#CoffeeAndKlon 37: Why So Much Gear?

#CoffeeAndKlon is my (irregular!) Sunday morning magazine series, where I talk about whatever’s on my mind right now. There’s always coffee, and there’s normally chat about the Klon and its many competitors.

This week, I want to address a question (and associated sentiment) that crops up in comments from time to time: why do I try so much gear?

You’ll want to make yourself a drink first; this is going to be a longer post, as there’s a lot to unpack.

Background & Context

Every now and then, readers leave comments about the amount of different gear that I talk about on this blog.

You won’t have seen them because I’ve always deleted them.

Over on the blog’s About page, I’ve always had a house rule: if a reader doesn’t like what the blog is about, they shouldn’t waste their time (or mine) complaining about it. There are plenty of communities where those kinds of non-constructive comments are acceptable. This isn’t one of them.

But not all these comments are trolling.

Sometimes, one of these comments is from someone who is genuinely baffled by why I’m doing this. It’s not something that they do, and they want to understand why I do, and what benefits I get out of it.

Until now, I’ve mostly been following the advice Mick Taylor gave on an old episode of That Pedal Show: never apologise, never explain. I believe it was meant as a form of “don’t feed the trolls” advice. I think it’s an approach that has served this blog well, in the main.

But, in this case, I think it would be helpful if I did my best to answer these genuine questions. After all, this blog got started as a way of sharing my experience with my friends in the guitar community. Part of that experience is the decision-making process that underpins my purchases – and how that’s working out for me personally.

So that’s what I’m going to try to do in this post.

Table of Contents

Today’s Coffee

This morning, I’m enjoying Union Coffee’s Gajah Mountain coffee.

Coffee grown in Sumatra is my absolute favourite, but my local supermarkets seem to have stopped stocking their own-brand bags. Thankfully, one of the supermarkets still carries Union Coffee. If and when they stop (our supermarkets have really cut back on the variety of whole bean coffee that they stock), I would definitely turn to mail order for Sumatra coffee.

What’s your favourite coffee? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

The Questions

Here are five questions that I’m trying to answer today, in no particular order.

  1. Why so much gear?
  2. Why not just use the Axe-FX 3 for everything?
  3. Why do you hang onto gear long-term?
  4. Aren’t pedals et al a distraction & waste of money?
  5. Why play expensive guitars?

Q1: Why So Much Gear?

The blog’s been going about six years now, and it’s true: I’ve written about a lot of gear over that time. What is all that about? Why have I tried so much gear?

I’m afraid the answers are quite mundane. I’m basically searching for tones that inspire me, because I wasn’t happy with the tones that I’ve had throughout my life. Somewhere along the way, that’s become a hobby of mine in its own right.

And, anyway, when you look at the amount of gear you can go out and buy right now from your local guitar store, I’m barely scratching the surface …

A1.1: Because I Hated The Tones I Grew Up With

This all started because I wanted to find my tone that I could fall in love with.

I started playing electric guitar all the way back in the 80s. That … was a dark time for guitars and gear here in the UK. There wasn’t a lot of gear available in shops in the first place, and a lot of it was pretty crappy to be honest.

(Anyone remember Marlin guitars?)

And, back then, pro gear was designed for use on loud stages, because PA technology was just getting started. You simply couldn’t use it safely at home. It was too loud and (paradoxically) too fragile too.

That’s why I was a very early adopter of digital modelling. It was about the only thing that I could use at home. My word, it was simply awful. So when the golden age of gear began around 2012, I set my heart on finding better tone.

I play guitar as a form of self-expression. Everything in the signal chain – and the sounds it produces – are the tools to help me express myself the way I want. They’re (roughly) the equivalent of an artist’s brushes, paints, colours, and canvas / paper of choice. Those tools directly affect how I express myself: the style of music that I write, the way that I perform … and even the inspiration that drives my creativity.

For decades, I couldn’t get the sounds that I wanted to express myself to my satisfaction. A big part of that was I didn’t know what that sound would be. I didn’t know that my thing would be tweed-tone and Les Pauls. There was simply no way to know.

When you don’t know what you’re looking for, you can’t just go out and buy a single piece of gear and say “that’ll do”. You’ve got to try stuff.

A1.2: Experimenting With Tone Is My Hobby

This has become my hobby too. I do this for fun.

I really get a kick out of learning new things and figuring things out. Finding (say) two pedals that stack well together in a signal chain makes me very happy. And regular readers will have seen how unnecessary I get when I figure out what does and doesn’t work with a particular guitar 😁

If you want good tone and good advice, go and follow professional musicians and music producers. Don’t listen to me! I’m just a home hobbyist, with no formal training or mentoring from an experienced professional.

