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Thomann's Cool Online Guides: Guitar Amps

2. History

Early electric guitars were no more than acoustic guitars with primitive magnetic pickups attached. Their goal was simply to create an amplified version of the acoustic guitar sound, but neither the pickups nor available amplification and speaker technology were really up to the job, and even at this time the electrified guitar had a distinctive sound of its own. It was not until the Fifties though that this would begin to be seen as a virtue.


The near-simultaneous emergence of Fender and Gibson’s revolutionary solid-body guitar designs necessitated the parallel development of dedicated guitar amps. Both companies entered the market, although Fender’s contribution is far more significant from today’s perspective. At this point, any form of distortion was still seen as undesirable - though a flat and uncoloured sound may have been sought, it was certainly not achieved.

Early Sixties

Along with their choice of guitars, the Beatles’ early career is closely identified with the clean and clear sound of the Vox AC-30 amplifier, and Vox amps were widely adopted by anyone who could afford them. The ever-increasing size and noise of audiences forced bands to turn up as loud as they could, often using several amps chained together. It’s no coincidence that the sonic possibilities of distortion and feedback were first discovered around this time, though only later in the decade would they begin to be exploited fully.

Late Sixties

The ‘throw away the rulebook’ spirit of the Sixties was nowhere more influential than in the recording studio - in this arena The Beatles led and all others soon followed. Early examples of guitar-based sonic creativity include the famous feedback introduction to ‘I Feel Fine’ (’64) and the fuzz bass on ‘Think For Yourself’ (’65). By 1966, The Beatles’ seminal ‘Revolver’ album featured a number of tracks with distortion, and the Stones’ huge hit ‘Satisfaction’ was based around a simple three-note distortion riff. Almost every big hit during the rest of the decade was built on overdrive, from The Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Summer In The City’ to Cream’s ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’, and of course most of Jimi Hendrix’s work.

Sixties distortion was achieved either by turning the guitar amp up to full volume – equipped with just a single volume control at the time – or by using a new invention; the ‘fuzz box’. Nowadays, distortion pedals are a commonplace part of every guitarist’s setup, but their novelty in the late Sixties cannot be overstated. The very idea of guitar ‘effects’ was in its infancy, but a few units had a profound impact on the sounds in the charts, including various distortion/fuzz pedals, Hendrix’s wah wah, the Leslie speaker cabinet and various tape-based delay units such as the WEM Copycat.

Early Seventies

The happy accident that led guitarists to discover distortion in the Sixties had one unfortunate side effect - the sound could only be produced at deafening volumes. The fuzz box was one solution to this problem, and amp manufacturers also responded by adding a master volume control to their designs. This enables the preamp section to be cranked up sufficiently to produce distortion, while the power amp volume is reduced to compensate. On most modern amps these controls are labelled ‘gain’ (preamp) and ‘volume’ or ‘master’ (power amp).

Late Seventies– Present

While heavy rock got heavier and heavier from the Seventies to the Nineties, other styles emerged which explored the possibilities of marrying cleaner sounds to the rapidly expanding array of available effects. Many Eighties rock bands including The Police and U2, would have sounded very different without digital delay and chorus. For all but the heaviest of shredders therefore, a versatile amp today, is one capable of producing both clean and overdriven sounds at high volume.
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Guitar Amps overview


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