How to choose a guitar amp – part 3

Now it’s time for your guitar amp purchase. You have read all about the way guitar amps work. You have done your homework on the different kinds of technologies involved in guitar amps, along with the pros and cons of different technologies, and you are ready to make the final decision. If you came to this page and have not read the previous 2 articles, please do so now as this will make more sense and will help you make a confident purchase decision for your next guitar amplifier.

In the first article we discussed the pre-amp, the power amp, the speakers, the cabinets and the amp head.

In the second article we discussed 4 technologies inside of the amp including tubes, solid state, digital processors and hybrids (or combinations).

Now we will talk about a few solid amps at different budget levels as well as do a basic overview on testing the amp and the different tone adjustments and effects.

If you are buying your first amp, you may want to test it in person, but you do not necessarily need to, and can purchase one online if you know what your budget is, read enough reviews, and do your homework. In most cases, there are great return policies if the amp does not quite suit your needs, just be sure the double check with the website purchase policies wherever you do decide to buy your amp so that you are covered for a guaranteed, no-hassle return. Amazon.com is a great shopping place for this reason.

If you do test the amp in person, be sure to bring your own guitar, if you have one, so you will know how they will actually perform together.

You will originally want to turn your guitar preamp settings all the way down and use the pre-amp settings in the combination or amp stack you are testing. For the purposes of this article, we will assume you are purchasing a combination amp (1 cabinet) and that the pre-amp, effects, and power amp are all in 1 place. There are far too many digital processor and pedal options available today, so we’ll stick with just the combo amp.

Turn the gain all the way down if there is a separate gain and volume setting (pre-amp gain versus main power amp volume setting). Turn all of the effects knobs off or to “zero” and hear the clean tone of just the power amp as you turn the main volume up. Test it at all levels from “zero” to 10 or max if you can do it in a place without upsetting anyone. This will give you an idea of what the Power Amp is capable of on it’s own. Be sure the tone from the power amp is clean and vibrant, not crackling or muddled. This will ensure a solid power amp that is not sub-par or damaged.

Next, begin to turn the gain up until it creates some distortion, and begin to turn the main volume down at this point. Keep moving the gain up slowly while turning the main volume down to find out the minimum level you will be able to achieve distortion. If the amp you are testing is a tube amp, it will be difficult to experience distortion at very low volume levels, as over-driving the volume tube or power tube is what creates distortion. If you are testing a solid state amp, you should be able to experience the distortion at lower volume levels, and if you are testing an amp with digital processing, you can experience distortion at very low levels because the sound is clipped or distorted by modeling and has nothing to do with over-driving the equipment, and you will most likely have different settings for distortion on solid state and digital amp technology that are not directly linked to volume.

Test each effect, such as chorus, reverb, delay, flanger, tremolo, etc. at minimal, medium and high volume levels to get an understanding of what each sound effect or tone shaper does to the pure sound, being sure to test only 1 at a time. You can then test the main pre-amp, with no distortion or other effects, by slowly turning up the low (bass), mid, and treble (high) one at a time. Test the “punchiness” of the amp as well by bringing up the “mid” on the pre-amp and leaving the others at low or medium (4 or 5 setting). If you want your guitar to punch through without being too tinny or murky sounding, the mid-range on the pre-amp is the key in making your guitar sound stand out in a band or music group, but test it for sure.   Tinny sounds come from the treble being too dominant and murky sounds come from the bass or low end being too dominant and the mid-range not being sufficiently turned up.

Find the best balanced sound with no effects turned on, and with minimal gain and minimal total volume where you accomplish a nice, warm, clear, vibrant guitar sound. Then, at this level, test each of the different effects, one at a time at 3 different levels (low, med, high) to get a clear sense of what each can do with a balanced, pre-amp input. You do not want to test everything on over-drive (gain and volume all the way up), as guitarists never play all of the effects at over-drive, and you will quickly peak out and shorten the life expectancy of your amp.

Essentially, you want to model at least 3 different scenarios to know what you can get out of your amp: First, test quiet practice settings with volume around 1 to 3, where you are in an apartment or live close to others, and want to respect other people’s sound privacy. Second, test in the mid-range where you might use the amp in a studio for recording, or for small gigs. Third, test the amp at near max settings without blowing the speaker or disrupting people around you, obviously (because you don’t own it yet).   In many cases, you will not be able to test the amp all the way up, and it is not necessary, as long as you can experience it at a “full” sound that is satisfying and not damaging to the ears.

If the amp you are testing has everything you want for now, and you are questioning whether the watt rating of the speaker(s) is high enough, remember you can always “mike” your amp at mid levels to a large PA system if you have to perform for a larger audience.   Consider, most importantly, where you will be using this amp for 80% to 90% of it’s use cases. If most of your time is in the studio, you will not need massive power, but will most likely want variety and will want to pay a little more for a hybrid amp that has tubes for classic sounds, solid state and some digital modeling. If most of your time is at home practicing with parents or neighbors, a good solid state, digital or hybrid is excellent because you can achieve all the sounds you need at lower volume levels. If you only play classic 50s, 60s, and early 70s, you may prefer a more expensive tube amp to capture that vintage sound. If you do not have the budget for an all tube amp, there are some great modeling amps out there for a few hundred dollars.

