Last month we began our journey to find the ever-quested tone that every guitarist is searching for by examining exactly what to look for in the instrument you choose to play. Now that you have found the instrument you like and it feels right to your fingers, we have to figure out exactly what amplifier we should invest in. I could say “buy” or “purchase”, but the word “invest” is chosen here for a very specific reason. Groceries, batteries, even strings are purchased or bought; they are commodities that are made to wear out and be replaced. This should most definitely NOT be the case when it comes to one’s means of amplification. This is just like any other “investment” you make, be it a house or a car, you wouldn’t just go out and buy a car that you know you are going to drive every day for the next ten years without researching some information first. You want to know things like what the gas mileage, is it rated well for safety, will it carry my whole family…and not to mention my super sweet new amplifier. These are some of the things you would want to know when investing in a vehicle. “So exactly what should I know about the amplifier I will invest in?” you may be asking yourself. Well here are the basic decisions to start off with and we will get into each in detail.
• Tube vs. Solid-State
• Combo vs. Amp & Cabinet
• Wattage needed
• Speaker size
Let’s start at the beginning, tube “valve” amplification versus solid-state amplification. A tube or “valve” is basically a fancy word for an electronic amplification triode which consists of three electrodes inside an evacuated glass envelope: a heated filament or cathode, a grid, and a plate (anode) allowing you to amplify the voltage of and incoming signal. With a tube amp there are a couple of steps to starting up the amp itself. You start by turning on the amplifier power with the amplifier in standby. Once your power light comes on the best thing to do is wait a few minutes, tubes actually sound best when they are nice and warm from being on a while. Once a few minutes have passed, which oddly enough should give you just enough time to get your guitar and accessories plugged in, you then take the amplifier out of standby mode and rock the night away. This full analog style of amplification sounds warm, thick and is the heart and soul of any, and yes I mean any, vintage guitar, bass or even organ sound. You can tell tube amplification by the distinctive “sag” that occurs behind the notes, they tend to be a little less harsh in tone and not as brittle as its digital counterpart, but at the same time they tend to be a little noisier, more prone to stray frequencies live such as neon lights and dimmer packs and the biggest difference, they are heavier…much heavier. In solid-state amplification there is no down time. You flip a switch and you’re ready to rock. This is because instead of using a series of triode tubes to amplify the signal, solid-state amplifiers use operational amplifier circuits also called “Op-Amps” to take the incoming signal and up the outgoing voltage to rage the eardrums of all around you. Whereas an average tube is quite large, approximately the size of a medicine bottle, in comparison an op-amp is approximately the size of an average piece of Chiclet gum. This allows for the same amplification potential in a much smaller circuit size thereby allowing for not only a smaller, lighter amplifier but one that runs considerably cooler. These are all desirable qualities of regularly used stage equipment. However as opposed to the distinctive “sag” that occurs with an analog tube amp, with a solid-state amp there is no sag. The effect on notes is immediate. Especially when dealing with distorted or over driven sound. This can make an extremely percussive quality that is very noticeable, especially in music that incorporates staccato rhythms such as heavy metal and hard rock.
Size Comparison: Vacuum Tubes vs IC Chip
Now that you have a bit of an understanding of what type of amplification you will want, it is time to choose the configuration of your amplifier. There are basically two options when it comes to this decision, an amp head and cabinet configuration or a combination a.k.a. “combo” amp. The differences between the two are immediately visible. In an amp head and cabinet configuration the amplifier is either contained in its own housing or is a rack mount style piece of equipment that will sit atop or on the side of the cabinet that contains the speakers, usually in a configuration containing anywhere between 4-8 speakers. This is the quintessential rock star guitar rig. From the likes of Jimmy Page to the stage jumping antics of Eddie Van Halen this is usually what people think when they think Rock & Roll. Amps like this are the reason bands have roadies…well that and fetching beer. On the flip side of this coin is the trusty combination or “combo” amp. This is usually what people have in mind when they think guitar practice or church. But don’t let the compact size fool you, though a combo amp may only contain literally one or two speakers they can shred and blow ear drums with the big boys. Amps such as the Fender Twin, Gibson G-50 and Peavey Bandit are famous for their size to sound ratio. These amps are perfect for the regularly gigging musician. While they are easily moved and carried up stairs they offer enough range of volume to play anywhere from a sound delicate fine dining jazz gig to a rowdy bar full of frat kids until 2am. If you are shredding metal under 5,000 watts of strobe lights a combo amp may look a little out of place, but so would a Marshall full stock if you put it in the middle of an R&B stage. The decision of amplifier configuration ultimately comes down to questions of function, form, preference and style.