A1.3: Is It Really A Lot Of Gear?

What do the numbers say?

I can walk into any guitar store here in the UK – small or large – and I will have never owned the vast majority of pedals that they have in stock today.

For example, at the time of writing, Andertons has almost 2,400 pedals listed for sale. How many of these have I owned? My best guess is no more than 2% … and it’s probably closer to the 1% mark.

If I was to repeat that exercise at larger stores like Thomann or Sweetwater, I think I’d be lucky to get even close to the 1% mark.

Now add in all the small boutique brands (with their limited runs of pedals) who never get stocked in guitar stores … and yes, throw in the cloners too. And finally, throw in all the pedals that are out of production, but can be found on the second-hand market.

I think the numbers speak for themselves.

There’s an enormous amount of guitar gear out there. I’m barely scratching the surface of it. Really.

Q2: Why Not Just Use The Axe-FX 3 For Everything?

A couple of year ago (where has the time gone?) I bought an Axe-FX 3. In case you’re not familiar, it’s a digital modelling unit – and arguably the world’s best at the time of writing. (And only getting better with their aggressive firmware releases that ship improvement after improvement.)

Many touring and studio artists have replaced everything with the Axe-FX 3 – their tube amps and analogue effects alike.

In my experience, the Axe-FX 3 is fantastic for many amp models and (especially) effects. But it’s got a couple of weaknesses for what I do, and for my level of experience.

  1. It doesn’t model many of the drive pedals that I enjoy using, and I’ve found my drive pedals sound different to their equivalent models inside the Axe-FX 3.
  2. Time and time again, I’ve gotten better results out of the Axe-FX 3 after becoming familiar with the physical amp.

As good as the Axe-FX 3 is, it can’t do everything, and it’s not a 1-click instant perfect tone tool designed for beginners. It does help to know what you’re doing!

A2.1: The Axe-FX 3 Really Can’t Do Everything

There are thousands and thousands of different drive pedals out in the wild. At the time of writing, the Axe-FX 3 ships with just 69 drive pedal models. Some of them are variations on the same pedal (e.g. three different Timmy models, two different Morning Glory models, two hundred different Tubescreamers).

The number of unique drive pedals in the Axe-FX 3 is very small.

To put that in context: I think the Axe-FX 3 only includes one of the pedals I’ve tried in the last two years (the Timmy drive). It doesn’t have a model of my #1 drive pedal, my beloved Mad Professor Sweet Honey Overdrive. (I don’t think it has a single tweed-tone pedal model at all?)

Additionally, when I tested the Klon model in the Axe-FX 3, it didn’t sound the same as my physical Klon KTR pedal. (It was a similar experience when I tested the Tweed Deluxe amp model in the Axe-FX 3.)

The Axe-FX 3 is an amazing piece of kit, and one of the best things I’ve ever bought for my music. I get the most value out of it when I use it in combination with other gear – with my preferred physical drive pedals.

A2.2: There’s No Requirement To Only Use It As An Exclusive Solution

If you’re a gigging / touring musician (or even a session musician), I totally get why you’d choose to build your thing around the reliability, reproducibility and convenience of the Axe-FX 3. Heck, I bought the FM-3 (Axe-FX little brother) for exactly that purpose.

But you don’t have to.

I didn’t actually buy mine to replace my amps; that happened months later. I bought mine to go into a hybrid rig, as the FX processor for my Tweed Deluxe & Fryette PS-100 setup. It’s well designed for this, with three additional stereo ins-and-outs just for patching in additional gear, and is loaded with fantastic effects.

I think it excels as a tool in a hybrid signal chain, I really do.

  • The amp models are so accurate, they react to pedals just like the original tube amp does.
  • I can combine it with real preamps (my Synergy rig) to get better recording tones than I ever got using a real power amp, real cabs and mics. More convenient too!
  • I can combine it with real amps (my Tweed Deluxe & Fryette PS-100 rig) to add effects with the full convenience of digital recall (this is what I bought it for in the first place).
  • It also makes for a great problem-solving tool when it comes to compressing and EQ’ing guitar tone to fit better.

I’d definitely encourage you to think of it as way more than just a premier amp modeller. Think of it as a set of tools that you can combine with other bits of gear to form the exact signal chain that you desire.

Q3: Why Do You Hang Onto Gear Long-Term?

I don’t tend to flip gear quickly. I normally hang onto it until I know that I’m done with it. And I’m only done with it when I know I have no more use for it.

