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Acoustic Amplification: The Newbie's Guide

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Acoustic Amplification: The Newbie's Guide

Amps

If you plan to play in situations where you’ll need your own amplifier— either with a group of jamming buddies in your basement or in a smaller venue (see the Location, Location, Location sidebar, opposite page)—there are many options. Besides varying in power output, speaker configuration, sound quality, and processing features (e.g., effects), they can also have varying numbers of channels (inputs for multiple sound sources). If you’re just playing guitar, there are 1-channel amps, or you can get multi-channel amps that enable you to plug in your guitar and a friend’s, and/or a microphone’s XLR cable for singing along. (Remember, if your amp has a single channel with both an XLR and a 1/4" input, you’ll only be able to use one at a time—because there will only be one set of volume and EQ controls.)

If you’re looking for a small, affordable, great-sounding amp, we recommend you check out the ZT Lunchbox Acoustic ($399 street, ztamplifiers.com). For great sound and excellent versatility at a very attractive price point, be sure to look at the Fishman SA220 Solo Performance System ($999 street). If professional-quality sound is your priority, check out the AER AcoustiCube ($2,999 street, aer-amps.com), the Schertler Unico ($1,308 street, schertler.com), and the L.R. Baggs Core 1 ($1,199 street). And if you’re going to need a lot of sound but don’t want to carry around an entire PA system, check out the Bose L1 Model 1 Single System/Single Bass Package ($1,999 street, bose.com)—and be sure to get the bass module, because it is necessary to accurately represent your acoustic guitar’s sound. Here’s a couple more options: Behringer Ultracoustic ACX450 ($218 street, behringer.com), Ultrasound Pro250 ($980 street, ultrasoundamps.com), Genz-Benz Shenandoah Shen ProLT ($1240 street, genzbenz.com).

Acoustic vs. Electric Amps
Acoustic amps and electric amps are at least as far apart on the evolutionary tree as acoustic guitars and electric guitars. Yes, you can plug your acoustic into an electric-guitar amp and get sound out of it. But because electric-guitar amps are tuned to emphasize midrange and treble frequencies— and because they are usually designed to provide rock-approved distortion—they’re not going to accurately represent your acoustic guitar’s unplugged sound. That said, just as with effects, if you’re not a purist and you don’t mind risking a little feedback in order to give your acoustic a little attitude, give it a try. You wouldn’t be the first to get a sound you like out of a nice vacuum-tube-driven guitar amp— famous players such as Ben Harper and Monte Montgomery have been known to do so.

Effects

Many acoustic guitar amps now come with built-in effects processing that enables you to augment your guitar’s sound with reverb, echo (aka delay), and/or modulation effects that can run the gamut from thickening up your sound to lending it an almost psychedelic feel. The Trace Acoustic TA-100 ($999 street, traceelliot.com), for example, features modulation (chorus, flanger, phaser), tremolo (a hypnotic oscillation in volume), and a few different delays, while the more affordable Fishman Loudbox Mini ($329) has chorus and reverb. If your amp does not have effects and it’s something you want to explore, there are staggering numbers of effects pedals available. However, the lion’s share of them is made for use with electric guitars—though that doesn’t necessarily preclude them from being used with an acoustic. In fact, if you’re adventurous and not a purist, we encourage you to check out as many as you can. If you are more traditional acoustic fan, remember that a lot of effect boxes (aka stompboxes or pedals) can color the wound in a way that you'll probably find too radical. However, some effects types–particularly chorus and delay–shouldn't adversely affect your guitar’s essential tone. In addition, some companies make effect pedals specifically geared for acoustic guitar, including these: Zoom A2 ($100 street, zoom.co.jp), Boss AD-3 ($169 street, bossus.com), Aphex Xciter ($200 street, aphex.com), Fishman AFX Reverb ($279 street), D-TAR Solstice ($329 street).

Go Forth and Plug In
The array of amplification options for acoustic guitarists may never be quite the smorgasbord it is for our electrified brethren, but there’s never been a better time to decide to plug in your flattop. From pickups to DIs/preamps, effects, and amplifiers, the buffet of smart, practical, great-sounding products is extraordinary— and ever growing. With this guide in hand, a healthy dose of test-driving and research, and the advice of an experienced player with good ears, you’re bound to find gear that’s perfect for your jams and gigs. Sounds like a lot of fun, huh?

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