How to Choose A Guitar Amp 2

How to Choose A Guitar Amp

-Part 2-

In the first part of this series found here- how to choose a guitar amp, we discussed the different configurations of the cabinets of a guitar amp, including a combo or combination where every component is in 1 cabinet or box.  The other set-ups were called a half-stack, where the pre-amp and amp were in 1 cabinet called an "amp head" and the speaker rested below the amp head.  The third set-up is called a full stack, and this includes an amp head and 2 speakers, 1 on top of the other.

This was the Marshall Brand example of a very popular, very reliable guitar amp that is in 1 cabinet and sells for about $200.
The following is a great example of a Randall Half-Stack (showing the pre-amp or amp head in 1 cabinet above the speaker cabinet). 
This Randall is a very popular and dependable amp that sells for about $500 and is great for all uses, including professional gigs, practicing and recording.
This Marshall MG series represented a full stack model, having the amp head and 2 speakers - totaling 3 cabinets.
how-to-choose-a-guitar-amp-marshall-full-stackIn this article, we will discuss the difference between tube amps, solid state amps, and digital amps or processors, but will not get too heavily into the physics or science as this will not necessarily help you make a buying decision, and is more for very advanced players, artists and professional recording engineers.
Tube Amps -  Tube amps are the original amp technology (guts), using similar technology to old CRT (Cathode Ray Tubes) as in older televisions before LED technology came out.  Although CRTs are phased out of televisions for the most part and all TVs produced are now mostly in the solid state technology, HD technology now, tube technology for amps is still widely sought after for their lush, fat, warm rich sounds that cannot be perfectly synthesized by digital processors, and are not perfectly replicated with solid state technology amps.
For the most part, top professionals, expert players, jazz musicians, blues players, and old school rock guitar players will pay more money for tube amps because they are able to create those classic, fat, warm, robust sounds that you can only get from tube technology.
Essentially, in the most basic explanation, a tube is a glass vacuum (like a light bulb) with an anode (negative plate) and cathode (positive terminal) and a grid.  When the tube is powered up, electrons travel quickly from the anode to the cathode and when the guitar is plucked or strummed, the signal is transmitted to this electron flow affecting the flow.  In order to affect or shape the sound, controls are implemented which affect the magnetic field surrounding the electrons, thus shaping and influencing their travel pattern, giving changes to the amplitude and the output signal through the tube.  
(a physicist would probably read this description and either cringe or laugh, but you get the idea)
Below is a picture of different amplifier vacuum tubes that are used for different parts of a tube amp or combination amp.  I am not going to get into all of the different effects and pre-processors here as that is a world you can discover on your own after you get your next amp and begin to figure out how you want to accessorize it.  However, some of the amps we review on this site will keep you playing with virtually endless settings, configurations and sound modeling / styles to keep you happy for years to come.
The sound curves of tube amps have a softer knee when compressor effects (and other effects) are engaged, and when you learn about knees in sound waves, you are talking about the attack curve and the diminish curve of a sound wave as being "softer", which allows these tube amps to have such fat, warm, lush sounds (versus a hard knee that has a more harsh sound).
A hard knee is the result of solid state and digital compression effects as they can be applied instantaneously versus gradually, and can have a more harsh, edgy sound.  Sometimes this is the desired results depending on the genre of music.  In a lot of classic jazz, blues and older 60s and British Rock styles, a more rounded knee (soft knee) compression which results from tubes is classic and desirable by the most discerning players.  Although solid state and digital processors / pre-amps are much better than they used to be at replicating near-similar sounds and softer knees, there is still a distinction between the fat warmth of a tube amp versus solid state and digital amps with certain presets and desired sounds.
