Guitarists Dilemma: Upgrade Amp or Buy Pedals?

There comes a time on every guitarist’s journey when they recognize some of their gear is lacking.

Most of us, prioritize getting a nicer guitar because that’s what we are more in contact with.

However, the wisest among us know that the better return on your buck, in terms of tone, comes from getting a really good amp.

But what about pedals?

Should you upgrade your amp or buy better pedals first?

If you play with high-gain distortion, going for a good tube amp first is a great idea, although there are digital alternatives that will also give you great results. If you are more into clean tones, and getting complex ambient sounds, investing in a solid pedalboard might be the better choice.

In this article, I will go in-depth about the decision of upgrading your amp or improving your tone with new pedals. 

I will discuss the reasons why both are great ideas and give you examples so you can determine which is best for you.

After leaving this page, you will know everything you need to make the decision that will be most impactful to your tone.

Are you ready to get started?

Let’s go!

The case for upgrading your amp first

Guitar amps have a big influence on your sound. Maybe bigger than you imagine.

This is particularly true if you use some distortion or overdrive.

You see, amps, and tube amps particularly, are the gold standard for these kinds of sounds, and even when there are amazing simulators out there, many people still gravitate towards analog amps because of their organic sound and feel.

If you play rock, metal, or any other gain-intensive genre, getting a good tube amp is always advised.

They are easier to use than many people think, and they just sound great out of the box, with no required extensive sessions of tweaking.

For any other use case, and if you are on a budget, digital amps like the Boss Katana are great alternatives, since they sound great, are versatile, and even have built-in effects.

What kind of amp should you get?

As for the kind of amp you should get, it will mainly depend on the genres you play, your budget, and if you intend on using it live.

A broad recommendation can be in line with what I said above: Digital amps like the Boss Katana, the Positive Grid Spark, and the Yamaha THR, among many others, are great choices for most players.

For deeper pockets, and people who want the real deal, tube amps are always a great choice.

You can even find them with low outputs so they can be cranked at bedroom playing volumes.

The line of Orange terror amps is a great example of this.

The case for getting more pedals first

Pedals can go a long way in shaping your tone. Particularly if you are more of an ambient player.

If you prefer cleaner tones and like to create lush and complex sounds, then getting a bunch of pedals is not only recommended but essential.

Even if distortion or overdrive is not a priority for you, but you do intend to get some of them, there are great alternatives and cultural staples such as the Tubescreamer, the Rat, and The Zendrive, the Timmy, or the OCD.

A well-equipped pedalboard can make an average amp, for sure.

It’s just a thing of making the right choices and learning how to use them to their full potential.

What kind of pedals should you get?

For starters, I would go for an overdrive pedal that’s not too heavy.

Heavier distortions tend to not sound that great when coming from pedals, however, overdrive pedals tend to really do their job.

Now, the basic choices would be getting a good delay and reverb.

You can go for stranger things and delve into modulations such as choruses, phasers, and flangers.

Also, a wah in front of everything never harmed anyone.

Finally, and something perhaps underrated by many players, getting an EQ pedal will allow you to shape your tone in ways you have never imagined before.

Can pedals replace an amp in your rig?

Going for a tone completely pedal-driven is not so rare these days, however, it will take some important steps to really work.

First of all, remember that the signal that comes out of your guitar and goes through your pedalboard is instrument level.

It won’t work as you intend it to.

What you need is a direct box at the end of your rig that converts that line-level high-impedance signal into a low-impedance one better taken by mixers and PA systems without sounding like crap.

Finally, remember that guitar speakers and cabs have a big impact on the overall tone, so getting a pedal that can emulate them is also a great idea.

Other than this, you should experiment and seek the opinion of experts that are already doing it.

The going amp-less with a multi-effects pedalboard

Another very common alternative for ditching the amp altogether is going with a multi-effects pedalboard such as the Helix, the Headrush, or the Quad Cortex.

These units all sound amazing and come packed with tons of simulated amps and effects. But that’s not all, they also are great at simulating speaker cabinets, which will give you a very organic sound through a completely digital platform.

Pedalboards are usually paired with powered FRFR speakers for playing live without the need of going through a mixer or PA system.

Another upgrade to consider

Now, if you are on the look for alternatives to improve your sound, something to consider is upgrading your guitar pickups, especially if you rock on a somewhat affordable instrument.

There’s a lot to improve there.

Here’s another article I wrote discussing if it’s better to upgrade your pickups or your amp first:

And here’s an article about how much guitar pickups impact your tone: