Guitar Amplifier Buying Guide

(Guitar_Amplifiers | Posted 2008-12-03)

Guitar Amplifier Buying Guide

Now that you have that shiny new electric guitar, you need something to play it through, right? Shopping for a guitar amplifier can be fun and a headache at the same time as there are many things to consider. Here, we will attempt to break down some of the major decision points for you as you engage on your guitar amplifier shopping adventure.

What about price? Ok, so weíre starting to sound like a broken record if youíve read any of the other buyers guides weíve created here on Price, however, is your most important decision because it limits the range of equipment that you have to look through. Keep in mind also, we always recommend that you set a budget, and donít break it until itís time to buy. We believe itís important to buy the best piece of equipment that you can, and then spend a few more dollars getting some additional features or quality that you want to make sure youíre happy with your purchase for years to come.

Should I choose a Combo or Head and Stack? Guitar amplifiers basically come in two varieties these days. A combo, or combination amp and speaker cabinet built together, or a separate amplifier head and stack. In reality, itís all about size and loudness related to the typical environment or venue you will be playing in. Guitar amp combos are usually fine for garage bands, or small gigs, but if you plan to play a large hall or outdoor area frequently, you will want to go with a separate head unit and speaker cabinet arrangement Ė which ultimately will have more power and ability to project. Also, for those of you who just like to go overboard with your gear, a stack is something that can probably be fine for a small space as well Ė just keep the volume lower most of the time.

What about tube amps as opposed to solid state? In reality, solid state amps can produce a cleaner tone at greater volume levels than tube amps, but in our opinion, can lack the warmth of a tube based guitar amplifier. Itís interesting that many experienced guitarists actually prefer to play through tube amps for a more vintage sound. This is similar to the vinyl record versus compact disc debate. While the solid state amps are technologically superior, tube amps just have a magic all their own, plus, thereís nothing like seeing your tubes glow while youíre banging away on your favorite solo. Ultimately, itís your call though.

What about the speakers? Speakers can have a lot to do with tone, of course. Nowadays, many mainstream guitar amp manufacturers will manufacture their own speakers cones for installation in their combos or cabinets, but some of the higher end brands will put brand name speakers, like Celestion, in their amps. Sometimes you can even find combo amps where the manufacturer has put some higher end speakers in, which should be considered when you are evaluating all of the alternatives. Still yet, you can have cabinets built to spec with speakers you have selected so again the range of options is mind numbing. The smaller the speaker, the stronger the response through the higher tone registers is though, so keep this in mind when you are shopping for speaker sizes, which can range from 10 inches generally to 15 inches. Larger speakers are better suited for bass intensive applications though.

What about all this modeling mumbo jumbo? Modeling is a way that guitar amplifier manufacturers have developed to allow guitarists like you to experience tones from several different rigs, or even effects units, all while using one guitar amp combo or head and cabinet rig. Most amps nowadays have some type of modeling built in to them, and some even have a limitless amount of capability for mixing and matching amps, cabs, effects, and more. If you plan to, or already have, an advanced guitar effects unit however, we would recommend you stay away from modeling amps and stick to a combo or head/stack unit that has the best performance and pure sound. This way, you can always switch out effects and modeling tools in the future, but at least you will have purchased the best possible amplifier for your money. Thereís nothing more important than pure, clean tone with lots of power, so if you have a few more dollars to spend, spend that money to get more power, or perhaps even better speakers in your cabinet.

What about power supplies? Most amps these days are class AB, which means the power comes on in two stages. Some people claim that they are not as fast to react to changes in your signal, but in reality, most of this is outside of the range of human hearing anyway. Class AB amps are more efficient with power distribution, anyway, so thereís really not a whole lot to consider in this regard.

What about the different guitar amplifier brands? As with any musical instrument, there are tons of brands out there to choose from. Fender has always produced great quality amplifiers that many use who tend to prefer a cleaner tone. Marshall, of course, has always led the pack with the hard rock crowd. There are also some popular brands that provide excellent products at very competitive price points such as Crate, Epiphone, and others. Serious metal heads might consider the Mesa Boogie series because of the killer sustain and overdrive. If you are buying for yourself, you probably have some idea of what youíre looking for, but if youíre buying for someone else, try and understand the genres of music they listen to, or better yet try and identify some guitarists they like and do some Google searches on these musicianís rigs. Many times you can find out the exact brands and models these guys use the most which will help you in shopping for your loved one.

What if I just want something small to start? One category that we havenít discussed yet is the practice amp. Generally, practice amps will have a smaller single speaker, paired with a lower power amplifier and perhaps an effects loop. You can find a good practice amp for around $100 that should provide plenty of years of use. As with anything, however, donít skimp too much on this item. Be wary of some practice amps that are very inexpensive as you generally get what you pay for. Many manufacturers will offer cheap practice amps to get you started, but we believe itís always good to go for quality in the end.

If you have any tips youíd like to share for shopping for guitar amplifiers, please send them through our contacts page and we will review for posting here!

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