Getting a new guitar amplifier is an exciting time for a guitarist, getting a chance to stroll through the music shops, spend time reviewing amps online and talking to other guitarists about amps will all help with your final decision. Knowing what to look for can be a challenge for the first-time buyer so I think article will be helpful.
What to look for
Your first priority should be tone. Each amp will have its own tone so take your time to try different brands and models. Before you choose your amp, it is a good idea to set yourself a budget and stick to it. You should also be familiar with the 2 main types of amplifiers, Solid State and Valve. Here is a brief description.
Valve amps have been the stock standard for guitarists for many years due to the sound and tone the valves make in the amp. Valves tend to have a warm and well rounded tone with each amp sounding a little different depending on what valves you use in the amp. When driven they create a great warm and light overdrive which makes it easy to listen to. Valve amps tend to have more power than a solid state, amp. A 15 Watt Valve amp is powerful enough for a guitarist in a small band, whist a 100 Watt valve amp is great for stadium rockers and for the average guitarist, is it way over kill. The down side to valves is they require the valves to be changed and maintained through the amps life. Valves are also fragile beasts, you don’t want to drop them. Valve amps are also much heavier than a solid state amp but are getting lighter and lighter as technology improves.
Solid State amps
Solid state amps are known for their clean and bright tone. These amps are often more rugged and rarely have any technical issues. Solid State amps rarely need maintenance they sound the same when you first played it 20 years ago. (I still have my Marshall MG30DFX, one of the first MG amps made and still goes strong as per the video). Solid State amps typically have on board effects, modulators and other bells and whistles that will allow you to create different sounds. You will typically find a solid state amps are used as as practice amps but are becoming more and more common for performing. Wattage wise I would not go lower than 30 watts as they just can not reproduce and give the guitar the justice it deserves.
Combo or Head (stack)
Another choice to make is if you want to go Combo or Head. What is the difference I hear you say. Well, combo amps are exactly that, they combine the amp and speaker all in one box where as a head is just the amplifier and you will need to purchase a speaker box. Combos are great for an easy load in, guitar in one hand, amp in the other, where as the head you will need to make a few loads. You can mix and match speaker boxes with a head from a single 12″ to 4 x12″ to 2 X 15″ if you want combos you are usually stuck with what is in the combo but sometimes your combo can allow you to connect an external speaker box (a nice big quad). There are so many different types of speakers out there and all give different tones.
Another important factor when choosing the an amp is the amount of control you have over your tone. Most amps will give you gain and volume levels. The Gain being your input volume, and this drives your pre-amp, whist volume is your overall volume of the channel. The other controls to look out for are High, Mid and Low Equaliser controls. I personally look for all 3 on amps, some amps, especially the cheaper ones only offer High and Low which doesn’t give you as much control on your sound. One thing I am not a fan of is just having a Tone control. a single Tone control is most commonly seen in entry level valve amps. This is just leaving the EQ settings to the amps manufacturer allowing you giving you the signature tone. If you are starting out amps with just a Tone or High/Low EQ are great so you get used to listening to tone, but if you know exactly what you want to dial in, the more choice with your sound the better.
As mentioned previously, Wattage is important to look for. Make sure you have enough power for what you require. I recommend 30 watts is more than sufficient for most guitarists, even when you are playing on stage as on stage you will be miked up by the sound guy 99% of the time. On stage think of your amp as your foldback.
Guitar amps provide a guitarist with the tone and colour but each guitarist can sound different through their individual amps.
Written by Jonathan Heath – G4 GUITAR SCHOOL Blair Athol, Adelaide, South Australia.