It’s a question that comes up time and again. And, for non-guitar playing spouses, friends, and family members having any more than one guitar might seem excessive, and begs the question, do we really need a quiver of guitars? Or are we better off focusing on the mantra of less = more?
How many guitars do you really need? If you are a beginner just one. If you are experienced, play live, record, and/or play in alternate tunings regularly it’s more convenient to own multiple guitars, however, this may present problems when it comes to adjusting to different setups, creativity, and establishing a regular practice.
Do you really need one more guitar?
How many guitars do you need? One more.
It’s an old joke, but it rings true for many. The lure of owning another new guitar (#newguitarday) often leads to creative justifications being made for guitars we think we need when in reality they’re probably of a far more indulgent nature.
Recently I’ve begun offloading a few guitars and related equipment, to establish quality over quantity. And, much like the promise of inbox zero, or minimalist living, reducing things down to just the bare essentials holds a lot of appeal, and, it’s led me to wonder, just how many guitars is enough?
For the record, as of the time of writing, I currently own a couple of steel-string acoustics, two classical guitars, a bass, and two electrics. Seven guitars all up, which is less than many people I know.
But, if you had asked me that same question two months ago, that number would have been 13. But, I recently offloaded six guitars, and a couple of amps, along with some recording equipment that was mostly just gathering dust.
My primary focus is on songwriting and recording. And, with this in mind, it makes sense to have options for covering a range of sonic landscapes. But I am also reminded of a quote from Bruce Lee:
“ I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times”
The limitations of owning multiple guitars
Bruce Lee didn’t play guitar. And, while the quote above from a martial art’s perspective, relates more to application than equipment, the fact is having too many guitars, like too many kicks in your arsenal, can be a problem.
The reason for this is mastery. Like the golfer who’s always changing his clubs, yet has a poor swing you never really feel as comfortable as you might otherwise on one guitar that you are accustomed to playing all the time. There are always going to be differences between guitars and subsequently small adjustments that need to be made. These differences include:
- The feel of the neck
The neck profile, even the smoothness of the back of the neck, and how this alters how we play and position our fretting hands.
- String spacing
How close the strings on your guitar are makes some styles e.g. fingerstyle either more difficult or easier.
The height of the strings has a big impact on playability and tone.
The responsiveness and projection of the guitar, particularly concerning the material the guitar is made from, taking into account things like touch dynamics (aka developing a light touch) changes from guitar to guitar.
- Tone and playability
Different guitars sound and play differently. You can’t have it both ways! We often own multiple guitars for this exact reason, but it’s also a limitation.
The list could go on, but I’m coming at this mostly from an acoustic guitar perspective. Additional considerations depend on whether you play acoustic, electric, or both.
Acoustic V Electric Guitar
The question of how many guitars is enough becomes even more complex in the acoustic guitar world.
Predominantly electric guitarists have argued the need for at least a single-coil e.g. a Strat or Tele, a guitar with humbuckers e.g. Les Paul, SG or a more modern equivalent, and for some, a P90 e.g. Les Paul Junior.
But, it’s also true that nowadays electric guitarists have a huge range of affordable modeling amps from brands such as Orange, Vox, Line 6, and Kemper, along with an abundance of pedals that offer a huge range of tonal variety.
Equipment such as attenuators also means guitarists can extract that full-throated tube amp growl or authentic-sounding ‘edge of breakup’ sound even at relatively low volumes.
This is a pretty big deal for guitarists playing in cover bands for example, as it’s far more convenient to take one guitar, along with perhaps a backup, and a basic rig to every show, rather than dragging around a small army of guitars and gear. This saves time lugging in equipment and reduces the potential for accidents.
But for the acoustic guitar, the build quality and materials the guitar is built from are key to the tone of the guitar, and additional equipment, with the exception of perhaps EQ, won’t alter the voice of the instrument in a major way.
For example, a spruce top dreadnought will typically offer more punch, projection, and clarity than a mahogany small body guitar which might offer more in terms of subtlety, especially when played with more of a delicate touch.
The same could be argued for cutaways, which offer convenient upper fret access, but, at least to some, also has an impact on tone.
Classical guitars, on the other hand, while technically acoustic guitars feel like a completely different instrument when played, due to the different tensions on the guitar thanks to the nylon strings, and reduced weight, not to mention the absence of a pick. Classical guitars require less mass with regard to the thickness of the soundboard and style of bracing (fan bracing as opposed to X bracing). As a result, they are played and used completely differently.
Storage. How big is your practice room?
There’s also the obvious question of how many guitars can you safely store and take good care of. You increase the risk of a guitar being damaged with every additional guitar, it’s just a numbers game at the end of the day.
But it’s also true that if you have multiple guitars lying around unless you have your storage game in top shape, this clutter can also make you less productive on the guitar (more on this shortly).
There are also aspects such as humidity to consider.
Acoustic guitars, especially if you live in a fluctuating environment like the south-west of the United States, where the humidity can fluctuate as much as 60% between Summer and Winter, often need the humidity-controlled either in the room itself, or the case the guitar is kept in.
Wood absorbs moisture and expands, affecting tone, or loses moisture and contracts which increases the risk of damage in the form of cracking or joints separating as the glue used to hold joints in places comes under more strain as the characteristics of the timber, due to moisture content change.
