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What to Look for in Your First Guitar Amplifier

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Your amplifier is essential to your sound as a guitarist — some even say that an amplifier can do more to affect the sound of your guitar than the make of the guitar itself! If you’re new to this sort of stuff, I wanted to take a moment to demystify a few of the important considerations in buying your first amplifier and what you should be looking for.

I’ve spent hours in guitar stores plugging my own guitars into dozens of different amps, blindly trying to guess which one would sound the best for which types of performances. Over the years I’ve learned about the different types of amplifiers, and their various parts, and I’d like to walk you through some common questions to ask yourself the next time you’re in a store trying them out.

Should I buy a combo amp or a head and a cabinet separately?

Guitar and bass amplifiers come in two different styles: combo amps, where the speaker and the amplifier are a single unit, and models that come separately, where the amplifier (referred to as a head) is connected to the speaker cabinet with cables.

The Marshall JVM205C 50-watt 2×12″ tube combo amp.

A combo amp will probably be fine for most club shows, and even if it’s not loud enough you should be able to easily mic the amp. In contrast, a cabinet will let you play a lot louder, because they’re typically much bigger, but they’re difficult to transport and take up a lot of space — in the touring van for example.

The Vox AC30 stack 30-watt tube head with matching 2×12″ cabinet.

Besides loudness, one benefit of having a separate head and cabinet is that you can often just take your amp head with you to shows and connect it to the venue’s speaker cabinet, if they have one. That’ll save you the effort of having to lug your entire amp around for gigs. Unless you’re playing auditoriums and amphitheaters, I’d recommend sticking to combo amps.

Should I buy a solid state amplifier or a tube amp?

The difference between a solid state amplifier and a tube amplifier is minimal, in terms of what you’d really be able to notice after a quick listen, and has to do with how the guitar’s signal is amplified. Solid state technology uses electronics such as diodes and transistors to amplify the signal while a tube amp uses vacuum tubes to amplify the signal. Although many amps today use a hybrid system incorporating both. Those hybrids are usually considered to be “tube amps” simply because they have tubes.

Tube amps are typically preferred by guitarists for their warm, “natural” tone and their smoother, more responsive distortion. The distortion in a tube amp is created by literally pushing sound created by the vacuum tubes past what they can produce without the sound naturally breaking up. This type of distortion is what solid state amps can only emulate, and while many do it very well, some solid state amps have terrible distortion channels. A good tube crunch is very satisfying.

That said, the downside of this is that many tube amps don’t have a separate distortion control knob, so the only way to overdrive the tubes is to crank the volume. Tube amps are typically considered to have a more desirable sound overall, but a good solid state amp will definitely get you a high-quality clean tone. The Roland Jazz Chorus is often considered the Holy Grail of solid state clean tone.

The Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus 120-watt 2×12.

The reason some working guitarists tend to opt for a solid state amp is simply convenience. Since you don’t have to replace the tubes, they require less maintenance and are cheaper to own and upkeep in the long run. In my opinion, the tone debate between solid state amps and tube amps is mostly academic. As far as clean tone goes, I doubt that most people could really tell the difference between two well-functioning amps based on a blind listening test — plus with the thousands of pedals out there you can do a lot to shape your sound before it even hits the amp.

So, tube amps are great if you can afford them, if you’re willing to deal with the maintenance over time, and if you simply can’t live without that tube tone warmth. A solid state amp is great for rehearsals, frequent gigs, and pretty much everything having to do with consistency. At the end of the day you should get whichever fits best with your work as a musician.

How large should my speakers be?

Speaker size can have a pretty significant effect on your amp’s tone. Smaller speakers can typically produce higher frequencies than larger speakers, and vice versa — hence why your subwoofer is so large. Speakers typically range from 3 inches to 15 inches and most are between 10 and 15 inches. If your guitar needs a little more low end, why don’t you get something that has one 15 inch speaker, and if you’re looking for those searing high tones, try a 4×10 inch speaker cabinet.

The Peavey Classic 410E 400-watt 4×10 guitar speaker cabinet.

A decent-sounding 10-inch speaker can deliver a great, punchy, in-your-face sound, while a 15-inch speaker will impart a creamier, lush sound with more harmonic complexity on the low end. Speaker size isn’t terribly important for loudness per se, since more often than not your amps will be miked by the in-house sound engineer, but it’s still good to be aware of the differences.

How should my amp be constructed?

There are two main ways that a speaker is contained within a cabinet: open back and closed back. It’s not complicated. If you look in the back of the amp and you can see the back of the speaker cone, that’s an open back cabinet. The open back allows some of the sound to bleed out the back and fill the room in a natural and pleasing way. The back panel compresses the speaker’s voice, so without it you get a more organic representation of the guitar’s voice coming through the speakers.

A 1965 Fender Twin Reverb open back guitar speaker cabinet.

The high end of your guitar will benefit from an open back, while your low end will feel more washed out. An open back amp can be useful on stage if there aren’t any monitors because the sound will feel more like it’s all around you, rather than being blasted at the audience. But with a closed-back cabinet, the in-house engineer might have a bit more control over the guitar sound on stage and in the room, which can affect the consistency and efficiency of your live soundchecks.

Should I get an amp with built-in effects?

No.

Well… maybe. If you’re looking to experiment with effects or if you’re just looking to have some fun then sure, why not. But if you’re looking to seriously invest in your sound, leave the effects to some well-chosen guitar pedals instead, and pick out an amp that you think sounds great on its own, with a clean guitar sound. Built-in effects on guitar amps tend not to be the best quality versions of those effects, sonically speaking, although they can work as a nice introduction if you’re looking to learn about different types of effects.

Whatever you do, just don’t get a Line 6 Spider amp. You can almost always find a used amplifier for the same price that will sound one thousand times better.

While I hope that all this information has been useful, I will end by saying that you shouldn’t disregard your own ear and what sounds good to you. These questions might help narrow down your choices, but make sure you go out and get something that you think sounds good. One of my favorite amps is a small Danelectro that I got for fifty bucks. I play it all the time. I record with it. And it just looks and feels fun.

That’s the benefit of trying things out, listening closely, and having a good time with your amp. Good luck!

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Evan Zwisler
Evan Zwisler

Evan Zwisler is a NYC-based musician who is most notably known for his work with The Values as a songwriter and guitarist. He is an active member of the Brooklyn music scene, throwing fundraisers and organizing compilations for Planned Parenthood and the Anti-Violence Project. He started playing music in the underground punk scene of Shanghai with various local bands when he was in high school before going to California for college and finally moving to New York in 2012.