I recently pulled out my Gretsch 6120 Brian Setzer Nashville and did a little recording. It’s the only guitar I own with “That Great Gretsch Sound.”
It got me wondering: Why do I have a bunch of other guitars if the Gretsch is so wonderful? Yes, I could play the same chords and riffs on a different guitar. But it wouldn’t be the same.
If we’re being sensible, the average guitar player only needs between 1 and 3 guitars. That could include a mix of electric, acoustic, and specialty instruments.
A “specialty” guitar is one that has unique features that can’t be mimicked on a typical six-string guitar. Things like extended range, high-tech electronics, double-locking vibrato, B-benders, or even an unusual tuning.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of classifying every guitar as a “specialty” instrument. But how many guitars do you really need? How many is enough?
How Many Guitars Should a Beginner Have?
As a beginner, you only need one guitar. It doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars, but should be good enough quality that it can stay in tune and play with relative ease.
For many players, the need for a second guitar arises from the feeling that a different instrument would make learning easier.
It’s difficult to learn basic chords and scales on an instrument that interrupts your playing with popping and creaking noises. Or when the strings keep going out of tune or breaking. Or when the frets are sharp enough to cut your hand.
Beyond that, a beginner simply lacks the skill and experience to benefit from multiple instruments. Owning a Les Paul will not help you play like Jimmy Page or Slash.
When Do I need More Than One Guitar?
Need is such a strong word. But guitars are cool. So there’s that.
Once you become proficient on the guitar and begin to either perform live or record your own music, there are several benefits to having multiple guitars. At the very least it can be helpful to have an acoustic and an electric.
At some point you may want to branch out into the world of bass guitar (see “Can a Guitarist Play Bass Guitar?”).
Here are a few of the most common reasons you may need more than one guitar.
Changing the tuning on a guitar that’s set up for standard tuning is not ideal. A change in tension can throw the neck and intonation out of whack. That can cause sour notes and annoying string buzz.
Even a simple adjustment like drop-D tuning (dropping the low-E string a whole step to D) can spell trouble for a guitar with a vibrato tailpiece. Vibrato units use springs to counter-balance the string tension.
It can mean full-on disaster for guitars with a Floyd Rose style vibrato. A drop in tension will cause the bridge to pull the strings sharp.
Some tunings require special string gauges. Lower tunings need heavier strings. Higher tunings need thinner strings.
An acoustic guitar doesn’t sound like an electric guitar. A guitar with single coil pickups will sound brighter than one with humbuckers. A hollow-body Gretsch sounds different than a Fender Telecaster.
Certain guitars work better in a particular genre. Other guitars may get burried in the mix or, conversely, overpower the other instruments.
Whether you are recording or playing live, it helps to have an arsenal of tones at your fingertips. It’s possible to approximate a Gibson sound on a Fender, but it’s usually not worth the trouble if you can afford the other guitar.
Some players will have multiple versions of the same type of guitar, except with different pickups or electronics.
Jimmy Page used his iconic Gibson double-neck guitar when Led Zeppelin used to play “Stairway to Heaven” live. Having a single guitar body with 6-string and a 12-string necks, Page could play Stairway without switching guitars throughout the song.
If your main guitar has a fixed bridge, you may need an instrument with a vibrato unit in order to play certain songs.
Certain styles of music require specialized guitars. For instance, a lot of metal and progressive rock relies on “extended-range” guitars. This includes baritone guitars (tuned down to C or B), as well as guitars with 7, 8, or even 9 strings.
Other special features may include sustainer pickups, kill switches, humbuckers with coil-tapping capabilities, active electronics
For live performance, some players like to play a flashy guitar for a particular song. For example, John Fogerty has a guitar that looks like a baseball bat that he uses for his song “Centerfield.”
Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill of ZZ Top would swap out their primary instruments for custom-made matching instruments during various songs in their live performances. Perhaps you’ve seen ZZ top with matching fur-covered guitars.
You break a string. The signal cuts out. During a live show or recording session there may not be time to fix it. You either find a way to keep playing or you need a backup instrument.
It could be something as simple as a dirty electronic component. Or a tuning key that won’t stay in tune. When things go wrong, it sometimes pays to be prepared.
What is Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.)?
There are plenty of impractical reasons to have lots of guitars. Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.) is the term used for players who chase the Holy Grail tone by continually buying new guitars, pedals, amps, and other gear.
If you have the money—or good enough credit—it can be tempting to amass a stockpile of every kind of guitar possible. Strat, Tele, a few Les Pauls, an elegant PRS with a flamed-out 10 Top. Maybe throw in a Rickenbacker 12-string and a few Martin acoustics.
Another guitar will almost never make you a better player.
The Internet has made G.A.S. too easy to satisfy. All it takes is a few clicks to buy almost any guitar you could possibly want. It’s easy to get caught up buying new gear instead of practicing.
However, if you don’t have the money, it’s worth figuring out when enough is enough. It’s not a good feeling to pile up debt for a hobby, even if you’re good at it.
Your money is almost always better spent on lessons and educational materials than on another guitar. With a little more knowledge, you might realize you can play a lot more on a single guitar than you thought.