Choosing a guitar amp for your tone needs can be an incredibly daunting task, but if you arm yourself with a little bit of information you can get the right amp the first time and not get confused with the endless options.
Hi fellow gearheads and guitar lovers one and all!
I wanted to give you my thoughts on what you should consider when purchasing a new guitar amplifier. There are a ton of misconceptions out there I would like to clear up to help you in one of the most important aspect of tone chasing on the electric guitar. Remember that your amplifier is what produces the tones from you fingers on the fingerboard and getting the right guitar-amp combo can really help inspire you to play more. Likewise, getting the wrong guitar-amp combination can be really frustrating as a player because the gear you are using aren’t helping you achieve the tones you hear in your head. At that point, even after getting your fingers right, something will always feel a bit off with your playing. I don’t want that to happen to anyone so I hope this clears everything up for you!
First Rule: When Test Driving a Amp Always Use your Own Guitar or Equipment!
Guitar amps always respond differently to different guitars. So, for you to get an honest representation of the tone response of the amp in question for you, you’ll need to use your own guitar. Guitars you use at the store, even if they are the same brand or model, may be a little bit brighter, darker, or have a different gain stage and will change how the amp responds. As such, something that sounds absolutely fantastic in the store could potentially sound like complete crap when you get it home. With your guitar tone there are so many variables that affect how it sounds when you play. The type of guitar you play, the pickups in the guitar, the type of nut and bridge, the playable action of the instrument, the cables you use, the type of amplifier you play, the distortion level of the speakers in the amp, the number of speakers in the amp, the total surface area of the speakers in the amp, the type of tubes in the amp, the amount of headroom the amp has, the placement of the amplifier in your room, where the amp is plugged into, the size of the room you’re playing in etc. Bringing your guitar to the store to try things out can eliminate a ton of variables in your playing and can give you a truer image of what the amp will sound like when you leave the store.
Second Rule: Consider Where Are You Playing
Amps respond differently in different rooms. When you play an amp at a reasonable volume, the speakers push a fair amount of air projecting sound out into the room. Changing the size of the room can affect “how loud” you perceive the amp to be. If you primarily play at home in a room where there isn’t much space for the sound to fill up, then even a relatively small powered amplifier can still seem loud and fill out the room. Likewise, if you’re playing out at clubs or larger venues you may need a bit more power to achieve the same effect of filling the room with your sound. Always window shop thinking about how much space you’re trying to comfortably fill out with your sound.
Understanding the Difference Between Wattage and Headroom
A major misconception when you start looking at amps is getting all obsessed with how much wattage your amplifier has. Certainly, there is a vibe to high wattage amplifiers. How many rock n’ roll shows have you been to lusting over the seriously loud tone the guitarist on stage is getting? We tend to associate “good tone” with high wattage amplifier and the mental image of guitarists always seem associated with large Marshall Stacks turned up to ten. But this has led to a major misunderstanding of a basic audio concept.
All wattage really means is how much potential power an amplifier can draw from current. If you think about a mill metaphor, the voltage is the water pressure and the wattage is the potential power the water has to deliver to its source every second. High wattage is not related to volume, it’s just the amount of power a source can provide. If you’re one of the people who want to debate this idea let me put it this way, doubling the watts can in theory double the volume or the amount of air the amplifier can push, but you will need ten times that sound pressure level change for your ears to perceive it louder.
The other important concept to explain here is the symbiotic relationship your guitar amp’s wattage has with headroom. Headroom is the amount of clean tone you have throughout the range of the amp’s volume knob before the amp starts to distort. Typically, the more wattage you have, the more potential for clean headroom the amp has. So as a result, you have to turn the amp up louder to get a pleasing natural distortion tone. The reason for this is because larger wattage amplifiers have more tubes in them to distribute the electrical load. Amps with less tubes can have the tubes driven harder at a lower volume, meaning you’ll get a pleasing distortion tone at a much lower volume. Understanding this relationship can help you pick an amp for how much air you’re trying to push in a room and what level can you reasonably get distortion.
Third Rule: Don’t Buy Solid State Amps
I’m just going to lay this out there and offend a vast majority of the internet. Do not purchase or entertain the thought of buying a solid-state guitar amplifier. Solid-State Amplifiers are amps that are powered by transistors and not old school tube technology. While many of them are much more budget friendly for musicians because they are much less expensive to produce, they are not as durable or reliable in the long run. If something was to break with a solid-state amplifier it is much more difficult for a technician to repair, and that’s IF he can fix it. That translates to a much more expensive labor cost on your end for the repair, and that’s a BIG IF on whether or not he can fix it. More often than not, the cost is more expensive than the amp is worth. Tube amps are much easier to repair, they are always able to be repaired, and parts are plentiful. Also, all your favorite guitar heroes used them so why not go after the same sounds!
Fourth Rule: Size Matters!
If you’re going to be moving your guitar amp around a lot to jam with friends or play at gigs, I highly recommend you think as small as possible. High powered amps are much heavier and not fun to lug around. Also, it might not fit in the car you have, and who wants to have to call their friend with the big car to transport your gear every time you want to jam. If lifting your new guitar amp causes you to think about calling the chiropractor tomorrow morning, it probably isn’t worth it for you. Remember that Keith Richards has roadies who abuse their backs for the sake of his great guitar tone. So, unless you have access to cheap amp lifting labor, I recommend either investing in something lighter or getting a dolly to help you out.
Fifth Rule: Does the Amp Suit the Style of Music You Play
What style of music do you play? Different guitar amps were designed for different purposes and finding the right one for you will really help you get the sound you’re chasing to come out of the speakers. Do you play the blues? If so consider a traditional Fender amplifier where the tone has a more sparkly high end and more dynamic range. Do you play heavier rock n’ roll where you need a fatter low end? Consider a Marshall amplifier with 12’ speakers. Play heavy metal? Check out a Mesa Boogie Dual or Triple Rectifier where there’s ton more gain and distortion saturation on tap. As always try to see what type of sound you get with the amplifier and just your guitar. If you get as close as you can to what you want with that combination, adding pedals into the mix will only improve the tone of what you’re already using.
