Amp Shopping Tips for Beginners

You’ve decided that you want to play guitar, done your research, and visited about a hundred music stores where you’ve drooled on every solid-body six string within a hundred miles of home. You know that you want an electric guitar, and though you’d really like to own the $2000 custom-shop special you saw on the wall of your favorite music store, you’ve decided that maybe the really nice $200 axe in the same store is a more practical purchase, at least until you hit the big time or the lottery, whichever comes first!

The next question is, since you’re going to need an amplifier to plug it into, what kind should you be looking for? If you’ve been looking while guitar shopping, you’ve probably noticed that there are just as many, if not more, amp choices than guitar choices out there, and everyone you ask for an opinion of the best one will say something different! So where to start? There are a lot of things to consider, but with a little patience, you’ll find just the right compliment to your axe to get you going with a bang- or maybe with a squeal, an oink, a howl, or even a screech, if that’s what you’re looking for!

Like guitars, amps have made a lot of progress in terms of quality and features, even in the last 10-15 years. They range in size from little half-watt headphone amps that fit in your pocket to the walls of cabinets and 200 watt heads seen lining the stages of the loudest of loud heavy metal groups! First, let’s talk about some of the different designs!

Amplifiers are available in basically 3 types, tube or solid state (the third type being a hybrid, or a vacuum tube preamp section coupled to a solid state power amp) and in 2 configurations, combo or stack (called a “piggyback” in the 50’s). A combo amp means that the amplifier and the speaker are in one cabinet, while a stack is a separate amplifier head coupled to one or more speaker cabinets. Tube and solid state refer to the type of components make up the circuits of the amp.

Vacuum tubes are old technology, and have a unique sound because of the way they work. Many players have said that they prefer the sound of a tube amplifier to any other other, however there is a downside- because these amps are built with old technology, they can be quite expensive to maintain and repair should something go wrong with them. For the most part, they are touchy, and if a part needs to be replaced, some of them (such as output transformers) can cost upwards of $800 to replace, due to the fact that parts are harder to find than they once were. They are also HEAVY for their size to carry around (I owned an early 70’s Ampeg Bass amp that weighed more than 60 pounds- not including a speaker!). Still, if this is the sound you’re looking for, there are many options available, and many times, with some patience, you can find great deals on weird, obscure tube amps with a sound like no other at yard sales, pawn shops, or from people who “used to play a long time ago.”

For the first time amp shopper, a solid state amp is probably the way to go. They sound good, and even feature built in effects on most models! They are inexpensive, compact, and much lighter for their size, and are plenty loud even at 10 or 20 watts for private practice or jamming with friends! They are available with speakers from about 6 inches to 12 inches, according to the size of the amp. Prices for smaller amps range from about $20 for a “pocket sized” amp to about $200 for a “name brand” 20 watt model with a 12 inch speaker.

Where to begin looking? First, think about the size of the amp you’ll need, then think about what kind of music you are interested in playing. While many amps have built in effects like distortion, reverb, or echo (also called delay), if you really like country or jazz, some of these may be features you’ll never use, and to pay extra for these features will be a waste of money. If you’re into hard rock or heavy metal, a good built-in distortion effect will be invaluable, but make sure to try it in the store before purchasing, because if it doesn’t sound good to your ears, it will be useless to you and you’ll want a separate distortion unit. I’ve personally owned amps with built-in effects that I only used once and never touched again because I hated the sound of them.

Your ears should always be the judge and just because a particular model boasts the most features, you should try each one of them and decide for yourself if they will be things you’ll want to use when you’re playing or if they will just be gimmicks. Also take into consideration that if you know you’re going to love playing, it’s better to spend a little more money to get something you won’t outgrow in a few months, and something with the versatility to let you experiment while learning! You’ll probably never duplicate the sound of your favorite album because of the fact that those sounds are processed and layered in the studio, but you should be able to tinker with the settings and find more than one sound you really like! Also, an amp should sound good without any effects at all- if you’re starting with a good sound, putting effects on it will enhance a good sound, but putting effects on a tinny clean sound will give you a tinny effected sound!

There are literally hundreds of choices out there, but if you take this information shopping, you’ll have a good start on the process. The next step is to look at your choices and have fun with it! If you’ve bought your guitar already, bring it with you to the store so you know what it will sound like with the amps you’re looking at! When you find one that sounds good with your guitar to your ears, and better yet, sounds good with other guitars as well, you’ll know you’ve found what your looking for! The only other thing is to take it home and start learning and creating! Have fun!

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