It bears remembering that an electric guitar doesn’t sound like anything until you plug it into the other essential component in the equation. An amp.
You may believe, as Keith Richards does, that the real sound rests solely in your hands, and there is much to be said for that. Certainly though, some of it must be in the guitar. And it stands to reason then that some of it is in the amp, too.
And when it comes to amps, let’s just say it’s a jungle out there—a bewildering electronic wilderness of black boxes big and small, tube and solid state, combo and piggyback, expensive and affordable, modern and vintage, etc. Models vary from a spartan speaker in a box to digital age marvels with manuals the size of phonebooks. The sheer amount of options can be a little daunting if you’re new to guitar playing or if you haven’t bought in a while, but a few basics will go a long way.
In no particular order of importance then, here are five basic amp-buying tips that should help:
1. Homework. Research various models online, in magazines and by talking to friends. Then, since it’s the sound of your guitar we’re talking about here, take your guitar to the store with you and plug it into the amps you’re interested in. Unless you’re buying online, in which case, let the buyer beware (and do thorough research).
2. Isolation. It really helps if you can test-drive an amp in isolation. Many retailers have special rooms just for this purpose, the benefit being that you can give a prospective amp a workout and find out if its tone suits your needs at various volume levels.
3. Raw tone. It’s great if the amp has effects, but be sure to listen to the amp’s basic tone with the effects off—some amps have good effects but lifeless un-effected tone.
4. Tube vs. solid state. Each have their strengths. Vacuum tubes, while a seemingly antiquated technology, have contributed to many of your favorite guitarists’ recordings. There are many affordable tube amps, but you’ll find that they often cost more than comparable solid-state or digital amps. The details here can be incredibly involved, but suffice to say that you should try a few of each and see which type suits your taste. No hard and fast rules here—it’s a matter of preference.
5. The right size. A small combo won’t cut it in an arena, and a full-stack is a bit much for the coffeehouse. Size matters, and buying too big or too small is a common mistake. You might consider an amp only slightly bigger and more powerful than you require—better to have a bit too much than not enough, but you still want it to fit in your car. Power-wise, 5 to 15 watts is great for personal practice and recording, 20 to 60 watts is for band rehearsal and club gigs, and 100 watts or more is for Wembley.