Posted by: kubiakl | December 30, 2008

A Quick Overview On Amps

Guitarists often get obsessed with six strings on a stick.  Hands up – who here loves their guitar(s)?  Whether you have a brand new Gibson Les Paul, a vintage ’52 Fender Tele, or a pawn shop special, you pour yourself into it.  That bitch can tear your fingers apart and you will still come back for more.  You’ll change its strings regularly, check the electronics, and maybe even give it some new pickups for your anniversary.  Hours and hours will be spent tuning, checking the intonation and adjusting the action.  Blood, sweat, and tears…

And then you make the same mistake I did.  A Fender American Strat running through some little practice amp.  When I finally upgraded I bought a 100 watt amp that sounded terrible.  It took me SIX YEARS to figure out that I should be spending some time thinking about the amp I used.

Here’s what happens when most casual guitar players (like me) are looking for an amp: they go to the nearest guitar shop, pick a guitar they like, and plug it into a variety of amps.  They’ll play every riff and solo they know to avoid someone thinking they only know one song (our egos are easily damaged) while sandwiched between a 12-year old bashing out heavy metal riffs and an aging Southern rocker playing Skynyrd.

And that’s the basis of their investment – how the amp sounds amid a symphony of noise with a guitar they don’t own.

I’ve heard people recommend that you take your guitar with you to pick out an amp, and that sounds like a smart idea.  Thanks to places like Harmony Central (the User Reviews section) you can also read opinions of the models you like.  But the best thing you can do is educate yourself on amplifiers.

Amps fall into a few basic categories: solid state amps, tube amps, digital amps, and hybrid amps.  Hybrid amps are really solid state amps with a tube stuck in the pre-amp section, so we’ll just focus on the big three.

Tube amps have been around since the beginning of electric guitars and are still considered the Holy Grail of sound by many.  Most high-end or boutique amplifiers are tube amps, but there are some less expensive options out there.  Tube amps are usually Class A or Class AB.  Class A amps are generally the most expensive, but they return the cleanest, purest tone.  Class AB amps are more common, but there is more distortion in the signal (which can be a good thing).  The pros and cons of tube amps:

Pros:

* In a tube-powered amplifier, the transition from linear amplification to limiting is less abrupt than in a solid state unit, resulting in a less grating form of distortion at the onset of clipping.

* Tubes are replaceable

* The sound has more give and responds to the player’s touch more readily

Cons:

* Bulky and heavy – shoulder killers

* Tubes are fragile and must be replaced and biased every so often

* Tube amps sound best when the power section is pushed – so the volume needs to stay up for best results.  To get a great quiet sound you have to have a smaller tube amp.

Solid state amps use transistors instead of vacuum tubes.  They became prevalent in the ’70’s and most low-end amps are solid state.  They do not color the sound, but they are also not as responsive as a tube amp.  Their reliability is higher though.  Some jazz guitarists prefer the colder, colorless sound of transistor amps.

Digital amps are a fairly recent invention.  They use microprocessors to emulate the sound of other amps, cabinets, and effects.  Some (like the Vox Valvetronix) use a tube power amp section along with digital modeling to try and give the best of both worlds.  Fender’s Cyber Twin series uses a tube pre amp section along with reconfigurable circuitry (changing the model changes the circuitry to more accurately emulate the amp selected).  Some guitarists swear by their digital amps, others say that they don’t sound right and that tube is the only option.  When I saw Owen Temple play in Abilene I stuck around after the show to talk to his guitarist about his setup.  He told me that he was using a Line 6 Pod (digital modeler) for all of his sounds, and he sounded incredible.

I haven’t had much experience with digital amps.  A friend of mine owns a Line 6 Spider amp, and it’s fun to play with.  I’ve checked out some of the Fender Cyber models at guitar shops and they have an awe-inspiring array of sounds – almost too much.  It took me an hour just to go through all the presets.

My amp is a Fender Blues Jr.  I found a good deal on Craigslist (the reverb doesn’t work) and have used it for about a year and a half.  It’s a tube amp with 3 x 12AX7 preamp tubes and 2 x EL84 power amp tubes, pushing 15 watts.  It is simple, reliable, and small enough for my apartment.  It’s loud enough to play a small gig too.  The sound is a huge improvement over the solid state amps I was using before.

Fender Blues Jr.

It also responds well to pedals (we’ll get into pedals another time) and my touch.  Playing hard really drives it, but picking lightly cleans up the sound beautifully.  One of these days I’ll get around to throwing some new tubes into it (I’ve wanted to try 12AU7’s, they are supposed to have a softer sound than 12AX7’s) but for now it suits me perfectly.

If you’re looking for a new amp, consider your needs: do you play in a band?  Do you need a wide array of tones, or just one signature sound?  Do you need a lot of effects or do you prefer pedals?  How often do you have to transport it?  Do you want a combo amp (amplifier and speaker) or do you want a amplifier head and seperate speaker cabinet?

I decided I wanted one sound, that I prefer pedals, and that I wanted a combo amp.  That pointed to a small tube combo amp (the Blues Jr.).  If I needed a larger sound, a head/cabinet might have been a better option.  If I needed a huge array of sounds, I probably would have chosen a digital amp.

And if I wanted to be an idiot, I would have kept playing the same little amp and wondering why I still sounded like crap.

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