If you have a controlled room humidity might not be a problem, but if you need to control the humidity independently for each guitar, you are going to need to store each in a hard case and use equipment (humidifier) to control the humidity.
Aside from concerns such as humidity, your costs to take care of multiple guitars as opposed to one also go up. Over the lifetime of your guitar, the strings may end up being your biggest outlay, even compared to the guitar.
Strings age not only due to being played. If you don’t wipe the strings down after use they will begin to corrode due to the salt from the natural oils of your hands and sweat remaining in place long after the moisture content evaporates.
Otherwise repair costs e.g. fret dressing or reseating or problematic hardware such as tuners that require replacing to prevent that mechanical rattle sound on your recordings, will increase with every guitar you own. Maintenance products such as fretboard conditioners are far less expensive and often last for years at a time, but these small costs will still add up if you own multiple guitars.
Roadblock to creativity?
The other problem with owning too many guitars is it introduces the paradox of choice.
Eliminating choice often frees us up creatively, this is one of the reasons Shakespeare wrote in Iambic Pentameter.
Artists will sometimes limit the colors at their disposal for the same reason because for some, there’s nothing more confronting than a completely blank canvas. Limiting one’s options can take some of that analysis paralysis away.
Do too many options when it comes to guitar limit creativity or cause songwriter’s block?
I’ve experienced this and can attest to the fact that writing on a familiar, albeit slightly beat-up old acoustic guitar has often been where I have been most productive. I’m far from the greatest songwriter so take that advice with a grain of salt, but it can be true that taking options away often leaves the focus on what matters, the melody and supporting song structure.
I recall Eddie Van Halen once saying, something along the lines of, a great song should be able to be played around a campfire on acoustic guitar. This coming from one of the finest electric guitarists to ever grace a stage carries weight.
Keith Williams, at the 5-watt world, puts it best. When we are shopping for guitars, we aren’t playing guitars. It’s a great quote, simple but worth considering.
Additional to this, I would also argue that having too many guitars can lead to issues with developing a consistent practice routine. E.g. if playing the same guitar every night, you simply walk into your practice space, pick up the guitar, and play, it becomes habitual and you tend to stop overthinking it.
Adding an element of choice just adds another roadblock in the way of developing a consistent practice routine. Because with that comes the inevitable question of ‘which guitar do I play?’, and not only that, there’s also the nagging feeling that when you do pick a guitar, would the other one suit this song or genre better?
It’s a different story obviously for collectors.
The collector is a different beast. Their inventory of guitars is an investment, and let’s face it, if you know what you’re doing, investing in guitars is a pretty savvy way to make money from your love of guitars.
While I’m not a collector or vintage guitar aficionado by any stretch, I often scour eBay, Reverb, and Gumtree looking for undervalued guitars and equipment. Just last year I sold 4 guitars I purchased at low enough prices to make setting up and then reselling worth my time.
Often if doing this, it simply comes down to taking more appealing photos and writing a better description. Although, being left-handed like myself, means the market is much smaller, so patience is a must.
I saw the late, great Chris Cornell a few years back, and he must have had 12 guitars on stage.
Re-tuning your guitar between songs is asking the audience to wait, and no self-respecting entertainer wants to ask too much of their audience.
But, unless you are performing live and play in a range of different tunings like Chris Cornell or Patti Smith this will mostly come down to your own convenience which then must be compared to all the reasons listed above.
So how many guitars is enough?
There’s nothing wrong with owning plenty of guitars. In my experience, some guitarists are all about playing the guitar and constantly improving, while others live and breathe guitars from both a playing perspective and a lifestyle perspective. There’s no harm in collecting guitars and geeking out on every piece of guitar related information and news you can get your hands on. But, if you are trying to improve by upgrading your equipment all the time keep in mind owning too many guitars can start to become a distraction from actually playing the guitar.
So, as much as I hate to sit on the fence, it does come back to personal preference and your objectives with the guitar.
But here’s a couple of quick recommendations:
- The Beginner:
Stick with one guitar. Don’t get distracted at this stage in your guitar playing journey. Focus on learning the guitar before learning about guitars.
- The Weekend Warrior:
This is arguably the most likely to own numerous guitars and often comes down to how much disposable income the guitarist has. Most musicians aren’t known for their wealth but I’ve known many weekend warriors with amazing guitar collections
- The Home Recording Guitarist:
Much of this depends on the genres of music you play and the sound you are trying to achieve. But, if you want to cover all bases you might own at least one small body acoustic, one large body acoustic, a bass, 1 single-coil, and 1 electric guitar with humbuckers, and perhaps a 12 string. But, of course, this is highly subjective.
- The Pro:
As many as they want, they can justify it. If you are making a living playing guitar (one of the hardest tricks to pull off on guitar) who am I, or anyone else to offer advice. Rumor has it Joe Bonamassa owns 9 sunburst 59 Les Pauls, while Yngwie Malmsteen owns an extraordinary number of vintage white Stratocasters. On the other hand, Tommy Emmanuel travels, almost exclusively with two identical Maton EBG808’s and one EBG808 signature model and extracts more from the acoustic guitar than just about anyone.
At the end of the day, it’s a case of different horses for different courses (of course!). With this in mind, perhaps next time someone asks you how many guitars do you really need? Remember there’s a lot more to consider than simply answering ‘one more’.