Amps can be a complex thing and it really comes down to trying them and deliberating. The best advice I can give anyone starting out is to keep it as simple as possible - the less controls on one amp the better, you get what you pay for, size does matter and brand names are well-known for a reason.
If you're a beginner then you may only want to purchase a small practice amp, in which case there is no real need to worry about which one to get as they are all very similar at this small size. If a practice amp won't cut it for you then here are some general tips that anyone can follow safely and find the amp they are after. Keep in mind these are general tips.
*Acoustic and Electric Amps*
You will need an acoustic amp for your acoustic guitar and an electric amp for your electric guitar.
Acoustic guitar amps are designed to amplify the true tone of your instrument as much as possible. Much of the sound quality from your acoustic guitar will come from the pickup and/or microphone hardware installed or available to your guitar.
Electric guitar amps are designed to colour and to some extent, manipulate the sound of your electric guitar. Different brands are known for their own distinct sound. Artists are known to use various brands of amps at different times in their career and often use combinations of different amps to achieve their desired sound. However, it is not uncommon for certain players to stick with one amp to produce "their" sound. Here are three of the well known ones:
- VOX are traditionally known for their AC15 and AC30 sounds that were prolific in the British Invasion of the American and other major international music charts in the 1960s. Notable bands from this period are The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and the Yardbirds. Other users of the Vox include U2's guitarist The Edge, Brian May from Queen, Deep Purple's original guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and the boys from Radiohead.
- FENDER are known for their clean tones and are great for adding effects pedals and multi-effects boards. They are also well known for creating beautiful blues tones particularly when played with a Fender guitar. Some famous guitarists who have used Fender amps are Eric Clapton, David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Neil Young, Jonny Buckland (Coldplay) and Kurt Cobain (Nirvana).
- MARSHALL amps are very popular amplifiers and are synonymous with power. Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) used Marshall amplification for much of his career. Jimi Hendrix changed amps throughout his career looking for the sound on which he finally settled; he became almost exclusively a Marshall amps man. I remember the '80s being rife with Marshall stacks as backdrops for many prominent bands. Slash of Guns N' Roses and Velvet Revolver fame is one such artist and Marshall has rewarded his guitar greatness and loyalty with two Signature amps.
These days electric guitar amps often combine solid state circuitry technology and older tube technology, but many guitarists choose all-tube amps because of the tone quality and smoother quality of the amps distortion capabilities. All-solid state amps are often less expensive compared to their all-tube and combined technology counterparts.
You will need to consider how loud you want to play... the louder you can go the more you can enjoy the natural tone of the amp. Keeping this in mind, you wouldn't want to get a high output amp if you're only going to be playing at home, where if you turn it up you'll annoy a lot of people on your block not to mention the people with whom you live.
Tube amps are perceived by the ear as louder than solid state amps and tube tone is as they say 'creamier'. The output level can also be deceptive if you don't understand how the numbers work. A safe way to approach it is with this rough guide in mind; a 5-watt amp is heard by the ear to be half as loud as a 50-watt amp, and a 0.5-watt amp would be a quarter as loud as a 50-watt amp. Just so you know, a 50-watt amp would be plenty loud.
More speakers on an amp will make your amp only slightly louder. One number I've heard thrown around is that it is approximately 4dB increase for every extra speaker. An anomaly of sound in this area (called dispersion) means that although extra speakers increase the volume output, the perceived volume can be lower than if there are less speakers covered by the same amp.
*Head & Cab VS Combo*
A "cab" is the separate cabinet that houses the speakers and the "head" is the actual amplifier. Heads can be quite heavy (especially all-tube amps) but there are manufacturers that make smaller, lighter, more portable amp heads. Combo amps have the head and speaker components housed in the one cabinet.
*Argh! My brain hurts... I just want a nice amp! *
At the end of the day, you want to play through an amp that has a sound you like. So go and try some out! Take notes, check reviews in magazines and online, ask your friends, talk to trusted sales reps, ask your guitar teacher, do whatever research you feel necessary. Make sure you try these amps out with your own guitar because it is the sound of your guitar that has to be compatible and pleasing to you.
Andrew is a guitar teacher to over 45 budding guitarists at The Guitar Gym studios in Indooroopilly, QLD, Australia.
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