Which Guitar Amplifier? A Buyer's Guide - Arya Sridhar
Which Guitar Amplifier?
Well, we all have asked this question at least once, haven’t we?
I thought I would share my experiences on how I dealt with such situations when I started and this is not just when I started but even today sometimes some questions are difficult to understand.
I have heard and been asked questions like, I got an amp head and plugged my guitar in, but I do not hear a single note…..You know where this is going? Hence this article, intention is only to guide the ones who need guidance.
We tend to get confused with so many options in the market, some with a lot of bells and whistles and some with just bare bones. So it kind of gets tough on the head to decide which one to go for.
First off, what is a guitar amplifier, and why do you need one?
Electric guitars do not have enough volume to them and acoustic guitars even with the volume cannot really hold on to the volume in bigger gigs (20 people or more) as the volume gets lost with the vocals etc etc. so to let your tone reach out to the people listening or even just to you in case of an electric guitar, an amp is required.
How to decide on which amp to get? Read on…..
Here are some things that you need to answer before you even get into the market to buy an amp.
1) What Genre?
2) Where will you be playing mostly?
Now that you have answered the above mentioned questions, let me explain each:
Choosing an amp can be tedious, and if you know what genre of music you play it kind of makes the choice a little easier, how? Let me explain.
Each Genre has its own somewhat specific tone that one looks for. And there are amps that specifically suit a particular genre, for example a Fender Twin or a Blues Jr for Blues, Vox AC30/15 or A Marshall Class 5 for Blues/Rock/Hard Rock. So this is important to know, what genre’ you play or plan to play in the future and keep that in mind when deciding on the amp.
There are amps which can do everything, but they in most cases do one or maybe 2 things great, so it’s always a good idea to get something that does one or two things better than getting something that does everything average. You get my point?
Where will you be playing mostly?
Arena? Bedroom? Small Clubs? Studio? This is a really important question to ask yourself, be true to yourself on this one, some people have a great budget but they mostly play in the bedroom, I know owning that much sought after half stack in your bedroom sounds really tempting, but what’s the point in getting one when it needs to be cranked to a certain level to get great tones? Which you can’t do in your bedroom?
If you are reading this with the “Title” of this article as a question in your head, I can safely assume, more than likely, that you may not be playing at bigger venues than your bedroom or a small gig at most in the near future.
Low Wattage Amplifiers are really neat these days, great tone at bedroom levels, if you are mostly going to use the amp at home or at small gigs, a 5/10/15 Watt tube amplifier should get you there.
With the venue getting larger, you may need more volume and more headroom. However, you can more than likely mic your existing small amp and send it to the PA system.
It helps to decide on how many watts are required for your needs, before you go about short listing the amplifiers.
Important to Remember – A 100 watt tube amp is NOT twice as louder as a 50watt Tube amp, It’s just slightly louder, say about 6-8db, however the 100 watt amp would offer more headroom, meaning, the 100 watter will offer more clean headroom as compared to the 50 watter at the same volume.
Now that you know how many watts you need and what kind of tones you want out of your amplifier.
Here is another set of questionnaire that you may want to answer to further shortlist the amp you are looking for.
1) Tube or Solid State Amplifier?
2) Combo or Head?
3) Wattzzzzzzz (The Big Question)
4) Speaker Size
5) Tubes (If going for a Tube Amp)
Tube or a Solid State Amplifier?
This is arguably a debate older than dirt; however some tube amps being around the same as Solid State amps today are kind of paving a path for Tube amps among beginners. Which is good as beginners realize a few months into playing a Tube amp that it’s nice to have a warm sounding amp that brings out your mistakes and sounds fantastic too I own a couple of tube amps, and my first amp was a hybrid, so I have been attached to tubes right from the word go, and you could say I am biased too, however not that I do not use anything solid State or Digital, everything today is digital and digital modeling amplifiers are getting more and more popular, which is good.
Tube amplifiers have a warm sound/tone to them when compared to SS amps, which are definitely getting better though. You may get a lot more features in a solid state amp by paying just the same amount you would pay for a tube amp in the same price range, and the tube amp may just be a bare bone amp, so it’s you who decides what you want? Tone over features? Or Features over Tone? It’s your call really.
So try out as many amps as you can before calling it a day and picking up the amp that sounds and feels right for you.
Combo or a Head?
