I recently looked over all of the guitar gear I have, even though half of it I don’t even own anymore. It’s easy because I long ago started keeping a list that details each piece I ever bought, when I bought it and how much I paid.
Besides being useful for insurance purposes and satisfying a neurotic compulsion to document my goods, the list provides a database of my gear history. And like any good database, I can mine it for all sorts of interesting information.
For instance, I recently used it to create a timeline charting everything I’ve owned, in chronological order of when I got them. OCD I know, but it gave me an insight into the kind of gear I use and my own buying trends.
Even though I bought my first guitar some 40 years ago (and oh, how odd it feels to type that), it was easy to see a linear progression in my equipment purchases, all headed toward the electric blues sound I’d heard in my head since I was a kid. And it ended up being a very simple setup.
Between guitars, amps, recording equipment and pedals, I’ve owned something like 100 pieces of gear. Yet only six have formed the essence of my sound on electric: four guitars, one pedal and one amp.
To figure this out, I compiled a timeline and then edited it down until the only things left were items that either marked a milestone—my first electric, my first amp—or were an improvement over what I’d previously had. No side branches (i.e. “backup” amps, pedals that weren’t as good as ones I already had) or failed experiments (approximately 1.3 bazillion competing versions of amp modeling software designed for my computer, smartphone, iPad and Victrola).
Here is what my own gear milestones look like:
1975: '74 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe
My first electric. Unfortunately, I never got on with it, partly because it sounded too pretty and dull to me played clean. Clearly this was more about my inability to play guitar than any lack on the guitar’s part. But regardless, it just didn’t give me the sound I wanted. It did, however, make me realize I wanted a warm, lively sound. Just not from a Les Paul Deluxe.
1977: '77 Fender Vibro Champ
Although it sounded pretty basic, my first amp was a big improvement over playing that Les Paul through my brother’s stereo.
1978: '77 Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi.
Ahhhhh, my first taste of fuzz. Les Paul + overdrive. Now we’re getting somewhere.
1984: '81 Gibson ES-347
The first electric whose sound I really liked. Those full-size humbuckers on a semi-hollow, 335-style body created a richer sound than the mini-humbuckers on my Les Paul Deluxe. Just as importantly, this ES had a coil tap that got me interested in the single-coil, Fender sound.
1984: '81 Fender Princeton Reverb
The first amp I liked. The 10-inch speaker was much deeper sounding than the 8-inch one in the Vibro Champ. It also marked my discovery of reverb. Now it made me wonder what a Fender with a 12-inch speaker and reverb would sound like...
1989: '66 Fender Telecaster
The first Tele I bought was also the first Tele I ever played, my first Fender and my first single-coil guitar.
1991: '66 Fender Deluxe Reverb
The best all-around amp I’d ever played. Still is.
1992: '56 Fender Stratocaster
The first Strat whose sound truly floored me. Unfortunately, it also spoiled me as to what a Strat should sound like.
1998: ‘63 Fender Stratocaster
The classic rosewood variation on the classic Strat theme. I still alternate between this and the '56.
2000: '52 Fender Telecaster
My ultimate Tele. Like a good Telecaster should, it carries through the mix without ever sounding harsh or thin.
2002: Blackstone Appliances MOSFET Overdrive
The right overdrive pedal for me. It made me realize that because I mostly play at home, I needed a pedal that worked with a clean amp, not overdrive an already-pushed amp.
So here is my final core set of equipment, which according to my timeline, hasn’t changed in well over a decade:
‘52 Tele, ‘56 Strat, ‘63 Strat, ‘81 ES-347 → Blackstone Overdrive → ‘66 Deluxe Reverb.
Simple, but it took years to get there. I also found some things about myself that I’d never really clearly considered before, but which became glaringly obvious from developing this list.
For instance, it turns out I like a basic amp with a great clean sound. I pretty much already knew that. But what I hadn’t realized until the timeline is that the depth of tone that I originally thought I wanted from humbuckers turned out to be better achieved for me by pairing single coils with a bigger speaker.
Meanwhile, my choice of gear revealed embarrassingly conservative tastes, with a strong leaning toward only the best-known classics. I think this is equal parts an appreciation for great, time-honored equipment and that owning them checks off all the boxes of my teenage gear aspirations. Either way, it fills my cup of ego to the brim.
So what are your own gear milestones?
Maybe you’ll find you’re headed towards a specific set of gear and that a timeline can help direct your search. Or perhaps you enjoy sampling a bit of everything that’s out there and a list will show what you’ve overlooked so far. Either way, defining your own milestones can provide insight into where you’ve been and where you’re headed as a guitar player.
No matter which way you go with it, it’ll be an interesting trip.