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