What many guitar players don’t seem to understand is that the guitar, no matter how expensive, cannot get a rich tone without a proper amp.
They spend thousands of dollars on all sorts of pedals and sound processors that are ultimately ineffective because they play their instruments on awful amps.
If you’re a beginner, you will find the information that’s about to be enclosed in this guide very helpful. We’ll tell you what makes a fantastic guitar amp and why it’s so instrumental (no pun intended) in getting the best out of your axe.
Ever wondered what those pickups on your newly-bought guitar do? They transform the vibrations of the chords into electric signals: the more pickups, the fuller the sound.
These signals go through the cable to the guitar amp, which enhances them and then pushes the resulting sound through the loudspeakers.
It’s a very simple process, but its results can vary a great deal depending on the type of guitar amp you’re using. Some are more powerful, others not that much.
Although Stromberg-Voisinet, Rickenbacker, and Dobro created amps from 1928 onwards, these were largely weak and ridden with shortcomings; therefore, they weren’t hits on the market.
The first commercial guitar amp was invented by Leo Fender (yes, he created the guitar you’re probably holding in your hands, as well) in 1947. As you might expect, it was still less efficient than any of the amps we have today.
It has an inchoate valve amp that took the signals from the pickups and amplified them. However, the amp didn’t have any controls whatsoever. That would drive a guitar player insane today.
Even though it was very basic, Fender’s amp made a huge impact in the music industry and paved the way for the Voxes, the Behringers, and Mesa Boogies we drool for nowadays.
Controls (frequency, treble, overdrive, EQ) and effects were added later on so that musicians could step up their game. By the 1960s, we already had amps that are still available in stores.
Guitar amps have come a long way and they never stop evolving. Subsequently, there are 4 main types you can choose from. Obviously, each of them has its own pros and cons, so don’t make a hasty decision. These are the types of guitar amps:
A guitar amp can use either tubes or electronics to amplify the sound that’s sent from the pickups. A solid-state guitar amp uses the latter. The sound is amplified by a combination of transistors, circuits, and diodes.
This type is preferred by most musicians because it is much more durable than other types. It is also less expensive and gives a warm tone. On top of all these, it is exponentially lighter than say, a tube amp, because the circuitry in itself is lighter.
A tube guitar amp amplifies the sound through vacuum – cylinders made of glass. The debate on solid-state vs. tube amplifiers is still ongoing. In the end, it’s all about personal preference.
In comparison with the solid-state guitar amp, the tube one is generally more expensive, heavier and requires a lot more maintenance, because sometimes the cylinders can burn out.
Its advantage is that it offers a richer, warmer tone than the solid-state amp and this is the reason why musicians might still opt for a tube guitar amp in spite of its drawbacks.
Modeling amplifiers are also called “digital amplifiers”. They can emulate the sound of a variety of amps and are often endowed with Bluetooth and Internet connection. These can be used for downloading certain features.
They also come with apps you can install on your phone, so you can play around with the sound without even touching the amp.
A modeling guitar amp is lightweight, it doesn’t break down as often as a tube amp, for instance, and is more versatile than both tube and solid-state amplifiers.
What’s more, they have a wide range of effects, so you might save some money on processors and pedals.
A hybrid guitar amp has two components: a preamp and a power amp. The preamp gets the signals from the pickups and passes them through a tube to create the sound that is further picked up by the power amp and rendered through solid-state circuits.
In other words, a hybrid amp is a combination of solid-state and tube amplifiers. This way, it gives a pretty unique, colorful sound.
Now you’re probably wondering what components an amp is made of. We’ve got you covered.
At a first glance, a guitar amp might look like rocket science, but it’s really not. It’s actually a very simple piece of equipment. The components of an amplifier are:
There are multiple pieces of tiny circuits that go into making an amplifier. However, the main components (the ones you should be familiar with) are the preamp, tubes, speakers and the “motherboard”, so to speak.
These are the three main features of a guitar amp that are absolutely essential for your musical knowledge. They are all interconnected and somewhat of a mystery even for the most experienced musicians.
It is commonly agreed upon the fact that amps can be for practice and for gigging. If your guitar amp is for practice, it should have somewhere around 20 watts of power. If you’re in a band and you’re playing venues, it should have 40 or more watts.
The power will affect the volume directly, but it’s not the only thing that matters. The bigger and more reliable the speakers are, the louder the sound will be.
If you’re playing in a band like Slipknot, you’ll need a lot of power onstage. If you’re playing country like Hank Williams, you can do with even the least amount of power.
