How to Choose A Guitar Amp

How to Choose A Guitar Amp

- Part 1 -
 
Not all guitar amplifiers are created equally.  And, if you thought it might be challenging to find the best electric guitar or acoustic guitar for your money, finding the right amplifier might be more challenging, especially for the beginner, or for someone shopping for a guitar player and having very little knowledge of guitar amps, models and what is available.  
 
Why is this so?   
 
Acoustic and Electric guitars are fairly simple when compared to the variables and combinations of amps, pre-amps, stacks, and other set-ups you can access when looking for the best guitar amp to suit your personal playing needs and music style.  
 
So, before jumping into your purchase decision, it’s best to get a little understanding of the different technologies, terminology, as well as the physical “set up” of the amps (amplifiers) in order to make the best decision.  That is precisely the reason for this series of articles - to help you understand the language that surrounds guitar amplification so that you can make the best acoustic guitar amp or best electric guitar amp purchase.
 
For starters, there are amplifiers built specifically for acoustic-electric guitars, and amplifiers built specifically for electric guitars.  Although you can plug an acoustic-electric into an electric guitar amp, and an electric guitar into an acoustic guitar amp, you will not necessarily get the best sound and performance when crossing the line.  Both kinds of amplifiers have a lot in common, but there are technologies and settings that are more specific to each line of guitar, whether it is an acoustic electric or a pure electric guitar.
 
To understand guitar amps in general, let’s start with the different technologies, then the different ways they can be stacked or set up, and finally, we’ll look into some subtleties between electric and acoustic-electric amplifiers.
 
To begin, there are a few pieces to the puzzle when converting a strum, pick or pluck on your guitar to a pure or distorted sound that comes out of the other end of the amplifying chain.
 
The components in order are - Guitar - Pre Amp - Power Amp (Amplifier) - and Speaker as in the following diagram:
how-to-choose-a-guitar-amp-diagram
 
In a very basic overview, you strum the guitar, you modify or “shape” the electronic signal with the pre-amp including balancing the bass, treble, and mid range tones, while adding distortion or other effects to the signal.
 
The signal “gain” is modified with the Power Amp - essentially affecting the volume of the signal.  Using the volume control, this controls how much the Power Amp boosts the pre-amp signal before being delivered to the Speaker.
 
All of these pieces, except for the guitar of course, are packaged in different set-ups called the cabinet.  The cabinet can be a combo or combination cabinet containing all of the components in 1 unit called a “cabinet”.  This means the pre-amp, amp and speaker are all in 1 unit, box or cabinet.
 
Here is an example of a very popular, very reliable guitar amp that is in 1 cabinet and sells for about $200.
 
how-to-choose-a-guitar-amp-marshall-cabinet
 
Other set-ups include having an amp-head and speaker combination.  When you see a large speaker with few controls on it, and then a smaller box on top that has more effects switches and options, this is an amp-head with separate speaker setup.
 
Here is a smaller example of a set-up where the pre-amp / amp is in a separate cabinet on top of the speaker and is sometimes called the "amp head".
 
The Randall RX120RH and RX412 is called a "half-stack" because it has the pre-amp/amp in a separate cabinet above a SINGLE speaker.  The term half-stack refers to having only 1 speaker.
 
This is a great amp for about $500 and is 120 Watts which is excellent for practice, studio, and even large gigs. Most players who buy this amp will never need another amp, although they may add effects pedals and other pre-amps etc to modify other sound shaping abilities etc.
 
how-to-choose-a-guitar-amp-randall-half-stack
 
Also, all 3 components can be separately purchased and combined in a 3-part amp system, where the pre-amp, the amplifier, and the speaker are all in 3 separate cabinets.
 
The following is an example of a full stack, having 3 cabinets consisting of a pre-amp and 2 speakers.  The term "full stack" refers to having a pre-amp and 2 speakers instead of 1 speaker in a half-stack.  This Marshall MG Series has 2, 15 Watt, 10 inch speakers and is another popular set up for about $399 and offers 4 programmable channels, mp3 input and is a solid state and digital technology amp which is all a beginner or gigging professional will need.
 
how-to-choose-a-guitar-amp-marshall-full-stack
A lot of beginner or mid-range amps that are recommended have all 3 components in 1 cabinet.  This does not mean that you cannot set up or purchase additional pre-amps to process the sound before sending the signal from the guitar to the speaker, but that you can get quite a variety of sound with a single cabinet, also called a combo or combination amp.  The most common setups you will see visually are single cabinet (where you see most people carrying a single "amp" and 2 part design where the pre-amp / amp is a separate component with all of the effects knobs and switches sitting on top of the speaker known as a half-stack with the amp-head in a separate cabinet above the speaker cabinet.
 
Most beginners and local gig players use a combo amp in 1 cabinet for practice or small gigs, until they learn and expand their hardware to suit a larger audience or their desire for more variety of effects and performance venue varieties.  
 
If you are looking for your first guitar amp, there are several great models to buy and cut your teeth on for between $150 and $300.  These are “combination” amps in that they have pre-amp, power amp, and speaker in 1 cabinet, and are fairly small and great for practice, recording and small to medium gigs or performances.   These will all have several options including volume, bass, mid, treble, gain, and then a knob for effects (fx) like flanger, chorus, reverb, tremolo, delay and vibrato.  They will also have "voices" or modeling of different tube amplifiers and will use digital technology to model tube amp styles such as "British" , "Tweed", "Blackface", and "Metal".
 
3 of the best guitar amps for $200 and under are:
 
 
Each of these amps use a combination of tube, digital and solid state technologies, which we explain next in this series.  
 
The word “combination” when referring to amps can mean more than 1 thing these days so you might want to learn a little more about the differences between tube, solid-state and digital to understand what you are purchasing.  The term “combination” can refer to the way the pre-amp, power-amp and speaker are all set into 1 cabinet, as they are in the models we shared above, and when you are talking about how amps are “stacked”, the word “combination” refers to them being in 1 cabinet.  However, these 3 great combination amps above also use a “combination” of amp and pre-amp technologies in order to give the volume boost or gain, as well as the sound shaping or distorting, which we explain in our next part of the article on the “technology” or “guts” of the guitar amp.
 
The next part of this series is here on how to choose a guitar amp, where we go into differences between tube amp technology, solid state, and digital technology.
 
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