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Buying an Electric Guitar Amplifier. A Guide.
Walk into a well stocked music store and you will be faced a huge selection of guitar amplifiers. What amp is the right match for you and your guitar/s? It can be a difficult buying decision. Here is a basic guide to assist your amp choice. Sure you need to inform yourself about amplifier specs and features, but do not stress too much. The simple approach is pick 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.
There is a general rule of thumb, advocated by musicians, the cost of the amp ought match the cost of the guitar. The reason is simple: why diminish your musical talent and the quality of your guitar with an amplifier of lesser value than your instrument. Basically, do not diminish your guitar's potential by matching it with an inferior amplifier. That does not mean that low priced amps are of an inferior quality. Today, because of computer aided manufacturing, costs of amp units are dropping considerably without affecting the quality of the sound that produced. 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 Amps: 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 amplifiers are optimized to not distort sounds of the lower lower registers.
Keyboard Amplifiers: These amplifiers are optimized to simply and accurately reproduce and project the keyboard sounds like a PA system.
Types of Amplifier Units
Combo Amps: Contain both the speaker and the amplifier unit in one box. These amps are what you will most commonly find in the market. 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. It is advised to use high voltage cables for connecting the amp head to the speakers. Avoid standard type instrument cables. This type of amplifier is designed to manage the connection of several speakers.
How an amplifier works
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 processes the signal received from the guitar and sends to the power amp and other processes in the amp, such as the EQ and effects loop. The task of the power amp is to boost the signal sent to the speakers.
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. Although tube amps are considered an older technology, being replaced with solid state technology, they remain popular for many musicians.
Solid State Amps
These amplifiers are a newer generation of circuits which attempt reproduce the authentic tonal sound quality of the vacuum tube.
The choice between a tube or solid state amp depends on both your budget and musical genre. The sound and tonal differences produced by both type of amps is generally only detectable by a trained ear, however purists tend to opt for the vacuum tube amps because of the more analog tone and distortion sound quality. 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.
When research amplifiers, ensure the unit is capable of multiple channels, which can be set independently allowing the user to seamlessly switch between channels. Multiple channels and channel switching is an important feature to look for when making buying choice for an amplifier. Channel switching is especially useful for the electric guitarist for the ability to effortlessly switch between the loud distortion effect 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. Bear in mind the following guide when researching your amplifier purchase:
a) The higher the wattage spec, the louder sound capability of the 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) A headphone jack is standard in an amp unit. Although it is a simple feature, it is especially useful for practice sessions while not disturbing your neighbors.
Most amplifiers support a number of inbuilt effects. Here is a brief overview:
a) The EQualizer controls sound frequencies. An amp will feature 2 or 4 dial knobs to control these adjustments. For instance, increase treble settings for a brighter sound, adjust the middle EQ to full and the treble and bass to zero to achieve a the natural sound of the guitar, add extra bass tones by increasing the bass frequency. As an example, increasing the treble settings will produce a brighter sound, increase the middle EQ with treble and bass to zero to deliver a raw natural sound of the instrument. And then play with the bass control for added bass depth.
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 such as flange, phase, reverb, echo, chorus, pitch shift, etc are supplied in most quality amplifiers. Presets can be saved and assigned to channels in the more modern digital types of amps. And many amplifier models feature a selection of effects presets for easy selection.
Speaker quality is important, of course. be mindful of your budget, but try to get the best speakers for your budget. bear in mind that heaver and more expensive speakers are generally translate better sound quality. Better quality speakers facilitate better coloration of the amps signal, thus creating a richer superior sound.
Common speaker types include:
- 8” Speakers: found in smaller amps.
- 10” Speakers: found in practice amps.
- 12” Speakers: find in amps used for performances.
- 15” Speakers: these speakers suit bass amps and built into separate speaker cabinets.
Things to bear in mind
Buying an amplifier requires some initial thought and research. Be clear about the purpose of the amplifier and how it will match and enhance your musical genre. Some considerations include: the style of music you plan now, the number of instruments you plan to attach to the amp, are there other band members who want to plug into your amp, the size of performances and venue types.
Here are a few guide tips
- 40 Watt solid state amps driving a 10" speaker will deliver adequate results for most performance contexts.
- A 60 Watt solid state amplifier matched with a 12" speaker is completely suitable to all but the loudest performance locations.
- 30 Watt tub amplifier is the pic for a full rock band performance in most contexts.
Use this guide as a starting point to formulate a criteria for your guitar amplifier research and ultimate purchase.