You can see in this diagram, the threshold is the point in the input dB (signal volume) level where the compressor is to apply the compression.  This is very simplified, but the box on the left represents solid state compression whereas the box on the right represents the softer knee and compression curve of a tube pre-amp compressor.  Just as the sound curves have a sharp change versus a gradual change, this is noticeable to the ear in the resulting sound output or tonal quality.  
Sometimes, the hard knee is desired, and sometimes the softer knee is desired.  And, with digital technology (pre-amp processors) and solid state combination technology, producers of amps have been able to mimic tube compression and effects sounds fairly closely through "pre processing" the sound and using software / hardware combinations that can predict the threshold and create more of a curve or soft knee giving a richer, warmer sound versus the harsher, edgier sound of a hard knee curve.
The pros of tube amps is that they can offer classic, warm, robust, lush sounds and softer attack curves of compression and effects that are not 100% attainable by solid state and digital pre-amps and processors.  They are also favored by many professionals and touring professionals who can afford them.  
A great example of a very popular tube amp at a lower price point would be an excellent Marshall DSL 40 Watt Combo that is very well priced at about $700.
The cons of tube amps is that they are generally . . .
  • heavier, slightly more temperamental,
  • tubes are a bit more difficult to source and replace,
  • they require more maintenance
  • take time to warm up
  • cannot produce harshest tones without digital combination or high volume output
how-to-choose-guitar-amp-marshallHowever, if you are looking for a great tube amp that will last for years and will give you all the power you will need in 1 cabinet, the Marshall DSL 40 Watt Combo is a top choice among advanced guitar players and the tubes are well sourced so you don't have to worry about replacements or maintenance and upkeep.
The Marshall DSL 40C has some of the following great features:
- foot switchable classic/ultra gain channels 
- rear panel pentode/triode switch (40 W to 20 W)
- rear panel series FX loop
- foot switchable digital reverb
- one of the best values in it's class of tube amps
Solid State Amp Technology-
Just as televisions changed in technology from tubes to LED technology, so have guitar amps.  
The difference is that there is still a strong demand, and probably always will be for tube amp technology by many top level players.
Solid state amps are cheaper, lighter, less maintenance, and can generally withstand more variables in environmental conditions so they are more rugged because they generally lack tubes.  
Although, many mid-range and upper range guitar amps have combinations of tubes and solid state technology to provide the best of both worlds, most entry level and mid-range amps use mostly solid-state technology and digital processing on board to deliver a vast array of sound effects, amp modeling, compressors, flangers, delay, tremolo, etc. (at a fraction of the cost)
If you opened up a computer or laptop, you would find processing chips, transistors, and LEDs, not big glass tubes.  This is solid-state technology that has replaced tubes in a lot of electronic devices, including guitar amps. 
However, many professional and classic, jazz and blues players will use tube amps or combination amps to get the best of both worlds.  Whenever they want to access the fat, warm sounds for jazz, blues, and some classic rock, they will be able to use the tube technology.  Whenever they need faster attack, compression and crunch for different effects that tubes cannot deliver at lower volume levels, they will use solid state and digital pre-amp compressors and technology.
Most beginner and intermediate, and even some advanced guitar players you see carrying an amp, are most likely carrying a solid-state / digital combo amp because they are cheaper and deliver a ton of options for about 30% to 50% of the price of a more vintage style tube amp, plus they are virtually maintenance free.
how-choose-guitar-amp-fender-champion-40Our number one choice for a solid state combo amp is the long running favorite Fender Champion 40 for under $200.  
It has all of the different tone adjustments a guitar player needs and wants including reverb, chorus, flanger, delay, chorus, tremolo and vibrato, 2 channels with dual volume knobs, treble, bass and gain, and 4 classic amp models (anytime you hear "modeling" think digital technology), auxiliary, headphones and tempo tap for effects tempo.  
In essence, many solid state guitar amps have modeling switches to replicate classic tube sounds, so you could say this amp is almost like getting 5 amps in one because it models classic tweed, British, blackface and metal amps with a simple switch.
The pros of using solid state amps are:

