Although it is a simple matter to walk into the first music shop you see and pick out a guitar amplifier (“amp”) at random, you will probably be unsatisfied with the results of this method. If you take a couple of minutes to figure out what you are shopping for, you will be able to make a purchase that you will enjoy for years to come.
- Determine the size of the amp you will need. Amps are rated by wattage rather than physical size (although high-wattage amps do tend to be physically larger). By wattage, there are essentially three main categories of guitar amplifiers (combos, heads, and rack-mounted amplifiers), with several subcategories:
- Combo (combination) amps combine the amplifier electronics with one or more speakers in a one-piece package. They are the alternative to “heads,” which contain only the electronics, and are attached to separate speaker packages (known as “cabinets” or “cabs”)Understand that since the combo design is a one-piece unit, is generally preferred for smaller, lower-wattage amps. The following are the most common varieties of combo amp:
- Micro amps: 1-10 watts. These are tiny, ultra-portable amps which are useful for practice on the go (or when others are trying to sleep). They don’t pack enough volume to be used in most “jam” situations (where you must be heard above other musicians).
2. Practice amps: 10-30 watts. Practice amps and guitar for beginners amps are also suited for the bedroom/living room environment, although the loudest of them may be used for small gigs (performances), especially if a microphone is used to run them through the venue’s PA system. As with micro amps, practice amps tend to compare unfavorably to larger units in terms of sound quality, unless the practice amp is a good quality tube amp. Popular practice tube amps that sound as good or better than many larger amps include, Fender Super Champ XD Guitar Combo Amp Standard, Epiphone Valve Junior and the Fender Blues Jr. As a general rule, the best practice amps have at least a 10 inch speaker. This is the smallest speaker size which is generally considered a “real speaker.” If you don’t have a 10 inch (or larger) speaker, don’t try to use the amp outside the bedroom.
- 3. Full-size 1×12 combos: With 30 or more watts of power and one 12 inch speaker, the 1×12 amp offers the smallest package which is considered suitable as a stand-alone amplifier for small gigs. In better models, sound quality begins to approach levels acceptable to professional musicians. Quality is always important, but perhaps even more so in the case of the 1×12 combo – with a good one, you’ll prove the doubters wrong, but with one of the many duds, you won’t be taken seriously. The 1×12 is not a big amp, and if you want to bring it to a serious audition or gig without enduring a storm of eye-rolling and chuckling, it had better stand out from the crowd.
- 2×12 combos are similiar to 1×12 combos, but they add a second 12 inch speaker. The 2×12 design is considerably heavier and bulkier than the 1×12, but it is still a favorite choice of working musicians for performances at small to medium-sized venues. The addition of a second speaker allows for certain stereo effects, and two speakers simply move more air than one (allowing more “presence” in your sound). The 2×12 amp is small enough to be used in the living room, light enough to be lugged around by someone without back problems, and yet formidable enough to be taken seriously at rehearsals, auditions, and even on stage. If you have to buy a single amp for practice, rehearsals, and club gigs, a 2×12 is a good choice. You’ll occasionally slip and set the volume knob a bit too high (annihilating your unfortunate neighbors), and you’ll be tempted to gripe about lugging 50-80 pounds worth of amp all over the place, but it will all be worthwhile when you avoid being “The Guy Who Showed Up to the Audition or Gig With a Practice Amp.”
4. Know that there are other types of combos, but these are the mainstays. Having discussed them, we are ready to move on to heads and stacks.
Heads, Cabinets, and Stacks
A head is an amplifier without speakers. A cabinet (“cab”) is a stand-alone speaker enclosure, which can be connected to a head. A stack is a head and a set of cabinets connected together, ready for use. Stacks are generally preferred for gigs rather than practice, although there’s no rule against having a enormous stack in your living room – if your family allows it. Fair warning: in most cases, they won’t. Stacks are physically bulky, very heavy, and devastatingly LOUD. These are the tools of musicians who either play arenas and stadiums on a regular basis – or at least dream of doing so.
- The full stack is the dream of many a guitarist. This is usually a 100 watt head connected to two 4×12 cabinets, although other wattages are sometimes employed. The cabinets are stacked vertically (one on top of the other), giving the setup its distinctive name. A full stack is as tall as a grown man, making for quite an impressive sight. The sound is equally impressive. If you set one of these up in your living room and play it to its full capabilities, you will be evicted from the neighborhood (unless you are an isolated hermit). A full stack can handle all but the very largest of venues. With any full stack (and especially the “hot rod” setups), you will require ear protection to play at higher volumes without sustaining potentially serious ear damage.
Stacks are great for playing big venues (and for impressing your friends), but if you aren’t a working or touring musician, they can be “overkill” for most situations. Lugging around full-size 4×12 speaker cabinets is hard work, fit only for “roadies” who are getting paid to do it. Showing up to an audition with a full stack and a hand truck to set it up can be almost as bad as showing up with a practice amp. If you lug in a stack, you’d better have the skills to justify it, or (once again), you’ll become “The Newbie Guy Who Brought a Full Stack to the Audition.”
Selecting the Right Sound
In order to get the most from a guitar amplifier, you need to understand how different types of amps suit different styles of music. For the most part, amps are not “one size fits all.” Although there are all sorts of amps, they can be classified in two broad categories – “vintage” and “high gain.”
Vintage amps produce (or reproduce) the classic sounds of early amplifiers. For the jazz, blues, or blues-rock guitarist, the vintage sound is still widely considered the best tone available. The sound of Fender, Vox, Marshall, and similar amplifiers from the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s is the foundation of the vintage tone. When you think “vintage,” you think Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Deep Purple, etc. These are the sounds that started it all.
