Buyers Guide: How do I Choose the Right Guitar Amplifier?
Nowadays, you can choose from so many different guitar amplifiers, with so many different features, that it's hard not to get lost somewhere along the way. Here at Bax-shop, we understand how difficult the choice can be, which is why we've written this guide to help you choose the guitar amp that's right for you. Firstly, we'll be looking at the different types of amps that are available: tube, solid state, hybrid, transistor (analogue) and modelling (digital). Then, we'll look a little deeper at some of the other categories we use on our website.
While there are lots of different ways to amplify the sound from your guitar, the basics are generally the same. A preamplifier, a power amplifier and at least one speaker is required.
For many guitarists, the sound from a tube amp is the holy grail. There are some drawbacks, however. To start with, the tubes (aka valves) have a limited lifespan and therefore need to be replaced every now and then. They are also more vulnerable than transistor circuits and more sensitive to fluctuations in temperature too. If you're like most guitarists, however, you'll quickly forget all about that when you hear the unsurpassed sound of a tube amp. A true tube amp uses valves in the preamp, as well as in the power amp. In general, 12AX7 or 12AU7 tubes are used in the preamp. The ultimate sound is really defined by the type of tubes used in the power amp, however. In fact, there are too many different types for us to look at in this guide, so we'll look at tube types in more detail in a separate Buyers Guide.
If you're considering buying a valve amplifier for home use, then it's worth bearing in mind that it generally sounds much louder than a transistor amplifier with the same power output. If you let your Vox AC30 rip, for instance, your neighbour's windows might well start to shake along with your own! For home use therefore, a tube amp with a power output of between 1 and 5 watts should suit your needs. If you're looking for a tube amp to use at home as well as with a band, then an amp with a built-in power attenuator (more on this below) or using a separate power attenuator will serve you well.
Solid State (Transistor) and Hybrid Guitar Amplifiers
Solid State (or transistor) amplifiers use transistors for amplification. Generally speaking, they are cheaper to buy and maintain than tube amps, and the sound is less organic and warm than their tube-powered counterparts. One of the best known Solid State amplifiers is the Roland JC 120. It has a crystal-clear sound and a stereo chorus that makes it loved not only by jazz guitarists, but also by metal bands looking for an ultra-clean sound during the quieter parts of their songs. Pantera's Dimebag Darrel was a well-known guitarist who swore by Solid State amps.
Although transistor amps are more user-friendly than tube amps, most simply can't compete with the warm sound of the latter. For this reason, hybrid amplifiers were developed. These have a tube either in the preamp or power amp to add warmth to the overall sound.
Modelling Guitar Amplifiers
In the last twenty years or so, modelling amplifiers have really taken off. And as digital sound quality continues to improve, the number of professional musicians using a fully-digital setup has increased. This is a very positive development for guitarists who have a limited budget to spend on an amplifier. Whereas in the past, they'd have been looking at buying a basic transistor amp, they can now choose from a good selection of highly convincing modelling amps for the same money. Modelling amps now come in all shapes and sizes too, meaning you can find one that's suitable for use at home, suitable for use in the studio or suitable for live use on stage.
Guitar Amplifier Combos
A guitar amplifier combo is an amplifier that has the preamp, the power amp and the speaker in one housing. In fact, the majority of guitar amplifiers are combos, so when people speak about a guitar amplifier, they are generally referring to a guitar amplifier combo. The same generic term can be used for a practice amp with a 4-inch speaker or a tube amp with 2x 12-inch speakers.
Guitar Amplifier Heads, Cabinets and Stacks
A guitar amp head consists of a preamp and a power amp only, so you'll need to add a speaker cabinet in order to get a sound. More often than not, the head is placed on top of the cabinet. The combination of an amp head and a cabinet is known as a stack. When one speaker cabinet is used we refer to a half stack and when more cabinets are used it's known as a full stack. Guitarists normally prefer to decide which amp head they want to combine with which speaker cabinet themselves, so you'll find the choice of complete stacks fairly limited. The best known speaker cabinets are referred to as a 4 x 12, which means they have 4 speakers of 12-inches in diameter. Cabinets can also be connected to any amp combo that has the necessary connection. For smaller amp combos a 1x 10-inch, 1x 12-inch, 2x 10-inch or 2x 12-inch cabinet should be more than sufficient. It's possible to find speaker cabinets that have 8-inch speakers too. The influence that the speaker size has on the sound will be handled in a separate Buyers Guide or blog.
Acoustic Guitar Amplifiers
At first glance, an acoustic guitar amplifier needs little explanation. They are designed to amplify the sound of an electro-acoustic guitar. Unlike electric guitar amps, acoustic guitar amps aim to faithfully reproduce the natural sound of your instrument and affect it as little as possible. That's why you won't find any acoustic tube amps. Of course, it's normally still possible to adjust tone settings like the bass, mid and treble. A large number of acoustic amps also have an effects section with things like chorus, delay and reverb.
Guitar Preamps and Power Amps
Here, we're talking about separate 19-inch preamps and power amps. These type of amps are generally used by (semi-) professional musicians and/or bands who prefer to put their entire setup in a 19-inch rack instead of having separate amp heads, cabinets/combos and pedal boards. The main advantage of a setup like this is that you have everything together. The main disadvantage is that it's much harder to fit in a normal passenger car.
Speaker Simulators, Attenuators and Load Boxes
The information contained here refers to equipment that is commonly used in a studio. While the possibilities offered by digital equipment are virtually endless, many musicians still prefer to use an overdriven tube amp for its rich sound. These days, many tube amps offer plenty of clean headroom. This term refers to how far you can push an amplifier before the sound begins to distort. In real terms, this means that you often have to turn the volume on a tube amplifier up quite high before distortion takes place. Such high volume levels are not always desirable when recording in a studio environment.
To achieve authentic tube distortion at lower volume levels, speaker simulators, attenuators and/or load boxes are used. If an amp was connected directly to a mixing panel, it would blow up because the power it normally sends to the speaker would have nowhere to go. That's where a speaker simulator comes in. It absorbs some of the amp's power and leaves the tube sound untouched. A speaker simulator can be connected directly to a mixer without any problems, of course. Another solution is to connect a speaker cabinet that has a volume more suited to recording in a studio.
While a speaker simulator absorbs some of an amps power, an attenuator reduces an amps power. With the power reduced, the amp has less headroom than before, meaning that distortion will take place at a lower volume level. Obviously, a speaker simulator and an attenuator/load box solve the same problem in two very different ways. Because they essentially achieve the same thing, however, you'll find them in the same category on our website. Which solution you go for, is up to you.
When it comes to amplifier accessories, we have a large range of products here at Bax-shop, including speakers for guitar and bass amps, covers, stands and foot switches. We also have a large selection of preamp and power amp tubes. In fact, we've got too many products in this category to mention them all here. Chances are though, that we'll have what you're looking for. We recommend making use of the filters on our website so that you can find the products more easily. Good luck and happy shopping.