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Electric Guitar Amplifiers. Buyers Tips.
Given the variety of guitars and the number of amplifier brands available, deciding on the right amplifier has its challenges. 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.
Many musicians will advise you to spend a similar amount of money on the amplifier as was spent on the guitar. The reason is pretty simple; the music that you create needs to pass through the amp before it reaches the world. In short, why reduce your guitar's potential by using a lesser quality amplifier. But that does not mean that amps of a lower price are of a low quality. These days, with the advanced computer aided manufacturing methods, the cost of producing amplifiers is lower while the relative quality improves. This trend benefits amp buyers.
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 very popular amps. The popularity of the electric guitar explains why this trend.
Acoustic Guitar Amps: These amplifiers are optimized to project the brilliant highs of the acoustic guitar while preserving the warm mid-ranges and bass. Typically, the acoustic amplifier houses inbuilt speakers; feature a microphone plug and a line-in for guitar pickups.
Bass Amps: Bass amps are optimized to reproduce and project the low sonorous sounds of the bass guitar.
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: One box containing both amplifier and speaker. These amplifiers are the most common type on the market. The combination of amp and speakers in one unit, is the ease of handling and transport.
Amplifier Head: This type of amp is a single unit without speakers. Amp heads require a cable connection to speakers. High voltage capable cables are the better choice for connecting speakers to the amp head. Avoid using standard guitar cables. This type of an amp is also great for connecting a large number of speakers.
How an amplifier works
The basic function of an Amp is to convert electrical signals into audible sound. To achieve this task, amps use two circuits or stages, namely: 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 is responsible for boosting the signal from the pre amp and sending it to the speakers according to the wattage specs of the unit.
Vacuum Tube Amplifier
Vacuum tubes are what you will find in the original radios 50 odd years ago.
When over-driven and heated with electrical current, tube type amps produce a tonal warmth and a unique 'distortion effect' not found in digital type amps. Although tube amps are considered an older technology, being replaced with solid state technology, they remain popular for many musicians.
Solid State Amps
This type of amp incorporates newer circuit design and aims to replicate the tonal and sound processing qualities of the older vacuum tube amp models.
The choice between a tube or solid state amp depends on both your budget and musical genre. 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. Newer generations of musicians tend to opt for the latest in amp technology, namely solid state circuits, primarily because this type of amp suits modern music genres. Plus very affordable quality amps are available with this newer technology.
The Proper Channel
Most amps support multiple channels, which when independently setup, allow you to switch channels easily while playing. For most musicians, channel switching capabilities is an important feature. Electric guitarists find the ability to channel switch useful to achieve efficient changes between loud distorted sounds and those cleaner rhythmic tones. A footswitch, which is generally supplied with new amp purchases, manages channel switching.
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. Here are a few tips to guide your amp selection, relating to wattage:
a) A higher wattage will produce a louder sound in the same amplifier unit type
b) Vacuum tubes produce a markedly louder sound per Watt of power as compared to solid state circuits. For example, a 5 Watt vacuum tube amp will deliver a similar sound volume as a 40 Watt solid state amp unit.
c) If you are buying for a beginner then make sure that the amp unit has a headphone jack.
Here is a summary of the more common effects inbuilt into amps:
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: Most modern amplifiers feature a range of digital effects that may include; flange, phase, reverb, echo, chorus, pitch shift and so on. 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. 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: find these in amp for for practice sessions.
- 12” Speakers: find in amps used for performances.
- 15” Speakers: usually found in bass amps and housed in a separate cabinet.
Things to keep 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.
Points to consider
- A 40 Watt solid state amplifier featuring 10" speakers will project adequately in most performance situations, depending on the loudness of the drummer.
- 60 Watt solid state amp paired with a 12” speaker will do well in all but the loudest situations.
- 30 Watt tub amplifier is the pic for a full rock band performance in most contexts.
The tips in this guide will help you evaluate your needs for an amp and assist you find the right amp that matches your musical genre; performance and practice requirements and, budget.