Amplifiers or ‘amps’ are required to do just that – crank the volume of your electric guitar so you can be heard over your excited and energetic drummer and band mates!
I would recommend an amp for home practice too, as they really do bring the instrument to life -add some colour and tone (and even effects if you wish) to make your instrument sing-further adding to the enjoyment of playing.
Amps come in many sizes and prices to suit requirements and pocket depth! Your own personal taste in sound and ease of use plays a part too. This is also a big topic on its own – so I have boiled down the essentials here – as a place to start your own research.
I would suggest three categories that suit different needs:
- Home practice or busking– Look for small, portable and light weight ‘combos’ (all in one electrics/valves and speaker in one package) <20kg, not too loud (0-30 Watts) and a battery powered option if you are on the move! Check out Marshall MG series, Orange Crush, Orange Micro/Tiny Terror, Roland Cube/Street.
- Rehearsals and small gigs – Mid sized, mid weight (20-30kg), mid loudness (18-50W), in this range you could consider combos or heads and 1×12″ or 2×12″ speaker cabs. See Marshall DSL and TSL, Vox AC30, Orange AD30, Orange Tiny Terror, Hughes & Kettner Tubemeister.
- Big gigs! – this is the only occasion you really need a half or full stack (head and 4×12″ speaker cabinet(s)) this gear is heavy 40-50kg just for the cab- you don’t want to be lugging this to and from practice each week as your back won’t thank you for it! If you are playing very large venues, they will mic up the amp and blast through the house or venue PA – so you can usually still get away with you smaller boutique amp for big gigs! Check out the iconic Marshall JCM heads, Orange TH/OR heads, Hughes & Kettner Grandmeister.
Can one amp do all the above?
YES – modern amplifiers like the Hughes & Kettner Tubemeister series – offer output (volume) switching from 36 -18-5-1 or 0! Watts- making this particular valve head suitable for home use, studio rehearsal or small to medium size gigs (as a guide <100 people). This is my amp of choice partly for this reason – it can drive headphones or a cabinet 1×12, 2×12 or even 4×12 cabinet! Therefore you do not need to buy a different amp for every occasion!
What else should I think about?
Valves vs Solid state vs Hybrid
This refers to how the amplifier boosts the small electrical signal sent from your guitar pickups. Generally, your first amp will be solid state as these are cheaper, lighter and I would say much more reliable. But they try to recreate that valve driven sound of the classic amps from the 50s and 60s with the sound breaking up and giving a distorted or overdriven ‘dirty’ sound. This can also be achieved using analogue effects.
I personally prefer the sound of a valve (or tube) amp overdriven, as I find solid state amps (and effects) tend to give a more ‘fizzy’ sound. The exception here is HYBRID amps like the Marshall Valvestate series – they place a valve in the pre-amp circuit to give you a hint of analogue drive in the mix. But go play some and see what suits you!
Reliability is an issue though- valves are ‘vacuum tubes’ similar in appearance to light bulbs and are fragile! You need to warm them up and let them cool before use and moving. They tend to be installed in matched pairs – but if one blows – it can be game over for your amp until you can get it to an amp technician! (BE VERY CAREFUL – DO NOT MESS WITH YOUR VALVE AMP – THEY RUN AT HIGH DC VOLTS- WHICH COULD BE LETHAL!)
One exception again is the Hughes & Kettner Tubemeister – these clever amps redistribute the power if one of your valves blows – allowing you to finish your gig and service later. This is the main reason I selected this amp!
Power vs Loudness
Do not be fooled by the wattage rating – half the power does not mean half as loud – the relationship between power (watts) and loudness (decibels) is logarithmic. So 50watts is not half as loud as 100watts – (10W is half the dB of 100W) i.e. you’d be amazed how loud the smaller heads (lunch box style) and combos really are!
There are a number of modern amps that offer digital effects built in and modelling amps that recreate any number of sounds from iconic amps over the years. This adds some complexity – so if you have time and like to tinker for hours – these will be perfect. IF you want a simple unfettered plug and play type amp this might not be for you. Check out the Line 6 range.
Channels -1 -2 -3?
Amps tend to offer at least two channels ‘clean’ and ‘overdrive’. My preference is for 3 channels – ‘clean’, ‘overdrive’ and ‘lead’ – this allows a further overdriven boost for your solo! Some ‘Boutique’ hand wired valve amps come with just one channel so you will need to add the o/d and boost via pedals.
This is refers to the resistance of the speaker cabinet you connect to your amp head- you need to make sure you match the cab to your amp head (4,8, 16Ohms) For more info. have a gander at this superbly comprehensive explanation: http://www.prestonelectronics.com/audio/Impedance.htm