A3.1: It Takes Time (And Luck) To Figure Out New Gear

It’s very rare for me to click with a piece of gear within the first week. Normally, I need a lot of time with it to reach a point where I’m happy with my understanding of it.

And, often, what normally happens is that things only click when I (often accidentally) find the right overall signal chain (guitar, pedals, amp, speaker) and role for that piece of gear. That can take years (and often has!).

A great example of this is my Analogman King of Tone pedal. It was one of my top 3 disappointing purchases of 2017. But I’ve stuck with it, and eventually my King of Tone ended up teaching me lessons that I’m very grateful for.

  • If I’d flipped my King of Tone quickly, I would never have learned that some American-designed pedals work best into blackface-voiced amps. That led me on a search that ended with my Blackstar Studio 10 6L6.
  • If I’d never had a King of Tone into a Blackstar Studio 10 6L6, I would never have found my forever-Telecaster.

None of that could have happened back in 2017: the Blackstar Studio 10 6L6 wasn’t launched until 2019, and Mirage (my Telecaster) wasn’t made until 2022. It took five years, but it was worth it to me.

A3.2: Side-By-Side Comparisons Teach Me A Lot

Another reason why I hang onto bits of gear long-term is that it helps with my personal education.

Take the Tone City King of Blues pedal as an example. Is it or isn’t it a King of Tone clone? I don’t have to guess (or trust the word of Internet guitar forums or Facebook groups). I can put the two side-by-side on my pedal board, and see for myself … which is exactly what I did.

Another example of this is the Tone City Sweet Cream Overdrive. The Internet largely describes this as a Sweet Honey Overdrive clone … but it isn’t.

The same goes with Klon klones. Oh my, what a minefield they are! Here’s the thing about Klon klones: most demos of them aren’t very useful in practice.

  • They chain the pedals together, instead of using a switcher to stop each pedal’s buffer from colouring the overall signal.
  • They don’t use the pedals in the classic Klon roles, and often only try to use them as a generic overdrive pedal.

If there’s a pedal family that’s demoed worse than Klon klones, I’d be surprised. It’s so bad that Mick Taylor called people out for it on an episode of That Pedal Show – quite out of character for him!

Many of those demos conclude that all Klon klones sound close enough that it doesn’t matter. A/B them properly though and you’ll hear that they’re all different. As a result some of them are better suited to specific signal chains or roles.

But how would I have been able to learn that, if I’d flipped every Klon klone a week or two after buying it?

A3.3: I’m Not Done With It Until I Know I’m Done

I have a lot of reasons for wanting to keep specific pedals.

  • Some pedals I keep because I’ve found sounds that I enjoy.
  • With others, I feel that I’m the reason I didn’t get a great tone out of them, and I want to try again in the future when I’ve learned a bit more.
  • Some are very useful for A/B testing (Klon klones!)
  • And some I keep for the sake of collecting them (e.g. tweed tone pedals)

In general, I’m done with a pedal when either:

  • I feel I can’t learn anything more from using the pedal (e.g. not interesting in A/B tests), or
  • I’ve decided that I have no further need for the pedal’s tone (e.g. change of taste, or superseded by another pedal that I prefer more)

With the way the second-hand market is at the moment, I’ve no confidence that I can buy another example of a pedal if I change my mind in the future. The pedals I find interesting? They’re getting harder and harder to find.

So if there’s doubt, I hang onto it a bit longer.

Q4: Aren’t Pedals Et Al A Distraction & Waste Of Money?

I don’t subscribe to the idea that the best tones come exclusively from plugging a guitar straight into an amp (especially at home volume levels). Overdriven amps do sound great. I love filth from pedals too!

On top of that, I want a variety of tones. It’s far far cheaper to switch pedals than it is to switch amps. If you’re on a budget, and not sure what sound will suit you, pedals are a great way to go.

A4.1: GAS (in general) Can Be A Distraction

GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) is the act of buying gear for the sake of it. Might be pedals, might be guitars, might be amps. Might be all of them!

I think that GAS is only a distraction if it’s taking you away from other goals.

I don’t think pedals are any different from any other category of gear, when it comes to GAS.

A4.2: I Love The Sound Of Pedals

There is a school of thought that believes that the only way to get a great guitar tone is to plug the guitar straight into an amp. As I understand it, the idea here is that anything between the guitar and the amp is sucking away precious tone.

Related to that, there’s a similar school of thought that believes that amp overdrive / distortion is the only dirt that sounds good. Now, it’s true that solid-state pedals cannot create the same kind of drive tones that valve amps do. Pedals sound different (that’s a fact), and some people don’t like that sound.

