Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Guitar Gear for Beginners - Part 2 - The Amp

Nothing strikes fear into the guitar students parent when they realize that little Timmy is gonna need an amplifier to go along with that electric guitar. They have visions of the first scene in "Back to the Future" with a 6 foot speaker mounted into the wall. Amplifiers can be a tricky deal and can really make or break your sound.

Practice Amps

For starters, there is what we call the practice amp. This is a small amplifier that can be used at low to moderate volumes and maintain a simple good tone.  Practice amps are usually what we call "combo amps" where the amp and the speaker are in one unit (as opposed to a head and cab, where they are separate) They are low powered ( < class="Apple-style-span" style="color: rgb(51, 51, 51); font-family: Arial; font-size: 12px; line-height: 18px; -webkit-border-horizontal-spacing: 2px; -webkit-border-vertical-spacing: 2px; ">Crate FlexWave FW15R 15W 1x12  , the Roland Cube or a Line 6 Spider III, Now do not expect a lot from these amps. They may have built-in effects or amp models, but don't expect much. These amps run around $100. If you move up just a little to something like a Fender Frontman I used this particular amp live for about a year and got decent sound out of it ( mic'd up ). It is basically a slightly larger practice amp.

The Big One

The next step for amps is almost as hard as the next step for guitars. There are so many options and price ranges. You can easily spend $300-$1000 on a amp to play out on. Here are some things to keep in mind and to look for.

Tube Vs Solid State

This is a big debate about which one is better. Personally, I tend to like the sound of a nice tube amp, but unless you find a smoking deal, they are generally very pricey.  A rule of thumb that I have heard is that a tube amp of the same wattage as a solid state is about 3 times louder. I'm not sure how true that is, but anecdotally , it seems to be true. Tube amps need more special care than a solid state. But there are a few things that solid state can offer that tube amps usually do not. 

Combo Vs Head/Cab

Unless you are looking to blow out a large venue, a head with a cab may be a bit excessive. Most students will do fine with a well sized combo amp.

Wattage

For a garage band musician a 25-50 watt tube amp or up to a 100 watt solid state should more than get the job done. 

Speakers

Amps generally have an indication like 1x10 or 2x12 to indicate how many of what size speakers they have. So a 2x12 has 2 twelve inch speakers in it. For fullness of sound, a 1x12 or a 2x12 will do very well for you. There are a few amps that have smaller and sound good, but generally a 12 feels a bit more full to me. If you want a 4x12 you generally need to move to a head/cabinet setup as a 2x12 is about as big as a combo gets. 

Built in Effects / # of Channels 

A growing trend in amps is built in effects. If you look at the Line 6 Spider III amps, you will see their low end models have a few effects to their upper end amps that are fully programmable.  A lot of non-built-in effects amps have reverb built in. It will quite possibly be  a spring reverb unit in the back of the amp. 

Some amps also have more than one "channel",  a clean channel and one or more "drive" channels. The clean channel is the amplified sound of the guitar, clean and clear, The drive channel is a 'distortion' effect. If there is more than one drive channel, it is generally set up for varying levels of distortion. Depending on how the drive channel sounds on the amp, most players will always leave their amp on the clean channel and add distortion or other effects through an effects pedal or unit of some kind. If their amp has a really good sounding drive channel they may opt to use it.

Now most amps are content to sound like themselves, where another newer trend in amps is what is called "amp modelling" where an amp tries to emulate the sound of other amps. Line 6's higher end amps do this pretty well, where they also have an effects unit that does it VERY well. We will talk about that in the post on effects. 

Now when it comes to amps, I am of a very minimalist mindset. Give me an amp that produces a great full clean tone and let me tweak my sound before it gets there with my guitar and my effects. Currently I use a Crate V33-212. It is a 33 watt tube amp and it is very nice, especially for the price it was gotten at. Some folks live and die by their amp choice.  My advice, try lots of them. If you go to a place like Guitar Center, be sure to ask to use a guitar similar to what you own when trying out amps, that way you will have a good idea what it will sound like when you get it home.

Are you a guitarist? What was your starter amp? What is your favorite amp and why? Post your thoughts below! For those looking for advice, was this information helpful, do you need more info on a given part in this overview? Let me know!
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