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Guitar Amplifier 102: Using Your First Amp

Welcome to the second instalment of our beginner’s introduction to the marvellous but occasionally confusing world of guitar amplifiersSo let’s crack on and get rid of the confusion straight away… 

In “Guitar Amplifier 101” we explained the absolute basics about the different kinds of equipment available to guitarists today, hopefully guiding our readers towards buying a piece of kit with features that suited their needs, wallet, and ability to lift the thing up a flight of stairs. So with any luck you’re now the proud owner of your first guitar amplifier – congratulations! 

But how does it work? What are all those controls for? Why are there so many sockets, lights, buttons and switches? How come this thing looks more complicated to operate than a commercial airliner? 

Fear not; we’re here to guide you through your first steps in making some SERIOUS noise! 

Are you ready? 

First things first; let’s check we have all the essentials… 

1: Electric guitar. Obviously 

2: AmplifierAlso obvious. But make sure it has the correct power cable, which should usually be earthed. 

And don’t forget… 

3: Guitar lead. This should be obvious, but is sometimes all-too-easily overlooked. And until the glorious day comes when guitar and amplifier manufacturers decide to fit all their products with Bluetooth as standard, we’re still relying on physical connections between equipment. Your guitar connects to an amplifier through a guitar lead, AKA ‘jack to jack’ lead, which features a 6.3mm or 1/4” mono ‘Jack’ or ‘TRS’ (tip-ring-sleeve) plug at each end of a shielded cable. This is used to transfer the unbalanced audio signal from your guitar to the amp. And it’s definitely worth investing in a good one with high quality connectors (Switchcraft or Neutrik are particularly good brands) that will last longer. 

A quick side note here; if your amplifier consists of a head and separate speaker cabinet, now is the time to connect them up with an appropriate cable. New systems will probably use the excellent Speakon connectors, whilst older kit will need a speaker cable – basically the same as a standard guitar lead, but with unshielded cable that uses thicker gauge wire. Do NOT use a guitar lead as a speaker cable, unless you like fire… 

Exploring your amp 

Before plugging in and firing up, let’s quickly examine the amp controls, and explain what they do. Trust us here, it’s not as complicated as it may look! 

Your rig will probably feature some or all of the following; 

Power switch. Turns the amp on/off. Can be located on the front, top or (annoyingly) the back of the ampTube amplifiers sometimes also feature a ‘standby’, allowing the valves to get and remain warm without the speaker being active. 

Volume. Controls the output sound level of the amp. 

Gain. Controls the level of input the amp ‘gains’ from the guitar. 

Channel switch. Many amps feature a ‘clean channel’ (just with volume control, usually for a clean tone) and a ‘gain’ channel (with volume/gain controls, allowing you to dial in overdrive/distortion/crunch sound). The channel switch button changes between these sounds instantly. 

EQ. A selection of dials that can include ‘Low’, ‘Mid’, ‘High’, and sometimes even more options (‘Low-Mid’, ‘High-Mid’ etc etc).A few guitar amps have a graphic EQ instead, which basically does the same job.These controls allow you to tailor your tone, increasing or decreasing the level of low, mid and high range frequencies in the sound being produced. 

Reverb. The most common effect usually built-in to amplifiers. This adds increased ambience to the sound, making it feel like you’re playing in a larger and more echoey space. 

FX. Many modern amps come with a range of digital effects built-in, with dials or buttons allowing you to choose the effect type and level. Probably the most complicated part of the manual that your amp came with!

Tuner. Another increasingly common feature of modern digital guitar amps. And hey, always useful if you’ve misplaced your regular guitar tuner! 

And let’s not forget all the sockets on the front and back of the amp, which can include; 

Input. Where the guitar plugs in. Almost always located on the front/top of the amp. 

Mains input. Where the power cable plugs in. Almost always located on the back of the amp. 

Footswitch. Allows you to plug in a channel switch pedal (which may even have been included with your shiny new amp) and change between clean/distorted sounds without using the switch on the amp. Very useful for gigs and rehearsals. 

Effects send/return. Allows you to attached external effects pedals in a loop. 

Line out. Allows you to send the amplifiers sound to external audio devices (mixing desk, recording equipment etc) at the standardized ‘line’ level. 

Speaker out. A powered output for connection to compatible external speaker cabinets. 

Headphone. When you want to practise but no-one else wants to listen. 

Let’s go! 

Now it’s time to make some noise! Start with the amp switched off for the moment, and follow this step-by-step guide to powering up for the first time…  

1. Plug the guitar into the amp. 
2. Set all the controls on your guitar to full, and select a pickup of your choice. 
3. Set all the controls on your amp as follows; 
    • Volume and Gain all the way down. 
    • Tone controls (Low, Mid, High) neutral – usually at 50% or 12-o-clock on the dial, and flat across the middle if you have a graphic EQ. 
    • Reverb and FX all the way down. 
    4. Turn the amp on. 
    5. Test the clean sound (using the clean channel if the amp has one) by turning the main volume control up to a comfortable level. 
    6. Test the gain/overdrive/distortion/crunch sound, using the gain channel if you amp has one. Turn the volume all the way down, raise the gain to halfway, then increase the volume to a comfortable level. Experiment with different levels of gain – this is probably the most fun part of getting to know your amp! 
    7. Now feel free to play with all the rest of the controls! This is where you can hear the multitude of tone colours that your amp is capable of producing, see how deep and shimmering the reverb can sound, and find out precisely what on earth all those built-in FX do… 

    In case you were wondering why we started this process with the power off, this is to avoid even the slightest chance of hearing the loud crackling noises that come from plugging a guitar into an active amplifier. No kidding; it sounds horrible, and isn’t particularly good for the health of the speaker (too many guitarists have learned that lesson the expensive way)So always try to have the amp muted or switched off when attaching your cable to your guitar. Alternatively you can plug the cable into the guitar BEFORE attaching the other end to the amp, and unplug the amp BEFORE unplugging the guitar. 

    Wrapping it up 

    And that’s it – you’re off! The first experiments with running your new guitar through your new amp are always endless fun, and we’re frankly jealous that we can’t hear you right now. 

    Stay tuned for the concluding part of our beginner’s guide to amplifiers, where we’ll be taking a deeper look at how to tailor your sound. So until next time… 

    Peace out! 

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