The age-old question when it comes to gear is “what’s better?” Strat or Tele? Fender or Vox? Humbuckers or single coils? Tube amps or transistor amps? I’m here today to tell you that there is, in fact, an answer. Brace yourselves, because the actual answer is not at all what you want to hear if you’re asking that question in the first place. The ultimate deciding factor in whether gear sounds good or not is the player. In fewer words, it doesn’t matter how nice your gear is if you suck.
Let’s unpack that.
So, that’s a little harsh, but it's true. It’s a sad reality we all need to grow up and face at one point or another that our gear only sounds as good as we do as players. I’m not saying you need to learn how to shred the fastest solo ever, or even that you need to know a ton of fancy tricks, but you do need to practice your scales and arpeggios and get comfortable in any key. You also probably need to work on phrasing lead lines and other such passages. Dynamics are a huge part of music, and also something that can always improve no matter how good you are. Most listeners prefer tasteful and dynamic playing to “fretboard wanking” anyway. Check out the solos from Gravity by John Mayer and Come Away With Me by Nora Jones to hear what I’m talking about.
The truth of it is that higher quality gear, especially amps and dirt pedals, really enhances the dynamic capabilities of the rig with things like natural compression and headroom (which, believe it or not, aren’t just buzzwords). If you as a player don’t have the ability to bring out all of the range that a Dumble is capable of producing, don’t waste $80,000. That Dumble isn’t going to make you sound any better, but if you practice you could make that thing sing. It is totally worth investing in great gear, but don’t make it a crutch.
I want to unpack another concept in this article as well. This second concept is simply that your gear is only as good as its ability to serve a purpose in your rig or in a full band mix. This is where specific gear can end up being “better” or “worse.” Like I said before, gear quality is all arbitrary unless you as a player can make it sound good. It is true, however, that different pieces of equipment have different inherent tonal characteristics that can help you accomplish different things in a band mix. British voiced amps tend to have more focused midrange, which helps them jump out of a band mix more. Humbuckers tend to push more power through your pedals and amp’s front end, meaning more compression and grit.
Regarding gear, the question of whether one piece of gear is better than another is legitimately just a bad question. Don’t ask if something is better. Rather, ask if it will do a better job for the goals you will use it to accomplish. And more than anything else, PRACTICE.