A Beginner’s Guide to Guitar Amps [Everything You Need To Know]


guitar_amp_101

So you are an aspiring guitar player who is looking to buy your first amp?

Great! But what do you need to know before taking the plunge and buying one for yourself?

Amps come in a variety of shapes and sizes, so finding the perfect amp can be a daunting task.

This guide has everything that you need to know about guitar amps: how they work, the different types available on the market, when it’s best to buy certain models, etc.

I will answer all of your questions and provide plenty of helpful tips along the way!

So without further ado, let’s just get straight into it, shall we?

Why Would You Want An Amp?

The amp is an electronic device that drives loudspeakers and is used to create sound.

It is most commonly used in a band with electric guitars, drums, and vocals.

It is also the device that people use when they want to play solo without other musicians.

The guitar amps can be broadly classified into 4 different categories:

  1. Tube
  2. Solid-state
  3. Modelling
  4. Hybrid

The amps for each of these categories have different features so it’s important to know which one you need before buying the amp. I will discuss each of these later on.

The main reason why you would want an amp is to make your guitar louder and better.

The sound coming out of the amplifier will be much better than that of simply plugging in your guitar directly into a speaker or computer which makes it way more suitable for performing on stage or recording songs.

You can also get different effects such as reverb, delay, chorus, distortion, tremolo, compression, and equalization while performing with an amplifier.

How Do Guitar Amps Work?

The guitar amps are pretty simple in their working principle but have a lot of moving parts inside to make them suitable for playing live shows or recording songs.

They consist of different components such as power supply unit (PSU), preamp, tone stack, master volume, and power tubes.

The signal from the guitar is input into the amp through an input jack.

The preamp amplifies this signal which is then sent to the tone stack.

A tone stack is a component of an audio amplifier’s circuitry that modifies the frequency response of the amplifier.

This adjusts the sound of the signal according to the player’s preference and sends it to the power tubes.

The power tubes are electronic devices that generate the amplified signal.

These signals are then sent to an output jack which can be plugged into a speaker for performing live shows or recording songs.

Preamp

Every guitar amp has a preamp which is the first stage of amplification.

It consists of an amplifier and several filters that modify the signal coming from the guitar.

The purpose of these filters is to shape the tone of the amp according to what the player wants.

Some common features found in preamps are:

  • Gain
  • Bass
  • Middle
  • Treble
  • Presence
  • Master volume

Gain is a control that adjusts the strength of the signal going into the amplifier.

Bass is a filter that boosts or cuts the low-frequency signals.

Middle is a filter that affects the midrange frequencies.

Treble is a filter that amplifies or reduces high-frequency signals.

Presence is a filter that affects the upper midrange frequencies.

Master volume is a control that adjusts the level of the output signal.

Amp Effects

Although the majority of tone-shaping parts on amplifiers are similar, amp manufacturers vary considerably in what effects they include.

The following are some of the most common effects on many guitar amplifiers:

  • Reverb
  • Tremolo
  • Flanger
  • Chorus

Reverb is a fundamental rock guitar effect that may be heard on almost every recorded example of the genre.

It is a simulation of the sound that occurs when an instrument is played in an empty, reflective room.

Reverb effects work by mixing sounds with delayed distortion and lower frequencies as well as those without it to produce resonance effects such as playing inside a large hall or room etc.

Tremolo works by modulating volume which changes the volume up and down at a user-set speed.

It can provide both an atmospheric sound when set very slowly or create “shudder” effects in high settings.

Flanger is another type of effect that works by adding two separate signals together to produce harmonics, essentially filtering out partials from one source while allowing others to pass.

Chorus works by modulating the pitch of a dry signal at a user-set speed which is then mixed with that source while allowing other frequencies through unaffected.

It creates an effect similar to multiple instruments playing in unison but slightly out of tune for a slight chorus effect.

Channel Switching

Most modern amps allow you to mix sounds on different channels, and they also enable you to switch between them using a front-panel button.

This allows you to create two distinct channels and transition between them at any time.

Typically, two opposing noises are assigned to these channels, such as clean and distorted, or variations on those features.

This is advantageous because it allows you to switch between the two without having to use an external footswitch.

It also provides more control of your pedalboard, as most distortion pedals are not designed with channel switching in mind.

There are many different types of amps that range from small practice amps like the Fender Frontman or larger amps for live shows like the Marshall JCM 800.

The type you choose is ultimately up to your preference and budget, but knowing about each amp’s features will help make it easier to make a decision.

Let’s take a closer look at the different types of guitar amps available down below.

Different Types Of Guitar Amps

As briefly mentioned at the beginning, guitar amps can be broadly classified into 4 different types: tube amps, solid-state amps, modelling amps, and hybrid models.

Let’s take a closer look at each one below.

Tube Guitar Amplifier

This is the most traditional type of amp that you can find on the market which uses vacuum tubes (also known as valves) to amplify signals.

In the 1960s and 1970s, low to medium power valve amplifiers for frequencies below microwaves were largely replaced by solid-state amplifiers.

