Although conventional Raman, surface-enhanced Raman (SERS) and tip-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (TERS) have been known for a long time, a direct, thorough comparison of these three methods has never been carried out. In this paper, spectra that were obtained by conventional Raman, SERS (on gold and silver substrates) and TERS (in ‘gap mode’ with silver tips and gold substrates) are compared to learn from their differences and similarities. Because the investigation of biological samples by TERS has recently become a hot topic, this work focuses on biologically relevant substances. Starting from the TER spectra of bovine serum albumin as an example for a protein, the dipeptides Phe–Phe and Tyr–Tyr and the tripeptide Tyr–Tyr–Tyr were investigated. The major findings were as follows. (1) We show that the widely used assumption that spectral bands do not shift when comparing SER, TER and conventional Raman spectra (except due to binding to the metal surface in SERS or TERS) is valid. However, band intensity ratios can differ significantly between these three methods. (2) Marker bands can be assigned, which should allow one to identify and localize proteins in complex biological environments in future investigations. From our results, general guidelines for the interpretation of TER spectra are proposed. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.