1. WATT did you say? How many watts do you really need? Many players get caught up in the idea of the sexy, high-powered stack and nothing compares to the sound of a 100-watt head cranked through two 4x12 cabs. But, is it practical? Where are you playing this amp? Is it in your home, your rehearsal studio, a small club, or in an arena on a world tour? If you spend your hard-earned money on an amp that will blow the windows out of your home you may end up spending even more money on attenuators and sound-proofing than it’s worth just to manage the volume. Let’s just say that 5-watts is still mighty loud in a small room. Choose wisely and be realistic with yourself about your needs.
2. Thirty One-derful Flavors. Whether it’s a tube, solid state or modeling amp it should be appropriate for the style of music you play. Are you playing blues? Maybe you want a Tweed Deluxe style of amp. Metal? How about a Mesa Dual or Triple Recitfier? It’s really difficult to make an amp do something it wasn’t designed to do even if you put pedals in front of it or run it though different speakers. When I was first starting out I had an amp that wasn’t cutting it in the tone department. While it had plenty of power, bells and whistles, it was all wrong for the type of music I was playing and what I was hoping it would do. Rather than sell it and buy something else, I ended up buying a couple of Celestion speakers for it to change the sound. It certainly changed the sound, but the sound still sucked even with the extra money spent. Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda.
3. Cream Or Sugar? Do you prefer preamp or power amp distortion? Check into master volume amps if you like to control the grind on the front end and the volume on the back end. If you’re playing out live and can push an amp to the edge of power tube, speaker and transformer saturation maybe you want a more classic, non-master type design. Similarly, if you run a lot of pedals it’s a good idea to find an amp that can handle that kind of front-end assault and provide the necessary headroom. It may sound simple common sense and it is, but if you’re chasing the latest and greatest trend you may get caught up in the wrong details and miss out on the most important part…what is right for you.
4. Swiss Army or Exacto? There are players who love to fiddle with their guitar’s volume, tone and pickup selectors. These purists are probably going to prefer a straight-up, single channel amp that focuses on great tone with minimal electronics to interfere with the sound. On the other hand, maybe you need channel switching to cover more ground. Many gigging musicians like the idea of all-in-one designs that focus on function and practicality rather than just one distinct tone. There are amps that have three, sometimes four channels able to capture radically different levels of gain and tone. They will always sound different than a single channel amp but that certainly doesn’t make them bad, just more flexible for those who need it.
5. Grease Monkey. These days it’s easy to find amps that combine great tone as well as FX right in one box. Modeling amps excel in covering a lot of FX territory that can satisfy all but the most discriminating players (and even some of them). Perhaps you already own several delays or studio quality reverbs and would prefer to use them rather than what a manufacturer of an amp will give you. If that’s the case make sure that the amp you’re looking at has a high quality FX loop in it to make the best use of your favorite boxes. Maybe it even has a footswitchable bypass so you use the FX at certain points in the song. Your choice.
6. The Chiropractor Factor. Let’s face it, aside from the cool factor of a full stack there is nothing desirable about hauling around a heavy amp. Make sure when you check out an amp that it’s not only something that you can comfortably pick up without having to see a doctor, but you have a vehicle that can accommodate it. Nothing sucks more than knowing you have to ask a favor of a friend to carry or transport your gear for a jam. There are so many amp options right now that unless you absolutely have to have the biggest amp at the store you can easily find one that does what you need without the size.
7. Combo Platter. Let’s say you’ve got a few amps already and like the speaker configuration in them. Nobody says you need to continue to buy more cabs when you already have plenty of speakers. Nobody says you can’t “borrow” the speakers from another combo or cab (even if it doesn’t cosmetically match) to make more effective use of your space. Then again having a combo can make a lot of sense if you need everything in one package. All depends on your purpose. I regularly borrow the speaker from my 1x12 Boogie MK III combo for my Carol Ann OD2r head since it has an EV100 speaker in it. Works great!
8. Size Matters…Speaker Size That Is. We all love the 12” speaker, but there are plenty of other sizes that work fantastically. Rather than go with the crowd, maybe you like the sound of a 15” bass speaker. Maybe an 8” or 2x8” cab? 10s are great and are found in many classic designs (4x10 Bassman anyone?), and there are a ton of amps from Silvertone to Airline to Valco that use interesting configurations. All the way down to the mighty 6” in the Tweed Champ, every speaker type and size offers a unique tonal color.
9. New or Pre-Owned? It works great for cars and it works just as well for amps. Besides the thrill of the chase, there is money to be saved when buying used. Depending on what you’re looking for, you might be able to shave hundreds or even thousands off of the price of a new one (all depends on the amp/rig). There is also the case that your chosen amp is no longer being made. Remember that not all older or hard to find amps are collectible or vintage, but some can be true tone gems. True story: I recently needed to get that Billy Gibbons “Eliminator” tone for a track and was able to pick up a Legend “Rock n Roll 50” 1x12 combo on Craigslist for $200. It’s got a Celestion 80 speaker in it and sports a solid state power amp and tube preamp section…and most importantly that Billy Gibbons “Eliminator” tone. Gimme All Your Bargain!
10. Van Gogh or Volkswagen? Some people buy amps as an investment while some others could care less about the monetary value of an amp as long as it serves them in tone and function. This is an important question to ask yourself because you can spend a lot of unnecessary money on the wrong choice. There are many “special edition” models available but they may only have a small difference from the stock version, or even less, like a signature or special color. These are compelling if you want to build a collection but matter very little if you just want the sound. A yellow Marshall Superlead is near impossible to find (from what I understand they only made about five full stacks in 1972 with that color), but it doesn’t sound any different from a black one made in the same era. The collectability and price will reflect that difference, I assure you.
Hopefully some of these ideas will help put a light bulb over your head when considering an amp purchase. It’s only after many bad purchases and some excellent ones that I’ve learned a little bit about this topic. Now it’s your turn…what tips can you share that you’ve learned from amp life experience?
See ya next month!
Steve is best known for his recent work on Guitar Hero III, the
multi-platinum selling video game that is turning gamers into
guitarists by the thousands. A guitarist/composer/producer, he holds a
B.A. in Music Performance and Composition and spends his days and
nights writing music for games, film and television. He’s also a rabid
tone fanatic and amp enthusiast always looking for a unique sound. His
original music can be found on iTunes and at myspace.com/steveouimette.
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