However, valve amplifiers are still used today for high-power applications such as guitar and bass amplifiers.

Tube Amps produce a warmer and more natural sound than solid-state amps.

They are also known for their reliability and durability.

The downside is that they can be quite expensive and require more maintenance than other types of amps.

Pros:

  • Suitable for high voltage circuits
  • Simple to use
  • Give a better sound

Cons:

  • Tubes are expensive to buy and you will also need to replace them regularly depending on how much you play your guitar or bass every day.
  • They are very fragile so it is easy for a tube to break.
  • They are not suited for low frequencies

Solid-State Guitar Amp

After the transistor was invented in 1948, a new era of solid-state electronic devices began.

This opened up the possibility to manufacture a cheap, reliable amplifier that could drive speakers without having any tubes in it at all.

The first transistor amps from companies such as Fender and Vox were not very heavy duty but they still provided a good enough sound for practicing or recording songs.

A solid-state guitar amp works by amplifying the signal from your guitar using transistors and then sending it to a power amplifier.

The power amplifier is responsible for boosting the voltage of the signal so that it can drive a speaker.

Solid-state amps are very reliable and don’t require as much maintenance as tube amps.

They also produce less noise than tube amps.

They are also cheaper to purchase than tube amps and do not require any tubes at all so you won’t have the additional cost of buying new ones as they wear out over time as well as having fewer maintenance issues due to them being more resistant.

However, solid-state amps produce a harsher/cold sound with very little warmth.

Pros:

  • Very reliable and don’t require much maintenance
  • Produce a clear and clean tone
  • They don’t weigh as much and are inexpensive

Cons:

  • Harsher sound than tube amps
  • They are limited compared to other amps

Modelling Guitar Amp

Solid-state guitar amplifiers have largely been replaced by modelling amplifiers (also known as digital guitar amps).

These guitar amplifiers make use of cutting-edge technology to generate a wide range of tones and effects possible.

Modelling amps were first introduced in 1980s but they didn’t really gain widespread popularity until recently due to their high price tags and terrible reputation.

Early versions of modelling amp models were mocked by guitarists as “digital rubbish” and “poor imitations of the real thing.” If you try out a vintage version of a modeling amplifier, you’ll know why.

However, recent advancements in technology have seen the development of some very impressive and realistic sounding modelling amps.

Modelling guitar amps allow you to emulate the sound of a wide range of different amplifiers, cabinets, and effects pedals all from within a single unit.

This can be great for gigging as it means that you don’t have to carry around a lot of different gear with you.

It also means that you can experiment with a huge range of tones until you find the perfect sound for your style.

The downside is that modelling amps are often quite expensive and they can be difficult to use if you’re not familiar with how they work.

Pros:

  • You get a huge variety of guitar effects and tones
  • Lighter than other amps
  • Have evolved over the years and are more realistic sounding

Cons:

  • The older ones don’t sound great
  • Can be difficult to use if you’re not familiar with them

Hybrid Guitar Amp

The last type of guitar amp that we’re going to look at is the hybrid guitar amplifier.

This type of amp combines the best features of both tube and solid-state amps to create a sound that is often described as “the best of both worlds.”

Hybrid amps typically use a tube preamp and a solid-state power amplifier.

This combination of tube and solid-state components often results in a more natural, warm sound.

Hybrid amps are typically much heavier than other types of guitar amplifiers but they can be connected to cabinets with speakers which will help to reduce the weight somewhat.

These amps also tend to cost quite a bit because you’re essentially getting two different amplifier circuits in one unit.

It’s worth noting that since you ‘get the best of both worlds’ a compromise must be made and you won’t get the perfect tone out of a hybrid amp that you would from a dedicated tube or solid-state amplifier.

Pros:

  • Warm sound with a tube preamp and solid-state power amp combination
  • A wider range of guitar tones and effects
  • More natural sounding as a result of using a tube preamp and solid-state power amplifier together

Cons:

  • Heavier than other amps
  • More expensive than other amps
  • Compromise on sound quality because you’re getting two different types of amplifiers in one unit

Choose The Right Guitar Amp

After reading about the four types of guitar amps, you should have a sense of what kind of amp to buy. Before you start looking at manufacturers or amplifier models, figure out which type of amplifier would best suit your needs.

If you feel a tube amplifier would be ideal for you, start looking into them and determine which brands and models are the best fit.

You may narrow your search down to tube amplifiers and compare different models from various manufacturers to find the right one.

This is a far better way to go than what most guitarists do. Many guitar players start with a brand and try to find a specific model.

This is a mistake since it eliminates the many wonderful amps available.

Instead of starting with a brand, get an idea of what kind of amp you want to end up with and then search for the best brands that offer it.

Then once you’ve narrowed down your choices, determine which model is right for you.

This way will ensure that no matter how good or bad the manufacturer is, you’ll still be able to end up with a great amplifier.

