At some point in my gear-buying life, I started focusing on the high-end stuff. Choice tonewoods, the finest analog components, limited edition—sound familiar? Looking back to where I started from, I can see the evolution of my gear tastes. It was gradual, like a snowball rolling down a mountain that turned into a Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque boulder, mowing down any seemingly inferior gear that got in its way. But at some point I remember how fun, and how great, some cheap gear actually is. Not to mention, there’s plenty of musical artists that have had incredible careers without ever using boutique gear. With that in mind, I thought I’d point out some of the ways cheap gear can enrich our lives.
You love your cherished vintage and boutique amplifiers, and there is no sound more satisfying than letting a chord ring out, filling the room with harmonics and raw emotion. However, amps are electronic devices, and are subject to failure at any time. Sometimes, the moment that should have been a transcendent out-of-body experience fails to come to fruition because your guitar sounds like a fart. If your amp fails because of a bad tube, you’re going to need a backup. Most of us don’t want to spend a lot of dough on backups, and that’s fine. There are plenty of cheap options out there to assist you in your time of need. For example, the Orange Micro Terror provides 20 watts, and it even has a 12AX7 tube, all for the price of a pedal at $150. And it sounds pretty freaking good. As Dr. Steve Brule would say, just keep one in your bag, dingus!
In the downtown region of my hometown, Boise, Idaho, there are street performers aplenty, even in cold weather. Most of them strum slightly out of tune power chords on budget acoustic guitars, and I would love it if somebody mixed it up and used one of those cheapo electric guitars with effects built-in, or a small, battery-powered modeling amplifier. Vox makes some great small amps like the VT20X and VT40X that pack a lot of amp and effects modeling into an affordable and portable package. Do you own one of these? If so, come to Boise and make my city beautiful. If you leave your hat on the sidewalk, you may even collect enough spare change to get yourself a sandwich.
Live Wet and Dry with Cheapo Amps
At home, and in the studio, the use of multiple amps can deliver a ton of tones. Using two amps at once can make unique flavors of tone, and you can create the illusion of two guitarists playing in unison if you take the double-tracking approach. That’s all well and good, but it’s not always practical to take multiple amps to a gig. Unless, of course, you happen to have a cheap solid-state practice amp that is easy to carry around. I have a few Vox Pathfinder solid-state combos. They’re a lot of fun, and set clean, they sound way better than they should. The distortion is a different story. On its own, I find it uninspiring, but in conjunction with a nice tube amp set semi-clean, the nasty, fuzzy distortion from the Vox sounds awesome. My favorite way to do this is to use an A-B-Y switcher, and place a delay set to slapback after the switcher going to the dirty Vox. With both amps selected at once, this produces a double-tracking effect, with one clean amp and one fuzzy solid-state with the short echo. It’s loads of fun, and easy to set up at a gig.
Loaners for the Kids
There’s nothing more special than sharing the joy of creating music with your loved ones. But are you going to loan your cherished Gibson R9 to your kid so they can play it at their first gig at the junior high Fun in the Sun day? In the words of Kevin McCallister, “I don’t think so.” But what will little Timmy use at his first show? Dig up that Squier Affinity Telecaster you have in the corner of the basement. It’s more than enough guitar for the job, and if he lets his friends do their best Slash impression with it, you won’t have to spend the bulk of your evening crying in the fetal position after it’s dropped off the stage and dinged up. There’s a tendency to discard less exciting, less expensive gear as we accumulate some of the finer things in life, but there’s something special about holding on to the gear you started with.
Sometimes, gear just isn’t usable. Pedals break, speakers get blown and guitars become warped. One semester in college, I rented out a room in a lady’s basement. She must have heard my ceaseless noodling, because one day she descended into the dungeon and presented me with an old Kay acoustic guitar. She explained to me that she had it since high school, but she never got around to playing it, and she wanted me to have it. I was touched by the gesture, and I was excited to write songs on my new vintage guitar. Unfortunately, the action was about three inches high, and the bridge moved around whenever it wanted to. It looked cool as hell, but wasn’t playable, and that’s why I mounted it on the wall at my next apartment. If you’re looking to decorate your home or music room, check out the video on YouTube from Dan from That Pedal Show where he gives helpful instructions on how to build a pedal shelf. Your significant other will love it!
Picking gear apart and putting it back together can be fun, but I’m always less inclined to do so when I love something the way it is. If you have a dream guitar, amp, or pedal, you may be wary about opening it up to swap pickups, speakers, or diodes, and justifiably so—why mess with a good thing? However, when you score something off Craigslist for less than two bills, modding is just what the doctor ordered. You didn’t put that much into it initially, and you can make significant improvements without spending too much cash. As a general rule of thumb, when picking up a cheap piece of gear, I try not to exceed the actual amount for the item in aftermarket goods—otherwise it defeats the purpose. If I score a guitar for $100, I’m not going to spend more than that on new pickups. If I get a steal of a deal on an amp for $200, I’m not dropping a $400 speaker in there. But that’s just me. However you approach it, have fun, and don’t worry about messing anything up, because there’s no wrong way to create your own little Frankenstein Monster.
Rig Away From Home
How many times have you longed to shred at the office, but hesitated because you didn’t want to haul your priceless rig to your place of work? That’s where the side rig comes in. If you don’t have a cheap electric, find one, and leave it at work all the time. Pair it with a small practice amp, like the awesome Blackstar Fly 3 combo. It sounds surprisingly good for a tiny digital practice amp and it even includes a built-in tape echo effect. When the gang asks you to go to Chili’s for lunch, just ignore them and crank up the volume—you’ve got better things to do. There’s no reason you should be separated from making music if you don’t want to, so grab your portable gear, stick it under your desk, and start learning your boss’s favorite song - it’s time for a promotion. Pretty soon you’ll be playing “Hotel California” from the corner office with the window.
It’s easy to forget about the all the joy that simple, inexpensive gear can bring. Whether you’re looking to spice up your live rig, add ambience to your practice space, or turn lunch into an epic jazz odyssey, there’s loads of gear that’s fun, cheap, and waiting for you. Go find it, and never look back.