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Electric Guitar Amplifiers. Buyer’s Tips.
Given the variety of guitars and the number of amplifier brands available, deciding on the right amplifier has its challenges. This guide attempts to make your buying decision a little easier with arming your with some basic tips. Sure you need to inform yourself about amplifier specs and features, but do not stress too much. The simple approach is choose your budget, review a few models and make the purchase. The state of current technology and manufacturing techniques means that most amps are of good build quality and will deliver acceptable performance, even for a modest budget.
A common adage used by guitarists is that you should always spend as much on the amp unit as you are willing to spend on the guitar. The reason is pretty simple; the music that you create needs to pass through the amp before it reaches the world. Bottom line is; don’t retard your instrument’s potential by pairing it up with a less than suitable amp. However that does not mean that less pricey amps are of low quality. Today, because of computer aided manufacturing, costs of amp units are dropping considerably without affecting the quality of the sound that it produces. This is obviously good news for the newbie guitarist who wants a good amp unit.
At first glance, amps are designed to match the four types of guitars, namely: electric; acoustic; electric bass and electronic keyboard.
Electric Guitar Amplifiers: These are hands down the most popular of all the amplifiers. But their popularity has a lot more to do with the success of the electric guitar itself.
Acoustic Guitar Amplifiers: These amps are used to project the brilliant highs of the acoustic guitar without sacrificing on the mid-ranges and basses. Acoustic guitar amps always have their own speakers and they also generally allow a mic to be plugged in directly along with the line from the acoustic guitars pickups.
Bass Amplifiers: These amps tend to not distort the sound; rather the focus of a bass amp is to reproduce the low sonorous sounds that bass guitars are so popularly known for.
Keyboard Amplifiers: Simply try to reproduce the sounds made by the keyboard as accurately as possible acting like a PA system.
Types of Amplifier Units
Combo Amps: Contain both the speaker and the amplifier unit in one box. Most of the amps that you will see are of this variety. These are very good for carrying around, as long as they are not too large.
Amplifier Head: Is a single amp unit without any speakers. These need to be paired up with speakers by a cable. You will need real speaker cables designed for handling higher voltage outputs rather than standard instrument cables. This type of an amp is also great for connecting a large number of speakers.
How an amp functions
The basic function of an Amp is to convert electrical signals into audible sound. To do this, amplifiers use two circuits or stages: preamp and power amp. The preamp works on the signal it gets from the instrument and makes it good enough for the power amp and the other instruments within the amplifier such as the EQ and the effects loop etc. The power amp boosts the signal so that the speakers can produce the audible sound.
Vacuum Tube Amplifier
A vacuum tube is basically the same thing that was used in radios about half a century ago.
Tubes, when they are over-driven and heated with electrical current produce the “distortion effect” which explains the popularity of these types of amplifier. This is the reason why even today, when they are soundly obsolete and replaced with solid state diodes, they remain in vogue.
Solid State Amps
These amplifiers are a newer generation of circuits which attempt reproduce the authentic tonal sound quality of the vacuum tube.
Trying to decide whether to go in for a vacuum tube based amp or a solid state based amp is a very personal question. The difference between the two is something which only very well tuned ears can pick up, however purists tend to stick with the vacuum tube because of the organic and fluid distortion that comes out of it. Most Newbies however tend to stick with the latest in technology, including solid state circuits not only because some of these are suited to some of the modern genres, but also because they are cheaper.
Amplifiers offer multiple channels which can be independently setup so that you can switch between them without missing a beat. Channel switching or switching between multiple channels while playing is a rather important feature that many guitarist now-a-days prefer. Electric guitarists use this to switch between the loud distortion sound and the clean rhythm tones. Most amps come equipped with a footswitch with which you can change and juggle between multiple channels at the same time.
Power in an amp is meant to denote the amount of raw power being fed into the amp unit for the speakers. This is usually measured in Watts. Keep the following things in mind when selecting the kind of power you want your amp to be based on:
a) Higher wattage will mean a louder sound in the same amplifier.
b) Vacuum tubes produce a markedly louder sound per Watt of power as compared to solid state circuits. A vacuum tube being driven on 5 Watts of power produces the same level of sound as a 40 Watt solid state unit will produce.
c) If you are buying for a beginner then make sure that the amp unit has a headphone jack.
Amps offer a number of effects which you can switch between. These can be summarized as:
a) EQ: This generally comes in the form of 2 or 4 knobs with which you can control the range of frequencies in the sound. For instance, increase treble settings for a brighter sound, adjust the middle EQ to full and the treble and bass to zero to achieve the natural sound of the guitar, add extra bass tones by increasing the bass frequency. As we are familiar with the slider type EQ controls on a home stereo system, then experiment with the EQ controls on an amp. Adjusting the treble higher produces brighter sounds, while adjusting the middle and bass produces rich deeper tones.
b) Effects Loop: An effects loop allows you to modify the signal between the preamp and the power amp using an external chord.
c) Digital Effects: Many amps offer digital effects like flange, phase, reverb, echo, chorus, pitch shift, etc. You can save these as presets that can act as channels in the amp. Many amps also come with presets which can be used as well.
Obviously this is what the world listens to! So it is good to have the best speakers which you can buy. Do note that the heavier and more expensive speakers are always of better quality than cheaper ones. Better speakers will also allow for a better coloration of the amplifier’s signal producing richer and more superior sound.
Common speaker types include:
- 8” Speakers: found in smaller amps.
- 10” Speakers: found in practice amps.
- 12” Speakers: basic performance amps.
- 15” Speakers: come in separate cabinets, are paired almost exclusively with bass amps.
Things to bear in mind
There really are gazillion things that you will need to consider if you sat down to decide what kind of an amp you should be purchasing. Among these are – the types of music that you play, the number of instruments in the band, the placement of the amp, is the drummer loud, the size of the performance etc.
Here are a few guide tips
- 40 Watt solid state amp driving a 10” speaker will hold up its own in most performances. However this may not do so well if the band has a drummer as well.
- 60 Watt solid state amp paired with a 12” speaker will do well in all but the loudest situations.
- 30 Watt tube amp is loud enough for a full rock band in most conceivable scenarios.
Use this guide as a starting point to formulate a criteria for your guitar amplifier research and ultimate purchase.
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