Amp Quest
the Amp Quest
One Player’s Search for the Perfect Amp. Pt.1

I’ve been an acoustic guitarist almost all my life, so imagine my surprise when I fell in love with an electric guitar. Sure, it’s a hollow-body electric, but electric all the same. I knew they were different animals, and made to do different things; the setups were different, the strings were different – and they certainly make a songwriter write differently.

I had no earthly idea, however, what awaited me as I began to look for an amp to go with the thing. Admittedly, I’ve never had to know about electric guitar amps because I had a box that was really pretty self contained – you pick it up, it makes noise; you find the best pickups you can to represent the sound of the guitar and plug into a decent acoustic guitar amp or PA system and bada-boom, bada-bing, you’re in business. How naive I was to expect this to be as uncomplicated as that.

Frankly, as an acoustic player, I’m spoiled. I love the sound of my guitars, and early on in my career LR Baggs sent me some of his pickups – they captured the sound of my Gallagher acoustics perfectly. Crate made one of the first acoustic amps back in the early 90s, and I had one of those; I switched over to a Peavey Ecoustic 112 after a couple years; I even used an AER Acousticube for a while, and am now using an Ultrasound.

They are all very different amps, but they all have one thing in common: when you turn them up, they get louder. They don’t sound any differently at 7 than they do at 3, just louder. I thought that an electric guitar amp should do the same thing – if you like your sound, why can’t you have it in a range of volumes?

I consulted experts, I went to stores, I played more amps than I can count, and in the first round I ended up with a Crate GT-212. It had a great clean channel, and it did, in fact, just get louder when you turned it up. It was warm and rich sounding, and it made me pretty happy, except for the fact that it was really big and weighed far too much.

Amp QuestThen one day, I turned on my Crate and it made a noise worthy of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I took the amp to the store where I had purchased it to see about getting it repaired, and learned that a new company had acquired Crate and they weren’t authorizing repairs anymore. They sent my amp back to the factory and I got a new amp, which sounded nothing like the one I had originally purchased. I knew I was going to have to start the search over.

I decided this time I was going to get an amp with a great clean sound, soft or loud, that didn’t weigh a ton and would fit comfortably in the back of my VW Beetle. I need to be able to use it for recording, so it has to be clean – I record with only a drummer, so it’s critical that the sound of the guitar is what gets recorded, not hum, buzz or hiss. I also need to use it live, so it’s got to have the guts to allow me to be heard over the top of my drummer, Eric Douglas, and let him stretch out and get into the groove without having to worry about stepping all over me. The other application I need is for my son, who is 15 years old and plays punk rock on his Parker Fly Classic with lots of distortion.

I knew I had to ask a lot of questions, and I’d like to share a few things that really helped me in this search. Ask yourself what you really need: a stage amp, a studio amp, or a practice amp? What are you looking for, tonally? How much money do you have to spend? Do size and weight factor into your decision? Do you want tube or solid state? What kind of guitars will you be playing through it? Do you have pedals or will you need built-in effects? What style of music do you play?