Over the years I’ve been through many guitar amps. It’s been a long struggle to find ‘my sound’ and the amps I’m really happy with.
The reason it’s taken so long and I’ve ended up buying and selling more guitar amplifiers than I care to remember is simple: I didn’t properly plan.
I rushed in, bought without thinking it through fully and let my excitement get the better of me. It didn’t matter that I needed something small or quiet for home practice, instead I’d go ahead and get the 100 watt Mesa Boogie thinking “imagine how good it will sound!”. And then invariably ended up selling that amp a couple of months later because it was rattling the walls and hurting my ears.
So if you’re buying you’re first guitar amp or are thinking about upgrading or getting a new amp then don’t make the stupid mistakes I made. There are are a few things you should consider first that I’ve laid out here which will save you time and money.
If you go through them all and are completely honest they will help clarify exactly what type of amp you want and save you from making a mistake or buying unnecessarily.
Are you a Beginner?
If you’re not then you can skip over this part.
This is important because if you’re new to the guitar it’s probably in your best interest not to invest a huge amount of money in gear at this stage.
Why? Well there’s a fairly good chance you won’t stick with it. 9 out of 10 who start playing the guitar give up within the first year.
So you don’t want to have wasted hundreds or thousands of dollars on something you’re not going to use. If you do make it past the 1st year, or realize early on you love playing the guitar and will definitely continue then by all means splash some cash.
But in the early days it’s best to hold off just until you know you’re going to actually carry on playing and using the gear.
Otherwise you face having to try and sell the guitar or amp you’ve bought and spent a lot on and ultimately are going to lose some, if not a lot of money.
This one is fairly obvious. If you’ve only got a certain amount of money to spend then you can only buy an amplifier that is within that budget.
Thankfully there are so many amps and lots of good choices in most price ranges that you shouldn’t struggle to find one that meets your requirements.
What Type of Music you Play
There’s no point buying a Fender Princeton, with its beautiful clean tones, if you want to play metal. And vice versa: you aren’t going to want to buy a Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier that excels at the loudest metal if you play jazz.
So the type of music you play is essential to which amp you get.
It shouldn’t be too difficult to decide what sort of music you’re looking to play. Most of us are influenced by specific genres, bands or artists. Use that as your guide.
If you love heavy styles of music: metal, thrash, hard rock etc. then you need to get an amp that can do high gain. That should be your main focus.
If you want to play jazz or pop then the best cleans or a great pedal platform is the sort of amp you should go for.
Or if you’re keen to experiment with lots of different styles and genres then look for a versatile amp that can cover all bases. It may not excel in one area but you can find top amps that will cope with everything you throw at them. There are amps that will go from face melting metal all the way through to smooth jazz with everything in between.
Tube, Solid State or Modelling
I’m not going to get into the debate whether tube amps are better than solid state/modellers but its definitely worth considering which type of amp you want. Mainly because regardless of the perceived ‘better’ one certain types are more suited for certain situations.
For instance it’s often recommended that tube amps aren’t great for playing at very low volumes. If you live in an apartment then you might easily annoy your neighbors with anything even slightly loud. And tube amps undoubtedly sound better when turned up a bit.
Whilst there are arguments against that, and more and more amps are incorporating attenuators and power scaling options, there is some truth to it.
So a solid state or modeller might be the sensible choice if you need to play very quietly and not disturb people around you. Using headphones in that situation is also a good solution (so look for an amp with a headphone jack). There’s also the added annoyance of how long tubes last and having to change them.
Alternatively you don’t necessarily have to have a tube amp for playing live. The rise of the Line 6 Helix, Kemper, Fractal AxeFX etc. have shown some of the biggest bands are happy to use modellers live. And something like the Roland JC-120, a solid state amp, has been used by players such as James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett from Metallica, Johnny Marr from the Smiths, Andy Summers of The Police, Wes Borland from Limp Bizkit and more.