Combos are great, though maybe a little expensive than their “Head” counterparts, many come with good speakers in them, but remember these are heavy to lug around depending on the size of the unit (2X12’s can be real heavy). So if you wish to get a combo, which has a higher wattage or 2x12 speakers, get ready to lug around some heavy weights for gigs. However the weight should not be a problem for some who play at home or Studio and have a separate rig as well at home or studio.
Another important factor is to check how good are the speaker(s) in the combo?
Materials used to build the combo cabinets? MDF? Birch Ply? Regular Ply? And ofcourse the overall build quality.
Get the build information before you decide, Manufacturer’ website is a good source and so are forums.
When gigging with a combo, you need a sturdy cabinet that can hold all that abuse that it may have to go through. If you are going to use the combo at home or a studio, it wouldn’t matter much (not saying it doesn’t matter at all), but who knows you may be gigging tomorrow, so good to get something that is built well and will last longer.
Amplifier heads on the other hand require a separate speaker cabinet, there is flexibility as well with heads to swap around the cabs and/or switch the speakers if you do not like a specific one, get a good cab, build quality is important here as well, head units can be used with any cabs (Provided the impedance of the amp matches the speaker and the speaker is rated to handle higher wattage than the amp).
You could just lug around the Head unit from home to your Gigging area with a cab lying around at both places. Head and cab setup also eliminates any rattling issues that some combos may have.
How many watts are sufficient? This purely depends from person to person, some like 50 or 100 watts even in the bedroom, for some it’s overkill. So decide on your needs, if you are going to use the amp mainly at home/studio/small pubs/gigs, up to 15 watts should be good enough, as most places have mic’s to allow micing your amp/cab and you may not need a 50w half stack to do the job, and do it well.
For bedroom use, a 5 watt tube amp is LOUD enough; if you really need a bigger sound get a head and a 2x12 cab that should do the job really well. For me a 5/10 watt amp works well for my purposes.
Speaker size is important, whether you get a combo or a Head. With 8” and 10” speakers you are ought to lose out on bottom end (Bass) and they tend to sound boxy as well, with a 12” speaker these issues can be overcome, I made a cab for myself with a 12” Eminence speaker and am really happy with it, I have a Laney cub 10, for which I made the cab initially as the speaker in the Laney is a low end Celestion (Probably the weak link in an otherwise nice amplifier).
Tubes (If you plan to get a tube amp)
Tubes are the heart of the matter in a tube amp, different tubes have different voicings unique to them. So choosing the right tube amp also includes what tubes are in there, EL84 (Vox type Tone), EL34’s (Marshall Tones), 6V6’s (Fender) and so on, so check out the specs of the tubes that your shortlisted amp comes with. Also check what brand of tubes the amp has, some companies for costing reasons use cheap tubes, which may sound brittle and cold, unlike a tube sound, so you may have to shell out some more Vitamin “M” on the tubes after the purchase to get better tube(s).
Preamp tubes can last a long time, they may even last your lifetime if taken care of, however the power tubes aren’t the same, they are the one that get you that tone and volume, hence they run really hot at high voltages and they wear out eventually, but not very soon though, say if you practice about an hour or two a day, these may last over 2 years (subject to good care and no abuse)
So look out, play as many amps as you can, see what sounds best to your ears and then decide, DO NOT go by anyone else’s opinion, the points here in this article are to help you decide what to look for, and should purely be taken as just that and not as a conclusion on what you should buy.
The other best thing to do is ask around with people who own the amps you may want to consider or Google up for results and check the features you need in an amp. Check out some YouTube videos to get an idea, but never let the videos be the deciding factors in buying the amp, always play the amp in person to decide.
Please Note – Your feedback is really important, I plan on writing more such articles, so please comment if you like the content and the ease of understanding of the stuff mentioned in this article.
Hope this helps
Guitars - Epiphone Les Paul Standard Plain Top, GB&A Strat, Yamaha C70
Amp - Laney Cub 10 (FOR SALE), Blackheart Little Giant Head, 1X12 Cab (DIY) w/ Eminence Governor Speaker
Pedals - Vox Satchurator, Boss ME-25, EHX LPB-1 - DIY, Marshall Plexi Pedal (DIY), TS-808 (DIY)
**Arya Pedals makes custom pedals just the way you need it, and for a price that does not break your bank**
**Reach out at http://www.facebook.com/AryaPedals or email - aryasridhar(at)gmail.com, or PM me on IGT.**