If you subscribe to either of those, then I can understand why pedals can seem like a waste of time / money to you.

Even casual readers will be well aware that I feel differently.

For example, take the sound of my beloved Mad Professor Sweet Honey Overdrive (SHOD for short), boosted with my Klon KTR. That isn’t just my desert island setup; it’s my last-day-on-earth setup.

I don’t know how to get that tone by plugging straight into an amp.

A4.3: Pedals Offer Me Variety For Far Less Cost

The other great thing about pedals is that I’m not stuck with one sound.

I can swap out my Klon KTR and SHOD for the BP-1w and Ratsbane, and go from tweedy mellowness to aggressive rock tones for far less than the price of an amp. If I want classic British Blues tones, I can grab a Marshall Bluesbreaker pedal and switch it up again. And so on.

While gear is getting more expensive, even a pair of drive pedals still costs far less than a valve amp.

For arguments sake, let’s say a pair of drive pedals costs £500 brand new. At the time of writing, the Andertons website has 347 products listed in its valve amp category. Approximately 300 of those products cost £500 or more. Of the 47-ish products that are below £500, some of them aren’t all-valve amps, and some of them are Synergy preamp modules that require extra purchases to use.

Valve amps, in the main, have always been expensive. So-called “lunchbox” amp heads have helped there – both by bringing prices down, and by creating more choice regardless of budget. But all we have to do is go back to 2018 when Marshall launched their budget-friendly Origin heads to see just how out-of-reach classic amp circuits were.

Q5: Why Play Expensive Guitars?

Many high-profile professional players have said (essentially) that “tone is in the fingers”. An expensive guitar won’t make up for lack of playing technique, or musical phrasing. And that’s certainly true.

So why do I play “expensive” guitars? The short answer is that I don’t look at it that way.

I get the most joy from playing heritage-quality guitars: great instruments that are worth keeping for a lifetime or two. They don’t have to be expensive: nearly all of mine were unwanted instruments that I found in sales events or gathering dust in the back of shops.

I choose guitars that I think are great. In my limited experience, a great guitar elevates everything – especially confidence players like myself!

It’s partly down to the sound, and partly down to the experience. As someone who largely plays clean or low-gain tones, I’ve found that the guitar itself plays a sizeable part in the overall sound.

No matter how hard I’ve tried over the years, I’ve never been able to take a more affordable guitar and upgrade it to give me the same sound as a more expensive guitar.

I probably don’t look at cost and value the way that you might. I’m not just looking at the initial cost; I’m also looking at how much I’ll get out of it (and for how long), and at the money I’ll save because I won’t be buying something else.

And, finally, while I agree that tone is in the fingers, I also think that most of us never reach that level of skill. That’s where guitars with character can help – and where less-responsive guitars (which are often cheap) can actually hold us back from improving.

A5.1: A Great Guitar Elevates Everything

A great guitar makes a mediocre amp sound good, a good amp sound great, and a great amp sound amazing. (Works on players too!)

It’s that simple.

I’m a confidence player, first and foremost. If the guitar isn’t helping me in some way, then I’m simply not good enough to overcome that.

It isn’t that the guitar makes me better than I am. No guitar can do that. The guitar – through the way it sounds and / or feels to play – helps me get out of my own way, and perform better than I otherwise would.

It’s definitely a crutch, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

A5.2: When Playing At Low Gain, The Guitar Has More Influence On The Overall Tone

In my experience, the individual guitar has a meaningful influence on the overall tone at low gain.

I play pretty low-gain: my rhythm guitar tone is often cleaner than the “clean tone” you’ll find in online guitar demos. (When I was younger, I’d often plug straight into the interface to record. You don’t get cleaner than that!)

As a result, I have a preference for guitars that:

  1. have their own distinctive voice, and
  2. make a noticeable (positive) difference when I swap them in and out

By and large, I’ve found that it’s the more expensive guitars that offer this for my signal chain and playing style. But it isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. I’ve played (and own) cheaper guitars that do this, and I’ve played plenty of expensive guitars that don’t.

A5.3: I Can’t Make A Low-End Guitar Match A Higher-End Guitar

In my experience, no amount of upgrades will turn a low-end guitar into an instrument that matches a higher-end guitar for tone.

And, believe you me, I’ve tried.

One great example of this is my beloved green Fender Player Stratocaster. Man, I loved that guitar. Great neck, great playability, and incredibly reliable. Easily the best Player Series Stratocaster that I’ve ever played. And yet, no matter what I upgraded on it, it only got to 6/10 compared to my PRS Silver Sky (if we score my Silver Sky as 10/10) or some of the better Fender Custom Shop Stratocasters that I’ve played in recent years.

