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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. This guide attempts to make your buying decision a little easier with arming your with some basic tips. 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.
Many musicians will advise you to spend a similar amount of money on the amplifier as was spent on 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. Bottom line is; don’t retard your instrument’s potential by pairing it up with a less than suitable amp. But that does not mean that amps of a lower price are of a low quality. Today, because of computer aided manufacturing, costs of amp units are dropping considerably without affecting the quality of the sound that produced. This market trend is good news for guitarists researching and buying a new or pre-owned amplifier.
Amplifiers are generally optimized to perform with the four types of guitar instruments, for example: the electric guitar, acoustic guitar, electric bass guitar, 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: 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 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 Amps: These amplifiers are optimized to simply and accurately reproduce and project the keyboard sounds like a PA system.
Combo Amps: One box containing both amplifier and speaker. These amplifiers are the most common type on the market. One of the benefits of these amps is they are easy to carry and transport.
Amp Head: This type of amp is a single unit without speakers. Speakers need to be connected to an Amplifier head to fully function. 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 amplifier works
Converting electrical impulses into audible sound is the basic function of a guitar amp. 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 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.
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. Both vacuum tube and solid state amps produce reproduce excellent sound quality. Purists argue in favor of the more organic sound quality of vacuum tube amps and their ability to produce that unique analog warmth and fluid distortion. 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. Electric guitarists use this to switch between the loud distortion sound and the clean rhythm tones. Most amplifiers are already equipped an accessory footswitch which facilitate channel changes.
The power capacity of an amplifier is measured in Watts. And it is this wattage capacity that drives 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 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) 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) 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: Modifying the signal from the preamp and power amp is achieved by an effects loop controller.
c) Digital Effects such as flange, phase, reverb, echo, chorus, pitch shift, etc are supplied in most quality amplifiers. 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. bear in mind that heaver and more expensive speakers are generally translate better sound quality. Better speakers will also allow for a better coloration of the amplifier’s signal producing richer and more superior sound.
Widely available speaker types:
- 8” Speakers: generally housed in smaller amps.
- 10” Speakers: found in practice amps.
- 12” Speakers: basic performance amps.
- 15” Speakers: usually found in bass amps and housed in a separate cabinet.
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. 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.
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.
- For larger performance situations, a 60 Watt amp connected to a 12" speaker will deliver excellent performance.
- 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.