Without distortion, the music industry today would be a desert. What this does is process the sound of the amplified guitar and increase its amplitude. Consequently, you’ll get a very powerful, pounding sound.
Distortion is customarily used in heavy metal and rock. The main types of distortion are fuzz and overdrive. The fuzz is a lot murkier and darker than overdrive and is generally used in extremely heavy, low-tuned metal.
“Dead Among the Roses” from the band Cough, for instance, is a great example of what fuzz sounds like and what it conveys sonically. Now compare this fuzz to the distortion in AC/DC’s “Highway to hell” to get a sense of how different distortion can be.
It’s all about the texture of the sound.
The volume you get can depend on a variety of factors: the number of pickups on your guitar, the power of the amplifier and the wattage of the loudspeakers. Volume can produce overdrive, which increases the gain of the guitar.
This happens only with amplifiers for electric guitars, as the ones for electro-acoustic guitars lack the power to do it. Volume and power are interdependent: if you turn off a pickup, the amp will get less signal, subsequently, you’ll have less amplification.
If you turn on both pickups (or all three, depending on the specs of your guitar), you’ll get much more amplification, therefore a much higher volume.
As explained previously, the pickups on the guitar transform the mechanical vibration of the chords into electrical impulses. These run to the tubes or circuitry through the input cable and are outputted as amplified sound through the speakers.
Electric and acoustic guitar amps can differ in terms of power, volume and versatility. The main difference, however, is that acoustic amps are designed to be less aggressive than their electric counterparts.
They usually have little to no distortion and are made to amplify faithfully the “unplugged” tone of the guitar. Electric amps are designed to amplify and tamper with the signal they get.
An acoustic guitar would sound awful through an electric amplifier because its tone would be a lot harsher than it should. An electric guitar, on the other hand, will sound equally horrible through an acoustic guitar amp.
Acoustic guitar amplifiers aren’t unable to pick as many frequencies as their electric kindred, so playing an electric guitar on an acoustic amp and vice-versa is extremely counter-productive.
The primary difference between bass and guitar amplifiers is that the former ones are usually more powerful. Why is that? It certainly looks like it should be the other way around, doesn’t it?
Well, a bass produces low-frequency sounds that could not be picked properly by an electric guitar amplifier. They need a lot more wattage to render those audible and clear.
Electric guitars have been and still are played on bass amps sometimes because they sound a little warmer and have a deeper tone. This method is actually used in some heavy genres.
What you should not do, though, is play a bass through an electric guitar amp because there are great chances you’ll blow it. Tone controls also differ on a bass amp.
Other instruments (keyboards, for example) don’t have distortion and have other tonalities. Accordingly, their components might be different, even though the process of amplification remains the same.
If you want a guitar amp that will last you, you should definitely consider purchasing one from the brands listed below. Of course, this is not to say other brands aren’t good.
It’s very important you experiment a bit, if possible, in order to find the brand that works best for you. There are 5 manufacturers we want to present you:
Fender amplifiers have been manufactured from 1945 onwards and obviously, they can still be purchased nowadays. Unlike other brands, Fender is perfect for music that requires a clean tone instead of a lot of distortion.
We’re talking about country, for example, or soft rock. If you’re more into rock and the more aggressive side of metal, you should not purchase a Fender guitar amp, no matter how powerful it is.
Fender amps are formidable if used for genres that necessitate a warm, clean sound. Consider the ’65 Twin Reverb (outstanding for blues and rock), the Champion 20 or the Deluxe Reverb.
Marshall manufactures the Holy Grails of amplifiers for use in heavy metal. They can get so powerful you could tear down the house with one chord. They manufacture all types of amps but mainly tube ones.
Marshall has become quite stereotypical for people who have enough money to buy Gibson guitars, especially the Les Paul models. There’s something in that combination that makes it irresistible.
This probably because the Les Paul has always been a metal force, therefore musicians can get the best out of it by connecting it to a Marshall amp. If you want a clean sound, we do not recommend you a Marshall amp.
These are beasts made for aggressive music that needs a lot of gain, so it really wouldn’t help if you play blues or pop-rock on a Marshall guitar amp.
Mesa is another titan in the amplification industry. Their amps are fantastic for a variety of purposes, but they can require some getting used to, particularly when people are accustomed to turning every knob to the maximum limit.
Due to their complexity, Mesa Boogie amps can be somewhat more expensive than other brands. It’s totally possible, though, to find a Mesa Boogie that wouldn’t cost more than a Marshall.
