Finding the Right Amplifier

The Voice of the Electric Guitar

The amplifier is the voice of the electric guitar and choosing the right one is easily as important as choosing the guitar.  With so many options out there, how do you narrow it down?  Here is a quick guide to help you more easily find the perfect amplifier for your needs!

Budget

Yes, it seems obvious, but you really do need to decide how much you want to spend.  A great guitar will not sound so great on a sub-par amplifier, while an inexpensive guitar will still sound good on a great amp.  Bear this in mind when setting your budget.  

Power

This is a very important factor as many amps sound their best when they are being pushed a bit.  If you get a powerful amp but can only play at a low volume, you probably will not enjoy it as much.  Likewise, if you need to push through a mix in a full band, you may want more power.  If you are playing styles of music that require more headroom and the ability to handle a down tuned guitar for example, you will likely want a much more powerful amp than a blues player looking for the power amp to distort.

Style

All amps essentially fall into one or more of 3 categories:

  • American (think classic Fender, Ampeg, Dumble, and Mesa) - Examples include great players such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, John Mayer, Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, and more.
  • High Powered British (think Marshall, Park, and Hiwatt) - Examples include Jimmy Page, AC/DC, Hendrix, and many more.
  • Low Powered British (think Vox) - Examples include the Beatles, Tom Petty, Brian May, The Edge, and more.

It is important to note that these are very stereotypical statements and that almost all of these players used all kinds of different amplifiers over the years, particularly in the studio.  But as a baseline, they give a good idea of the tonal characteristics of the 3 styles of amp described.

Feature Set

Depending on what kind of music you play, you will want a different set of features to meet your needs.  A master volume for example allows you to play at a lower volume while still getting preamp distortion (a must for most metal and rock).  An effects loop allows you to have nice clean delays and reverbs that are not affected by how hard the amp is distorting.  This is fantastic for those pristine 80's lead tones.  Maybe something as simple as reverb built in.  All of these are things to consider.

Conclusion

Buying an amp is a very important decision and should not be taken lightly.  This is after all how your audience (even if that happens to just be you) will hear your guitar.  While tubes can tell you some, and speakers can give hints, ultimately the designer of the amplifier had a vision and that vision will determine how the amplifier sounds.  If you can think of some examples of players who have a tone that is similar to what you are trying to achieve and then research their gear, you will have a much easier time narrowing it down.