Here are some questions that you may want to ask yourself when you’re trying to choose the right guitar amp for your needs:

  • What sound do I have in mind (and how loud?)
  • How much money can I spend on an amplifier?
  • Do I need to transport the amp?
  • Will I be recording or performing live with the amp?

After you’ve answered the questions, consider how each type of amplifier fits your requirements.

For example, if you want a loud amp that will handle gigs, then a tube amplifier might be the best choice for you.

If you’re looking for an affordable practice amp that won’t take up too much space, then a solid-state guitar amp would be ideal.

What To Do If You Don’t Have A Guitar Amp

A guitar amp is certainly something that you need if you’re going to be playing the guitar.

However, sometimes you simply have to choose between purchasing an amplifier or a guitar.

When this is the case, you don’t have to worry because there are many other ways that you can practice your music without owning an amp.

If you only have a guitar and can’t afford anything else, understand that there are other options for amplification that won’t cost as much.

You may very well already have the technology on hand without even knowing it, so let’s take a look at what you can use.

Home Stereo or Boombox

If you connect your electric guitar to the auxiliary input of your home stereo, you may avoid purchasing an amp entirely.

All you need is a specialized, inexpensive adapter. These gadgets may be purchased at electronics or music shops for less than $5.

The adaptor is just a metal or plastic-coated plug with a female 1/4-inch jack on one end and a male RCA (sometimes called phono) connector on the other. Several boomboxes have inputs, but they are all connected to the 1/8-inch connection.

If you buy your adapter from a different store, double-check that the female end is mono; this is the end that you’ll plug into your guitar.

If you own a boombox, make sure that it has an input on the front of the unit (not all do).

Before you connect anything to a stereo or boombox, make sure the receiver’s volume knob is all the way down. This precaution protects against any abrupt pop or surge in the system, which might harm the speakers.

Headphone amps

If you’re looking for a more portable option, or if you don’t have access to a home stereo, then headphone amps might be the best way for you to practice your guitar.

These small amplifiers are designed specifically for use with headphones and can be purchased for as little as $20.

Some of these amps include an input for an MP player or CD player, so you can jam along with your favorite recordings.

Guitar Amp Modelling Software

If you’re looking for a more affordable option than buying an amplifier, guitar amp modelling software might be the best way for you to go.

This type of software can be used on your computer or laptop and can give you a wide range of sounds to choose from.

Many different brands offer this type of software, so you can find one that fits your budget.

Some software even includes simulations of classic guitar amps, so you can get the sound that you’re looking for without spending a lot of money.

Popular guitar sims include:

  • Guitar Rig 6 Player
  • AmpliTube 5 Custom Shop
  • Amp Simulations

FAQ

Q: What do amplifiers do for guitars?

A: The purpose of a guitar amplifier (or amp) is to strengthen the weak electrical signal from a pickup on an electric guitar, bass guitar, or acoustic guitar so that it may be used to produce sound through one or more loudspeakers, which are often housed in a wooden cabinet.

Q: Do guitar amps have speakers?

A: There are two types of guitar amps: the head and the combo. The Amp Head is usually a tiny rectangular box. It doesn’t have its own speaker. As a result, it must be connected to a speaker cabinet.

Q: Do amps come with effects?

A: Many amps now include built-in effects, such as reverb.

Q: How do guitar amps work?

A: The input signal from the guitar is boosted by vacuum tubes, to a level strong enough for driving the speakers.

Q: How many watts should I get in an amp?

A: Deciding on how much wattage you’ll need depends on where and when you intend to use your amplifier. For home use, 100 watts is recommended. For practice, anywhere from 15 to 50 watts should be fine. If you’re playing out at coffee houses or small venues with your band, then it may require 75 or even 150 watts of power for things to sound really good.

Q: What do the watt ratings mean?

A: The wattage is a measure of an amplifier’s power output. It tells you how much volume the amp can produce.

Q: What type of guitar should I buy for my first amp?

A: If you’re just starting out, I recommend an electric guitar with passive pickups. These guitars are less expensive and easier to play than those with active pickups.

Q: What kind of amp should I buy if I already have a guitar?

A: The first thing you need to do is figure out what type of amplifier your guitar needs. For home use, 100 watts is recommended. For practice, anywhere from 15 to 50 watts should be fine. If you’re playing out at coffee houses or small venues with your band, then it may require 75 or even 150 watts of power for things to sound really good.

Q: What are the best amps?

A: Deciding on what is “best” will depend largely upon personal taste and preference. Here’s a list that includes some reasonably-priced options that many guitarists have found to be satisfactory: Fender Champion 100, Vox AC15CCH, Marshall MG30CFX, Roland Cube Street EX. These amps represent a variety of different styles and prices ranges.

Q: What is the difference between a tube amp and solid-state amp?

A: Tube amplifiers use vacuum tubes to boost the signal from the guitar. This gives the amp a warmer, more natural sound. Solid-state amps use transistors to boost the signal, and they typically have a harsher, more brittle sound. However, there are many exceptions to this rule.

 

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