Guitar Amp Buyers Guide

Should I get a combo amp or a head and cabinet?

This one is actually pretty simple, as it really depends on just how big a venue you are planning to play in. For club dates and even small halls, today's combos are well-equipped to deliver plenty of power to deliver powerful sonic that will be heard all the way in the back. If your goal is to have enough sonic firepower to fill a giant auditorium or even an open arena, there's no question that you'll want a high powered stack with at least a 4 x 12 cabinet. As a caveat to that, some players still prefer a smaller amp for its specific tone, and then simply mic the amp and run it into the PA system (provided the PA will handle it, of course).

Which is best, Solid State or Tube?

Here the traditional thinking is that solid state circuitry can produce superior clean power at a much more affordable price, while the scarcity of vacuum tube manufacturers today tends to make tube-based amps more expensive in a comparably powered amplifier. This has led to some interesting "hybrids" in which the basic tone is produced by a tube-driven preamp, while the power amp is solid state. Still, the majority of "serious" players will almost always lean towards a tube amp, though the attitude is changing as manufacturers turn out amazing new amps that are based on cutting-edge technology (the Vox Valvetronics, Marshall Valvestate and Fender Cyber-Series are prime examples).

The benefits of modeling explained.

Modeling offers the best of all worlds. You can buy a basic "practice" amp today that will deliver almost any tone or effect you might need or want, and it will pull double-duty as a great studio amp. These budget-friendly models (starting at about $149) provide everything from clean rhythm tones to a full-out overdrive along with all the "must have" effects like reverb, chorus, phase, flange and delay. There is no longer any need to compromise your sound, just because you're just getting started playing guitar.

Even more impressive are the "does everything" amps that are sonic chameleons. They can deliver the sound of a tiny tweed or shake the walls with a "Hendrix on 11" tone at the push of a button or the tap of a footswitch. Modeling also allows most amps to include a fairly extensive library of effects. Back in the 1960s and early '70s, guitarists needed multiple outboard stomp boxes to produce distortion, chorusing, flanging or a wah-wah sound. All of those boxes added up to one thing: Noise! But today, thanks to modeling, all effects - even multi-effects like chorus and delay plus reverb - are designed to be amazingly quiet.

What's more, modeling frees you from the constraints of having to "make do" with a particular amp's tonal range. Using sophisticated DSP, a 2x12 modeling amp can still sound like a vintage 1x10 tweed or a modern 4x12 stack. When you add up all the benefits of a modeling amp, they do make a lot of sense unless you just happen to be a purist who is convinced that only a 1959 Fender Bassman reissue will sound like a 1959 Bassman. For those players, modeling is simply no substitute. And since a player's individual tone is critical, we concede that each guitarist will decide for themselves whether modeling is simply a fad or the future of all guitar amplification.

Speakers: Does size matter?

For this discussion, we turn our attention to simple physics. Smaller speakers can produce higher frequencies than larger speakers, which is why a tweeter is small and a woofer is large. So in the real world, a 10-inch speaker will generally produce a better "top end" than a 15-inch speaker. There is also a difference between an open-backed cabinet and a closed-cabinet design. Which is why certain amps, like a 4x10 Bassman with an open back will sound different than a 2x12 Bassman with a closed cabinet.

Many blues players swear by those old open-backed 4x10 Fender amps, as they can produce a range of tones from smooth to searing. If you want to sound like Jimi, you'll likely want to plug your Strat into a Marshall with a dual 4x12 cabinet design. One well-known guitarist preferred four 4x12 cabinets, which may explain his current hearing problems - yikes, 16 12-inch speakers will definitely play loud, but the overall frequency response, if charted using sensitive laboratory gear, will be totally different than that of our 4x10 example. Today manufacturers can custom tweak their amps by combining a certain size cabinet with a certain size set of speakers.

Guitar amps for live, studio & practice.

This topic has become less significant with the advent of the modern modeling amp, as these can serve as a practice amp, studio amp and in live situations. There are also interesting modeling modules for studio applications, like the Line 6 POD 2.0 and PODxt, as well as the VOX Tonelab. These have an amazing array of amp models, as well as terrific digital effects thanks to sophisticated DSP processing.

Naturally, the ideal situation is to have one setup specifically for studio work or at-home use and another for those gigs that take place in larger venues. Like all areas of music technology, you have a surprising amount of bang-for-the-buck today, with the exception of the so-called "boutique" amps and vintage reissues that still command premium prices.

What To Look For

Guitar Amps

Now that you've selected your dream guitar, we need to find an amp to go with it. There are numerous options depending on size, sound, amplifier technology, and configuration. Below, you find a friendly guide to steer you through the maze.

Types Of Amplifiers
There are four types of guitar amplifiers: Solid State (analog), Tube, Modeling (digital), and Hybrids.

Solid State Amps: These amps are called solid state because they use transistors for their preamp and power sections instead of tubes. They are very reliable and seldom need repairs. They often have a very clean tone, although many come with "distortion" channels also. These amps are popular with players looking for a sturdy, reliable touring amp.

Tube Amps: Tube amps preferred by many guitarists for their warm, fat tone and "organic" distortion. Tube amps usually sound louder than solid state amps of the same wattage and have a definite "feel" that you don't get from solid state amps. Most tube amps have separate channels that can switch from clean to distorted tones instantly. need changing occasionally,

Modeling Amps (Digital Amps): Modeling amps use digital processors to simulate the sound of old-fashion tube technology. Using software that "models" the sound of a tube amplifier (and cabinets), these amps put the sound of numerous amps in one box. Modeling amps are programmable, and 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.

Hybrid Amps: Combining the best of each type of amp into one package, Vox ValveState amps use an actual tube in conjunction with the solid state power section of their amps. Marshall Valvestate amps use tubes in the preamp section and solid state circuitry in the power section to create a tube tone without using power tubes.

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. 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."

The thickness of wood used to construct the cabinet is a major factor in determining the quality of sound. The thinner the wood used, the more likely the speaker will vibrate itself loose. A thickness of at least 1/2'' will achieve a strong sound and to keep the speaker in place. Another factor determining sound quality is whether the amp has an open or closed back. Closed- back guitar amps produce a better bass response from the speaker.

When moving an amp from gig to gig, it's quite common for them to get banged up a bit. Good corner protectors will add to the life of the guitar amp.

Power and Speaker Size
The power and size of speaker you choose for your amp will depend to some degree on application and price. Practice amps are usually solid state or modeling combo units featuring low power (10-30 watts and small (8" or 10") speakers, although there are some basic tube amps to be found. For rehearsal and playing smaller venues, consider tube and modeling combo amps with power ratings averaging about 50 watts and 12" speakers for fuller sound. For larger venues or for performing loud, expect power to average at 120 Watts and up. You will find "twins", or combos that have pairs of 12" speakers effective but this is where separate head and speaker cabinets (Stacks) come into play.

Other Options
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 a distorted one. 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.


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