I have recently purchased a supposedly entry-level humble bass guitar; but it’s quality and sound blew my mind. This motivated me towards sharing my opinion on cheap and expensive instruments.
My personal opinion is; you don’t need anything beyond gear which doesn’t dissatisfy you.
A guitar to a musician is as important as a pen to a story writer. No more, no less.
Skills over Gear
First things first: Skill is much more important than gear.
My master class instructor Selçuk Karaman (Selka) can pick any random bass & amp and make them sound great. Cheap, expensive, humble, flashy; no matter. No pedals, no effects, nothing. And he sounds like himself every time.
Those people don’t cast secret spells to magically alter the signal coming out of the guitar.
The instrument itself is only one variable in a large equation.
Many factors regarding your own technique determines what kind of a sound will come out of the guitar; such as:
- Right-hand positioning
- Plucking style
- Finger contact area
- Clean string-to-string transition
Get them right, and you’ll sound good on any instrument. Is it completely unnecessary to buy an expensive instrument, then?
Two Factor Theory
Two factor theory distinguishes hygiene factors from motivators.
Hygiene factors are material elements; such as your guitar, amp, pedals, etc. If you significantly lack something in this area (such as inconsistent tuners or a wrapped neck), you’ll be dissatisfied. However, improving those factors can only get you to the point of no dissatisfaction.
Motivators are intangible factors; such as your enjoyment of your own playing, the reaction of the crowd, appreciation of other musicians, the bliss of making the music you love, etc. Those are the factors that would bring you satisfaction.
According to this theory; if your gear gets you to the point of no dissatisfaction, your gear is good enough. Real satisfaction starts there, which depends on intangible factors.
Besides; a high price doesn’t automatically lead to better hygiene factors either.
Many players get confused trying to pinpoint the source of their musical frustration.
In many cases, the frustration is really rooted down to lack of motivators. Improving your skills can possibly bring the excitement back. You can;
- Learn new scales
- Memorize new licks
- Work on new songs
- Study theory further & apply somewhere
- Improve your dexterity
- Improve your fingerboard memorization
- Discover new musical styles
- Release a new song
- Join a challenging band
In some other cases, the frustration can really be rooted down to the lack of hygiene factors; such as:
- A noisy rig
- Strings getting out of tune
- An undesired base tone
- Instrument weight
That’s an important differentiation to make. Buying a better computer won’t make you a better programmer, right?
Buying a “better” guitar won’t make you a better musician. Improving your skills towards the premium level will.
Why do we see very expensive guitars in the hands of some famous artists, then?
To answer this question, we need do understand the idea of diminishing returns.
Is the $100 → $500 jean quality surplus 5 times more than $20 → $100 jean quality surplus? Not really, right?
After a certain price point, what you get per $ decreases dramatically.
The quality difference between $200 – $1.000 basses would be tremendous; while the quality difference between $1.000 – $5.000 basses would be relatively small.
If an artist plays a $5.000 instrument, he/she probably found some minor improvements over a $1.000 instrument, and didn’t mind paying the surplus.
Such minor improvements skyrocket the price due to the manual labour & time investment involved; they are usually not crucial to have in a good instrument.
The artist you admire would probably sound great with your current gear too.
Besides; countless artists using standard instruments have successful careers. You definitely don’t need to spend money after reaching the point of no dissatisfaction with your hygiene factors. Work on your skills, and save your money.
Endorsements & PR
One should also remember that some artists get their gear for free anyway – due to their endorsement agreements. Who pays for their gear, do you think?
When you purchase an artist endorsement guitar, mind you that a percentage of the cost of his/her free guitars are included in your price tag.
A portion of any big-brand instruments price includes such PR-related costs. So you are paying for the name hanging down your neck, not quality.
If the name is important for you and makes you feel synchronized with your favorite artists, then fine – this can be one of your motivators.
One needs to ask though: Is it worth the extra money?
Why would you pay $500 for a pair of jeans when you can get a very good one for $100? Is there a significant quality difference? Is it necessary to pay $400 more because some actor/actress is “known” for wearing them?
If you feel inferior, you might be willing to cover it with flashy hygiene factors; such as clothing, cellphones, cars, etc. Generally, the excessive hygiene factors that people surround themselves with, reflect what they feel like they are lacking.
The same approach can be applied to musical gear.
If you lack confidence and enjoyment in your music, you may want to cover it with gear.
This doesn’t mean that everyone playing an expensive instrument is in this trap. But if you are in this trap, you know at this very moment that I’m talking about you.
It’s better if you work on your technique instead. Better for your psychology, emotions, wallet, and listeners.
It’s obvious too, you know? When we see a mediocre player with a $5.000 guitar, we know why he/she spent a fortune on it. Unfortunately; some people even look down on others with “lesser gear”; allegedly making up their musical deficiency (motivator) with gear surplus (hygiene).
The instrument in your hand can only make a brief first impression. If you play & sound bad, no one will accept you because of your gear. If you play & sound good, no one will dismiss you because of your gear.
Fair Upgrade Reasons
The urge to upgrade your guitar even has a name: GAS . However, there can also be fair reasons for that.
- Your ear is more refined now, and you hear the sound nuances between guitars much better – so you want to buy a “different” sounding guitar.
- Your musical orientation may have changed, and you need something your current guitar can’t provide; which could be…
- …different pickup types and/or positions
- …a different wood combination
- …more / less strings
- …more / less frets
- …a tremolo bar
- …an onboard EQ
- …a long/short scale neck
- Playing may have become uncomfortable, and you need…
- …a lighter guitar because your back hurts
- …a different neck profile to suit your hand better
- …better craftsmanship in details; such as sharp fret edges
- You may need to upgrade an immutable feature; which puts you in the market for…
- …a better resonating wood
- …more sustain
You can think of more reasons, but you get the idea. If your reasons really make sense, there is no reason why you shouldn’t upgrade your guitar – possibly to a more expensive one.
Be careful not to buy a commodity which is too expensive for you, though.
What Is Too Expensive?
My criteria for being too expensive is one simple question:
Can I loan it to someone else comfortably?
If this question triggers a financial anxiety, then the instrument in question is probably too expensive for my budget.
Technology has improved, and it is possible to produce high-quality instruments with low costs. Do your homework, and you’ll find the corresponding brand / models. A good instrument doesn’t need to be expensive.
You can probably get 85% of a “premium” guitar at 50% of its cost.
At the end of the day; it’s just wood and electronics. The humble production guitar you find in a shop may even have the exact specs you might want a luthier to build for you.
In a blind-test, would you be able to tell them apart? Or, if you were tricked that the production bass was built by a famous luthier, would your perception be positively affected?
I have owned more basses than I would like to admit – including custom shops and even a Fodera. Was the Fodera really worth it? The answer is arguable, but my personal opinion is;
You don’t need anything beyond gear which doesn’t dissatisfy you.
Beyond the point of no dissatisfaction; what matters is the music in you, and the technique in your hands.
For further ideas; I recommend checking the video “Does Gear Matter“.