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Buying an Electric Guitar Amplifier. A Guide.
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. 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. 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.
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 Amps: These are by far the most popular category of amplifiers. The popularity of the electric guitar explains why this trend.
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. Typically, the acoustic amplifier houses inbuilt speakers; feature a microphone plug and a line-in for guitar pickups.
Bass Amps: 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.
Amp Unit types
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. One of the benefits of these amps is they are easy to carry and transport.
Amp 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. 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
Vacuum tubes are what you will find in the original radios 50 odd years ago.
Tube type amps produce a unique sound, appealing to those musicians seeking the warmer tones and special distortion effect tube amps deliver. Some consider the tube amp to be obsolete, but for many musicians the authentic and classic sounds of the tube amp ensures its continued popularity.
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.
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. Solid state amps are generally cheaper than their vacuum tube counterparts. So, for budding musicians, a sold state amp can be bought with a smaller starting budget.
Amplifiers offer multiple channels which can be independently setup so that you can switch between them without missing a beat. 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 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) Beginner musicians will find the feature of a headphone jack useful, especially for those practice sessions when you do not want to disturb the neighbors.
Amps offer a number of effects which you can switch between. These can be summarized as:
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 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 effect loop is controlled by an external chord and facilitates changing the signal carried between the preamp and the power amp.
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. Remember we mentioned channels earlier, well channels can control effects which can be preset and assigned to a channel. The channel switcher can then easily switch between different effects presets. In many instances, amps will feature preset effects combinations.
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. You get what you pay for is a good rule to apply to speakers. Better quality speakers produce better coloration of an amps signal and delivers richer sounds and tones when compared to cheaper models.
- 8” Speakers: smaller amplifiers.
- 10” Speakers: found in practice amps.
- 12” Speakers: find in amps used for performances.
- 15” Speakers: come in separate cabinets, are paired almost exclusively with bass amps.
Before buying an amplifier, clarify the purpose of the amp for your needs now and in the future. Establish your budget and research brands and models within your budget range. There is no reason to over spend your budget. Why buy a Porsche when all you need is a ford for commuting purposes, as an analogy. 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.
Points to consider
- 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.
- A 30 Watt tube amp is adequate enough for a full rock band performance in most locations.
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.