A Mesa Boogie guitar amp is a state-of-the-art piece of equipment and something that many guitarists dream of having. What strikes the user most at the first glance is how complicated it is.
What you shouldn’t do with a Mesa Boogie is turn knobs randomly, like you would on another brand. This guitar amp is a lot more sensitive than others and every movement has a quite great impact on the sound you’ll get.
If you need an amp that handles clean tones really well, you should consider a Vox guitar amp. What many musicians don’t like, though, is that many Vox guitar amps nowadays are manufactured in China, therefore they might not be very qualitative.
But then again, Vox has some fantastic ones you can use for clean tones and just a tad of inoffensive distortion.
Behringer is the last manufacturer on our list, but it’s not less important than the previous three. The company has made top-notch audio equipment for a long time now and has established a large following of faithful users.
If you know your amps a bit, you definitely heard of QSC, one of the most reliable and professional manufacturers of amplifiers in the world. The thing with Behringer is that they usually clone out QSC amplifiers but they make them with cheaper components.
We know what you may think: it means they suck. No, that’s not true at all. Behringer makes some really nice amplifiers you can purchase for half the price you’d spend on some other brands.
Musicians – especially rookie ones – have this misconception according to which cheap equipment is awful. Again: false. There are cheap products that will knock your socks off. Harley Benton guitars, for instance, have come a long way.
If you don’t have too much money, we wholeheartedly recommend a Behringer guitar amp. It will serve you well.
When a guitar starts to misbehave, you simply change its chords and it’s as good as new. However, taking care of an amp isn’t as easy. Amplifiers need proper attention to function as well as they did when unboxed.
Given that you are reading this, you are probably a beginner in the whole guitar amp realm. So, you might not know what “proper attention” means. We’ve got you covered in this aspect, as well.
Amps can easily heat up, especially the tube ones. No matter where it is, i.e. your room or the rehearsal space, make sure it’s properly ventilated. This way, you reduce the risk of it breaking down due to heat.
If it’s a solid-state amp, moisture can do quite a number on the circuitry. Whenever you leave the rehearsal space, cover it (the bag it came in can be used for this purpose). Moreover, do not keep it on the floor if it’s musty.
Some amplifiers are more fragile than they give the impression they are. Don’t keep it in a place where somebody can knock it down. If it’s a tube one, the vacuum cylinders could break.
If it’s a solid-state one, some of the electronic parts might be jarred out of place and eventually dislodged. Unless you’re a pretty good technician, you won’t be able to tell what’s wrong with it and what piece is loose.
Safety Hazard: If your amp starts to malfunction, do not play the technician if you have no idea what you’re doing. Some of them are capable of generating enough current to kill a human. It only takes one tiny mistake. Stay safe and use that warranty.
Turn every control on O, that is. Why should you do this? It’s simple: when you turn the amp on, it gets a surge of electrical current; if a control is not on 0, it could produce a short-circuit.
You’ll find out that mixers, keyboards, and guitars require the same thing.
The vast majority of people that have just picked up the guitar and learned enough chords to jam with their friends use their amps on full power. They take no prisoners.
Here’s the thing: you don’t need full power when you jam, even if you’re in the rehearsal room. Use half of that or even less. The other instruments have to be audible, too, and amps have a greater chance of breaking down if used on maximum power all the time.
If you read this guide carefully, you’ve seen what this practice can do: it can burn out your guitar. A bass is a lot more powerful; subsequently, it needs more power. Your guitar amp doesn’t have it.
If a tube breaks, purchase a new one from the manufacturer of the amp, if possible, not some bootleg you find on the Internet. If you don’t do this, the quality of the sound you’ll get from your amp could decrease exponentially.
Try not to use wet wipes, though, and refrain from using a vacuum cleaner on it. Some tiny parts could get sucked in. The instructions that come with the amp will let you know how to wipe it safely.
If you buy a $20,000 guitar and you play it through a $100 guitar amp, you’ve got a problem. You don’t need to spend a fortune on it, but it still needs to be proficient enough.
We know that we haven’t covered a lot of info you might look for, but we haven’t done it for a purpose.
This guide will be followed by an extensive buying guide in which you’ll find some recommendations and a list of things you should keep in mind when shopping around for an amp.
Stay with us and you’ll end up with a guitar amp that: 1) you won’t overpay for and 2) will drop some jaws when you get to the rehearsal room.