“You get what you pay for.”
That adage is true in life, and especially true when it comes to music gear. If you have the opportunity to invest in quality instruments and amps, you should take it.
However, just like how you can get a quality steak for under five dollars if you know where to look, there’s plenty of quality gear out there with a low price tag. There’s never been a better and easier time to play, record, and upload music for the world to hear, and there’s plenty of deals out there of which you could be taking advantage.
Some criteria: this article will be moving forward with the presumption that you have a decent guitar and a decent computer already. This isn’t to say that you can’t find computers or guitars for under $100, but doesn’t mean it’s to be done. I’ll also be covering new product for the most part and not stuff on the used market. That said, it’s still highly encourage you scrounge for deals wherever you can find them, whether online or at your local junk shop.
BOSS DS-1 & DS-2 DISTORTION
I’m old enough to remember all my music friends in high school seeing Kurt Cobain change the world by stomping on one of these babies and thinking “I can do that!” They of course forgot they had to have Cobain’s talent, passion, skill for melody, intense stage presence, and hitting the zeitgeist at the right time, but that’s neither here nor there. Even before Cobain, the DS-1 (and the DS-2, its midrange-heavy sibling) had more than earned its place in music history by appearing on the board of every possible music genre. From blues to indie to metal, having a Boss Distortion is almost a rite of passage. It worked just as well for Cobain’s buzzing melody as it did for Steve Vai or Joe Satriani’s epic solos.
At $50 new for the DS-1 and $80 new for the DS-2, you can’t go wrong, though I feel the pedal’s bad rap comes from ubiquity and also misuse. A solid-state distortion like this sounds best running into a tube amp, so a cheap practice amp won’t give you much. Also, for heavier sounds, humbuckers are definitely recommended to round out the bright tone. Don’t make the mistake of diming this baby and hoping for the best. If you’re playing lower gain music like blues though, single-coils should be just fine. An honorable mention also goes to the Boss OS-2, which sells for the same price as the DS-2 and blends in a quality overdrive as well.
SHURE SM57 DYNAMIC MICROPHONE
You’d be a fool to not have one or a dozen of these on hand for whatever your recording purposes are. Studio engineers and touring musicians swear by them, never going anywhere without a fleet on hand. While they sound especially good for guitar, you can use them for anything ranging from drums (they’re particularly popular for overheads) and even vocals. The dearly departed Prince (a connoisseur of both the cheap and boutique) famously cut his vocals right from the mixing desk using an ordinary SM57 on a boom stand. If it’s good enough for the the Artist, it’s good enough for you!
FOCUSRITE SCARLETT SOLO
Thanks to the ubiquity of computers and music software, it’s never been easier to record music onto a high-quality digital format. Most new desktops and laptops even come with free music software, with Garageband on the Apple side and FL Studio on the Windows side (with open-source Audacity in the middle). There’s plenty you can do with programming and VST plug-ins, but if you want to just record your guitar and voice, you need an audio interface. The Focusrite Scarlett allows you to easily plug in an XLR mic or quarter-inch guitar input right out the box, making it an essential bridge for early recording.
GUITAR RIG PLAYER
Native Instruments’ has a laundry list of affordable music programs ranging from guitar, to keys, to drums, and even orchestras. Their Guitar Rig 5 software is a professional quality product used live and for recording, and if not for the $199.99 price tag it would have easily made the list. Fortunately NI offers a taste of the potential in a free download with the Guitar Rig Player plug-in. While it doesn’t have the virtual mixing console or library of presets like the full version, it does come with a pitch-perfect simulation of a single Marshall JMP amp and a handful of effects including overdrive, chorus, flanger, stereo delay, studio reverb, and even a panning option. Since the software is literally free, we recommend seeing what you can do with the limited but high-quality tool set. Greater artists have done more with less.
This one skirts the criteria a little bit with current models being sold new for $149.99, but the Roland Cube line is just too good to pass up. The higher-end models have taken solid-state amps to the next level with quality tone, with the Street addition being a boon to buskers everywhere. What we’re highlighting though is the battery-powered practice amp, which is a must-by for newbies and pros alike. Even the practice model gets amazing battery life (I’ve literally never changed batteries in three years of owning one) and offers half a dozen amp tones and effects from Roland’s super-clean Jazz Chorus to bright metal gain.
LINE 6 POCKET POD & STUDIO GX
The POD was far from the first digital modeler, but it was perhaps the first that made its top priority emulating real-life sounds and putting it inside a user-friendly package. Like the DS-1 it’s more than earned its place in music history, and also like the DS-1 it’s more diverse than people give it credit for. Technically speaking almost any version of the POD you care to name (from the classic 2.0 to the XT to even the current HD model) can probably be found in your local pawn shop for under or around $100. But for the purposes of this list we’re zeroing in on the Pocket POD and the Studio GX software.
Condensing down decades of POD technology into something that literally fits in the palm of your hand, the Pocket POD is a refinement of Line 6’s digital modeling tech into a single affordable unit. Space is a bit cramped thanks to the knobs having to share so many purposes, but the quality tone and dirt simple interface make it easy to put together. The Studio GX software expands on this by taking that same audio emulation and tucking it into a simple desktop app, even including a quarter-inch audio interface with the $99 price tag. The library of amps and emulated effects is right at your fingertips and ready for recording. All you need is to do is decide what to do with it.