It’s an amazing time to be a guitar player. Awesome new gear is announced daily, and there are more reviews to read and demos to watch than there are hours in the day. And while it’s great to have choices, it can also lead to the devastating condition we all know: Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.) is a serious condition. It causes lack of practice time, low appreciation levels for currently-owned gear, and intense arguments with significant others. In this New Golden Age of Gear, we are both blessed and cursed to hear the news via email and social media, and sometimes our old amplifier looks like a hunk of junk compared to the latest and greatest boutique, handwired piece of art. Whether you’re a new player or an experienced pro, and whether you’re rich or poor, there’s more gear out there than you could ever try, and chasing the dragon can be a dangerous adventure that causes you to lose focus on playing itself. I love awesome new gear as much as the next guy, but as the wise Kenny Rogers once said, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away.” He said some other stuff too, but for our purposes, let’s say he is admonishing us to be happy with our current gear. And if you think there’s nothing you can do to spruce up your dusty amplifier in the corner, think again. Let’s take a look at a few ways you can pimp your rig.
When’s the last time you changed your tubes? Did you do any research, or did you just grab whatever was available at the local shop? It never hurts to do some digging, and there are plenty of internet forumites to guide you in your search of NOS glass for your particular amplifier. You probably change tubes if you notice your amplifier isn’t functioning properly, but have you ever tried a new set of valves for tonal purposes? You may be surprised what you find when you try something new, whether it’s a different brand, or a simple swapping out of preamp tubes for less or more gain.
An upgraded speaker can make a significant tonal difference within your amplifier. As with the tubes, do some research on your particular amp model. Are there any common favorites? Perhaps you want to buck the trend and try something totally different. Keep in mind that “upgrade” doesn’t necessarily mean brand new or expensive. Maybe you’d rather run your amplifier through an old home stereo console; the point is to try something new. If you feel like you need some more from your Blues Junior, try plugging the speaker output into a 2x12 cabinet filled with your speakers of choice. If you’re looking for more focus, try downgrading from a 4x12 to a 1x12 cab or even a 2x10. If you’re ambitious, you can convert your combo into a head and run it through various speaker combinations until you find your personal Holy Grail.
Now that we’ve covered a couple options regarding your amplifier’s tonality, let’s make it pretty. Increasing the visual appeal of your amp can go a long way. While it’s certainly not the most important thing, it’s always fun to have a rad-looking amp onstage. Are you bored of black? Tired of tweed? There are plenty of options for amplifier coverings. You may decide to get it re-tolexed, or you may opt for another covering altogether. Perhaps you want to put your favorite childhood teddy bear on top in an ironic display of innocence. Changing or removing your amplifier’s grill cloth also goes a long way. Just like getting a new pair of comfortable jeans and a cool jacket can inject you with attitude, a new look for your amp can inject some energy into your playing, a fact that will not go unnoticed by your fans and/or groupies.
A little onstage ambience can add a lot of vibe and create an atmosphere that captures the imagination of the audience. In this instance, I’m not talking about delay and reverb pedals. Something as simple as a string of white Christmas lights draped over your amp creates a mood and shows that one cares about stage presence. If a guitarist is technically gifted, consider installing LEDs into the amp or cabinet for a glow-in-the-dark effect. Players can even show some natural light and remove the head cab from the amplifier to reveal its beautiful glowing tubes.
Depending on the design of your amplifier, you may be the only one who sees this, and that’s ok. Don’t like those boring round knobs? Try some chickenhead knobs instead. For extra fun, get a different color for each function—Volume, Gain, Middle, Treble, Bass, etc. If you only adjust one knob during your gigs and rehearsals, consider getting one knob that is a different color so you’ll always know where you’re at. It’s a simple modification that can be a lifesaver if you adjust settings on the fly, and it looks cool.
Your lackluster feelings about your amp may be rooted in the fact that you are suffering from the ill effects of a long distance relationship. Is your amp on the floor behind the bass player at every gig? Or worse yet, beside the drummer? Elevate that thing! An amp stand will help with projection if you’re using your amp as a monitor, and you won’t have to bend over in the nether regions of the stage to make adjustments. Amp stands can be had relatively cheap, and they’re a great investment. You may not always need it, but it never hurts to fold one up in the back of your car or van so you can have it ready to hold your amp in the event that floor space is limited or the stage is flooded with beer.
Our gear is only as good as we think it is. A good player can pull great sounds from a Gorilla amp, while an imposter couldn’t make a Dumble sing. Remember when your parents, teacher or coach gave you the speech about at least one person always being smarter, faster, or better looking than you? That’s true in life, and it’s true of our gear. There’s always going to be another amplifier, another guitar, another fuzz pedal that does something that ours doesn’t. Gear will not cease being made, and we will not stop lusting after it. Don’t get me wrong, I love cool stuff, and there are certainly some items I’ve got my eye on and I’m saving my pennies to acquire them. We mustn’t, however, ignore our current gear. Do the best with what you have. If there’s something you don’t love about it, you have the power to change it. You may be the coolest guy at the club after you’ve upgraded your amp, because you made it your own and it is one of a kind. Great athletes make the players around them better. Great guitar players sound great no matter what they’re playing through, and they find ways to make it better. Stop making excuses—start making music.