Playing music is all about expressing your personal voice. Finding an amp that helps define that voice is a lifetime quest for some guitarists, while others figure it out early and stick with the one set-up all their musical life. With so many options on the market right now, including valve, solid state hybrid and digital models, guitarists are spoiled for choice. How do you find your own sound when there are so many voices to choose from? In the eternal quest for the holy grail of guitar tone, a little research goes a long way.
Knowing how amps work will help you make an informed decision. An amp consists of three main components – preamp, power amp and speakers. Speakers are self explanatory so let’s skip to the preamp. The preamp is where your gain and tone shaping occurs. Depending on a preamp’s design, increasing the gain could just result in tone with more body, or it could mean mega distortion. The power amp is the section which takes the tone, as shaped by the preamp, and sends it to the speakers. The power amp also powers the speakers themselves. The two main forms of tone generation are valves (or vacuum tubes if you’re American), and transistors (solid state). Valves are a leftover from Edison era technology and are still in use today simply because they sound great. They amplify the signal in a warm-sounding way which transistors have difficulty emulating. Digital technology is getting closer than ever to mimicking the response of valves, and on a mastered recording it can be hard to tell the difference.
You can either buy an amp which includes the preamp, power amp and speakers together (a combo amp), or just the preamp and power amp in one unit (an amplifier head) to be plugged into a separate standalone speaker cabinet, or the third popular option, which also requires a standalone speaker cabinet, is a separate preamp and power amp which can be combined to taste, along with effects units, in a rack case.
The first step in buying an amp is to identify what your needs are. Will you be jamming along with CDs in your bedroom? Playing with mates in a garage? Gigging five nights a week in a covers duo? Trying to make it on the gig circuit with an originals band?
Let’s tackle each of those examples one by one. Bedroom jamming. When I first started playing electric guitar (aged 12 in 1990), it seemed most low watt practice amps on the market consisted of two controls – volume and tone. If you were lucky, you might have had barky solid state overdrive or a three band EQ. But something happened over the last ten years or so. The term “practice amp” stopped meaning “beginner amp,” and models started appearing which featured integrated effects, auxiliary inputs for jamming along with CDs or MP3 players, and in the case of Fender’s revolutionary G-DEC amp, built in backing tracks.
When trying out a practice amp, especially one with amp modelling, try to find one that has one or two sounds you really love, rather than 50 you don’t really like. Don’t be swayed by versatility if you know you’ll only need a basic rhythm and lead sound – you can always add effects pedals later to enhance the sound, but try to avoid starting with a bad tone then throwing gadgets at it to make it listenable. Also, be aware that you won’t be able to crank the amp up to huge volume levels. Most practice amps are solid state. Small valve combos are also great for recording – Jimmy Page was all about using his tiny Fender Champ amp for recording massive tones.
That brings us to jamming with mates in the garage or rehearsal studio. In this environment, one of the biggest problems is clarity. Aim for a combo amp with a 12 inch speaker at minimum, and either prop the amp up with milk crates, or at the very least, place it at a 45 degree angle so the sound projects upwards towards everybody’s ears, not directly into their shins. You’ll find you don’t need to turn it up as high to be heard, which means the sound won’t be reverberating around the rehearsal space as much, and therefore it won’t be as muddy. This is a good environment to experiment with hybrid amps, which feature valves in the preamp section and MosFet transistors in the power section. This will get you somewhat closer to a true valve tone than a solely solid state amp.
Next: Covers duo or band. In this environment you need tonal flexibility and ease of use. A very popular option for this is the standalone floor-based processor. Models by Digitech, Boss, Zoom and Line 6 offer replications of popular amps, and are all designed with live performance in mind. Many players find that the pedal takes care of all their tonal generation needs, so they just run in straight into their amp’s clean channel. However, you should consider running the unit’s output directly into your amp’s effects loop return. This effectively turns your amp into a power amp, removing its preamp from the signal chain and thus avoiding any tonal colouration it may impose on your sounds. Or if you discuss your needs with your soundman, most such units can be directly plugged into the mixing desk, so you can hear your sound solely through the onstage monitors, and all you’ll need for the gig are your guitar, processor and a couple of cables.
If you’re playing club or pub gigs with an original band, you may only need a valve combo amp. Remember the amp will be mic’ed up, so buy according to tone rather than volume. Also be aware that a 100watt amp won’t be much louder than a 50watt amp, because contrary to what many people seem to believe, watts are a measure of power, not volume. There are two crucial rules when it comes to creating a live tone. The first is your amp’s midrange control – resist the temptation to turn it to zero just because it sounds cool in your bedroom. Once the rest of the band comes in, the amp’s treble frequencies will be partially eaten up by the cymbals, and the bass frequencies will be lost among the bass guitar and bass drum. Midrange may be all you have left. Sometimes even if you’re after a scooped out death tone it’s better to keep the mids at 5 (which on most amps is ‘neutral’), and boost the other frequencies a little.
The other crucial rule of onstage sound is to set your distortion level to wherever you think you need it when you’re playing by yourself, then reduce it by about a quarter for the stage. You’ll find that your sound opens up a lot and it will be much easier for the audience, your band mates and yourself to hear what you’re playing. Heavy rhythms will have punch and kick, while single note lines will have increased dynamics.
Most of all, remember that you don’t need to get a 120 watt head with two 4X12 speaker cabinets just to be heard at your local watering hole. Of those 12 double stacks the great Eddie Van Halen keeps on stage, only three actually have speakers in them – the rest are for show.
Come to think of it, I guess there’s nothing wrong with piling a tiny pub stage with empty cabinets to look cool, while keeping a tiny combo amp behind the stage with a mic in front of it for your actual sound.