Picture the scene: You’ve read a couple of reviews on the Internet, whipped out the credit card and laid down some plastic on the “amp of your dreams”. Finally, this is the weapon of choice that’s going to turn you into an undeniable rock god; and it goes to 11.
…many guitarists believe the humble amp is the cornerstone to guitar tone and to be honest, I have to agree…
After receiving the amp through the post and relieved it’s all in one piece after the courier manhandled it, you plug in and play. 10 hours later, using multiple guitars & effects, you find yourself desperately trying to convince both yourself and potentially the Mrs (not that she’ll ever find out how much it really cost) that you’ve done the right thing.
Unfortunately, there’s that niggling feeling at the back of your head, the voice that won’t go away, that same annoying voice that often pops into your head after a significant purchase of guitar equipment; “The amp will look nice on stage, it looks great having 2 cabs and 8 speakers… but it’s not the tone I thought it would be!!! I suck!!! Damn those compressed YouTube clips!!!”
Choosing a guitar amplifier can potentially be a difficult and expensive process. Many guitarists believe the humble amp is the cornerstone to guitar tone and to be honest, I have to agree.
There are many factors to consider when choosing a guitar amplifier:
Like it or not, the price of the amp will play a huge part to the item that you’ll likely to purchase. Obviously, the price fluctuates dependant on manufacturer, model & specification, but if you’re a casual musician, looking for a mid-priced quality amp that’ll sound good and perform reliably, you could be looking at spending anywhere between £400-£900 (with the price of boutique amplifiers stretching easily into the £1000’s).
The second-hand market is always a winner, picking up used amps, often in excellent condition. Be cautious though, some used amps may need a service to bring them back to life.
This is nearly always the first question I ask: What are you using the amp for? Do you need a clean sounding amplifier, or an amp that caters for heavy, bluesy, jazz, pop, or a mix of genres? Many manufacturers are known for their tonal genre traits; Fender for clean, Marshall for overdrive etc. Deciding on your genre will help you significantly in starting your amp quest.
Arguably valve amps sound warmer than solid state alternatives and guitarists can have the added pleasure of cranking the amp so much to produce smooth, harmonically rich overdrive. The classic overdrive sounds on the majority of your CD/MP3 (or record) collections are more than likely built on the foundation of a quality valve amp.
Different valves also produce slightly different tones and gain stages, and you really need to crank the amp volume extremely loud for those valves to really start cooking; in some cases, the volume required to push the valves maybe far too loud for the venue you are playing.
Solid State amps are popular, as typically they’re significantly cheaper, durable & lighter to carry. If you want that extra warmth, a valve amp should do the trick, but be prepared to pay significantly more cash, plus have the hassle of maintaining the amp periodically.
Single channel amps are designed for guitarists dial in a default sound and to ultimately control the overall gain & tone via the guitar and/or a selection of effects pedals.
Multi channel amps are designed to allow guitarists to have significant control and flexibility of a wide range of sounds. Users will be able to select clean, rhythm and lead tones all set from the amp, often using a footswitch. This is a convenient option that could potentially remove the use of additional foot pedals.
Over recent years amp modelling technology has taken the market by storm, allowing users to have a far wider range of tones at the fingertips (or toes) than ever before. Surprisingly, despite the flexibility and the huge array of tones available, these amps retail surprisingly cheap. Some guitarists have commented on the “poor tone” of digital modelling amps, compared to their valve amp cousins though.
Do I purchase a combo for portability? Or a head and two cabs for out and out rock n roll excess & coolness? There’s a time and a place for both options, but only you can have a realistic answer to this; you know the venues you’re most likely to play, so a “sensible” decision needs to be made. I really dislike using the word “sensible” by the way…
On a separate note, the speakers used in a combo or cab contributes significantly to the tone. Fortunately, in most cases, speakers can be swapped fairly easily, allowing guitarists to experiment accordingly. With 2×12 or 4×12 cabs, mixing and matching speakers is a great way to find a unique tone. For example, some guitarists using Marshall amps swear by a mix of Celestion G12H30 & Vintage 30 speakers in their cabs/combos.
It may sound silly, but try an amp out first if you can. It’s not always possible, and I completely understand those “impulsive” eBay purchases based on YouTube reviews. When trying an amp out in a guitar shop, crank it as loud as you can get away with (especially if it’s a valve amp). Also, try and use a guitar model that you have at home, or better still, bring your guitar with you.
It may be embarrassing to play loudly in a shop; fellow shoppers may be judging your chops and it may annoy the shop owner, but I’ve found cranking an amp really helps you to get a good idea of its true tone. Do your research on guitar stores too – some retail outlets have sound booths setup for guitarists to make as much noise as desired.
The factors above are just some of the aspects we all face when purchasing an amp. Not only that, we’re presented with such a good selection of amplifiers to choose from, that the range of choice can be somewhat overwhelming.
From experience, I’ve drawn the following conclusions when purchasing an amp.
Choosing an amp is difficult and there are many things to consider. A good starting point is to find an amp that produces a good clean / edge of breakup tone as a foundation and build from there using various pedals, guitars etc – however, that may differ entirely depending on the genre of music you play.
Overall, we should never underestimate the important role the amplifier plays in producing our core tone.
Have you recently purchased an amplifier? What aspects do you consider are important when purchasing an amp? Please add your thoughts and experiences below.