Gear is gear – right? Well, actually, no it isn’t…. as a musician you need equipment and you do not always need top of the range or really expensive gear to play well and sound great! An old mate once told me a story about when he was playing in a crappy band in London many years ago and they were playing at this dodgy venue with very, very bad gear, cheap guitars and low-end amps the same gear that most of us used when we first started out.

They were halfway through their last set when they had an unexpected visitor. Eric Clapton was in the audience and asked if he could do a song with them – well do you think they’d say no?? So up comes Clapton, took my mates old beat up SG (copy) adjusted the knobs on the front of the beaten up, well used amp, turned around and started to play. My mate was astounded! He said, “You know what he sounded like through my crappy gear? – Eric Clapton!!” He couldn’t believe the sound that was coming from his equipment. It just proves my point that you don’t always need the very best of gear to have a great sound but you do need to have it well serviced and playable, let me explain.

Acoustic Guitars

If you own an acoustic guitar make sure the strings are kept clean and the fretboard lubricated between restrings and that should be regularly, approximately every 10-12 weeks or so (depending on how much you play it of course). Be sure to clean and polish the frets and oil the fretboard while the strings are off during the restring and check batteries and connectors as well if you have a pickup in the guitar. You may benefit from a professional setup on your guitar too. If you’ve never had one done you’ll be amazed at the difference it can make. On an acoustic guitar they will lower your action (the distance between the strings and the frets), adjust your neck (set the tension on the truss rod), clean and polish your frets and restring the guitar and tune. It can turn a dog of a guitar into a gem! There are good and bad guitar techs out there and often word of mouth or recommendation is the best way to find a good one. A pro set up is usually fairly inexpensive and should last you at least 12 months or more so in the big picture, it’s a worthwhile investment in your playing future. It should make your guitar look better, play better and sound better too.

Electric Guitars

Electric guitars are a totally different animal than acoustics. They have much finer tolerances and show wear and tear easier. Any flaws or faults are quickly found because everything is amplified so it’s hard to hide something if it’s worn or broken. Again, similar to acoustic maintenance you need to restring often the rule of thumb is – non tremolo guitars like Strats, Teles and Gibson style guitars every 4-6 weeks, tremolo guitars like Ibanez every 2-4 weeks – halve that if you gig with them! When restringing make sure to oil bare-timber fretboards like rosewood or ebony with appropriate oil. Polish your frets and keep your strings as clean as you can between playing so clean them down well with a lint-free cloth every time you play and they will last longer. Again I believe that electric guitar need to be “set up” by a professional guitar tech and it will make an enormous difference to how the guitar plays and feels. They will do the following: remove the strings, clean and polish the frets, clean and condition the fretboard, set the action (by adjusting the neck truss and string height at the saddles), set the intonation (correcting the harmonic balance in the string length at the saddles), clean and polish the guitar and restring. You will not believe the difference that this can make to your instrument! It will sound better and actually play in tune – if you play any lead work above the 12th fret and you wonder why it sounds a bit flat it will be your intonation and that is easily fixed by someone who knows what they are doing. Again, this should last about 12 months or more provided you do not change anything and you continue to use the same gauge of strings – but we’ll talk about that later. In between servicing, it won’t take much from you to keep your guitar in good working order – you just have to get it that way first.

Amplifiers

There are basically 2 types of amplifiers tube and solid state. I won’t go into the intricacies of each, I’ll save that for another time but they do different jobs and they are maintained differently. Solid state amps are transistor based and require little more than cleaning. They are robust, sound great and have a long life span, just keep them clean and fix them when they break. Valve amps are different. They work on vacuum tubes. These have a finite lifespan and can be temperamental if not handled correctly. Tubes need to be replaced every 2-3 years less if you gig regularly, and they are usually replaced all together or at very least in pairs (indeed they are sold as matched pairs). They are not as hardy as their transistor counterparts and they are usually heavy  and need to handled with care or road cased to transport. But they sound – amazing!! Care for your valve amp is pretty straight forward. Just make sure the valves are seated correctly a little push on each valve should sort that and they will need to be biased as the valve wears. Loosely, valve bias is the balancing of the valve to the amplifiers output current at idle. So this needs to be done by a qualified amp tech and is NOT something you can do yourself. However, if you get your biasing done 2-3 times a year your amp will sound better and the valves will last longer and that’s a good thing ’cause valves can be costly.

By taking these few easy and inexpensive tips, you can have fully functional, great sounding, great looking equipment that will serve you well for a very long time even if it didn’t cost an arm and a leg!