There are a number of options when choosing an amplifier for your guitar. Options regarding tone, power, size, budget, purpose etc. In this basic guide we discuss the different options to help you get started.
Tube / Valve amps are tube driven amps and often preferred by audiophiles and purists claiming to have the most natural sound and warmest tone. They allow for a greater range in dynamics and are very responsive. However it also comes with a higher price tag and requires maintenance as tubes wear and need replacing.
Solid-state / Transistor amps are transistor driven amps that made considerable improvements in the last few decades, often in the pursuit of replicating that tube amp sound. Solid-state amps also offer more effects and controls compared to tube amps. They tend to be more reliable and while being in the forefront of the cheaper end of the market also offer higher value.
Digital / Modeling amps bring the possibility to emulate the sound of many amps, modern or vintage, solid-state or tubes, as well as any tone or effects.
Hybrid amps are a combination of the technologies in the previous amps, with the advantage of creating that tube tone without using power tubes. Most often these are a solid-state power-amps with a tube in the preamp stage.
Stack or Combo?
A Stack consists of an amplifier head and cabinet. If your aim is to fill an arena, then this is what you’re after. With a high powered stack, comes not only impressive volume, but also a tonal impact and to be honest an impressive visual impact as well;) The choice for a separate setup is also often a practical one, offering more flexibility in stacking or upgrading for more volume, effects or bass.
A Combo is an all in one combination of amp, speakers and effects, offering more portability. Combo amps come in many sizes, they are ideal for smaller spaces and home recordings, to rocking live at moderate venues. Some combo amps also have a speaker output, which enables you to plug in an external cabinet.
Channels are basically separate preamps– allowing you to switch between a clean channel, for clean sound to a slight crunch and a lead channel for distortion
Usually amps are equipped with an EQ or tone control, commonly treble, mid and bass applied across all channels or independent for each channels in more high-end models. Some also include an added presence control to boost upper mid-range frequencies.
Most amps include an effects loop, this is an input/output allowing you to connect your effects-pedals in between the preamp and the power amp-stage. Often at least one onboard effect is included: reverb. Further effects such as chorus, flanging, delay are commonly also found in solid-state or modeling amplifiers.
It should also be noted that a combo amp is more ideal for the starting musician. Getting a stack before you are getting arena gigs is just a pain in the back. If you are playing local clubs a small combo amp with one 12 inch speaker is all you really need. If the venue is bigger, you can always mic it and run it through the PA. I played gigs for 15 years 5 nights a week and never needed more than a 30 watt tube amp with a 12 inch speaker. There are plenty of affordable 30 watt tube amps out there and I would never want to lug more than that around. Remember, you buy it, you carry it!
Hi Jason, thanks for your input! It’s definitely wise to consider portability, especially when you’re gigging 5 nights a week! 🙂 cheers
What Jason says about a 30 watt valve amp with a 12 inch speaker is right to the point. I’ve played a number of venues with 200-300 people capacity with such an amp and, in several cases, the sound engineer persistently asked me to turn down.
Hi George, so true 30 watts is often more than plenty 🙂 cheers!
Bill Scroggs says:
I use a 300watt bass amp with a 2×10 cab plus I have a 1×15 cab, I can mix and match what I use or use the whole lot in a stack but I find I hardly crank the volume up above 3 or 4 out of 10!! I find having a more powerful amp means I can set a nice tone with a warm sound, it’s a personal choice, I’ve never used both cabs 1×15 for a round outdoors sound, 2×10 for a punchy indoor sound.
I still chuckle when playing outdoor festivals and see fellow bass players lugging enormous amps and cabs galore onto stage!! I like to DI into the PA from the back of my amp and let the engineer set the volume mix. I can then adjust my stage volume for my own foldback.
It’s all about personal choice, mix and match, what sounds good and how much kit you want to lug around!
Hi Bill, totally agree, in the end it boils downs to personal choice and with so many factors in play and particularly sound preferences! Thanks 🙂
Agree with Jason and George. Marshall made an 8 12″ speaker cabinet in the sixties for Pete Townshend so that he could play his 100w amp near full blast. They later put it on sale as two cabs, not one. Back then, though, the speakers were rated at 12w each, so with 8 and your fingers crossed, you could just about get away with it. Nowadays, speakers have much higher power ratings, so it’s no longer necessary, but the main change is that modern PA systems are a gazillion times better (and bigger). So if you’re playing a mid or large venue, you still use your 30w amp, but just let the venue sound engineers sort out the projection to the venue, and monitoring back to the band.
Thanks for your input Steve, PA systems have indeed come a long way and makes all the difference these days. cheers 🙂
“A Stack consists of an amplifier head and cabinet. If you’re aim is to fill an arena” *Your Please fix
Fixed. Thanks Dmitry 🙂
Guitar Sound Guru says:
Thanks for the tips! Such a great help on choosing the right amplifier. Definitely love this blog.
Glad it helped! thank you 🙂