Engadine Music's Guitar Amp Buyer's Guide
So many options and so many opinions! Buy the amp that is right for you with our first time amp buyer’s guide.
Keep the following in mind when you go shopping for an amp.
- Bring Your Own Guitar. This of course only applies if you are already playing. There are many excellent guitar packs with amp, guitar and accessories bundled together. But if you already have a guitar, take it along with you to try the amps out. The combination of amp and guitar can really vary. My Vox AC15 with G&L telecaster is superb and they complement one another so well. Playing my Les Paul through the same amp sounds nasty and harsh. My Les Paul played through another amp sounds wonderful; full, meaty, well-defined.
- Valve (also called tube), solid-state or digital? You will get a myriad of opinions on this. Use your ears. Valve amps have traditionally been the preferred choice by guitarists, but they generally cost more, need regular servicing, can weigh more, and may not be as good for certain styles of music as a sold-state amp. Solid-state amps can be more reliable, far cheaper, and with modern technology, the tones on offer have really improved. The do not distort in the same way as valves, but that might be a good thing for some styles of music. The player in question may also not really be able to hear a difference.
Modelling amps attempt to recreate digital models of classic valve amplifiers and often combine several of these in one convenient unit. With a turn of a knob the player can go from a classic Fender clean tone to a Marshall-type classic rock sound, or a tone ideal for metal that might come from an amp such as a Mesa Boogie. These can be ideal for players interested in a lot of different artists and styles and the prices have been dropping as technology has improved and the market for these has grown.
Also keep in mind that an acoustic amp is quit different to an electric amp. You won’t damage an amp playing acoustic or electric through either type, but you won’t get the optimal tone if you are not using an amp designed for a particular type of guitar. Electric guitar amps will have a different gain structure (volume path ) and speaker type to an acoustic amp, which will be designed to reproduce the tone of the acoustic guitar with minimal colouration and clean volume. Electric guitar amps will ‘break up’ or distort the more you push them. The speakers are also not designed to represent the full range of frequencies, unlike an acoustic amp. This makes a big difference to the final sound.
- How big do you really need? Some people get caught up in the myth that ‘size matters’ when it comes to guitar amps. If you are primarily playing at home you are not going to be able to drive the amp that much before your parents, other family members or even neighbours start to complain. Guitar amps want to have a decent signal level running through them to get the speaker moving (which is an important part of the final sound). Larger valve amps can sound very sluggish or muddy when the volume is kept necessarily low. I used to own a Fender Twin; a 100 watt beast of an amp that was incredibly loud and sounded fantastic when turned up as it was designed to be run. The only issue was that the only time I could ever run it that way was using it for recordings when I wasn’t in the same room as the amp. At most gigs I was lucky to be able to turn it up over 2 on the master volume before band members and sound guys were complaining. The sweet spot for volume was around 6 or 7…It rarely got there, so it never sounded at its best!
Even if you can get away with having a large amp or speaker box, how will you transport it? I own a Marshall quad box that rarely leaves my music room. I like the idea of having it, but in practical terms it rarely gets used. I can’t easily carry it to my car by myself and even if I could there are not too many venues where I can fit it comfortably on stage and once I start driving the 4 speakers the volume can get too much too quickly. Even when I have played at major festivals with crowd sizes of 80-90 000 people I still haven’t been able to drive large amps as I thought I could. Everything is put through the PA system now anyway, so my little Vox which is 15 watts is often more than loud enough. I also own a 25-watt amp that is ridiculously loud if I need more!
- Amp Breakup. This is really only for electric guitarists (unless you want to distort your acoustic guitar). Amp breakup or distortion is made up from 3 things, the preamp, power amp and speaker. Preamp and power amp distortion offer very different types of distortion. Thin, fizzy, harsh distorted tones are generated by turning up the preamp gain and keeping the power amp gain down. Conversely turning up the power amp section will produce a fatter, warmer, fuller tone as the amp overall works harder and more power is directed to the speakers. How the speakers distort is also important in the final consideration of tone. Many classic rock and blues guitar tones have been the result of the power amp being turned up and then the preamp adjusted to taste. The guitar’s volume knob also comes in very handy for this. Turning down the volume knob can clean up the sound for as needed and then you can wind it on to give your tone a boost when you start playing lead.
So when you try an amp, turn up the power amp gain, lower the preamp gain and really see what the tone is like. You can always add more fizz in if you like, but you’ll have an idea of what the amp is actually meant to sound like.
- Number of channels. Some amps only have one channel and amp or guitar volume are used to control the level of distortion, taking the tone from clean to mean. Most modern amps have at least 2 channels, with one clean and one distorted. Some amps have 3 or 4 channels…but they are probably beyond the person looking to buy their first amp. This is really a matter of personal taste and can be decided by what the player wants and how they will use the amp.
- Additional features. Some amps offer foot-switchable options such as channel selection, reverb on or off, and adding a boost to the lead channel for soloing. An amp might have one EQ for both channels, or dedicated EQ for each channel to allow you to further dial in the tones you want. Some amps now feature a built-in tuner, while others include built-in effects. Built-in effects rarely feature the options for editing effects parameters that dedicated pedals or multi-fx units have. This can make the effects unusable in a band setting because they don’t actually gel with the band or music at hand. An fx-loop can be handy if you wish to use pedals such as delay, reverb or chorus pedals with your amp, but are not essential. Overdrive and distortion don’t go here!
So with this information, consider the following:
. Where will you be playing the amp? Only at home? With a band? Where will the band play? Is there a PA and option for you mic’ing the amp? Will it be loud enough to compete with a drum kit?Is it too loud for your needs?
. Can you transport it? As a kid I used to push an amp on my skateboard at times. It was OK because the garage we jammed in was only around the corner. Moving it much further than that would have been a pain.
. What style(s) of music do you want to play? Some amps will get you closer to what you want to emulate.
.Remember that an amp is just one part of the overall sound. Even buying the same amp as your favourite player does not mean you will automatically sound like them! Guitar type, setup, effects, how the amp was recorded and most importantly the players hands and musical ear will really influence and later the final sound.
Practice Amp Suggestions
These will be ideal for at home practice and small rehearsals. Also great for the classroom.
Acoustic Amp Suggestions
Electric Guitar Stage Amp
These are only a few examples, but we can offer so many more!
Need advice? We can help. Call the shop (02) 9520 3044 or email your amp inquiry here.