Thomann's Cool Online Guides: Guitar Amp Heads

2. History

Guitar amplification has evolved in parallel with the electric guitar itself. The need for amplification arose as dance and swing bands grew louder in the early part of the Twentieth century as more instruments – and more noisy instruments – were added. Though most rhythm sections included a guitar, what was at the time a purely acoustic instrument struggled to be heard above the horns and drums. A single sax or trumpet is considerably louder than an acoustic guitar, so it’s no surprise that as swing bands expanded to include four or five of each, the guitar was restricted to almost subliminal background rhythm work.

From a present-day perspective, it seems a happy accident that guitar amplification was developed before the technological advances that made high fidelity amplification possible. The original design goal was simply to amplify the acoustic guitar’s sound without changing its character, but Fortunately for us, the components available in the Thirties and Forties were simply not up to the job. Early recordings of the electric guitar, though not nearly as far removed from the sound of the acoustic instrument as the rock guitar sounds of later decades, feature a distinctive ‘honking’ sound - the result of a number of factors including slight distortion, compression, and a technically very poor frequency response - the basic components of the rock guitar sound were already in place!

By the mid Sixties, the electric guitar was a well-established instrument, and central to most popular music on both sides of the Atlantic. However, guitar amplification still lagged behind in some respects - the popular bands of the day were playing to large audiences of teenagers, who far from listening in respectful silence, tended to scream hysterically - guitarists were forced to turn their modestly powered amplifiers up to maximum volume…

Any analogue audio circuit will produce distortion if driven hard enough. In hi-fi terms this is considered undesirable - hi-fi amps are often marketed in terms of how little distortion they produce at maximum volume. But as guitar players in the Sixties began to turn their amps up louder and louder, many of them discovered that they actually rather liked the resulting distortion.

The basic component of most electronic equipment until around this time, the thermionic valve (also known as the vacuum tube), would generally soon be superseded by the transistor. Transistors are superior to valves in almost all respects, being far smaller, cheaper and more reliable. The silicon chip, which is an array of thousands or even millions of transistors, is in general better still. But guitar players first encountered distortion at a time when valves still held sway, and certain types of valves beat transistors in one crucial respect - they produce subjectively pleasing distortion. Valves are still used today, because although guitar amp manufacturers were as keen as anyone to switch to transistors, guitarists kept insisting that they just didn’t sound as good when overdriven. To the extent that decent-sounding transistor amps do exist, this is because much work has been done to understand why valves sound so good and to develop ways to mimic them.

Because distortion was initially an unintended consequence of amplifier design, there was no way to achieve it without turning up to deafening levels. Until the late Sixties, guitar amps had only one volume control which controlled the signal level all the way through several stages of amplification. In other words, your sound could be either clean and quiet, or loud and dirty. Obviously this became a problem as the distorted sound’s popularity increased - many players wanted to use distortion on smaller gigs, or at home, without damaging their hearing or irritating their neighbours. Two solutions to this problem arrived at around the same time -the distortion pedal (initially known as the ‘fuzz box’), and the master volume control.

The idea behind the fuzz box was to produce distortion or ‘fuzz’ in an external unit before feeding it to the amplifier. While early fuzz boxes used the new transistor technology, and thus failed to duplicate the sound of valve distortion, they were of course usually connected to valve amps, which smoothed out their sound somewhat, and various classic fuzz box sounds, not all of which sound like a wasp in a jam jar, can be heard on records of this era.

The master volume control, pioneered by Marshall, was more generally useful, the idea being that distortion could be produced at the pre-amplifier stage (where the basic sound is shaped), with a separate volume control at the power amp stage (where the signal is stepped up to a sufficient level to drive a loudspeaker). Almost all guitar amps make use of this concept today, and therefore usually have a gain control (which affects both distortion and volume), and a master volume control governing the overall level.

