How To Get Boutique Tone On A Bargain Bin Budget

How To Get Boutique Tone On A Bargain Bin Budget

Let’s face it- music equipment is expensive!!! We live in the era of boutique gear, where a great guitar is $2,000, a plush pedalboard will run you $3,000, and an awesome amp will set you back $3,000. That’s 8,000 bones just to keep up with the Jones! A young guitarist in Nashville recently emailed me a question…”I’ve been playing guitar for over 15 years and have played in bands as a guitarist and bassist, but I find struggles with having all the necessary equipment to compete with other players in town because it’s so expensive… what should I do?”. I thought my response would be worth sharing to help my fellow musicians who are not made of money, but want to have a competitive rig! 

1)  Get A Main Axe, And Put Some Lovin’ Into It.

Who says you need 5 guitars to compete? Look at all the greats: early in their career, they only had one guitar (or a #1). I recommend going with a bolt on neck, such as a Tele or Strat. The best Tele style guitar on the market under $1,000 is the Ron Wood Signature LTD Tele. It even comes stock with Seymour Duncan pickups. If you’re on an even tighter budget, you can grab a Mexi or Jap Tele, and do some upgrades. The best upgrade you’ll be able to do is a pickup replacement. Seymour Duncan makes incredible pickups that start around $50 a pop. You don’t even really need to replace both- just replace the bridge if you’re on a really tight budget. My best advice for you regarding guitar upgrades is… DON’T GO TOO FAR WITH IT. At the end of the day, do you want a Dodge Dart that you’ve dropped $30,000 into? Probably not! 

2) You Don’t Need That Many Pedals… Really.

Stop comparing the size of your board to other men’s… boards. I like pedals just as much as the next guy, but when you’re starting out, you can get away with a LOT LESS than you think. A solid pedal board could consist of the following:

Dunlop Crybaby –> Boss TU-3 (It does better with outdoor lighting than the TU2) –> MXR Dyna Comp –>  Boss TR-2 –> Digitech Bad Monkey –> MXR Custom Bad Ass Modified O.D. –> Boss Gigadelay –> Electro Harmonix LPB-1 Booster. 

Damn Gina! You can get an entire board of great sounding boxes for well under $1,000. All of the boxes on this board are incredible sounding. If you don’t believe it, then go to YouTube, pull up some comparison demos, and watch them in high definition with a good set of speakers or in-ear monitors. None of these boxes will need modding. But if you want to fool everyone into believing that they are modded, you can always go to a pedals parts website and order fancy replacement knobs! It’s like adding fresh veggies to Hamburger Helper to convince everyone you made it homemade.

3) Getting Awesome Tone From A Not-So-Awesome Amp.

Getting a $3,000 dollar amp sound from a $400 amp is asking a lot. But, there are a couple of cheap (ish) and easy upgrades you can do to any amp that will make a huge difference. A speaker upgrade is going to go a long way. Want more volume? Want less volume? Want more distortion? Want more headroom? Want more mids? Want less highs? Want tighter bass? Your speaker can grant you all of those tonal wishes- within reason. Eminence Speakers has an incredible website with a Tone Guide/Speaker Recommendation Engine. My personal favorite speaker in their lineup for a 1X12 cab enclosure, is the Wizard 12”.  The Wizard Speaker Characteristics:Application: 12″ open- or closed-backConfiguration: 1, 2, or 4 x 12″Low-end response: AggressiveLow-end shape: Fat/chunkyMidrange response: AggressiveMidrange shape: WarmHigh-end response: AggressiveBreakup mode: Medium. If you happen to have $200 in your budget for amp upgrades, your next best bet is a power attenuator. Any amp will sound exactly 500% better if you crank it. But, any artist will be exactly 500% more pissed off if you do that. You need a power attenuator. Your tube amp was not meant to be played on volume setting 1. Unless your amp’s knobs are all on 7 or 8, then you’re not really hearing your amp the way it was meant to sound.  You can grab a Weber Mass 25 watt for less than $200.

4) El Cheapo Amp

If you’re in the market for a Morgan Amp, but only have Jet City money, worry not friends- there are options. For around $350- used, you should be able to grab a Fender Blues Jr. or Peavey Classic 20 or 30. Add the upgraded speaker and the attenuator, and you should have a huge sound. If those amps aren’t “ballsy” enough for you, match them with a 4X12 cab. Talk about a huge sound- plug a low watt amp into a massive cab! So, there you have it! I’m convinced that anyone can get into an incredible rig for around $2,000 dollars: $700 guitar, $760 pedalboard, $290 of amp upgrades, and a $350 amp. Share your “cheapo” tips with us in the comments sections or on social media with a #ThatsMyGig. If you need any help building a rig, contact me at, and we can connect for a guitar lesson or career counseling session. Derek Williams, pro-guitarist, has played guitar for over 45 bands in Nashville, including 25 major-label artists like Jake Owen, Thomas Rhett, James Otto, and more. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Performance with a specialization in classical guitar from Austin Peay State University. He offers career mentoring to aspiring musicians worldwide at a Nashville, TN studio and via Skype. Visit our page, Career Counselors, to learn more, now.