Sixth Rule: Consider the Effect Different Speakers Have on Your Tone
Speakers are often an overlooked tonal aspect for guitarists. Understandably so, we tend to just think of speakers in terms of working (the sound is coming out) or not working (no sound coming out), but speakers do so much more for your tone. In truth, for beginning players, all you really want is the speaker to work so you can hear yourself play. But as you develop an ear for what your guitar sounds like coming through an amplifier, you can start to hear the subtle nuances in changes in components. Different speakers can handle different amounts of wattages from your guitar amplifier and different sizes speakers change how your amplifier feels under your fingers.
A great rule of thumb in finding the right speaker for your needs is to experiment with different speaker combinations at the store. This is usually easier to try on amplifiers with separate speaker cabinets because if you want to try a different configuration just plug into a different speaker cabinet. Certain speakers have a low tolerance or threshold for wattage, and when pushed hard breakup, whereas speakers with a higher tolerance and threshold for wattage stay clean longer and don’t muddy out in the low end. To check what the power rating of the speaker you’re playing look at the back of the speaker and check the rating. It will tell you how much power the speaker can handle before it starts to distort.
Typical classic speaker ratings are as follows:
Celestion Blue Bells-15 watts (used traditionally in Vox AC30’s)
Jensen 10’ speakers-25 watts (used traditionally in Fender combo amplifiers like Princeton’s Super Reverbs, and Bassmans)
Celestion Greenbacks-25 watts (better for classic rock players who want to hear the speakers distort with their amplifier. Typically used with players who use minimal effects because the speaker will fart out with them in the low end and become muddy)
Jensen 12’ speakers-50 watts (used traditionally in higher wattage Fender combo amps like Fender Twins or Deluxe Reverbs)
Celestion Creambacks-65 watts (the in-between speaker where you get the blend of greenbacks and vintage 30’s)
Celestion Vintage 30’s-60 watts (better for higher gain applications where the amp is pushing really hard before the speaker distorts, also better for players who play at loud volumes while using pedals to adjust the gain structure so the speaker won’t become muddy)
Electro Voice-200 watts (better for players looking to only hear what the amp is doing with no speaker distortion)
Using these general rules can help you understand which speaker is best for your tonal application. Another important concept to think about when speaker shopping is to think about the size of the speaker. Available surface area on a speaker can change how your guitar amp sounds as well. A larger surface area from say a 10’ speaker to 12’ speaker will result in a tighter, and more pronounced low end and will also push more air than the smaller speaker. However, four 10’ speakers will sound louder than two 12’ speakers simply because there is more surface area for the air to pushed from the amplifier. So different speaker types and sizes will produce different colors of tones in conjunction with your guitar amp.
Rule Seven: Can You Easily Dial in a Tone?
When you’re test driving a new amp you should be able to twist some knobs at random and using your ears be able to get a fairly good sound quickly. Adjust every tone control on the amp and make a mental note of how you hear them interacting with each other. If the interface on the front of the amp is confusing to you to the point where you can’t get a decent sound to test the amp, it probably won’t be the right amp for you.
Rule Eight: Always Check Pre-Owned Prices
In my opinion, why buy an amp brand new at the store if it can be had for cheaper at a used price? Unless that amp with the new price tag absolutely floors you, you can probably find the exact same thing with a little looking around for at least half the price. This can end up saving you hundreds, or sometimes depending on the amp in question, thousands of dollars. Many players buy amps to try them and only play them for short period of time, meaning you can potentially get a seriously good deal on an essentially mint item. Sometimes the amp you fell in love with might also not be made anymore, so you’ll end up having a better time trying to find it used anyways.
Rule Nine: Check for Additional Features
If the amplifier’s tone, wattage, headroom, speaker configuration, and price point all seem good for you consider the other features the amp may have to offer. Does the amp have multiple channels for different styles of crunch or overdrive? Does it have built in reverb? How about built in tremolo? Does it have a built-in effects loop for you to run for your pedals through? Considering if these features can be worth it for you because getting it right can save you money in the long run. If an amp has reverb and tremolo built in those are effects you might not need to purchase later. Multiple channel amplifiers can sometimes let two guitarists play through an amp at the same time or be used for one clean sound and one set for rock n’ roll crunch which can be great space savers for impromptu jam sessions. Effects loops are great for using reverb or delays through an amplifier but really aren’t necessary if you only use a couple pedals, and they can increase an amp’s price point.
Rule Ten: Buying for Collectability or Buying for Function
One last great thing to consider is are you buying an amp with the idea that it will grow in value like a piece of art, and therefore may be a great financial investment? Are you chasing the tone of the mythic rock stars, or are you just wanting to play a great sounding amp that is reliable and functional for your uses? This is an important factor to consider when buying an amp because it could save you a ton of money. Vintage guitar amps while having a certain amount of mojo tend to be inflated in price because of their collectability. Their prices rise and fall based on their desirability on the vintage market and usually based on which guitarists are using them on records at the moment. However, there is something to be said for owning/playing a working piece of history that is what the Beatles used on their records that modern reissue replacements don’t quite nail in the tone department. For example, a purple 1971 Marshall Plexi costs a lot more than the standard vintage black 1972 Marshall Plexi due to the rarity factor. However, the two amps side by side would sound identical. Just food for thought.
I hope my ten rules can help you get the right amp for your playing style. If you still have any questions please feel free to let me know and give me some information about your playing style and I will help walk you through the process!