If you decided to pick up an electric, you will need an amp to go with it. How will you choose an electric guitar amplifier from the hundreds available on the market? I remember when I started browsing amps and realized that there are so many different parts that go into buying one. While I do not regret the decision I’ve made and am enjoying mine, there are a few things I would probably done differently if I had gone over the process again:
The Core Research
Different amps are like different guitars and some go good together while others may be inferior. Consider your amps to be like support kits to the music you will be playing. In my case, I wanted to play the Blues and went for the tube, since all of my Blues Guitarists have mentioned the love for the valve amps at one point or another. To be fully honest, I fear that if I was to be blindfolded and tested between a solid-state and a tube, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. However I have found to feel the sound better with my tube over solid states. It just feels warmer, nicer, richer and more grand. However the first and main thing is your financial comfort and thorough reviews:
First of all, figure out your budget. As with guitars, you can buy amps for $200 and do great things with them. It seems that people have positive attitude towards Fender’s Mustang Amp series. Not so long ago, I have considered buying one for myself since my ValveKing was a bit too much for the smaller space I got in to but ultimately went against it and brought my 50 watt with me. Some old friends are hard to leave behind, especially if it’s your first Blues guitar or amplifier… Anyway, make sure, you leave enough cash to buy an amp when you will be buying an electric. It is strongly recommended that you do not spend less than 50% of your guitar budget on an amp. So if you are going to buy a $500 axe, don’t go below $250 amp and if you can – equal the numbers. You can always resell it and it will stay with you for decades. Low quality amps can start breaking or not give you what you’ve expected tone-wise and cause discouragement. Keep in mind that the guys we listen to are playing $2k guitars through $5k amps. All in good time. You don’t need one like that for now. I thought I did and now am not playing above volume 3.
It is true that a real guitar virtuoso can play on a shovel and sound amazing (Seasick Steve is just one example), there are still unique features to each axe as well as each amplifier. Fenders are preferred for us Blues guys, Marshall through Gibson are better for Slash lovers, Peavey or Ibanez is great for metal and so on. Figure out what music you are going to play and then research which brands are targeting guitarists in that area. In his Rig Rundown, Billy Gibbons said that you can’t go wrong with Fender amps, Marshall amps or any big names. I actually tend to believe that statement since most of the guys I listen to are playing through Fenders. This brings us to the next point…
See What They are Playing
And by “they” I mean the people being the reason why you have picked up your guitar. As with choosing your first guitar the same concept applies here. You will want to play what you are listening to and thus you will need to see what your favorite guitarists are playing through and then getting the cheaper version of it.
However this time the concept is opposite. Go with smaller. It is enough to have 15 watts of tube to record in a studio, do you really think you will need 50 watts to play C major scale in a flat? I did and I was somewhat wrong. Recently I have brought it up on a Strat Forum to get more public opinion on the matter and it seems that while the large amps we have are awesome, there is a lot of unused power going to waste there. Not being able to turn up the volume takes away from the real tone of the amp. You lose tone at lower volumes and thus enjoy it less than you could have if you had gotten a 10-25 watt amp instead. I personally am still on the fence about it and if I find a small tube Fender for a good price, I will jump it without a second thought. I urge you to go smaller despite of “what she says”.
Make a list
Write all the boxes you like on the paper and prepare yourself for part two which will require lots of travelling, sitting, listening and meditating.
This is another important part that can be overlooked by the first-timers. You absolutely must go out and play with the amps you have narrowed down to. Play with them once, twice and then two more times in different days. This will give you an understanding of what you will be dealing with in terms of digital effects, tube vs solid state, combo vs stacks, durability and just aesthetics.
A fun thing! A really cool thing to have if you know how to play. Digital effects in this sense is a number of preset tones inside your preamp (head with all the knobs) that make life easier if you want to play British Blues or Norwegian Heavy Metal. You just click a button or turn a knob and it sets all controls to the desired tone. At the same time, Digital Effects can be substitutes for the Effect Pedals such as Overdrive (Some smaller amps don’t have enough power and need gain boost), Reverb (go for “spring” if you can), Delay, Flanger, Chorus and other that I can’t recall. It is very convenient to have these things built into your amp and not have to carry half a dozen pedals with you, or spend money on buying them. There is a common conception that having effects incorporated into your guitar amplifier takes away from the quality of your amp’s tone (Read about Analog vs Digital and how the signal flow is altered). At the same time, since we are beginners and this is our first amp, we will not notice or know the difference but will have a lot of fun playing with those effects. Line 6 is considered a leader in the field of effects inside an amp.
Tube versus Solid-State
This is totally up to you and the Holy War on the subject will last until the last man remembering what is a guitar will live. Tubes are warmer and richer but die faster. They are a sound with a feel. Solid States can be thrown off the cliff (No, they can’t) and survive to tell the tale. There are those who hear the difference and those who don’t. There are audiophiles and audiomellows. You pick a side but make sure you give it a try when choosing your Blues amp. There are those which won’t rob you off your college fund and will be quality manufacturing. However, all tubes die at some point. What I mean by that is that tubes will need replacement parts in a couple years and it is normal so be warned. The beauty of fragility.
Combo versus Stacks
When you will become a Blues Legend, you will want something loud to cover the stadiums at which you’ll want to play. For this you will buy amplifiers in two parts, head and speaker. Head will be your knob controls and speakers will be your wattage. There is no way in all that is holy you should get one as your first amp.
Durability and Aesthetics
While the idea behind amps is that you will haul them around all over the place, they should still be cared for with caution and inspected during purchase. It is not a guarantee, but we all know that the chances of a bad apple are generally lower if you buy an instrument or an electronic made in U.S. vs. a country with lower quality control standards. Amps are not at all an exception, check for screws, bolts, connecting points, turn it on and check all knobs for smooth turning. Also check all the channels to see if there are extra noises that should not be there. Something could be damaged during shipping. Once again, it is imperative you see, touch and listen to an amplifier you are gonna buy. Consider investing in some sort of cases if you are determined to travel often with your amplifier. The color does not matter. If it is a great deal for a great combo – grab it. Screw how it looks.
I personally have spent serious amount of time sitting on forums, websites, stores, reading reviews, comparing features, raising my budget and doubting my pre-decisions. I’m telling you, it is a lot of fun to be obsessed with something and not being able to think about anything until you get this right. I think that I got a good amp in the end. I just don’t need the 50 watt power hidden in it. I can feel how my Peavey wants to roar at a medium stage but is instead forced to sit at 2-3 volume level at the moment (Soon…). I feel bad for it or my neighbors. Be patient and prepare yourself for a long process which will be worth it. There really are a huge variety of amps for electric, bass and acoustic guitars, and none of us have it easy at first . Nevertheless it is worth it. Consider visiting a used amp sale as well, often real pearls can be found for dirt cheap there. In time you will get your vintage tube but there is no need for it just yet.
A few known Amp Brands and their “made in” countries:
Mind you there is a difference between outsourcing to Chinese manufacturers and owning a plant there. Fender, Marshall, Peavey, Ibanez too look for cost effective choices but strict quality control can create a good product anywhere and many of these big names do just that.
- Bugera – U.K./China
- Orange – U.K./China
- Mesa Boogie – U.S.
- Vox – U.K./China
- Roland – U.S./China
- Laney – U.K./China
- Blackstar – U.K./China
- Crate – U.S./China
- Hiwatt – U.K.
And a whole lot more… Enjoy and share your story.