High-gain amps produce a sound with greater distortion than that of vintage amps. Although there is some debate about the evolution of high-gain amps, many believe that a large part of their history is owed to Eddie Van Halen, who took apart his vintage-style Marshall head and played around with the electronics, allowing him to get far more gain (the source of the classic rock/metal distortion sound). With his landmark “Eruption” solo in 1977, Van Halen introduced the roaring, face-melting sound of super high gain to the guitar community. If you want to play jazz, blues, blues-rock (in the style of Led Zeppelin) or very early heavy metal (in the style of Black Sabbath), a vintage amp may be your best choice. If you want to play hard rock, 80’s metal, and “shred” guitar (in the style of the countless 80’s “guitar heroes”), you will probably want to go with a high-gain model. Note that many newer amps can provide both high-gain and vintage sounds, although some purists feel that the only vintage amps worth playing are the actual antique amplifiers themselves.
“Amp modeling” technnology (which allows one amp to simulate the sound of many different amps) is a relatively recent development which has both fans and critics. If you don’t plan to specialize exclusively in vintage-style music, a modeling amp can be very useful, although if you’re a purist, nothing beats walking in with a real Fender Twin Reverb, an ancient Marshall “Plexi” head, or something similar.
Tube vs Solid State
In the vintage days, all amplifiers used vacuum tubes to accomplish the actual amplification. Nowadays, many amps use transistors instead, sparking a long-standing debate about which is better. The concensus is that for almost all types of music, the sound of tubes is noticeably superior. However, tubes have several drawbacks:
- Tubes can be expensive, depending the tubes used. Expect to replace them after 4 or more years of use, depending on their quality and how loud/often they are used.
- Tubes can be unreliable. They can and do go out at random times, crippling the amp. This can be aleviated by using good quality tubes.
- Tubes (and the associated design factors) add considerable weight to the amplifier. Back problems caused by skinny guitar players lugging around big 2×12 tube combos are an insurance company’s nightmare.
- Tube amps are, generally speaking, more pricey than solid-state amps. You will almost certainly pay more for this vintage technology than you will pay for modern solid-state (transistor) electronics. There are tube amps, however, like the Fender Blues Junior Combo Amp that go for roughly $400; the Fender Hot Rod Deluxe (which is an extremely loud, 40 Watt, 1×12 amp), goes for about $550-$600.
If you can afford a tube amp, you should strongly consider buying one. In almost all cases, the sound is noticeably better. One possible exception to this is for heavy metal players. Many metal guitarists find that the harsher sound of transistors suits their style of music. Given the reliability, weight, and price advantages of solid-state amps, even the professional-level heavy metal guitarist may not require a tube amp.
- When shopping for an amp, price should not be your only consideration. Some lower-priced amps offer admirable sound, while you may find some costly amps unsuitable for your needs. To judge quality, read user reviews on various guitar websites. However, be aware that many equipment vendors publish only good reviews (to ensure product sales). Do your research and make an informed decision.
- If you purchase a tube amp, try not to abuse it physically. In general, transistor (solid-state) units are designed to take loads of punishment, but tube amps are much more delicate. If your brand new (very expensive) Soldano tube head gets smashed by a guitar you are probably in deep trouble – while the same thing happening to a solid-state combo will probably result in nothing more than a momentary panic and some laughs (after the fact). In short, do not kick, hurl, slam, pummel, or viciously bludgeon a tube amp – and try to discourage others from doing so. If you’re wondering why such a warning is necessary, spent more time with rock musicians.
- If you need one amp that can do “everything,” consider the purchase one of the new breed of inexpensive high performance modeling amps with onboard effects. The best of these amps can reproduce the sound of many other units with excellent accuracy, and you have instant access to those cool effects that make even growing guitarists (like me) sound good, delay, chorus, flanger, reverb, etc. With enough effects, your little old grandmother can sound like a rock star. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but if guys like me can sound good, you can too. Crate, Fender and Roland (among other companies) make some good effects combos.
- Unless you are playing heavy metal, it is generally better to buy a smaller amp with good tone than it is to buy a big loud amp that sounds cheesy. You will never regret having a nice tone, but you will always regret bad tone. If you play with a band, you will likely find that you never need that much volume anyway unless you are playing an arena, and if you are reading there are probably no arenas in the near future. Buy a small tube amp with a nice sound. Some music stores will try to sell loud amps with loads of effects to beginners. ther are some great choices available now available at any one of these great online music stores.
- For most beginners, a 15-30 watt amp will be more than enough for your bedroom and very small gigs.
- Buying a large combo or (especially) a stack for the purpose of wailing in your living room at all hours can lead to divorce. So spending $2000 on an amplifier without telling the wife (because you know she’s going to say no). As a general rule, guitar equipment is to be treated as if family members had a restraining order against it. Whatever type of amp you buy, headphones are a must for home practice. Similarly, if you plan to install an enormous Marshall stack in your garage for rehearsals, make sure it’s a detached garage.
- Do not ever play through a tube amp unless it is plugged into a speaker – without a speaker load, you will damage your amp.
- Speakers are often damaged by playing heavily distorted sound at high volume. The magnetic coil (which helps move the speaker cone in and out) consists of fine wire which can overheat and burn out. The paper speaker cone can become bent due to aggressive playing (especially bass notes) or high humidity, resulting in scratchy noise or coil damage. If you play very loud and use continuous distortion, be sure your speaker or speakers are designed to handle it. Most common speakers can be repaired for around $50.
Play the guitar with the amp that suits you best. We all have different tastes. Go to Guitar Center and spend a day listening to amps, you will have a great time and be able to make a competent choice after that. Enjoy