We live in a golden age of guitar gear.
Everywhere you look there’s a cool new gadget that redefines our price-vs-quality expectations.
The trouble is, it’s such a fast-moving field that we can easily spend an hour (or more) each day “researching” gear.
And really, we ought to be spending that time actually playing guitar.
I myself am not immune to this, and far be it from me to tsk tsk anyone for nerding out over gear.
There is no overdrive pedal or pickup swap that’ll improve your guitar skills. But there are gear purchases that will make it more fun to play guitar… while simultaneously holding a mirror up to the deficiencies in your own playing (so you can improve them).
So without further ado, here are my top five pieces of gear that will actually make you a better guitarist.
- Practice amp
- Studio monitors and/or headphones
Your time is your biggest weakness. Not because you’re a bad person, but because you’re a human being. As a species, we’re freaking terrible at perceiving time.
Which sucks, because in music, everything depends on your sense of time. The metronome is the best tool for improving this, but it’s a tough boss. Just owning one certainly won’t make you any better, and without some specific guidance on the subtleties, even practicing with one is no guarantee you’ll improve.
To help with this, I wrote the free course Metronome Boot Camp. Sign up if you haven’t already.
In MBC I walk you through using the Tempo app. It’s my favorite for iOS. It’s also available for Android, but last I heard it’s not as full-featured as its iOS counterpart. Pro Metronome is ugly as hell but has the full set of features on both platforms. (iOS/Android)
For an intimidating but insanely full-featured experience, check out Polynome. The killer feature here is a library of user-created drum beats for popular songs. (iOS only)
2. Practice Amp
There’s no way around it: if you play electric guitar without plugging it in, you’re developing bad habits. There’s a world of nuance to explore when you plug in—amplifying the guitar also amplifies your dynamics, muting, touch, vibrato, and bends. If you want to sound good plugged in, you have to practice plugged in.
Especially in a pandemic-stricken world, it can be harder than ever to find a chance to play through an amp. If your amp is too loud to be played in your living room, get a smaller practice amp.
I’m partial to the Line 6 Spider V 20 MkII, the Boss Katana 50 MkII, the Fender Mustang LT 25, and the Vox MSB25 Mini Superbeetle. Another option is to run an amp attenuator—I put the $45 JHS Little Black Amp Box in the effects loop of my very loud Egnater Tweaker and play it in the living room of my city apartment all day long.
There’s no better way to improve than recording yourself, and there’s no easier way to record yourself than with a looper pedal. It’s also a peerless vehicle for working on your soloing
There are dozens of excellent loopers on the market, each with a long list of impressive features. But the most important feature is ease of use—you want something that you’ll actually use.
The Boss Loop Station RC-1 is a great place to start. It’s a very simple one-button looper, but if you intend to perform with it eventually, you can easily add a second button (to stop loops without having to double-tap in time).
It’s amazing to me that guitarists will happily buy a half dozen $200 stomp boxes, but balk at spending money on their recording software
The fact of the matter is this: there is no greater tool for improvement than a DAW. It’s fantastic for mapping out song structures, looping sections, slowing down audio, creating backing tracks, and (of course) for recording yourself so you can hear what you really sound like.
There are SO MANY options for DAWs, and each serves its specific purpose well.
But for practicing, I only recommend two.
If you’re on a Mac, I recommend Apple’s Logic Pro X. It’s the greatest DAW ever made.
- stupidly powerful
- easy to learn
- beautifully designed
- ridiculously full-featured (ie. doesn’t need a bunch of 3rd party add-ons)
- 90-day free trial, $200 one-time
If you’re on a PC (or want a cheaper option than Logic), I recommend PreSonus’s Studio One 5.
- awesome feature set
- easy on the eyes, easy to customize
- the free version (Studio One Prime) is surprisingly decent…
- …but I’d recommend getting the $100 version (Studio One Artist)
- PreSonus bundles Studio One Artist with a bunch of their products, so if you’re in the market for an interface or control surface, check that out too—it’s like getting a free device with your DAW purchase.
- Alternately, if you want to dip your toe in the waters before diving in, you can get a month of their premium subscription offering (PreSonus Sphere) for $15, which includes Studio One Professional, their Notion notation software, and an enormous pile of cool plugins & loops.
(Next month I’ll be launching an inexpensive course on practicing with the DAW—make sure you’re signed up for emails so I can tell you when it’s available.)
5. Studio Monitors and/or Headphones
Just like having an amp is vital to developing your touch on the instrument, hearing recordings with detail (and without hype) is crucial. When you can hear better, you play better. Great musicianship is in the details, and decent monitors allow you to hear those details.
For years I used my headphones anytime I needed to do critical listening. They’re much more affordable than studio monitors, and you’ll eventually want a set for recording anyway.
But man oh man lemme tell you how great it is to have proper studio monitors. Even when streaming low-bandwidth audio, I’m constantly hearing new details in songs I’ve heard a thousand times before. (Wait—there’s mellotron on Jack & Diane?!?!)
You can pretty much spend an infinite amount of money on monitors & headphones, but you don’t need to. The biggest jump is the zero-to-one leap from nothing to something.
My recommendation is this: imagine all your guitars got stolen and you have to buy a basic axe to get you by. Without financing it, how much would you spend on that basic guitar? That’s how much you should spend on monitors. If that price point gets you into something boutique-y (eg ADAM, Focal, or Kali instead of JBL, Mackie, or KRK), that’s great. If not, that’s also great.
If you think you’ll perform with in-ear monitoring at some point, get a set of dual-driver ear buds like the Shure SE425s. For over-ear headphones, skip the noise-cancelling Bluetooth cans and get something like the Sony MDR-7506 or Audio-Technica ATH-M50x.
Runner-Up Pick: Wireless
This one narrowly missed the list. I left it off for two reasons:
- It’s not something that actively helps you improve.
- Wireless is like tattoos—if it’s cheap it ain’t good and if it’s good it ain’t cheap.
But in terms of making it easier (and thus more likely) to plug in & play, it’s a great choice. When I transitioned from being tethered to my modeler with both guitar & headphone cables to running a wireless into a regular amp, I started playing ~5x more.
If you have one already, set it up in your house. If you don’t, spend your money elsewhere.
There you have it—gear that actually makes you better at guitar.
Don’t forget to sign up for infrequent emails here, and I’ll ping you when the practicing-in-the-DAW course is ready.
See you out there,