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in online competitions

Note: Participation in an online competition runs independently from any purchase at Thomann GmbH. The following Competition Rules apply when participating in any online competition run by Musikhaus Thomann:

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Guitar Amp Heads overview

Line6 Helix HX Effects Epiphone Joe Bonamassa 1958 "Amos" Bose T8S Mixer Zoom F1-LP Warm Audio WA73-EQ Decksaver NI Kontrol S49 MK2 Presonus Faderport 16 2box DrumIt Three Harley Benton PowerPlant ISO-1 Pro Fender Squier Standard Tele IL VB DAP-Audio Compact 8.1 Zoom F1-SP
Line6 Helix HX Effects

Multi effect pedal More than 100 HX effects, Of which up to 9 effects can be used simultaneously, Import of own Impulse Responses (IRS), Parallel stereo signal paths, Inputs can be switched between line / instrument level, Two assignable...

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Epiphone Joe Bonamassa 1958 "Amos"

Electric Guitar Joe Bonamassa model, Body and neck: Korina, Fretboard: Certified blackwood, Neck profile: 1958 Rounded C, 22 Medium jumbo frets, Pickups: Epiphone Probucker 2 (neck) and Epiphone Probucker 3 (bridge), Lock Tone ABR-1 Tuneomatic bridge, Including case, certificate,...

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Bose T8S Mixer

Tonematch Digital Stereo Mixer with 3-Band EQ Compact interface with 8 channels, Powerful DSP engine and intuitive control, Integrated Bose ToneMatch signal processing, Easy-to-read LED display and storable scenes, Inputs: 8 XLR / 6.35mm combo XLR, 2 AUX, USB...

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Zoom F1-LP

Field Recorder and Lavalier Microphone Set Two-channel audio recorder, Compatible with zoom microphone capsules, Supports WAV formats up to 24bit / 96kHz or MP3 formats on microSD / microSDHC card (up to 32GB), USB audio interface for PC and...

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Warm Audio WA73-EQ

Warm Audio WA73-EQ; 1-channel Mic-Preamp; British 1073-style; fully discrete Class A; Carnhill Transformers; 80dB of Gain (stepped gain switch); Tone Button (changes input transformer impedance); Polarity switch; +48v phantom power; Inductor based 3 band EQ: Low Band Boost/Cut (35, 60,...

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Decksaver NI Kontrol S49 MK2

Decksaver NI Kontrol S49 MK2, protects against dust, dirt, liquids and strikes, usable without deconecting cables, dimensions: (BxHxT): 84,5 x 30,0 x 4,0 cm, weight: 0,95 Kg

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Presonus Faderport 16

16-Channel DAW Production Controller 16 Professional, touch-sensitive 100 mm motor faders (Dual-Servo Drive Belt), High fader resolution: 10 Bits/1,024 steps, 85 Background and status illuminated buttons, 104 Controllable functions, 16 High-resolution LC displays as digital labeling fields, Timecode and...

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2box DrumIt Three

2box DrumIt Three e-drum module, 4GB disk space for samples, multilayer-sample-technology, metronome, songplayer, support a big amount of pads from different manufactures as well as triple-zone snare drum pads and up to three triple-zone cymbal pads, 15x stereo 1/4" jack...

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Harley Benton PowerPlant ISO-1 Pro

Multi-power adapter for effect pedals 8 isolated, filtered & short-circuit protected outputs eliminate noise and hum, High amperage for modern digital effects, LED monitoring at each output, Power supply with a 12V @ 2A DC power adapter (included), Output...

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Fender Squier Standard Tele IL VB

Electric guitar Body: Agathis, Neck: Maple, Fretboard: Indian Laurel (Laurel), Neck profile: C, Scale: 648 mm, Nut width: 42 mm, 22 Medium jumbo frets, Pickups: 2 Single coils, 6-Saddle strings-thru-body footbridge, Chrome hardware, Standard die cast mechanism, Colour: Vintage...

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DAP-Audio Compact 8.1

8-Channel Installation Mixer 8 Combined mic / line inputs (XLR / RCA), Master EQ with Mid Sweep, Phantom power, Selectable high pass filter, XLR master output (balanced), Headphone connector: 6.3 mm jack, Format: 19"/ 1U, Dimensions: 481 x 175...

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Zoom F1-SP

Field Recorder and Shotgun Microphone Two-channel audio recorder, Compatible with zoom microphone capsules, Supports WAV formats up to 24bit / 96kHz or MP3 formats on microSD / microSDHC card (up to 32GB), USB audio interface for PC and Mac...

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