As guitar players, we all tend to be affectionate for specific gear. Be it our favorite guitar, amp, or pedal; we find ourselves revolving around those pieces of gear that fit our style; Sometimes, however, the genre heavily dictates the choice we want to play.
In this article, I want to share my experience as a studio guitarist, having played many genres and tried multiple pieces of gear for each. My goal is to give you some direction on the gear type you might need. It’s not about advertising brands or specific models; it’s a guide on the commonly required specs to achieve a sound. Whether you choose to go for the most expensive or budget models, it’s up to you.
What guitar should I choose?
The main choice, and most important, is surely the guitar. The first piece of advice I would give for total beginners is to go with whatever you have at your disposal as long as there are no major flaws that make playing challenging. During your first months or even years, it’s important to get to the basics of the guitar as an instrument – a process that can be done on any guitar.
As you feel more confident in your playing, it might be time to choose a guitar that goes along with the music you like to play.
Tone-wise, there’s nothing more important than the pickups and the way they are set up on the electric guitar.
From experience and from many experiments, it’s now almost proven that even though tonewoods are important, almost all the tone lies in the pickups and electronics of the guitar.
Single coils are great for everything apart from when there is too much gain. That’s why a Les Paul is more used in heavy metal rather than a Telecaster. A single-coil tone is generally bright and punchy, with different guitars adding different nuances to the tone. Pop, blues, jazz, rock and all in between.
A Humbucker pickup is necessary for heavier genres that use a lot of gain, as it keeps the sound tight in high gain and eliminates “hum” noise. You could still play heavy music with a high gain single coil like a P90 or similar models; however, it still won’t handle as much gain as a humbucker. Humbuckers are very versatile pickups, as the overall warm tone they produce is used even in genres that don’t use high gain amps, like jazz.
If you want a “jack of all trades” guitar, then the coil-split pickups are great as you can switch from a humbucker tone to an almost single coil with a switch. I believe a better tactic would be to replace the bridge pickup with a humbucker and keep all other single coils if the guitar allows it.
As much as the neck preference depends primarily on your preference, there are criteria to consider.
If you are a rock player and want to pick an acoustic, it would be better to have a cutaway body so you can easily access up to the 15th fret of the guitar. On the other side, Fingerstyle players might not need many frets, but a wider neck would help make fingerpicking easier.
On an electric, almost 95% of all genres can be covered with 21 frets (the standard number for a Fender Stratocaster). More intricate styles of music like progressive metal and jazz-fusion might need 22 and sometimes 24 frets.
There is no set rule in how to choose a neck apart from the frets; if it feels good on your hands, then it’s the right one!
I believe the body of the guitar is more important tone-wise on acoustic guitars. Big body acoustics tend to resonate more and make a great recording guitar for every genre. Smaller body ones can be great, but their advantage is mostly the comfort of moving around and holding it better.
For electrics, the body does not impact much of the tone but affects playability. No matter the genre, it’s essential to choose a body style that you feel good holding while seated or with a strap.
I would not worry too much about tonewoods apart from their weight on electric guitars when it comes to tone. On acoustics, they are the main thing to consider like the quality of a good tonewood is the same whatever genres you choose to play
Amps and Pedals
The first choice for amps is whether you need a high gain amp or not.
The logic I follow is the following; if you want to achieve as heavy as classic rock crunchy tones go, a low gain amp and pedals will help you get a great dynamic sound from anything from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. If you want to go heavier and most of your style is based on palm-muted riffs and sustained leads, then a high gain amp is necessary.
Every tube amp has a specific breaking point in which it sounds the best. Going past that point for low gain amps might kill the tone and generally muddy it up. Modern amps often have installed electronics to balance in all volume levels, they might be great for modern genres, but most rock blues jazz players would prefer a vintage tube amp over any modern amp.
A list of the main pedals you might fit in your pedalboard
- Compressor – not a necessary pedal for any genres; however, it balances out your playing and gives an extra notch to your playing for clean tones. Highly recommend it for pop, blues, rock, and jazz players. Not much for heavy genres, as distortion in itself is a form of compression.
- Delay – I believe it’s essential to have one good delay for all genres. Delay adds the extra to all guitar sounds in both live shows and the studio.
- Reverb – Same as with delay, you can’t play in a band setting without having any reverb at all, except for when you choose only to use the reverb of the room
- Overdrive – A good overdrive pedal can give you the sweet tube amp breaking point tone without cranking up the volume. I highly recommend it for blues and rock musicians above all. With the right setting, it can give some nice contours to jazz guitar.
- Distortion – You can choose to make things heavier and more aggressive with a distortion pedal. The heavier the genre and more sustain you need, the best it is to have one.
Other fx such as tremolo, chorus, phaser are used across all types of music in all the ways possible. Add them to taste but don’t overdo the wet tone of the fx so much that it shades out the guitar’s tone if that, of course, is not what you are aiming for.
Old vs. new gear?
Choosing whether to buy new or used gear is primarily an issue of price and dependability. Some old guitar models and amps are no longer produced, so there is no other option.
If you find a used piece of gear in good condition, I highly suggest you buy it. Repairing it, if needed, might be way more convenient than buying a new piece of gear.
Final thoughts of essential guitar gear
Ultimately the gear is just that, a means to achieve a sound. There is more than one way to get the same result in music, which might make your sound even more special.