One of the best parts of learning to play the guitar is being able to play it through a guitar amplifier and getting a pleasing sound that is well blended, distorted or colored. Your amp can very well illustrate the difference between really enjoying a perfect tone from your guitar and becoming really frustrated from the lack of effects, features and other problems. As a guitar player, you must know how to properly use your guitar’s best friend.
How it Works in a Nutshell
With the modern times and the birth of different modern music genres, amplifiers have evolved from older tube-types to the more efficient transistor amps and even hybrids. But regardless of what make or model your amp is, it still works the same way.
Input and Pre-amplification
Your electric guitar’s pickup converts the sound from your strings to electric signals, which are then fed to the amplifier. Once the amp gets the signals, a built-in pre-amplifier then improves weak signals from the guitar to a stronger and more usable level. Often, guitarists use separate amps and pre-amplifiers for better control on the guitar’s final tone.
Once the audio signals are fed to the amp, it goes through a series of effects, modulations and colors to make it sound more pleasant. While some guitarists use effect pedals or processors for this reason, the most toning, modulation and coloring process are mostly done by the amp.
Final Amplification and Output
After adding all those effects and modulation, vacuum tubes or digital processors will create various copies of the signals, making each copy slightly louder than the other. Once enough copies are made and conditioned, the final audio signal will then be sent to a speaker.
Choosing the Right Amplifier
As a beginner, you have to wisely choose the guitar amp that you are going to buy. Making the right decision involves a lot of factors and things to think about before ordering the very first thing that you see on eBay or at the guitar shop.
Choose the right power or wattage. Is playing the guitar just a hobby for you? Then perhaps you may only be playing at home or in front of your family or friends. If that’s your reason, you only need to buy a practice amp, one that’s around 10 to 40 watts. If you are starting out as a band, look for those with 40 to 100 watts.
Mind your music preferences. What type of music do you like to play most? If you are a true Metallica fan, you might need an amp that specializes in heavy distortion. If you like to cool down with jazz or country music, choose amps that give clean sounds even at high volumes. If your music preferences are just as wide as the horizon, choose a more versatile amp that allows you to play those.
Don’t forget the budget. You have to decide how much you have to spend for those amps. It is advisable to start with low-cost practice amps first just to get the feel of using and playing it. But if you are looking for long-term benefits, it would be good to also invest in high quality amps.
Lastly, familiarize yourself with the different amp types, which are as follows:
PROS: Considered as the most traditional guitar amp, guitar purists believe that this is the only amp worth having, until the late 90’s. This particular amp is known for its distinctly nice warm tone and harmonic distortion.
CONS: Despite its distinctively pleasing sound, having these amps cost a fortune. They are impractically expensive and needs regular, though not that often, maintenance compared to other amp types. You may also have to exhaust various means to search for replacement parts as it isn’t easy to find those these days.
Because of the tubes, this type is also very heavy, making it a bit of an inconvenience during shows, gigs, or the act of just plainly moving it around. This type also needs a lot of power, so using this can quite escalate your electricity consumption.
Example: Marshall Haze Series
PROS: With the birth of modern electronics, this particular type of amplifier was introduced. This is known of producing clearer and cleaner sounds. It also offers a wide range of tone and effect possibilities.
It makes use of transistors and printed boards for its pre-amp and power-amp sections making it a whole lot cheaper than the tube type. Minus the tubes, this amp is amazingly lighter which makes it very convenient to use and does not even need a lot of power when used.
CONS: Despite its practicality, this type cannot replicate the warm, pleasing tone from that of the good ol’ tube type amp.
Example: Roland Cube Series
PROS: These amps were made under the shadows of the tube and the solid state amp. It uses a tube to create the initial sound or the pre-amp, and uses the solid-state circuitry in the power-amp process. This is still cheaper, lighter, and sounds immensely better than that of the solid-state.
CONS: The only bad side of this type is that because of its design, local technicians may find it hard to repair or maintain.
Example: Marshall Valvestate Series
This type makes use of digital processors and computer software to simulate or “model” other famous amplifiers. With this feature, it can easily duplicate a tube-amp sound quite convincingly and even those other sounds that have never been heard before.
At the end of the day, it is your choice what type of amp you are going to buy. For your guidance, here are three of the best amps that are best suited for beginners:
3 Guitar Amps For Beginners
Rocktron Velocity V10
This amp has a very well-laid control lay out that offers the very standard features on a beginner amp. It also makes a decent sound for practicing. The best feature of this amp is its very budget-friendly price tag.
Fender Hot Rod Pro Junior III
Though this beginner amp is quite pricey than that of the V10, but it also has a lot of good and even better things to offer. Most beginner amps don’t have enough power to sound professionally good enough. With the Hot Rod Ro Junior III, it already has the bare necessities to get a pro-level sound. This is a good option in the long run if you plan on recording or even playing live in the near future.
Line 6 Spider IV
Amongst all beginner amps, this model has the most features, but still has a surprisingly inexpensive price tag. It has six built-in sound effects and tuner, four amp models, a headphone jack and an MP3/CD player output. On top of it all, it manages still be user-friendly despite of all the built-in features that comes with it. It’s indeed a good choice for any guitarist.
The Amp Settings
Mastering your amp settings can be quite a chore and a frustrating journey since there isn’t a rule of thumb on how this is done. Just when you think you have perfectly set your amplifier at home to your desired sound, you’ll find that it somehow mysteriously sounded terrible at your gig – which could be really frustrating. Setting your amp doesn’t only entail knowing the exact amount of lows, highs or mids; it is also being affected by lots of other factors.
As little as you think it may seem, the guitar’s pick-up plays a very big role in the whole guitar amplification process. By merely changing which pick-up you are using, it enormously changes the tone of the final sound. Different guitars have different pick-ups. Some electric guitars have three, four or two pieces situated differently. The closer the pickup to the neck, the fatter and thicker the tone is and the farther away from the neck, the thinner it sounds. On the final note, the sound your amp makes is a balance between the pick-up that you have switched on, and the amp settings.
There are still a multitude of factors to consider in getting the desired sound. One major factor is the acoustics of the room that you are currently in. An amp that is blended in a home studio will certainly sound different in an open space. Your guitar, the placement of the strings, the type of amp you use, and your very own personal style as a guitar player, and dozen other things will greatly matter.
While there isn’t a specific rule of thumb as to how it should be set, here are some general settings that you can apply to get the desired the style.
The Clean Country Style
Low:4 Mid:4 High:6
For a more western feel and rodeo spirit, opt to use your guitar’s bridge or middle pick-up and set your amp to have lesser lows and mids, and more highs.*
The Cool Jazzy Style
Low:8 Mid:8 High:4
To mimic those cool jazzy tones, opt for the neck or the middle pick-up and set your amp to have more lows and mids and lesser highs.* This will give your guitar a darker sound that’s perfect for that jazzy feel.
The Vintage Rock
Pre-gain:4 Low:5 Mid:8 High:6
For vintage rock music, it’s best to use the neck pick-up for thicker sounding lead solos. Alternatively, it’s best to use the bridge or mid pick-up for the rhythms. Crank your lows about halfway, and have more mids and highs. You should also use lower pre-amp (pre-gain).*
The All-Out Heavy Metal
Pre-gain:8 Low:8 Mid:4 High:7
To sound like Metallica and other heavy metal bands, focus on the bridge pick-up. Crank your pre-amp (pre-gain) really high, have lots of lows and highs, and lesser mids.*
If you are looking to play punk or light rock music like Greenday and all those other bands, you can subtly modify the settings until you hear your desired effect.
*These settings are generalized. The effects are greatly dependent on the guitar that you are playing.