We’ve all been there; wondering whether a guitar upgrade or an amp upgrade is the next best step in our musical journey. Here’s what we think the best course of action is when you next think “Should I upgrade my guitar or my amp?”

A guitar upgrade or amplifier upgrade is not something we take lightly as musicians. Heck, it’s a big deal as it’s like graduating from total beginner to intermediate player. It’s showing the music world that you’re really starting to take playing seriously! If you’re a beginner, your first upgrade to a new guitar or amplifier from your beginner gear is a big moment as you’ve honed your style and you’re now on the hunt for the instrument that you feel is the right style for you. If you're an experienced player, new gear day is a wonderful experience as we finally get that sound we've been craving! However, what happens when we start to become unhappy with the way our equipment is sounding? Or we're finding ourselves wanting something more from our gear? What should we do first? Do we buy a new guitar or amp? Or do we just upgrade our existing guitar with new parts? How do we get a better sound? These are questions we get asked all the time here at PMT! So today we’re going to look at the benefits of upgrading your instrument and hopefully help to answer age old question of whether you should get a new guitar or a new amp to improve your sound.

Why do we upgrade?

The 2 main reasons we upgrade our gear (aside from when something looks cooler of course) are for better:
  1. Playability
  2. Tonal benefits
But which do you upgrade first to achieve these things? Do we opt for a guitar upgrade or do we go down the route of upgrading our amplifier? What is going to give us a better sound and overall playing experience?

You have 3 options:

The way I see it, as guitarists or bass players, we have 3 options to improve our sound and playability. We can go down the following route:
  • Option 1: Upgrade our guitar with new parts
  • Option 2: Buy a new guitar
  • Option 3: Buy a new amp
And there are benefits to each. But in my humble opinion there is a clearer path. It just depends on what we want from our gear.

Option 1: Benefits of upgrading a guitar with new parts

The reason ‘cheaper’ guitars (and by cheaper we just mean budget friendly) are less expensive, is because they don’t cost as much to produce. And although a lot of work goes into producing them, the higher end options have premium parts and personal touches that affect playability and tonality. We can make smaller, yet very important upgrades to our guitar which can sometimes be cost effective (depending on how much we paid for our first guitar) such as:

Better hardware

One of the main reasons we upgrade is down to hardware. Things like better tuners which encourage tuning stability and bridges that offer better sustain all make a massive difference.

Better electronics

Another reason we upgrade is for the pickups. We might have less expensive Strat style guitar with single coil pickups at home and find that we need some more push when want our sound to go louder. In this case, if we upgrade our guitar with a set of hand-wired pickups or go for something with humbuckers, we’re going to get either a more powerful tone or different sound altogether. We can get hold of these things aftermarket, which is great if we already like the way our guitar feels. However, should we want to take a step up to a pro-level guitar, we need to take the plunge and get hold of a new guitar entirely as upgrading a cheap guitar is not always cost effective.

Option 2: Benefits of buying a new guitar

If we’re not happy with our tone AND the feel of our guitar, it might be time to just get a new guitar. It happens – we grow out of our beginner guitars sometimes as we demand more from our instrument. More comfortable necks, higher performance electronics and even things like tonewoods all make a difference and a newer or different guitar might have that sound and feel you really want. Things you find on more expensive guitars like rolled frets, better tonewoods and hardware all contribute to the playability of a guitar and really encourage a better playing experience, which will in turn encourage a better performance. We’ve covered guitar mods over in our blog here, which are some quick tips on improving an existing guitar, but there are many major benefits to actually upgrading and getting hold of a new guitar entirely such as:

Better tonewoods

Tonewoods make all the difference when it comes to a guitars’ resonance and overall sonic feel. A Maple guitar is going to sound bright and snappy, whereas a Mahogany body guitar will provide a warmer, thicker sound overall. Higher tier guitars tend to use these premium tonewoods as they provide a more balanced sound, whereas a cheaper guitar may opt for a tonewood that costs less and therefore has a lesser sonic quality. Swapping out the neck or body of a guitar for a different tonewood is not always easy and can be quite expensive, which is why buying an entirely different guitar may be a better option.

Better feel

Higher tier guitars often go through far more stringent construction processes and offer hand finished flair such as smoother frets, hand finished necks and greater attention to detail that you notice when playing. When you pick up a beginner guitar and then pick up the likes of a Custom Shop guitar, you instantly feel the difference. And as we all know – a better feel means a better playing experience.

Everything is already installed

If we don’t feel comfortable upgrading our existing guitar by installing new electronics or hardware, then a new guitar is perfect. Everything you want is already pre-installed! There’s no messing about with installation and you get a shiny new guitar ready to offer a world of different tonal options straight out of the box.

Option 3: Benefits of buying a new amp

In my opinion, most of your tone comes from your amp. And if your amp is weak, it’ll make any guitar, regardless of how much it costs sound terrible! A good amp will make almost any guitar sound better, so if you’re looking to upgrade your sound or wondering whether to upgrade your guitar or amp, I’d say try out a new amp first. This will highlight any sonic issues with the guitar that may (or may not) be there. A good amp like a Fender, Marshall or VOX is the benchmark and two of the brands that professional level players rely on as they really bring out the best tone possible in your guitar.

Better response

Your little practice amp is probably not giving you the best response to your playing. This means you’re probably not playing to the best of your ability. A high-quality solid state or valve amp will respond correctly to your playing and really encourage a far more positive playing experience overall. This will help you become a better player as you are more aware of what your fingers need to do to get the best sound.

Tonal versatility

A decent guitar amp will likely have a drive channel or at the very least respond when you ‘dig in’ and play harder. They’re going to have distortion capability, perhaps some effects built in and allow you to get a louder sound so you can gig with it eventually. Your guitar will sound like your guitar, but an amp gives you the option of changing up your tone on a greater scale.

Final thought: So When Should I Upgrade? Should I Buy A new Guitar or New Amp?

You’ve probably figured out by now that there’s no short answer to this question, so here’s my two cents on the subject, coming from someone who’s been playing for nearly 30 years and had many guitars and amps.
  • If you find yourself getting bored with your guitar, frustrated with the feel or sound of your instrument, chances are you should upgrade and buy a new guitar.
  • If you love the feel of your guitar but you feel the sound is lacking something, try it through a decent amp. Chances are you’ll find that the amp can really bring out the best in your guitar.
  • If you’ve tried a new amp and your guitar still doesn’t sound great, experiment with different pickups by trying out different guitars.
At the end of the day though – do what’s best for you. If you’re happy with your setup then you don’t need to worry. You might like the feel of your Squier guitar and practice amp which is totally fine. However, we recommend trying out an ‘expensive’ guitar and an 'expensive' amp at some point in your life as they just feel and sound amazing. There’s no right time to upgrade or buy new gear, but if the sound isn’t 'right' for you, it’s worth experimenting and trying out different amps and guitars. Shop a full range of guitar gear over at PMT online or call in to your local PMT store to speak to our experts about the next step in your guitar or bass playing journey. Updated 2019-10-24