Guide to the Blues on a Budget
By Mason Hoberg
From B.B. King (RIP) to Eric Clapton, guitarists the world over have spent decades chasing the perfect blues tone. We’ve all spent countless hours salivating over an expensive guitar or amp that’s way out of our price range. Well, what if I told you that you can actually get a great blues tone for a very reasonable price? Well luckily for you, you can!
But before I launch into the article proper, I do think it’s important to point out why I chose the gear that I did. Every piece of equipment on this list is something that musicians at any level can both gig and record with, all the while getting a great tone at a reasonable price.
When deciding on a guitar that’s right for you, keep in mind that the guitar by its nature is a very modular instrument. You can upgrade both pickups and hardware as often as you’d like to, and get great results doing so.
However, there are definitely more static components as well. Unless you can afford to spend thousands of dollars on woodworking tools, you’re not going to be able to change the neck profile or the scale length of your instrument.
The best blues guitar is the one that feels the best to you, regardless of its hardware or pickups. So while the three guitars below are quality instruments that will more than meet the needs of the average musician, be sure to try them out in person before making your purchase if you’re able to.
Epiphone, a subsidiary of Gibson, has a long track record for making some of the best budget instruments available. The ES-339 is no exception, and it sports some very impressive features for its price point.
The reduced body dimensions, and the reduced weight that comes along with it, makes the guitar a option for the gigging musician. The Epiphone also sports “Epiphone ProBucker” pickups, featuring coil tapping functionality. For any of you who weren’t already aware, coil tapping is a design feature that allows a guitarist to switch between a humbucker and single-coil sound.
As far as most reviewers are concerned, the ES-339 sports a fairly modern voicing. This makes it a great fit for songs along the lines of Cream-era Eric Clapton, or even newer acts like Gary Clark Jr.
Though the company may be known for their sleek “shredder” guitars, Ibanez’s Artcore series has been receiving rave reviews from blues and jazz players alike. Like the Epiphone ES-339, the Ibanez AS73 is inspired by the Gibson ES-335. However, the neck profile on the Ibanez is a bit slimmer than either of the aforementioned guitars, which may be a pro or a con depending upon your preference.
The Ibanez ships from the factory with an ACH humbucker in both the neck and bridge position. Many have described the pickups as carrying a distinct vintage voicing which, while full bodied and crisp, won’t take well to heavy distortion.
Of the many unique flavors of Stratocaster that Squier produces, the Classic Vibe 60s is easily the best fit for an aspiring blues guitarist. From the Alder body and glossy polyester finish, to the funky retro aesthetic, this instrument offers a unique value to the guitarist on the hunt for a vintage tone.
Like the Ibanez, the pickups in the Squier carry a unique vintage voicing. While the guitar is easily capable of replicating the vast majority of bluesy Strat tones, you may have a hard time recreating more modern Strat tones.
While both the overall aesthetic and the vintage voicing of the pickups might be trying to replicate old-school Stratocasters, the hardware is a touch more modern. The guitar sports a standard C profile, a five position tone control, and a vintage style synchronized tremolo.
Though they don’t get as much love as guitars, your choice in amplifier is going to make or break your tone. Generally speaking, the best blues tone is going to come from a tube amp. The actual science behind that is a bit technical, but suffice it say that a solid-state amp (an amplifier that lacks tubes) isn’t going to perform as well at conjuring up an authentic blues tone.
Aside from that however, there isn’t really a best guitar amp for blues. All of your various bits of gear need to work well together, so the best results from guitar player to guitar player are going to vary wildly.
If you want some chiming cleans or some sweet sizzling lead lines, look no further than the Fender Blues Junior III. Sporting an on board boost, a Fender 12” speaker designed by Eminence, and genuine spring reverb, this amp oozes tone. Though it may only be 15 watts, the Blues Junior III will have enough volume to fill small to mid-sized venues.
This amp is a great option for the budding blues guitarist. It’s relatively inexpensive- as far as tube amps go- and it does a great job of replicating authentic blues tones. Distortion and overdrive have never really been Fender’s strong suite however, so if you go with the Fender make sure to get a pedal as well.
Peavey has long held the reputation of being the secret weapon of gigging guitarists the world over. From their marvelous bass guitars to their rugged amps, the company has always done a great job of putting out high quality gear for an incredibly reasonable price.
Though the Peavey Classic 30 sports a vintage aesthetic reminiscent of old school Fenders, the amp is actually incredibly flexible. The onboard boost conjures up some very tasteful grit, and the reverb sounds remarkably realistic.
According to general consensus, the voicing of the amp falls somewhere between a Fender and Marshall; which is a huge plus if you want to cover several different flavors of the blues.
If the two amps above are out of your price range however, the Vox Valvetronix might be a great alternative. The amp is a middle ground between full-tube and solid state, using a single tube as a pre-amp and solid-state modeling circuitry in conjunction with one another.
What’s great about the Vox Valvetronix is that it’s an incredibly close approximation of the tone you’d get out of an all tube amp. You’ll get a lot of the dynamic range and tone coloration that you’d get out of something like the Peavey Classic 30 or the Fender Blues Junior, but at a much lower cost.
In my opinion, overdrives come in one of two flavors; there’s the “amp in a box” variety, and then there’s the “clean overdrives”. “Amp in a box” overdrives drastically color your sound, while “clean overdrives” just drive the signal you already have harder while adding just a touch of their own sonic coloring.
There’s also what’s known as a “boost” pedal, which is designed to beef up your signal (which can add some more distortion, or even just make you a bit louder) without coloring your sound at all.
None of these options are objectively better or worse than the others, but it’s something you should keep in mind when deciding which pedal is right for you.
Approximate Price: $199.97 direct from Wampler
If you’re particular about your tone (and be honest, who isn’t?) than the Wampler Clarksdale Delta Overdrive is right up your alley. Like all Wampler pedals the Clarksdale Delta is hand made in the U.S.A, ensuring that you’ll receive a quality piece of equipment.
This pedal is great if you want a more flexible overdrive, as the various knobs and switches offer a pretty wide range of control. You can tweak the Clarksdale Delta’s bass, mid, and treble frequencies, a feature which is relatively unique as far as overdrive pedals are concerned. The “Smooth/Lift” switch distinctly changes the tonal flavor of the pedal, either enhancing the treble/upper mid or the bass/lower mid frequencies depending on how it’s set.
If you want a no-nonsense boost pedal, look no further than the TC Electronic Spark Mini Booster. From its subtle aesthetic to its rather Spartan control layout, the Spark Mini is a minimalist pedal in every respect.
According to both forum posts and store page reviews, the TC Electronic Spark Mini performs remarkably well. It does a great job of boosting your amp while still letting your guitar’s tone shine through.
Heavily inspired by the famous Ibanez Tubescreamer, the Joyo Vintage Overdrive is great pedal for tastefully overdriving a tube amp. Its simplicity and relatively low cost make it one of the best blues pedals on the market today for the musician on a budget. The Joyo also sports a funky aesthetic, reminiscent of some of the earlier pedals to hit the market.
Surprisingly for a cheaper pedal, by all accounts both the hardware and circuitry of the Joyo hold up remarkably well. It features true bypass design, a DPDT switch for easy activation, and a 9V DC power connection.
When it comes to gear, there’s never a right or a wrong answer. However, hopefully this list gives you a good place to start when thinking about which rig will be the best option for your needs.