How to Choose a Guitar Amp (part 1)

For most beginning guitar players, choosing a good first amp (amplifier) is not really very challenging in terms of finding a quality amplifier, because there are a lot of solid choices out there to fit most budgets. The challenge is in narrowing the choices down, understanding all the knobs, switches and terminology, and ultimately knowing what to look for as a beginner. Alternatively, when it comes to buying a first acoustic guitar or a first travel size or ¾ acoustic, such as the Baby Taylor, the terminology is a lot less complex because for the most part, guitars have much fewer anatomical terms to master and therefore the learning curve is not nearly as steep. With guitar amps, however, there are so many technologies, sound effects, and options of setting up and stacking your amp gear that it can quickly become overwhelming. This 3-part series should help anyone understand guitar amps better and help simplify the choices for beginners.

It’s also more challenging after becoming an intermediate player or advanced player and seeking an upgrade or the next level amplifier, and one becomes more picky in his or her tastes and preferences for specific playing sounds and situations. For these reasons, it becomes more difficult to narrow down the choices given an adequate budget for a more advanced player as well. Sometimes, the more you know and the better you play, the more stringent or picky you become when making a choice on equipment, because your tastes and requirements are more specific. After reading this series, you should have a better understanding of guitar amps and hopefully your decision-making process will be simplified.

In the first part of this series, we will discuss the parts or chain of amplification. It is important to understand the amplification process when searching for your first amplifier, in order to be able to communicate intelligently with different vendors. The aim of this series is to educate the beginner as well as the intermediate player who would like to understand guitar amps more before buying their first one, and helping intermediate or more advanced players become more knowledgeable before upgrading and making a larger purchase decision.

In the second part of the series, we will discuss the different ways the amp system can be packaged or stacked, and include some general pros and cons of the different “guts” or technologies available in all guitar amps. Finally we will talk about testing some amps and some options to consider before buying them to determine the qualities, effects and performance needs for your specific purposes.

When someone says guitar amp, what often comes to mind to many people depends on what they have seen, heard and experienced. Often, the picture of a young guy or gal with an electric guitar, a power cord and a small speaker with a handle, making some questionable sounds on it might be the picture. Perhaps it is a large stage with larger-than-life speakers having enough power to damage windows and shake the building and rattle people’s teeth. Or, it might be the picture of an accomplished jazz, blues or rock musician playing an eloquent set of amazing, harmonious sounds. Regardless of the mental picture that comes to mind, the amplification process is similar in all situations and has just a few basic pieces in the amplification chain to understand.

We recommend this high quality beginner or intermediate electric guitar combination amp for about $100 – Fender Champion 20, Guitar Amplifier, Black


There are 4 main components to the amplification process (not including the power supply).

First, there is the electric guitar with embedded pickups (or acoustic guitar modified with some kind of pickup-system). These pickups send an electric or electromagnetic signal to the second part of the chain called the pre-amp. It’s important to note that there are some distinctions between electric and acoustic-electric guitar amps, and some models that are hybrids, able to serve both guitars adequately.

If you are a beginning acoustic guitar player, we recommend the BEHRINGER ULTRACOUSTIC AT108 which is ideal for acoustic-electric players, including a 2nd input channel for microphone, CD input for play-along and headphone jack for quiet practice.

The pre-amp is the part of the amplification chain where the sound is equalized, where the player can shape or control the bass, mid, and treble output frequencies of the signal and can often impart other kinds of shaping or distortion to the plain electromagnetic signal coming from the guitar pickups right after the initial “gain” is imparted (also called “processing”). Many guitars have basic pre-amp controls embedded in the body or the pickup system before going to the pre-amp situated outside the guitar in the “amp head” of the stack or in the cabinet which we will explain shortly.

The pre-amp is necessary to amplify and also modify the sound to make the signal strong enough while balancing the signal through “EQ” meaning “equalizer”, then to be “ramped” up by the next amplifier in the chain, the power amp. The pre-amp adds the first “gain” which is a boost in the initial weak signal coming from the pickups in the guitar, and should be of a good enough quality that it can boost the signal strength to be able to reach the rest of the amp system without degrading the sound or adding excessive “noise” to the signal.

In amplification, there is a ratio called SNR (signal to noise) ratio and a quality pre-amp will be able to boost the gain of the signal without adding significant noise to the signal, in other words keeping the SNR high. The pre-amp in any system can range from a very simple, 3 or 4 knob configuration to a very complex system of effects and/or processing options including but not limited to reverb, chorus, tremolo, flanger, phaser, wah, vibrato, etc. Without getting too complicated, at some place between the pre-amp gain and the power amp gain, effects can be imparted on the signal to change the tone and quality of the sound to produce an endless myriad of effects for all kinds of playing styles ranging from light, warm jazz ballad tones to edgy, harsh, distorted rock grunge sounds.

The power amp (after the pre-amp) is the amplifier right before the speaker output, and is responsible for adding “voltage gain” to amplify the strength of the signal strong enough to power or move the speaker or speakers to create sound waves that can reach and dazzle the ears of the intended audience. Before or within the “power amp” the signal can be distorted or increased to what is called “overdrive”, which simply means the drive or gain (essentially signal or volume level) is too high for the hardware or amp tubes to process, which produces “clipping” or “clipped” audio signals. This clipping can be done with different tubes, solid state technology or digital processors producing different forms of distortion ranging from a light 60s rock guitar “crunch” to a heavy, cutting, edgy heavy-metal, screeching grunge sound. A number of different effects processors or processing can take place between the pre-amp and the speaker, depending on the player’s set-up and desired sound tone, shape and performance needs.


The speaker is the final piece of the amplification puzzle and also comes in all kinds of sizes and configurations, but most of the “magic” occurs to the signal in the pre-amp / processor and power amp before it reaches the speaker. The easiest way to hear this distinction is to pluck or play an electric guitar completely un-plugged. All you will hear are the weak, tinny vibrations of the strings, being hardly enough to awaken a mouse or discern across a small room. Then listen to one played completely amplified in concert by a professional. The two sounds are worlds apart, and distinct from the players abilities in the two scenarios, the rest of the “magic” comes from the settings in the pre-amp / processor and power amp that modify, distort, increase, and add other effects to the simple signal coming from the guitar strings.

In the next part, we will discuss different ways the amplification system is stacked and the 4 kinds of amp technology combinations available.


About the author: Aaron Schulman is a fan of Children’s Music Workshop and a musician, guitar player and orchestral composer with over 30 years of music experience. He enjoys learning and teaching about music, composition, guitar playing and guitar equipment, while offering thorough guitar reviews on his website, Before purchasing your next guitar, you can read more about different acoustic guitar reviews, including full reviews on one of his favorite manufacturers, Seagull Guitars, on his website.

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The Beginning Ukulele Fun Book
by Larry Newman

This is a great beginning ukulele book for individual or class use.
The method teaches both single note melodies and basic chords.
With over-sized notes that include letters INSIDE the noteheads along with fun, child-centered graphics, this book is a favorite among elementary-age beginning uke players.

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