You go just into the store and buy whatever amp, right? Yes, it
could be that simple. But, without proper information,
one could end up making a very costly mistake (trust
me, I have). So, we will delve into the world of tone
and the steps to making a more informed buying
Because that's what you're looking to find - the
right tone. Tone is the combination of your guitar,
your amp, and your fingers. The amp is crucial
because it provides the means for self expression.
This is the first installment of two articles
that will try to help you choose an amplifier. I will
focus on beginning players today and intermediate
players in the next installment. First, what style of
music do you play? There aren't as many amp choices as
for guitars, but they are more or less designed for
specific groups of players and/or genres of music.
This doesn't mean one amp won't do most things in the
world of tone, but they usually shine in only a few
areas. Last, but definitely not least, PRICE! Some of
us can go out a buy whatever our hearts desire, but
for the majority of us, price plays a major role in
the search for tone.
Although I know you want to, as a beginning
guitar player, you don't need to go out and buy that
massive Mesa or Marshall stack or even a 2 x 12" combo
amp. Start with something basic. A small practice amp
with an 8", 10", or 12" speaker should be sufficient.
Channel switching is very nice to have. Channel
switching allows you to go from dirty to clean with
push of a button on the front panel or with a switch
on the floor. Reverb, as well as chorus, is a nice
option to have. (Don't hold your breath for chorus,
though.) These features make playing much more fun.
I wouldn't spend more than $300 on an entry-level
amp, and that figure should probably end up somewhere
betweeen $100 and $200. I don't recommend buying
below $100 dollars. I don't think they sound all that
good. At the sub-$300 price level, pro tone hasn't
entered the building, and tubes are hard to find
(there are a few, but we won't go into that here).
Decent noise can be had, though. For most tones, the
entry level amps of the major manufacturers are great
buys. I would stay away from tube amps, because they
tend to show more mistakes. This can be very
frustrating when just starting out. All that is needed
is an amplifier that sounds relatively decent and will
keep you playing.
As a beginning guitar player, you don't have to
play in the store. Have the sales guy take a
particular amplifier through its paces. Listen closely
to the amplifier. Is the sound clear? If applicable,
how does the reverb sound? Lush and warm or "Boingy"?
We want as close to lush and warm as possible. Channel
switching? Does it pop when changing the channels?
What kind of range do the knobs produce? A large
margin of frequency cutting is what we want here, for
the purpose of getting as many sounds as possible.
Cheaper amps tend to only have passive tone controls, (i.e
they only cut frequencies). The more expensive
amplifiers can sometimes have active tone controls,
(i.e. cutting and boosting of frequencies is possible).
The Peavey 5150 II is like this. Remember that the
sales dude has most likely been playing with all these
amps for 4 hours a day for several years, and he may
sound a lot better than you do, but he also knows the
If you do feel up to playing in the store, we
need to define some of the terms that you will find
labeled on the amplifiers and what some of the jacks
on the front do. Some of the amps in the higher end
of this category may have jacks/controls on the back,
too. On the front the amplifier, you will find one or
two 1/4" input jacks labeled input. With two jacks,
they are either labeled high and low or 0db and -6db.
The high/0db input is for guitars with passive
pickups, and the low/-6db is for guitars with active
pickups, which have a higher output signal compared to
passive pickups. The one, lower input is padded to
help control input distortion, which can sound pretty
bad. I have found that the only difference is in
volume with transistor amps, but your experiences may
Next are the controls. The number of controls can
vary from one to about twelve, and more have been
seen. Generally, you will find a volume control, a
bass control, a middle control, and a high control.
These are pretty explanatory. Sometimes, the volume
control will be labeled post gain. On amps with
channel switching, a pre gain control is usually
present. This controls the amount of dirt or
distortion. If you are lucky enough to get an
amplifier that has reverb, there will be a control to
adjust the amount of "echo" that you hear, from none
to full saturation. With amps that have more than this
minimum number of controls and channel switching, a
separate set of tone controls are usually added for
the clean channel, so that you don't have to use the
same settings on your clean channel that you use for
your distortion channel. With chorus, the controls are
rate and depth. Rate is the speed of the effect and
depth is the amount of the effect you hear.
For power, ten to thirty watts is all that is
really needed. Anything more, and hearing loss, parents, siblings, and neighbors
become a problem. If the amp does have channel
switching, I strongly recommend purchasing the
footswitch that goes with it. You will thank me.
Specific manufacturers to look at are Peavey, Fender,
Marshall, Randall, and Waller (this is a new
manufacturer that puts out some great sounding
amplifiers). If you do have the budget to get an
effects box along with the amp, I don't recommend
getting a distortion pedal. Let the amp do the work.
Besides, noise problems will usually pop up,
especially with transistor amps.
In closing, choosing a starter amplifier is more
about getting a decent sound that will keep you
playing than stroking your ego or looking good in
front of your friends with the latest and greatest
amplifier on the market. The tone of your favorite
guitar player isn't necessary, and can even be
foolish. If you spend alot of money and don't keep
with it, you have bought your self a very expensive
door stop. Remember, purchase what you want and listen
to your ears!
Jeremy ledford is a 16-year veteran of the guitar and the quest for tone. He is currently working on a solo CD.