Shopping For Guitar Amplifiers
You finally got that electric guitar you’ve been wanting for so long. It looks great and plays like a dream. But how does it sound? Much of a guitar’s tone comes from its construction and hardware, but it eventually has to go through an amplifier if you want to be heard. Choosing an amp is tough, there are lots of choices. A good amp can make an average guitar sound better, but a bad amp can make even a great guitar sound lousy. Let’s take a look at the different types of amplifiers available and then I’ll give you some tips on shopping for an amp.
Types Of Amplifiers
This article will be addressing electric guitar amplifiers. Acoustic guitar amplifiers are a whole other ball game. Basically, there are four types of guitar amplifiers: Solid State, Tube, Modeling (digital), and Hybrids. There are also guitar preamps. These units include only the tone section and not the actual amplifier section. This article will focus on actual amplifiers and not preamps or recording devices.
Solid State Amps
These amps are called solid state because they use transistors for their preamp and power sections instead of tubes. Because there are no tubes to change or go bad, they are very reliable and seldom need repairs. They often have a very clean tone, although many come with “distortion” channels also. The distortion you get from these amps can vary greatly. Transistor distortion can be harsh in some cases (think a cheap distortion stomp box), or quite pleasing with some of the newer “tube simulating” circuitry in higher end units. If a distortion channel is important to you, you will really need to use your ears and compare when you buy a solid state amp. These amps are popular with players looking for a light, reliable touring amp or mainly clean tones.
Tube amps were the first type of guitar amplifiers and are still preferred by many guitarists for their warm, fat tone and tube overdrive (distortion.) Tube amps usually sound louder than solid state amps of the same wattage and have a dynamic “feel” when you play them that you don’t get from solid state amps. Tube amplifiers create distortion by overdriving the preamp and/or power tubes. However, the distortion created is very smooth and responds to how hard you play. Many tube amps have separate channels that can switch from clean to overdriven tones instantly. There are numerous types of preamp and power tubes, and each type has their own unique sound qualities. Again you’ll need to use your ears to find the one that sounds best to you. Tubes need changing occasionally, so keep some spares on hand.
Modeling amps have exploded on the scene in recent years. Nearly every large amp maker has an offering now. Modeling amps use the power of digital processors to simulate the sound of tube technology. Using software that “models” the sound of a tube amplifier, these amps attempt to put the sound of numerous amps in one box. Some succeed more than others, but they keep getting better. Modeling amps have the advantage of being programmable, allowing you to save numerous preset tones that can be called up with a footswitch or push of a button. And being digital, they often have built-in digital effects such as delay, chorus, etc. Some include digital or analog outputs with speaker simulation for going direct into a recording interface or PA system. Modeling amps often lack the dynamic feel of a tube amp and may not cut through as well in a band mix when played loud. But they make great practice amps, or first amps because they allow you to have many amp sound available is one small package.
A few builders have started combining modeling and tube into one package. Some amps use tubes in the preamp section and solid state circuitry in the power section to create a tube tone without using power tubes. Others use modeling in the preamp section combined with a tube power section. There are many variations on this theme. Others may combine a tube amp with built-in digital effects, or programability. The goal is to get the best of both worlds in one amp. You will need to use your own ears to decide if they succeed.
In addition to types of amplification, amps come in different configurations. Combos (short for combinations) are self-contained units containing the amplifier and speaker in one cabinet. Amps also come in separate Head and Speaker Cabinets (or Cabs.) These allow you to use any amp head with virtually any speaker cabinet. They also break the amp into two units, making each unit lighter and easier to carry than a single combo. Combining two cabinets and a head is called a “stack.”
Other additional features you might encounter include:
- Reverb Units: Some amps use spring reverbs, which can be very natural sounding, while others use digital reverb.
- Effects Loops: These jacks allow you to add stomp boxes or rack units after the preamp section of the amp to avoid amplifying any effect noise.
- Channel Switching: These amps allow you to switch between different preamp channels usually going from a clean tone to an overdriven tone. Check to see if a footswitch is included. Digital amps often require the purchase of an additional MIDI footswitch to change tones remotely.
- Built-in Effects: Roland Jazz Chorus amps are famous for their built-in stereo chorus. Tremolo is another effect many amps feature (great for surf guitar.) Modeling amps usually contain multiple built-in digital effects.
What You Can Expect For Your Money
For most of us, money is what it all boils down to. Getting the best amp for your budget is the goal. Good amps can be had in most price ranges. And with some creative use of effects units, you can multiply your tone possibilities. Now let’s see what you can expect in your price range.
This category typically includes “practice” and portable amps. These will mainly be solid state and modeling combos featuring low power (under 30 watts) and small (8" or 10") speakers, although there are some basic tube amps to be found. You won’t find many additional features in this price range and the distortion tones may not excite you. You can add pedals for more tones.
$250 to $500
In this price range you will find mostly combos, with a few exceptions. You will also start seeing more tube amps. Power will average between 15 and 50 watts, with some models going as high as 120 watts. You will also find 12" speakers for fuller sound. Some models will feature channel switching, have reverb, or built-in effects.
$500 to $1000
This is the "bread and butter" price range for mass market amp manufacturers. Almost every type of amp is represented in this price range. Deluxe modeling amps with plenty of built-in effects are common. There are also plenty of tube combos. You will start to find separate head and speaker cabinets and considerably more power. You will also begin to see "twins", or combos that have pairs of 12" speakers with built-in stereo effects.
You’re spending some serious money now, and you should expect to find some serious amps. You’ll find mainly tube amps. Everything from top of the line Boogies, to Marshall stacks, to hand-made boutique amps. This is the cream of the crop and the price reflects it.
How To Shop For An Amp
Obviously, the best way to pick an amp is with your ears. Visit your local music store (or several) and try as many amps as you can. Try all types, including types you might not have considered. Hearing the difference between solid state, modeling, and tube amps will help you narrow down what you actually want. You may even be surprised by something you never thought you’d like. Try all price ranges, too. How will you know which $500 amp sounds closest to a $1500 amp if you’ve never heard one. That goes for modeling amps, too. If you’ve never played a Mesa/Boogie, how would you know if the digital simulation is even close?
Make sure you try the amps out with the same model guitar you own. Pickups and body construction make a huge difference in an amp’s tone. What sounds good with a Les Paul may not sound quite as good with a Telecaster. Try out all the channels, effects, and to see if they meet your needs.
Play the amp quietly at first. Yes, you need to turn it up also, but don’t be obnoxious about it. A minute or two of loud playing is enough to tell if the amp sounds good loud. The sales staff will appreciate it if you keep it a reasonable volume.
While some amps are made to overdive, don’t forget about the clean tone. A good clean tone is important also, and a good foundation for effects pedals.
Many players start out with inexpensive amps, but usually don’t stay there. If you try out a great sounding amp that you would love to have but simply can’t afford, start saving. The day you get that “dream amp” will be just as good as the day you got your “dream guitar.” Together they will make a real “dream team.” Just like buying a guitar, buying an amp takes lots of shopping and comparing. Trust your ears, and happy hunting.