings us back to the original question of which is more important for tone, the guitar or the amp? Well lets just say this, to me the amp has more control over the tone of your playing, and it also will give you inspiration to play new things. The guitar, however, since it is the instrument your hands are directly coming into contact with, gives you more inspiration by playing it, which will directly affect your tone in a big way.

Here’s my summary.

Guitar – Creates more tone through inspiration
Amp – Creates more tone through components – The better the amp the better the tone.

I will come to the conclusion that you should purchase the best amp you can afford, then go try out tons of different guitars to find out which instrument speaks to you and will allow your inspiration to flow through it.

Recommendations

The cheapest amp that I recommend is the Deluxe Reverb. It’s really amazing and versatile. There are a number of cheaper amps that sound really good, but this blog is not about beginner guitar playing. This is my recommendation of what I think is the entry level of an amazing amp. This is only my opinion.

The cheapest guitar I recommend of course is the Classic Vibe Telecaster.

I’m sure many of you will disagree, that’s where you leave your comments below. Thanks for reading!

16 thoughts on “Which is More Important for Tone? The Guitar or Amp”

  1. Great article. I completely agree with your guitar recommendation. Squier CV Teles are really amazing for the price. Fender Deluxe Reverb is am amazing amp as well but I thought you would recommend the Pro Jr. I bought it after seeing one of your videos and it still impresses me everyday.

    • Thanks for the comment. I do really like the Pro Junior, but live it can run out of headroom very quickly. If you don’t need real clean tones then it will work fine.

  2. HI John, ever since I bought my Traynor YCV40WR, my guitars sound like heaven.I use to own a Peavey Bandit, as well as many other solid state amps.Tube amps are the way to go IMHO.
    I recently changed my pre and power tubes in my Traynor and wow, sounds awesome.Now I did buy this amp new and I paid almost $900 can, you can get one used for around $500 now.
    However, I still have another year warranty on it, and that’s even if I break it.I now realize that I should have bought my dad’s 196? Fender Bassman when I had the chance.

    Great article

    Dave

  3. I have some great guitars and a couple of great amps but tone starts in the hands and then moves to the guitar and then the amp – and it is carried by cables! Cheap cables will can kill the tone much like bad hands, a crappy guitar or a crappy amp.

    I”m a little confused by your statement that the Deluxe Reverb is the cheapest amp you would go with. There are lots of great small tube amps out there these days. The Vox AC4 is pretty good and it sounds fantastic if you drop in the Mercury Mod for it (but that drives the price way up!). I’ve got a Mercury Modded Epiphone Valve Jr and it sounds fantastic. The Chickenhead version of the Fender Champ is also fantastic: http://chickenheadamps.com/f51.html. Maybe you were recommending an amp for playing clubs. None of these small guys would work in a club but for bedroom practicing they are great!

    I guess I should answer the question posed, I had a 1976 Telecaster and the thing was horrible for me. I got a better guitar before I got a better amp.

    • Yes I was recommending an amp for playing live. Smaller amps are great, but you can never get clean enough because you run out of headroom. I haven’t tried every amp out there, but this is my opinion based on what I’ve tried. Thanks for the comment.

  4. You hit the nail on the head
    Guitar – Creates more tone through inspiration
    I also have the 61 reissue SG. To me it blends into my body and mind when I play.
    Amp – Creates more tone through components – The better the amp the better the tone.
    I have several tube practice amps but when I get a chance to crank it up a bit, nothing comes close to my 1974 Marshall 50watt all tube head and 4×12 cab. The tone, dynamics and touch sensitivity are beyond imagination – just scary how good it can be. I’d really like to try out the vibrolux too.

      • John,
        While I have heard that Duane used Marshall head with JBL speakers in Marshall cabinets alot, I also I read somewhere that, early in his career, Duane played through a ’59 Fender Bassman Head. I’ve never read anything about what speakers/cabinets he had hooked to the Bassman Head – have you ever heard anything on that?

  5. Erg, brings me to my next big investment. Have a epiphone les paul standard and looking for a (slight – under 1000) upgrade. Can’t decide, should I upgrade my guitar to either an Gibson SG or Les Paul or a new amp. Hmmm… looks like i’ll be browsing the stores for a while.

  6. Just because there are always a lot of beginners here who want information what to buy as their first guitar, here my experiences:

    Firstly, stay away from the very cheap stuff. More trouble than you are saving…

    In the 250 to 350 $ (or similar in Euro) price range, you get reasonably good guitars which are well built and only have minor inconveniences like a bit too loose tremolo arm or not completely perfect tuners, etc. but nothing that stops you from being inspired by your instrument (hey, I just love my Squier Deluxe Strat which was in the lower end of this price range!)

    Remember: if you want to upgrade the pickups or the mechanics later – everybody who hasn’t got two left hands can do that (and others shouldn’t try to play the guitar anyway 😉 On the other hand, if the body or neck is poorly built, you are basically in for a new guitar if you want to improve. So if you want to save money, find a guitar that is well built, and never mind the quality of the pickups – you can change them later if necessary.

    If you are a beginner, there is basically one decision you have to make about your amp: Do you want a tube amp – like for that great Marshall sound that is probably the reason you started to play guitar in the first place – or do you want a flexible amp with built-in effects (I have a Fender G-Dec Fifteen for this) to try out different styles and settings to find your own sound. It’s one of these two. Everything else is just good as an exercise amp for your bedroom…

    But there is one sure-fire trick to make your guitar and amp sound better than when you tried it in the store: it’s called “exercise”. Do it every day, and you’ll soon be the coolest guitar player in town. No matter what instrument or amp!

    ag.

    • My first guitar was a Best Buy $120 guitar/amp combo. Once I got a new amp, it sounded great. I love the guitar. It’s had many issues, but I like fiddling with it. There’s something about the slight struggle of playing it that is inspiring to me. It also has that slight underdog quality – people generally look down their noses at both cheap guitars, and players of cheap guitars (my guitar, like me, feels like it’s got something to prove). My friends make fun of me for it. They tell me to get a “real” guitar.

      Well, after wearing down the frets, and doing countless experiments on it (making my own pickup, digging out a hole to fit the pickups, taking the pickup out after they broke leaving me with a gaping hole that I haven’t gotten around to fixing, etc.), I thought it was time to get a new guitar. What did I buy? A Best Buy special, of course. It was $80 on sale. It’s a piece of shit, in the best way. Couldn’t be happier.

  7. After playing several years i get to the conclusion that is a matter of the combination of a particular guitar and an amp.
    Both together. They have to be like a perfect marriage. And that sound and the guitar’s playability should be the voice of your soul, capable to transmit every emotion with easy.

  8. As a long time acoustic player and expensive acoustic guitar snob, I have come down off my high horse and discovered the world of cheap electrics and the Fender Deluxe Reverb. I have a Gibson LP standard and a handful of MIM fenders and Epiphones. My favorite guitar to play is a stock $99 Fender Bullet strat in Pepto Bismol pink – built in Indonesia. It just speaks to me. I am amazed at what you can get away with with electrics, compared to acoustics.

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