A few other options to consider these days (some that were not available a decade or 2 ago) might be:

  • Auxiliary input for playing along with an MP3 or CD.
  • Headphone jack for quiet practice
  • 2 or more input channels for voice and guitar
  • Alternative output, USB, or digital I/O (input / output) for different recording or mixing capabilities
  • Software compatibility -for those who want to record with specific software

In closing, here are a few great amps to consider purchasing at different budget levels, and all of these are solid choices and will give you years of guitar playing satisfaction.

The Yamaha THR Series Amps THR10 THR10 Electric Guitar Mini Amplifiers are great desktop amps having different models for acoustic, electric, as well as classical modeling sounds if you want some vintage sounds without the higher tube amp investment.The Fender Mustang I V2 20-Watt 1x8-Inch Combo Electric Guitar Amplifier and  – Fender Champion 20, Guitar Amplifier, Black Fender’s Champion 20 is a great amp for about $200 and features all the pre-amp settings, as well as a few classic amp modeling and auxiliary and headphone phones jacks. For an additional $20, the Fender Mustang also allows for USB input, on-board tuner and separate port for a foot switch (for an effects pedal).

The Peavey Vypyr VIP 1 – 20 Watt Modeling Instrument Amplifier for about $120 is comparable if you would like another brand, just double check the amp for similar options.

If you like what the Fender Champion 20 has to offer, but want some more power, the Fender Champion 40, Guitar Amplifier, Black for about $180 is almost the same amp, except with a larger, 12 inch speaker and 40 Watts versus 20. Likewise, the Fender Mustang has a “bigger brother” in the Fender Mustang II V2 40 Watt (about $200), with a single 12 inch speaker and the same options as the smaller Mustang.

For a little more jamming power, just under $300 is the Line 6 Spider IV 15 15-watt 1x8 Modeling Guitar Amplifier, for a lot more bang and output, including 4 channels, digital presets for effects and a built-in looper so you can lay down a loop and play along with your own guitar background. Remember, modeling means it is digital (non-tube technology).

If you are looking for an affordable acoustic-electric guitar amp, friendly to the sounds of an acoustic guitar plugged in, the BEHRINGER ULTRACOUSTIC AT108 is a great buy at about $100, as well as the Fender Acoustasonic 15 1x6-Inch 15-Watt Portable Amplifer (about $100) or the Yamaha THR AMPS THR5A Acoustic Guitar Amplifier (about $200 with a few more options). Marshall and Fishman make some nice options, but if you are looking to really get a sweet acoustic amplifying sound, you will want to investigate Crate brand amps who have specialized in creating great acoustic-electric guitar amps for many years, but you might pay a little bit more for the same amount of power.

One of the lowest price tube amp combinations (about $380) is the Fender Super Champ X2 15-Watt 1x10-Inch Guitar Combo Amp, which includes both vintage tube amp technology and digital effects (so it would be a hybrid). This little combo amp has a great output at 15 Watts and also utilizes USB technology with foot pedal input switch as well.

For a little more budget, you can get a great combination amp in the Marshall DSL15C DSL Series 15-Watt Guitar Combo Amp (about $600), which uses tubes, also called “valves” to achieve that classic, warm, robust sound. This is a great deal for tube technology in 1 combination amp.

If you are looking to purchase a vintage tube amp, and you are on a limited budget, you might have to settle for a “modeling amp” which arguably comes close to tube amp sounds, but by many professional opinions is just not the same. Some authentic tube options might be to purchase a tube amp head, and then save up for a nice speaker cabinet and build a half-stack or full stack as money allows.

An example of a great vintage tube amp-head (without the speaker) include the Marshall DSL Series DSL100H 100-Watt All-Tube Guitar Amplifier Head – Black for about $900, but you’ll need a nice speaker cabinet and good cables to realize the quality of this tube amp.   This is more ideal for the gigging professional and serious performer / recorder who has access to larger speaker cabinets that can handle 100 Watts.

In summary, if you are uncertain, go with one of the solid state, combination amps for around $200 to $300 range, until you learn more about amps in general. These amps that we recommended here are all high quality amps with a lot of satisfied users throughout the world, and they will serve the needs of about 90% to 95% of guitar players for several years without compromise.

 About the author: Aaron Schulman is an avid musician, composer and guitar player who enjoys teaching guitar and writing thorough acoustic guitar reviews at his site, Strumviews.com. You can read more acoustic guitar reviews at his site, including his pick for best acoustic guitar under $500.

 

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