We’ve all seen the meme: “I just bought a guitar and she asked,” it says at the top, and a delighted Ray Liotta guffaws, “Are you going to sell the old one?” We all resemble that remark, because we love guitars. We love everything that’s unique about each one of them, and who dies with the most, wins (in case anyone’s keeping count, it’s Joe Bonamassa).
But for the working guitarist, whether as a live gigging artist or as a session musician, or even a bedroom enthusiast, the question can be a lot thornier — most of us don’t have the endless resources to go on guitar safaris every week. And the truth is that most guitars can do a reasonable facsimile of the appropriate tones for most genres, especially with today’s amps, pedals, and plugins. That means the answer to how many guitars you need really depends on how you answer the question: what do you want to accomplish?
When I was in blues band, it was fairly simple. I played a Strat into a Fender tube amp and life was good. The genre doesn’t require more from you than that. The great thing about the blues is that it is very forgiving of what kind of guitar you play. A Strat, a Les Paul, a Tele, a 335, an archtop — all of it can work, and because the format is relatively raw, it’s entirely up to the player. That’s true for a lot of classic rock, and even jazz. Although some might claim you need an archtop, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Ted Greene, John McLaughlin, Mike and Leni Stern, Wayne Krantz and many more prove that it’s possible to get spectacular jazz tone with any instrument. For every funk player who says you need a Strat like Nile Rodgers, Leo Nocentelli of the The Meters and his Starcaster, and now Epiphone 335, would like to speak to you, as well as Jimmy Nolen, who backed James Brown with a variety of big-bodied Gibsons on the early recordings, or Prince with the leopard scratchplate on his Hohner Tele.
So if it’s not about genre, how many guitars do you need? Over many years of doing tribute bands, I have owned and played uncountable numbers of guitars, because playing Chuck Berry on a superstrat just looks wrong. Playing AC/DC without having an SG on stage feels wrong, just like playing Zeppelin without a Les Paul. Beyond just looks, if you’re chasing a specific tone or vibe, then having the right instrument set up the right way can make all the difference. I remember the first time I went from my Strat with 11s to a Les Paul strung with 9s, and hearing how the “Whole Lotta Love” solo completely changed feel. Or the first time I sat down with an Gibson L-5, turned down the neck tone and played some Wes Montgomery octaves, with that muted attack.
Tom Morello has a fascinating take on this question in an interview I saw. When Rage Against the Machine started out, they had a gig where they had to use rented equipment because their own gear didn’t materialize in time for the show. It was awful, because the songs had been written with a specific sound from specific gear in mind. If you’re looking for your own unique voice, it might be best to do what Tom Morello did, he got his guitar and his amp and one day he put the settings a certain way, wrote it down, and never changed it again. He decided he would just write to that tonal palette.
Where does that get us? If you just do mostly one genre and you are looking for your own voice, then you probably only really need to find the one guitar that suits you perfectly. If you need to emulate a number of familiar tones, you may need more guitars. If you need to do a wide variety of genres and you need to look right for the audience, you probably need more guitars. And if you are in various tribute bands, the bad news is that you probably need to get the right guitars for all of those acts. The good news is, you get to have all of your heroes’ guitars!