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5 May 2020

Buying a guitar amp? Here’s everything you need to know!

instruments Buying a guitar amp? Here’s everything you need to know!

It can be easy to get carried away when buying your first guitar amp. Much like buying your first guitar, it can also be pretty daunting. We’re going to break down all the things you need to be aware of when it comes to buying your very first amplifier.

Things to look out for when buying your guitar amp

  • What’s your budget: Amps can be anywhere between $100’s to multiple $1000’s
  • What styles of music do you like?
  • The Three Main Brands: Fender, Marshall & Vox
  • Types of amplifiers: Solid State, Valve & Modelling
  • How loud do you want to go?
  • Try before you buy - with your own guitar

What’s your guitar amp budget?

The first thing you should ask yourself is what’s your budget. You don’t want to spend a truckload of money on an amp you’re not going to get a great deal of use out of. At the same time, spending a little more on an amp will give you longevity and might make the experience more enjoyable. Everyone’s circumstances are different, but outlining the price margin from the get-go is imperative if you want to narrow down your choices.

  • Beginner guitarists can get good amplifiers from - £100-300
  • Intermediate guitarist will be looking at figures around £400-700
  • Professional/Enthusiast level players can spend anywhere from £1000-5000

Remember, a good guitarist can make a £100 amp sound great. A novice player would fail to impress anyone, even when playing through a £3000 amp head and cab. Base your decision on your skillset and financial situation first and foremost!

What Styles of Music Do You Like?

This is quite important to determine what sort of amplifier will match your desired tone. If you’re a metal guitarist you might struggle to get a good distortion sound from a Fender Blues Junior. Take a look at guitarists that influence your playing. There’ll be lots of videos, interviews, and even rundowns on that tell you exactly what they use. It might be that they use a £3000 guitar amp, but there’s a cheaper alternative which has the same characteristics if you’re wanting to save some dosh! Another thing to consider is buying your amp pre-loved or second hand. You can easily knock 1/3rd of the regular retail price off just by shopping around on Gumtree, eBay, or even Facebook marketplace.

The Three Main Brands

Since the dawn of rock and roll the three name staples have been: Fender, Marshall, and Vox. Each brand is iconic for its unique sound, tone, and artists that have stuck loyally to named brands throughout their careers. The main thing that’s sets all of these amplifiers apart, is the tubes (or valves) and speaker cones that they implemented into their designs.

Fender: Bright and clean sounds. In the '50s, combos like the Bassman exceeded expectations for power and size and helped start the very sound of rock and country music. In the '60s, Fender amps started implementing onboard effects such as reverb and vibrato. Fender Amps are also one of the most pedal-friendly platforms, as they have a lot of clean headroom meaning they don’t distort at high volumes (unlike other brands).

Fender Twin’s use – 12AX7 & 6L6 Tubes

Vox: Vox amps are quite similar to Fender but have even more shiny clean tones with very treble-intense sounds. The most famous Vox amp is the AC-30 which in the '60s came with a "top boost" channel that pushed the high frequencies even further. The Beatles and Brian May are two fine examples of British engineering meeting English guitar legends.

Vox AC30’s use – 12AX7 & EL84 Tubes

Marshall: Marshall amps are typically associated with power and dirt. As venues got increasingly larger, artists like Hendrix, The Who and Led Zeppelin turned to the legendary “Plexi” for its earth-shattering 100 watts of power. Fast forward to 1980 and Marshall released the JCM 800 series which was a popular choice for metal and other large venue bands.

Marshall Plexi’s use – EL34 Tubes

Tubes are essentially what give the amp it’s distinct character and tone. If you don’t have the money for a Fender Twin, Vox AC30 or Marshall Plexi then you can try and find amps which use similar tubes and you’ll get a very close sound.

Types of amplifiers: Solid State, Valve & Modelling

In the past decade, amp modeling has made a huge surge in its technological advancement. Now companies like Kemper, Axe FX, Line6, and Mooer are just some of the top name brands making astoundingly good amp modelers. But what is an amp modeler and why might you be interested in buying one? Modeling amplifiers use IR’s (impulse responses) which are recordings taken from the speaker cabinet of a real amplifier. They also virtually model the valves in the head/combo and direct controls of that amp. Amp modeling can be very expensive, but models such as the Mooer GE-300 have brought the price tag down to below £1000. The reason amp modeling is the most versatile and long-lasting option is because you don’t just get one amplifier when you buy an amp modeler, you get hundreds! You also get a tone of stompbox pedals, FX units, microphone choices, and even different cabinet speakers. On a final note, amp modelers are brilliant for traveling and taking to gigs as they’re lighter, more compact, and often in floor format making them easier to transport and store.

Solid State amplifiers don’t use any tubes meaning they’re a lot less likely to break. They also tend to have a cheaper price tag and are more cost-effective for repairing. Many people believe solid-state amps lack tone and character as they don’t work on valve circuitry, but this is purely personal and shouldn’t affect your decision until you’ve tried one yourself.

Lastly, valve amplifiers. Valve amplifiers are what many amp modelers try to virtually model capture and recreate, as they are considered to be the behemoth of guitar amp tone. As described above, they also use a selection of different tubes for their characteristics. The only flaw with tubes is they can blow (not dangerously – it’s quite safe) every few years or so. This makes them a tad unpredictable for gigging as who knows when a problem could occur, and which tube could it be?

How loud do you want to go?

Are you a bedroom busker, or do you want to be rocking out with this bad boy on stage? If your main use is to practice, learn, and play from the comfort of your home then you really don’t need lots of power. Power in amp terms is measured in wattage, so you won’t be needing anything above 25 watts for home use. If your goal Is to gig with your amp, you’ll want something which can pack a bit more punch, so aim for around 100 watts or more and you should be fine! Most amplifiers get mic’d up on a gig through a PA system, so the truth of the matter is you really don’t need a super loud amp anymore. The days of Woodstock are over! Understanding amp wattage is a little confusing though. For example, a 15-watt valve amp is roughly as loud as a 50-watt transistor amp. They run on a different RMS (root-mean-square) level. If you’re after a valve amp you really don’t need to go past 50 watts, unless you’re literally playing Glastonbury!

On a final note, the louder the amp – the heavier the amp. It may seem cool to have a big amp but it won’t be long until you’re thinking “I might sell that thing and get something cute, small and light”.

Try before you buy - with your own guitar

The last thing to leave you with is this, TRY IT OUT! It’s super important you get to hear the amp before you buy it, don’t buy your amp online - even if you’ve watched loads of videos, it’s just not the same. Also, bring your own guitar, as this will be the instrument you end up playing through the amp. Not the £3,500 Les Paul that the guy at the store hands you…of course, you’ll like it with that!

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