I’ve been debating whether or not to do a post like this.
People love gear posts, but I don’t know that we should be encouraging guitarists to spend any more time on this.
One of the more maddening things about the guitar community is its inane fixation on gear.
I’m tired of talking about the relative merits of various tonewoods with old dudes who own a dozen guitars but don’t play any of them.
I don’t want to debate which guitar is best, who makes the greatest distortion pedal or whether or not buying expensive cables will improve your tone.
On the other extreme, I’m sick to death of seeing good players getting bad sound with cheap, crappy PA systems and bad acoustic pickups.
Last summer I saw a talented older guy playing folky Americana tunes at a farmer’s market. He had an exquisitely beautiful Gibson flat top, must have cost him three grand or more. And he was playing it into a $400 sound system. Sounded flat-out terrible.
So I’ve decided to go ahead with a gear post.
But instead of just telling you what I use, I want to talk about what I think YOU should use, and also why you should quit fixating on gear and get back to playing your damned guitar.
Before we talk about what I use, I want to offer a disclaimer: quit wasting your time on gear.
Buy the least expensive tool that will allow you to get the job done.
Practice more, gig more, save the money you make, upgrade the weakest link one piece at a time.
Find the point of diminishing returns and then STOP. BUYING. GEAR.
What I Use
Here is the entire signal chain for my solo show:
[Baden A Style -> Line 6 G50 – > Fishman Aura Spectrum] + [Shure Super 55] -> Bose T1 -> Bose L1 Model 1
My guitar is a Baden A-Style that sounds amazing. The top is cedar, which (I feel) breaks in faster than other, harder top woods. The back and sides are mahogany.
The pickup is a Fishman Matrix Infinity. It sounds fine on its own, but pairing it with the Aura Spectrum is what really makes it shine.
For the Aura Spectrum, they simultaneously record a guitar with both the undersaddle pickup and a nice studio microphone, then somehow do the math to extrapolate the microphone sound from the pickup sound. The result is an amplified guitar that actually sounds just like it does unplugged. Amazing.
There is an exceedingly short list of ways to amplify acoustic guitars in ways that actually sound good. The Fishman Aura Spectrum not only tops that list, it’s the only way that doesn’t require serious money and a badass sound tech.
I like to move around onstage, and the Line 6 G50 wireless is great. You can buy a better wireless, and you can buy a cheaper wireless, but I don’t recommend either. Zero dropouts, rocking battery life, solid construction.
The Shure Super 55 is the classic Elvis-style mic, but with modern electronics. The original SH55 looked great but sounded just OK. This one looks ever-so-slightly better and incorporates the capsule from the Beta 58, so it sounds freaking great.
At $500, the Bose T1 is probably the most expensive tiny-format mixer around. But it’s also the only mixer this size that has pro-level features like parametric EQ, built-in effects, compressors and savable scenes. It also functions as a USB interface, which is nice.
The Bose L1 Model 1 is also far from cheap, but it sounds great, looks great, and fits in the trunk of a compact car. It’s incredibly flat, so I can turn it way up and set up my mic right in front of it without feedback. Perfect for the types of shows I play, but since it doesn’t use horn tweeters, it suffers somewhat in very noisy environments.
When working as a sideman, I play a Tele -> Line 6 HD500.
The Fender American Special Telecaster is the cheapest US-made Tele. I think most of the savings comes from the fact that it comes with a gig bag instead of a hardshell case, but that suits me fine.
I prefer the semi-rigid nylon-fabric-over-styrofoam cases like the Tric and the SKB anyway.
That Tele ships with the Texas Special pickups. They sound good, but they’re a bit noisy (no hum cancellation in the center position), so I’ve since replaced them with a set of the Seymour Duncan Five-Two and shielded the cavity.
I run that through another Line 6 G50 and into a Line 6 POD HD500.
The power and flexibility of this unit continue to surprise me. I’ve had it for two years and I’m still finding new things that it can do. That said, the stock presets are basically useless. Expect to spend some time in learning curve mode––it’s worth pushing through.
I constantly get great comments on its sound from techs, fellow musicians, and audience members.
I use the utterly badass Sensaphonics 2Max custom-molded earbuds…
…and send my monitor mix to them wirelessly with a Shure PSM900.
What You Should Use
You should use the least expensive set up that will allow you to get the job done right.
You should take your gigging income and reinvest it in the right gear, one piece at a time.
You should find the point of diminishing returns, and then stop buying gear.
You should avoid buying things that you’ll grow out of.
Unless, of course, those things have excellent resale value.
What follows is my advice for equipping yourself to make great sounds and good money as a solo acoustic act.