- Lighter
- Less maintenance
- Digital effects available
- Cheaper (30% to 50% cheaper)
- Can model several tube amps in 1 amp

Cons of solid state:
- cannot access classic, warm, fat sounds tubes make
- can mimic but not perfectly replicate classic compression
- No bragging rights that you paid 2 to 3 times more for your amp than your friends
Electric guitar vs. Acoustic Electric Guitar Amps-
There are many electric guitar amps, and some that specialize in amplifying acoustic-electric guitars, and some that do both.
Essentially, electric guitar amps work best with electric guitars and do not serve acoustic guitars well.  Plugging your acoustic guitar into an electric guitar amp is kind of like trying to use gasoline to power your electric hedge trimmer - they are just not made for each other and it is a bit tricky to get an electric guitar amp to sound right when plugging an acoustic guitar into it because the signal that comes from an acoustic pickup versus the coils of an electric guitar.
Acoustic guitar amps have special effects and presets that work well when shaping the sound of acoustic guitars and are specifically modeled to enhance the ambiance and resonant warm sounds of an acoustic, solid wood guitar sound.

I highly recommend a couple of acoustic guitar amps if you are strictly looking for just an acoustic guitar amp, and have no interest in amplifying or playing an electric guitar.
how-choose-guitar-amp-behringer-ultracousticFor a bare-bones, nice sounding acoustic guitar amp that has tube modeling technology, the Behringer ALTRACOUSTIC AT108 is a nice entry level combo amp for about $100.  
It does not have much in terms of shaping the tone, other than bass and mid and volume, but it does have all you need for a small gig.  It also has another jack for a MIC so you can sing along, and headphone jack for private practice.  It will not blow a large audience away, so you would need to mike it to a PA system for larger gigs, but is a great little starter amp.
If you are looking for a nice acoustic guitar amp to step up to, perhaps for recording or for better sounds for bigger gigs, and your budget is in the $200 to $400 range, these two amps are excellent for the acoustic guitar player.
how-choose-amp-fender-acoustasonicThe Fender Acoustasonic 90 is a great 90 Watt combo amp that weighs only 18 lbs and has many studio acoustic effects to enhance your acoustic guitar sound such as reverb, echo/delay, chorus, vibratone, and more, with variable knobs to get the exact desired tone modeling you want.  
It is a dual channel amp so you can also plug in a mic with phantom power equipped, and it has a feedback cancelling ability to get the best sound without horrible feedback you get from older, cheaper dual channel amps whenever sound waves build off each other.  
It also has an auxiliary input for digital media input (mp3 sound etc.)  The Fender Acoustasonic 90 is an excellent choice for about $299 and has many great reviews from other owners as well.
Another great acoustic guitar amp in this range is the Marshall Acoustic Soloist AS50D (50 Watt) for about $399.  
how-choose-guitar-amp-marshall-soloistIt is $100 more than the Fender Acoustasonic, and has a lower wattage rating, but has one of the best values and best acoustic sound replication of any acoustic guitar amp on the market at this price or slightly higher.  
This has everything the Fender has, plus it has fine controls on the chorus (depth, speed)  and reverb balance to either channel.  
It also has dual control of feedback canceling with manual adjustment for the frequency of feedback cancelation which is great for different venues.  
If you are doing a lot of decent size acoustic gigs, and also plan to use a great amp for recording professional sounds, this is one of the best acoustic amp you will find for under $400.
For a little more cash, you can splurge into some nice Acoustic Amps by Crate brands.  
how-choose-guitar-amp-crate-tellurideOur top pick for those who wish to perform more professionally and have the extra room in their budget would be the Crate CA125DG Telluride Acoustic Guitar Amp for about $599.  
Granted, this is a $600 amp, but for the person who wants the best acoustic replicated and amplified sound, with the most control and contouring for their budget, this is a great amp.
The Crate CA125DG Telluride features:
- Twin 8-inch HiFi Poly-cone Speakers
- 3rd Speaker / Tweeter with separate Level Control
- 2 x 50 Watts RMS to the Woofer
- 25 Watts to the 3rd speaker/ Tweeter
- Three separate input channels
- Finite control with a 5-Band Master Graphic EQ/Feedback Elimination panel
Essentially, this is one of the most flexible and powerful amps in terms of sound shaping and feedback control for the more serious acoustic guitar player.  
It also has XLR & 1/4" balanced line out with level control and lift, effects loop control, Reverb/Effects and Chorus switching via optional foot switch control.
There is a lot more to say about this great professional line acoustic guitar amp, and you can read our full review on the Crate CA125DG Telluride here, or you can read what others have had to say here on
So that wraps it up for our overview on guitar amp setup and technology for both electric and acoustic guitars. 
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