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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. On the one hand, it is wise to arm yourself with some research before entering the market for an amp. On the other hand, the quality of amps on the market these days, you could just as easily pick your budget, review a few models in that price range, and make the purchase. So do not stress too much.
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. 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 is obviously good news for the newbie guitarist who wants a good amp unit.
Given the multitude of roles that amp units can fulfill, they have been optimized to be paired up with 4 different types of instruments: the electric guitar, acoustic guitar, electric bass guitar, electronic keyboard.
Electric Guitar Amplifiers: These are very popular amps. But their popularity has a lot more to do with the success of the electric guitar itself.
Acoustic Guitar Amplifiers: The electronics of these amps capture and project the full range of the acoustic guitar's highs, mid-ranges and bass tones. 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 Amps: 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: These amplifiers are optimized to simply and accurately reproduce and project the keyboard sounds like a PA system.
Combo Amps: House both amp unit and speakers in one box. Most of the amps that you will see are of this variety. The combination of amp and speakers in one unit, is the ease of handling and transport.
Amp 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. If you plan to use several speakers, then this type of amp is well designed for the task.
How an amp functions
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
A vacuum tube is basically the same thing that was used in radios about half a century 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
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 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. 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.
Most amps support multiple channels, which when independently setup, allow you to switch channels easily while playing. Multiple channels and channel switching is an important feature to look for when making buying choice for an amplifier. Electric guitarists use this to switch between the loud distortion sound and the clean rhythm tones. A footswitch, which is generally supplied with new amp purchases, manages channel switching.
The power of an amplifier is measured in Watts. This is a measure of the capacity of the amp to power the speakers. 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 tube type amplifiers deliver a much louder sound per Watt in comparison to solid state amplifiers. For instance, a 5 Watt powered vacuum amplifier produces sound similar to a 40 Watt state amplifier.
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.
Here is a summary of the more common effects inbuilt into amps:
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 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 effect loop is controlled by an external chord and facilitates changing the signal carried between the preamp and the power amp.
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.
- 8” Speakers: found in smaller amps.
- 10” Speakers: housed in practice amplifiers.
- 12” Speakers: basic performance amps.
- 15” Speakers: these speakers suit bass amps and built into separate speaker cabinets.
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. While evaluating your amp needs, consider: your musical genre; how many instruments use the same amplifier; how loud is the drummer in your band; what size performance do you plan and at what type of venues.
Here are a few guide tips
- 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.
- A 30 Watt tube amp is adequate enough for a full rock band performance in most locations.
This guide is a starter for you on the path to buying the right guitar amp that meets your musical style and performance needs.