My Gibson Les Pauls are slightly different. All my Les Pauls (USA and Custom Shop) were from the Henry J era of the company. Back then, if you wanted the classic Les Paul sound, you could only get that from the Custom Shop instruments. USA-line Gibsons were constructed to have their own tone. And it wasn’t something you could get by dropping in PAF-style pickups and vintage-style wiring looms alone – even if the parts were sold as upgrades to what Gibson shipped stock from the Custom Shop!

Even that most agricultural of guitars – the humble Telecaster – isn’t immune from this. I went through so many Telecasters over the years until I found the right one for me. And, once again, upgrading pickups and other parts couldn’t get me there.

I’m not the only person who feels like this.

Mick Taylor of That Pedal Show fame went through something similar with his Strat. He’s posted episodes where he tried to upgrade Blue (the Strat he was associated with for many years) to get closer to what he wanted. In the end, he conceded defeat and bought a vintage Strat.

A5.4: Let’s Talk About Cost & Value

Let’s talk about the perception of cost. There’s three separate aspects to the cost of anything:

  • the initial purchase price,
  • how long you keep & use whatever you’ve bought,
  • how much it costs to replace it

(For the purpose of this discussion, I’m assuming that none of us actually make money from our music. If you did, that would be a different discussion.)

Most people just focus on the initial price, on how much it costs to buy the thing. And that’s totally understandable: when we buy something, we can see the impact on our bank balance.

It’s much harder to see the impact on our future bank balance when we’re deciding what to buy.

If you buy a Les Paul today for (say) £2,500, and keep it for ten years, then the guitar’s cost you an average of £250 a year. Conversely, if you spend the same £2,500 on a digital modeller instead, and only get 4 years out of it before it’s obsolete, then that modeller cost you an average of £625 a year.

Understanding how the cost spreads out over time can help you work out whether something’s really worth the price or not. You’ve also got to factor in how much you’ll use the guitar while you own it.

For example, take Mirage, my Journeyman Telecaster. I bought it because I knew that it would be my #1 Telecaster. It wasn’t worth buying that level of guitar until I’d found the perfect one for me.

This is also why I don’t own a Custom Shop Strat. I’ve played some that I really liked, that I would have loved to own. But even though I grew up playing Strat knock-offs, it’s never going to be an instrument that I use enough to justify the cost. That’s why I went with the PRS Silver Sky instead.

And that leads nicely into my third point. If you don’t buy heritage-quality guitars, at some point you’ll spend additional money on replacing them. You could say it’s a form of the old saying “buy cheap, buy twice.”

I did exactly that, both with Telecasters and Stratocasters. Over the years, I sank a lot money into buying and upgrading guitars to try and turn them into heritage-quality instruments. It never worked for me.

In the end, if I’d known what I wanted first time around and had been able to find it at the time, I would have been better off going straight to Mirage and my Silver Sky. And that’s without factoring in the crazy music industry price rises over the years.

Price certainly does not guarantee a heritage-quality instrument, and not every heritage-quality guitar is expensive.

A5.5: “Tone Is In The Fingers” Is Beyond Many Of Us

I do agree that, at a certain level of skill, tone is in the fingers. I also think that many of us simply never achieve that level of skill.

If we go with the premise that guitar is a form of self-expression (it’s certainly why I do it), then I think it’s more helpful to phrase it like this: skilful players can express themselves through a variety of signal chains / rigs. They achieve a level of skill that allows them to sound like themselves regardless.

I think there’s a lot that goes into that, though. It isn’t just our fingers. After all, fingers are only the point where we interact with the signal chain.

What about musical phrasing – the notes we choose and the way we choose to play them? What about our technical knowledge, our ability to tweak a signal chain to let us sound like ourselves? And what about our ability to adapt our touch to how that signal chain reacts?

The best way I’ve ever found to experience this is by playing a PRS Private Stock guitar.

I’ve been lucky to play a few now (thanks Jez!), and the thing that struck me was just how naked and exposed my playing was. Those guitars gave me absolutely nothing to hide behind (in a good way!) They reflected my playing in a way that I’d never experienced before.

They left me in no doubt whatsoever that I didn’t have good tone in my fingers at the time.

Final Thoughts

All of this can be summed up with a simple sentiment: I want to be inspired to sit down and play.

It’s all about joy. It makes me happy. And that’s all that matters. None of us are here for long. Why be miserable if we don’t have to be?

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