When it comes to what you need for playing in a band or working as a sideman, there’s way too much variation to give specific recommendations, but the same principles apply.
We’re going to look at five things in particular: your guitar, your pickup, your mic, your mixer, and your speaker.
Buy a guitar that you won’t outgrow as you become more talented and more experienced. This means you need your guitar-buying dollars going to all the invisible little things that make a guitar sound good, play great, and stay in tune.
Eschew brightly colored paint jobs and crazy inlays in favor of a solid top, good tuners, and maybe even something of a pedigree or reputation for excellence.
Avoid Ovation, Fender, Takamine, Epiphone, Ibanez and all the rest of those guitars in the good-but-not-great space. Don’t waste your money buying a just-ok guitar that you’ll later grow out of and take a beating on when you sell it.
Instead, buy a Seagull, a Martin, or maybe a Taylor.
$ Seagulls are absurdly good guitars for the money. Especially used. They’re not much for cosmetics, but they sound and play like nothing else at this price point.
$$ Martin. Not one of those $500 high-pressure laminate ones. A real one. They start around $1k. Take good care of it and it should last you the rest of your life.
$$ Taylor. Impressively consistent playability and tone, but the Expression System (their pickup) kind of sucks. There’s a second generation ES on the way that looks to be a solid improvement, and you could always run it through the Aura or install an aftermarket pickup.
This isn’t to say there aren’t other worthy guitars around. My Baden and vintage Guild both sound & play amazing.
But the point is that you shouldn’t buy a midrange guitar––just keep saving.
There are so many options on the market it’ll make your head spin. Most of them sound crappy, at least until you add the Aura.
If the guitar you already own has an undersaddle, you should be saving for the Aura floor pedal.
$ – The Fishman Rare Earth soundhole pickup is cheap, easy to install, and sounds good. Especially if you notch out most of 125Hz at the sound board or with an inexpensive graphic EQ pedal.
$$ – Any undersaddle pickup, plus the Fishman Aura Spectrum.
Buy an SM58 or a Beta 58. Enough said.
If you get the right speaker, you may be able to get by without a mixer for awhile.
Just don’t go buying a $50 Behringer. Save a little longer and get a $100 Yamaha instead.
Remember, we’re trying to avoid dead-end gear.
If you grow out of the Yamaha, you can start looking at the Bose T1 and the PreSonus StudioLive mixers.
This is where people screw up the worst.
You don’t need a monitor. Don’t buy a powered mixer and two speakers. You don’t want a package deal, or one of those goofy Fender Passport things.
What you need is ONE great sounding, powered speaker.
The QSC K10 is the way to go. Lightweight, compact, & loud, with flexible mixing options built-in. I use mine as a monitor (when the Bose is out in front of me), as a guitar amp (with my Line 6 HD500), and for outdoor wedding ceremonies (when the Bose is set up inside for the reception). I even use it as my home stereo & practice rig.
The QCS sounds 95% as good as the Bose L1, at a third of the price.
That said, I love my L1 for its natural, unhyped sound. It allows me to be loud without being overbearing. Combine that with its ability to blend in aesthetically, and it’s absolutely perfect for a nice restaurant, a church ceremony, a backyard BBQ, or a corporate event. I’d buy it again in a heartbeat.
The Proper Sequence For Buying Gear For A Solo Act
Here’s a sample of how you might progress through various set-ups. To go from step zero to step one is fairly steep $1300-ish. But even at a paltry $100/gig, you could raise that in three months with a weekly gig. So do it.
Step Zero: Whatever you’re using now.
Step One: SM58, Seagull w/Rare Earth – > QSC K10
Step Two: SM58, Seagull w/Rare Earth -> Bose T1 – > QSC K10
Step Three: Beta58, Seagull w/Rare Earth -> Bose T1 – > QSC K10
Step Four: Beta 58, Martin -> Aura -> Bose T1 -> QSC K10
Step Five: Beta 58, Martin -> Aura-> Bose T1 -> Bose L1 mk II
Step Six: Beta 58, Martin -> Aura -> Line 6 G50 -> Bose T1 -> Bose L1 mk II
Notice that as you grow and acquire new things, your old stuff is still solid, usable gear: an SM58, a Seagull w/Rare Earth, and a K10.
You can sell these off without losing all of your investment, or you can hang on to them as backups.
To Sum Up
Put your gig money into an envelope.
Finance your gear purchases from there, not on your credit card.
One really nice guitar is better than three pretty good ones.
Upgrade one item at a time.
Don’t buy anything that will be useless or unsalable later on.
Find the point of diminishing returns and then stop.
Spend more time playing & practicing than you do thinking about gear.