Once you have decided what type of amplifier and configuration you are looking for it’s time to get down the business of power. The power of an amplifier is rated using the electrical measure of watts. The more watts you have the louder you can go…pretty simple right? Well initially yes, but as with everything involving music there are nuances. If you are going for loud clean sound for rhythm guitar or straight bass then sure just a plain old big amp around 100 watts or more will do the trick just fine, all you need is on and up. However if you are a lead guitar player and you want your sound to “break up” when you start to lay into a lead line or want to have a bit more crunch to your chords then you are probably going want to stick to a midrange wattage of around 50-75 watts. “But I wanna wail my solos man!” you say…well no worries my finger flinging friends, here’s the reason. If you have a smaller amplifier it is easier to make the circuit produce natural harmonic distortion which gives you the signature “break up” sound that most guitarists are craving. This is especially true with tube amplifiers. If you are looking for amps for practice and small venues and rehearsal a wattage range of anywhere between 25-50 watts is usually desirable. Remember the more wattage the pounds you get to carry, particularly with tube amps.
35 Watt Solid State Amplifier vs. 50 Watt Tube Amplifier
Finally we get to speaker size. This is the final part of the amplifier tone equation. When you think of speakers in your amplifier you must think about a few things. What is the amp being used for and do I have to move the amplifier or cabinet. Speaker sizes in amplifiers range from 8-10 inches in practice amplifiers to 10-15 inches in combo amps and speaker cabinets. As mentioned before the amplifier depends a lot on the purpose. I have a 30 watt amp solid state in my studio for practice and a 50 watt tube amp for live performance, both of which have a 12 inch speaker in them. I like 12 inch speakers in cabinets because it has a bit more bite in the mid-range and just enough low end without getting “woofy”. 8-10 inch speakers are usually used in practice amps because they are typically small wattage and used in close quarters and low volumes, it’s much easier to get the range of tones desired with a smaller speaker if you have low wattage. 10-12 inch speakers tend to have a bit more high-mid to low-mid tonal range while 15-18 inch speakers handle much more low end frequency and frequently seen in bass cabinets as well as the bottom sections of full stack guitar systems. Materials of course make a difference, there is everything from traditional paper to Mylar and even Kevlar impregnated fabrics and Hemp woven cones. All have a bit of difference to the discriminating ear but the main difference here is durability gig to gig and longevity over the lifespan of your amplifier. This of course comes down to a matter of personal taste and as any good stage musician and gear head knows…bragging rights. There’s nothing quite like that feeling of knowing your fellow musicians froth at the mouth when you start rattling off your amplifiers vital statistics.
Vintage Fender Bassman with 4x 10″ speakers
With all of these basic factoids in mind remember that you are investing in vital equipment to further your art. Don’t skimp if you don’t have to and don’t let a sales guy rush you into a decision, the last thing you want is three months down the road to wish you would have gotten an amp with one 12 inch speaker and 50 watts instead of one with two speakers and 50 watts. There is nothing worse than that empty pit feeling while you play knowing that your sought after tone would be that much closer had you only taken a bit more time to try different options. And with that we wish you happy gear hunting and until next time keep your cables wound tight and don’t fall off stage.