An amplifier is the most important piece of equipment for shaping the overall sound of your guitar, so why don’t we give them the attention they deserve? Most guitarists have a vast knowledge of all the different types of guitars and their features, but when it comes to guitar amps – not so much.
If you’re a beginner or even an intermediate guitarist, choosing the right amplifier can be a little daunting if you don't know what to look for. In this article, we’ll shed some light on these magical boxes, help you figure out which amp to choose, and how to get the best possible sound.
Some of the topics we’ll cover:
- How guitar amps work
- Different types of guitar amps
- Amp features
- How to choose the best guitar amp for you
How does a guitar amp work?
First, let’s get a basic understanding of how a guitar amplifier functions.
- Input – We plug our guitar cable into the amps input jack. This sends an electrical signal from the pickups into the preamp.
- Preamp – The first stage of the circuit. This is where we can shape the tone of the guitar via control knobs like bass, mid, treble, and gain.
- Gain – The gain is usually the final stage of the preamp and allows us to boost the level of the signal. A heavily boosted or “overdriven” signal will begin to distort - a popular sound in rock and metal.
- Power amp – Once we’ve shaped our guitar tone the signal is sent here. This is where the signal is amplified up to a level high enough to drive (vibrate) a speaker.
- Speaker – The speaker converts the electric signal into sound waves by vibrating the air.
Each stage plays an important part in creating and shaping the overall sound.
Types of guitar amplifiers
There are several different types of guitar amplifiers to choose from and each has its own unique characteristics. Of course, there are pros and cons to each type – let’s
These are the most highly regarded type of guitar amplifier, and they use glass vacuum tubes (aka valves) to amplify the guitar's signal.
- Pros: Tube amplifiers are known for their warm, vintage sound and are preferred by guitarists who play blues, rock, and metal.
- Cons: Tube amps are expensive and require more maintenance compared to other types of amplifiers.
These amps use circuit board transistors instead of tubes to amplify the guitar's signal.
- Pros: They are lightweight, durable, and more affordable than tube amps, making them a great option for beginners.
- Cons: Solid-state amplifiers are considered by some to have less character in their tone compared to tube amps.
Modelers/VST amp simulators
These use computer processors to simulate various types of amps and effects via digital signals. They give players instant access to a wide range of sounds. As technology has improved over the last decade, more and more guitarists are viewing modelers as a serious option.
- Pros: Probably the cheapest option for a huge variety of sounds. Great for home studio recording.
- Cons: Depending on the hardware you’re using, latency can sometimes be an issue (slight delay between playing the note and hearing it). Some players feel digital modelers don’t sound authentic.
They use a tube preamp and a solid-state power amp, giving the user a warm, vintage tube sound, with a reliable solid-state performance.
- Pros: These amplifiers are considered by some to be the best of both worlds.
Combining the amplifier head, and the speaker into one portable unit.
- Pros: Can make life easier for frequent gigging. Also a great option for bedroom guitarists.
- Cons: Depending on the size and number of speakers, a combo amp can be a hefty beast!
Head and cabinet amplifiers
As opposed to a combo amp, separating the head and the cabinet allows for larger speakers and more of them.
- Pros: A head with a 4x12 speaker cabinet will generate a huge volume – you’ll never be drowned out by your heavy-handed drummer.
- Cons: Requires a lot of space and can get quite expensive.
Power and wattage
The wattage and power handling of a guitar amplifier determines the volume and clarity of the sound. But it’s not quite as simple as “more wattage = more volume”.
- A high-wattage amplifier will be clearer at louder volumes than a low-wattage amp.
- It's important to note that the wattage of an amplifier doesn't necessarily correlate with its volume.
- A 100-watt amplifier isn't necessarily twice as loud as a 50-watt amplifier.
The size of the amplifier also affects the wattage. A small amplifier with a lower wattage can be just as loud as a larger amplifier with a higher wattage.
Where will you use the amp?
This is the main question to ask yourself when considering what amp to buy.
- If you're looking for an amp for practice or small gigs, a 10-15 watt amplifier should be sufficient.
- If you're playing larger venues, you'll need an amp with a higher wattage, typically around 50-100 watts.
Speaker types and configurations
The speaker is another important component of a guitar amplifier, as it affects the tone and volume of the sound.
- The size of the speaker determines the frequency response and the overall sound of the amplifier.
- A larger speaker produces more bass, while a smaller speaker produces more treble.
Most combo amplifiers have a single speaker, but some have more – more speakers will give a bigger sound but also adds weight and cost to the amplifier.
Impedance matching is an important consideration when using separate heads and cabinets.
- Different amps require different speaker impedances.
- Impedance is measured in ohms and will usually appear on the back of amp heads and speaker cabinets as 4Ω, 8Ω, or 16Ω.
Amplifier features and functions
The controls of a guitar amplifier are essential for shaping the sound of the guitar. When trying out a new amp spend time experimenting with the controls to see if you can craft a tone you love.
- You will almost always find EQ controls for bass, midrange, and treble to make fine adjustments to the tone.
- There is usually more than one channel so you can quickly switch between different settings.
- Most amps have controls for gain. Crank this to overdrive the amp and create a distorted sound.
Other controls often found on amps include effects such as reverb or delay – softening the sound with some echo can add some much-needed ambiance to a dry guitar tone.
With some amps, an effects loop is included in the circuit. This allows you to add pedals into the signal chain between the preamp and the power amp.
- You can still use guitar pedals without an effects loop but they will only be affecting the guitar's input signal.
- Certain effects such as a wah pedal work better at the start of the chain, instead of in the effects loop.
- Some guitarists will use pedals to increase the amount of distortion if the amp doesn’t create enough by itself.
How to choose the best amp
Of course, the most important element when choosing an amp is how it sounds, but there are two practical factors that need to be considered first – portability and price.
Portability is another important factor to consider when choosing an amplifier. If you're just playing in your bedroom, you probably won’t need a large, heavy amp.
- A portable guitar amp might be more suitable for practicing at home or playing small gigs.
- If you're a gigging musician, you will need an amplifier that is powerful enough to fill the room with sound, but also easy to transport.
- For bigger venues or more and head and large cabinet may be necessary.
- Some of the heavier speaker cabinets come with wheels or carrying handles, which makes them easier to move around.
Finally, price is an important consideration when choosing a guitar amplifier. Amplifiers can range in price from under $100 to $1,000+ for sought-after vintage amps.
- While a more expensive amplifier might have a better sound quality and more features, it's important to choose one that fits within your budget.
- Some boutique amps like those made by Dumble Amplifiers can fetch upwards of $70,000!
It's also worth considering the long-term costs of owning a guitar amplifier.
- Tube amplifiers will require regular maintenance and replacement of the vacuum tubes, which can be costly.
- Solid-state and modeling amplifiers require less maintenance and are more affordable in the long run.
Choosing the right guitar amplifier can be overwhelming at first, but knowing what’s available and deciding which one best suits your needs is half the battle.
- Beyond that, it’s just a matter of trying different models and finding out which one you like the sound of.
- There are plenty of great demo videos online showcasing different amps. This is a valuable resource when trying to narrow down your search.
Much like bigfoot, the perfect amp is hard to find – but it does exist! Hopefully, you now feel ready to go out into the wild and track it down.
Good luck with your hunt for the ultimate tone!
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