How to Choose a Backup Guitar (with Recommendations)
So you’re getting out there and playing the songs you wrote, or maybe you’re playing guitar in a band. You’re going to notice that sometimes, shows won’t go as planned. You might break a string or a pickup might give out or something else could happen to your main guitar and leave you standing there with a bunch of people impatiently staring at you, all because you didn’t bring a backup guitar.
As you can imagine, this is a nightmare. So having a spare guitar with you when you’re out playing is not a suggestion, it’s a straight up necessity.
But how do you choose a backup guitar? Should you buy the same guitar twice? How cheap should your beater guitar be? We’re going to cover these things but in short…
To choose a backup guitar for gigs you should take into consideration aspects such as the brand of your main guitar, your band’s sound, the feel of the guitar and neck, your budget, and how much upgrading it may need to sound good.
Let’s talk about it to make sure you don’t waste your money.
Also a disclaimer, I’m not a luthier or any kind of guitar scientist, but I’ve been playing guitar for over 20 years and I just want to give you my opinion and what I take into account when making this decision. I think most guitar players would consider these things as well.
Brand of Your Main Guitar
Should your backup guitar be the same as your main guitar?
If your main guitar isn’t too expensive (less than $1,000) you could just get the same guitar twice. Although most guitar players would want the second guitar to be at least slightly different.
It would make more sense to get a different model under the same brand, but get the budget brand version to keep the costs low.
For example, if you have a Gibson Les Paul, you might like an Epiphone SG as a backup because it’s slightly lighter, has a similar sound and has a less blocky body shape. It will also give you something different to play around with in the studio.
Your Music/Band’s Sound and Genre
Check the guitar brands that are commonly used in your genre and check how they could match with your sound if you had to switch between them.
If you play metal and your main guitar is a Paul Reed Smith, you could get a cheaper Ibanez as your backup and it might sound close enough to match the sound of your band even though they are different brands (although the neck feel is very different, but could be good because Ibanez’s neck feels great for soloing).
Ibanez also tends to have better sounding guitars at lower price tiers than PRS making them good backups if you prefer a higher cost PRS as your main.
For example, usually a good sounding PRS will be more expensive, so a $1,200 PRS as your main and a $600 Ibanez backup would make sense. Similar sounds, different feels.
What wouldn’t make sense is if your main guitar for metal is an Ibanez with humbuckers, but you buy a Stratocaster with single coils as your backup guitar because you also wanted to play funk in your spare time.
Feel and Shape of the Guitar and Neck
Another thing to consider is if you have a strong preference to a certain neck and body shape.
Contrasting with the example above, if you’re used to PRS’s neck shape, then an Ibanez might feel too different and make it awkward to adjust to at a live show when you have to switch mid-song because a string broke.
In this case you might prefer to get an Epiphone Les Paul which has a similar neck shape. Also the guitar body might be closer to what you like visually. Great sound and playability is important but everyone wants a guitar they love to look at.
This is another important thing to consider because obviously decent guitars are not cheap, and if you’re spending hundreds of dollars you might as well get something that at least has a decent sound and feels good to play.
I would say if you’re taking music and live performances fairly seriously and you want something that sounds good at a professional level but isn’t crazy expensive, get a guitar between $900 and $1,200 as your main.
For your backup you could get something between $300 and $800, and personally I would stick with the $600-$800 range because I think it’s a good balance between price, sound and feel/playability right out of the gate, but it depends on the brand too.
Also a good setup can make a cheaper guitar feel really good to play and you could upgrade it with better pickups to improve the sound later down the road if you wanted to.
Upgrading a Cheap Backup Guitar
Another option is to buy a cheap guitar and try upgrading it over time. This could include buying new pickups, changing the frets, replacing the neck, etc.
This is not a bad way to go if you don’t have the budget for something better right now. It may be the best option for a lot of guitarists who would rather spend more money on their main guitar or on other gear like effect pedals/Helix/Fractal/Kemper or a nice amp/head/cab.
Main and Backup Guitar Pairing Recommendations
So here I just want to share a few actual recommendations on guitars to look at. All of them are between $300 – $900.
Of course you should do your own research and keep in mind the criteria mentioned above so you can get a guitar that best fits your needs and preferences.
If your main guitar is a Gibson or a PRS then look at Epiphone SG or Les Paul, or a PRS SE.
Epiphone SG Custom Black
Epiphone Les Paul Classic Black
Paul Reed Smith SE Starla Stoptail Black
If your main guitar is an Ibanez then look at ESP LTD (the MH200 and SN200HT are two models that have lower prices) or a Schecter Deluxe & Plus, or the Damien series if you want something extra metal with bat inlays lol. The Yamaha Pacifica might also be worth checking out.
Schecter C-6 Plus Ocean Blue Burst
Schecter Damien-6 FR Satin Black
Yamaha Pacifica PAC612VIIFM Indigo Blue
If your main guitar is a Fender Stratocaster then look at a Fender Telecaster, Squire, or Mexican Strat or Tele. The Yamaha Pacifica again might be a good one to check out.
Sweetwater has an entire section on their website for Fenders made in Mexico. Check it out here: https://www.sweetwater.com/shop/fender-mexican-made
Fender Stratocaster Lake Placid Blue
Fender Telecaster SS Butterscotch Blonde
Squier Classic Vibe 60s Stratocaster 3 Color Sunburst
Mexican Fender Player Telecaster Black
Wrapping it Up
A final thought is that remember this guitar is just a backup. It doesn’t have to be expensive and the fact that it costs less is the reason you should get one. It’s a guitar that will save you in a pinch, but also you won’t be having to worry about it as much.
It can also be your guitar for when you play gigs in shady places that you don’t feel comfortable bringing your best gear to. Some bars and venues are worth it but others will just have you worrying that something could happen to your gear.
Hope this gave you some solid guidance!
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