Guitar Amplifier 101: Choosing Your First Amp
A rookie electric guitarist can expect to learn a LOT of new words when choosing their first instrument. You’ll most likely hear things such as ‘Strat’, ‘Whammy bar’, ‘Humbucker’ and ‘of course we don’t mind you playing Smoke On The Water in our guitar shop’, although this last comment will probably be made through gritted teeth by a salesperson desperate to take your money and steer you out of the door…
But it’s an electric guitar, which means that if you actually want to hear the wonderful noise you’re making then you’ll also need to buy an amplifier. So you can add a few more words to your vocabulary – ‘valve’, ‘solid-state’, ‘combo’, ‘stack’, ‘wattage’, ‘2X10’….. AAAAARGH!!! What does all this mean?!?!?!
Well sit back and relax – we’re here to explain things!
In the world of guitar equipment, there’s probably more to choose from when it comes to amplification options than actual instruments. And be honest, half of the decision making you did with your guitar purchase was all about the color.
But amp options are far simpler than they appear. We’re going to concentrate on the most basic principles of amplifier shopping in this article, and get more-in depth over coming weeks and months.
The absolute basics
There are only really three main factors to consider when shopping for your first rig…
1. Amplifier Format
First the extreme basics. A guitar amplification system contains just two elements;
- The Amplifier. The bit containing all electronic circuitry, and the part that you plug your instrument into. An amplifier takes the weak electromagnetic signal produced by your guitar pickups, usually runs it through a ‘pre-amp’ (allowing you to tailor the sound), before increasing it to a powered signal.
- The Speaker. This is what the powered signal from the amplifier is designed to power, and thus make noise! Speakers are usually fitted inside enclosures known as ‘Cabinets’ (also known as ‘Cabs’).
Most guitar amplifier systems then use these two elements in one of two different formats;
- Combo. An all-in-one box that houses both the amplifier AND the speaker cab, making the combo very convenient for use in just about any situation. Available in a variety of sizes and power ranges. Some can even power an additional external speaker cab for extra volume.
- Stack. A separate amplifier ‘head’ and speaker cab, connected by a cable. These allow a much larger amplifier to be moved separately from the cabinet (or cabinets – you can frequently plug in more than one) which helps portability. They also allow you to attach different sizes and kinds of cabs to the amplifier, changing the overall sound.
We’d recommend a combo for players just starting out – many of these are designed specifically for beginners, and can have a host of features to make home practice (or even small gigs) sound superb. And they’re usually cheaper than assembling a stack system.
2. Amplifier type
Whether it’s a combo or a stack system, amplifiers generally come in one of three different flavors…
- Valve or ‘Tube’ amp. The original style of guitar amp, featuring circuitry that runs through valves (aka ‘tubes’). Usually the loudest variety of amp, and generally used by all the greatest bands ever. Valve amp tone is commonly regarded as superior to all other options, although this is definitely a matter of opinion. The downside? Valves wear out (or even break) and overall maintenance can be a pain.
- Solid state amp. Basically replaces the valves with transistors. This makes them lighter, cheaper and much more reliable than valve amps.
- Digital amp. These use modern electronics to emulate or ‘model’ the sound you’d get from more traditional valve or solid-state amp circuits. At least as reliable as solid-state systems, and currently the cheapest amp option in general. Digital amps can also come loaded with built-in effects to play around with, and some even feature on-board tuners.
Your choice here really depends on what your ears tell you when trying the amp out! Valve amps are things of beauty, but modern solid-state and digital amps can give you equally marvelous tone at much less cost.
All amplifier systems will be rated at a certain level of wattage – the amount of power coming out of the speaker when maxed out. But how much will you really need?
This is probably the grayest area when it comes to choosing kit. A 15w tube amp could easily put out more power than a 30w solid-sate or digital amp, since tube amps tend to be louder. But then again, that same 30w solid state amp through a 4x12 cab (or 4 x 12” speakers in a cabinet) would sound louder than the 15w tube amp through a 1x12 (a single 12” speaker in a cabinet) due to the amount of air being moved by the extra speakers. Also consider that the human ears would only notice a slight increase in volume between a 50w and a 100w amp anyway. And then consider that most guitarists could cover a mid-size gig venue with just a 50w combo – and that includes competing with the volume from the drummer!
All amps manage their power differently, and the wattage genuinely isn’t always the best guide to how loud the system will actually be. The best advice we can give here is to consider what you’ll be using the amp for…
- 10-20w: bedroom practice, small rehearsal sessions, recording studios
- 30-50w: larger rehearsal sessions, most small/medium performance venues, recording studios
- 60-100w (and higher): larger venues, rehearsal sessions where everyone has access to earplugs, recording studios staffed with very patient studio engineers
Again, your ears need to be the deciding factor here. The amplifier type and speaker configuration of whichever system you’re trying out will combine to determine exactly how that power rating translates into raw volume. But in general, most rookies will probably discover that less is more!
Wrapping it up
Two final bits of advice you’ll need before heading to the music shop to make your amp choice;
- TAKE YOUR OWN GUITAR WITH YOU! Remember, it’s your own personal sound that we’re trying to amplify here.
- Found the amp of your dreams? Excellent! Now try picking it up and walking up a flight of stairs. If your love of the tone from this beast outweighs the crippling pain in your arms, legs and back then it probably IS the amp of your dreams. If not, go back and choose something lighter…
And that’s it – we’ll get onto the more detailed features of amplifier systems and how to use them in the very near future. What a good excuse to keep an eye on your inbox for the next article! So until next time…
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