What’s the best thing you can buy to improve your guitar tone? A new guitar? Boutique amp? High-end multi effects rig? Specialist pickups? Top quality cables? Vintage pedals? There are any number of things to throw your money at. Which will make you sound best for your buck?
The answer is as easy as it is unexpected. The single best thing you can buy for your guitar tone is: Time.
What? I can already hear the complaints. That’s not a thing! That’s not a new toy to play with and show off to my mates! That can’t be the right answer.
Listen, the vast majority of your tone (think 90% or more) is in your fingers and in your head. (These statistics aren’t scientific, I’m just illustrating my point). Your gear only contributes a very small amount. The only way to improve the tone coming out of your fingers and your head is to practice. Why don’t you practice more? Because you’re too busy, right? So buy yourself the time to allow yourself to put the work in.
How do you buy yourself more time? Think of things you could do more quickly if you spent a bit more money on them. Here are a few possibilities:
- Supermarket shop online and have it delivered instead of going to the store.
- Get the train to work instead of the bus.
- Buy a dishwasher to save time washing up.
- Hire a cleaner or gardener.
- Pay for a babysitter or after-school club for the kids.
- Ask if you can take some time off work, unpaid.
- Get a tradesman to do that diy you’d been planning to do.
I’m sure you’ll think of more time saving techniques, ones that are relevant to you. Then, and this is very important, use that time to practice! The benefit you get from that extra work will make more difference to your sound than any piece of kit.
Ask yourself, would you rather make better music with cheap gear, or worse music with expensive gear? If you truly want to make better music, then buying yourself more time to practice is the single best thing you can do to achieve that.
This can be a bit difficult to get our heads around. Culturally we are conditioned that if you want something you should save up your money and then buy it. Music, and tone, doesn’t work like that. You have to earn it. Unfortunately that doesn’t sell widgets for guitar and amp companies. So they will tell you their latest “stratopaulabacker” will turn you into your idol for just a few thousand pounds. In truth, you’ll be the same guitarist you always were, with more expensive equipment.
Tone is part of your musical ability. It can’t be bought in the way an object can. It’s easy to think so, to hope so, because dreaming about your ultimate ‘rig’ is much easier than putting in the time and the effort to make yourself sound good. It would be great if we could skip the hard work and just buy musical ability. But we can’t. So if you’re serious about it, and you’re going to invest, invest in time.
I’m not saying that better gear doesn’t make a difference to your sound. I’m just saying it doesn’t make as much difference as more, regular, focused practice would. You won’t suddenly become famous just because you’re playing a Gibson instead of an Epiphone. You might become famous because you spent an extra hundred hours sweating over how to wrench every drop of emotion out of the notes you’re playing on that Epiphone.
So if you’re going to spend money, think about ways you could use it to free up time in order to practice. £200 could buy you 20 hours (40 supermarket deliveries at £5 each). £2000 could buy you an awful lot more (cleaner, gardener, PA service, etc). If someone offered me the choice between a custom shop Gibson and 2 weeks’ uninterrupted practice time, I know which I’d take.
Let me know in the comments if you’ve found any particularly effective ways of gaining more time, even if it’s come at a bit of a cost.