Beware: Old Man Story coming.
My first guitar wasn’t very good. It didn’t have a manufacturer’s name or any markings whatsoever. It was a Tele-style. Sort of. Although it did have a weird vibrato bridge that didn’t work properly/at all. It played fairly poorly and sounded awful. And, while I may get a pang of nostalgia thinking about it, I wouldn’t want to actually play it now.
I moved it on as soon as I could afford something a little better (and I do mean a little). It wasn’t a hard decision.
For the last while, though, it’s been possible to get actual, real, proper, good guitars at entry-level prices. Guitars that many people would be happy to play for much longer without having to replace.
But that makes for a harder decision. It poses the upgrade dilemma.
At some point, most players think, “Hmmm. I wonder if I should buy a new guitar or pop some new hardware into this one.”
Aaarrrrghhh! Which to choose?
Upgrade or change guitar?
By the way, as always, when I say ‘guitar’, you can usually read ‘guitar or bass’. It’s just easier this way.
There’s no easy answer to this and I certainly can’t tell you which is the right decision for you. All I can do is give a little advice on some of the things to consider.
A couple of ‘decision points’:
Do you like the look of the guitar?
Do you hate the colour? Do you hate the shape? Does the guitar fit the style of music you’re playing — are you bringing something with a locking trem and super-hot pickups to rehearsals for your country band?
If the guitar is something you just can’t get along with, maybe a new instrument is the way to go rather than an upgrade.
Do you like the feel and playability?
Never use the trem but keep knocking it by accident? Like to do volume swells but your pinky’s not long enough to reach on your Les Paul?
Does your current guitar ‘fit’ you? Does it suit how you like to play?
From a playability standpoint, how does it feel? Would it benefit from a setup. Maybe it needs some fretwork or a new nut. These things should be considered upgrades too and the cost of these should be factored in and weighed against the price of a new guitar.
The Haze Test
Here’s something I often ask when people look for advice on upgrades versus new guitars:
If someone stole your guitar would you be annoyed for a bit, and then buy a new one. Or, would you pine for that guitar. Would you still think about it in a year’s time?
Give that some serious thought for a minute.
If you reckon you’d really miss it, keep your guitar and address whatever shortcomings you feel it has. Otherwise, save that upgrade cash and put it towards a new axe.
The big one: Do you like the sound?
This is probably the main decision point for many people. Maybe the tone of your guitar just doesn’t do it for you. Pickups seem weak or characterless? Want better sustain? Wish you could split your humbuckers for more tones? Looking for more output, more crunch, more gain?
Pickup swaps make it relatively easy to drastically to change the tone of a guitar and can be a great idea. Just be sure your guitar ticks your other boxes before you make the investment.
Consider your rig
Oh, one thing that you should DEFINITELY remember is that your guitar is just one part of your sound.
Don’t ignore the rest of your rig. Your amp and effects need some thought. There’s no point installing new pickups if it’s still not going to sound like you want through your amp.
If you’re lucky enough that you can try your guitar through different amps, or different guitars through your amp, you’ll have a better perspective of where any issues lie.
And here comes the devil’s advocate…
After we’ve said all of that, consider this.
Is upgrade-or-change a false dilemma?
Before you change guitar, or buy pickups, or whatever, think about what problems you’re trying to solve. For many people the time when they outgrow an instrument is getting much longer, or is disappearing altogether. Don’t assume you have to upgrade hardware and don’t feel you need a new axe because other people are snobs about what it says on the headstock. Maybe the guitar is just fine as it is.
Lastly, a word of warning. If you’re putting new hardware into your guitar don’t assume that cost will be nicely reflected in the price if you do decide to sell it on later.
If you’re thinking:
Well, you might be disappointed.
This means, you should upgrade because YOU want to. Because YOU think it’s a good idea.
That’s as it should be.