So whilst it’s seemingly accepted that tube amps are by far and away better for live playing it isn’t necessarily as straightforward as that.
Overall there’s quite a lot to consider when deciding the type of amplifier and you should try to approach it without any prior prejudices or bias.
Head or Combo
I personally think this one is quite important. Getting a head or a combo won’t affect the sound the amplifier makes but one may suit you more from a practical point of view.
If you’re playing live do you want to be carrying and moving a huge, ridiculously heavy combo? To me it always feels like a head and cab is going to be the more sensible choice in this situation.
Not least because of the weight issue but also if the speaker dies or breaks in your combo you haven’t got any other options. If the speaker in your cab isn’t working you can just switch cabs with ease.
If you’re only going to be playing at home or in your bedroom it’s less of an issue. But I still think it’s worth considering the weight and convenience element. A large combo, even just for home use, is going to be awkward to move.
None of this matters too much if you’re only going to be using a small combo though as they tend to be fairly lightweight.
I’ve also often opted for combos because they feel more straightforward. You don’t have any extra wires or cables you do with connecting a head and cab, nor do you have to worry about matching Ohms for the head and cabinet (although for most people that won’t be a big deal).
But thinking about which suits you best is important for making a clear decision.
For Playing Live, Practice or Home
Are you looking for an amp to play live? Is it going to be for practice or kept in a practice room? Or are you purely going to be noodling in your bedroom?
Whichever one it is will have a big say in what you end up getting. An amp that’s designed specifically for big, live venues may well be very unsuitable for playing in your apartment (at least without upsetting the neighbors!)
And of course a small 5 watter isn’t going to cut it if you’re playing any sizeable venue (or have a loud drummer!).
You may also want to keep your options open. Maybe for the time being you’re purely a bedroom player but have dreams of joining a band and playing live in the future. Or you’re new to the guitar but assuming you carrying on learning would like to play live at some point.
Both of these scenarios are common and so an amp that can be used for practice but with the capability and is loud enough to play in a band would be the answer.
So you need to be sure of what it is you really need your amp to do. Think about both the current situation and if there could be any change in the future.
Features you Need
It’s not just the size and type of amp that needs to be considered. You may have specific requirements or certain elements that you aren’t willing to compromise on.
How much volume or loud you need it to be is a key consideration. As mentioned earlier you don’t want a 1-5 watt amp if you’re playing loud and in large venues.
Whilst the watts of amps can be confusing, as double or tripling the watts doesn’t double or triple the volume, you can work the basis of the higher the watts the more volume.
But of course if you need your amp quiet – you live in an apartment, don’t want to upset neighbors etc. – then for the most part you should probably avoid the higher watt amps.
This isn’t always the case as the taper of the volume control can play a big part. Some huge, high watt amps have fantastic master volumes that allow you to comfortably get a good low volume sound. And vice versa some lower watt amps have terrible volume controls that go from whisper quiet to deafening with the slightest touch. So it’s always best to try your amp first!
There are in built attenuators and power scaling options as part of many tube amps to help with low volume playing. And of course solid state and modelling amps are ideal for playing at low volume.
Clean or Gain
This is similar to the style of music you play but the amount of gain you require, the headroom or how clean you need is going to play a big factor in the amp you get.
You should be confident as to whether you’re looking for a higher gain amp or mainly clean/a pedal platform. If not then think hard about the type of music you’re going to be playing and what you really want as it will play a big part in the type of amp you get.
Effects loops are common but not standard on every amp. For a lot of players though they are non negotiable.
If you can’t be without one you will instantly be able to rule a fair few amps out of your search.
Number of Channels
Will a single channel do? Do you need 2, maybe even 3 channels?
Thankfully there are lots of options for all number of channels so you shouldn’t have a problem whatever you need. But you should make definite decision and be sure before beginning your search for an amp.
Do you need reverb? Is it a fundamental part of the sound you’re looking for? Would you be happy to use a reverb pedal?
You need to consider all those when choosing your amp as many don’t come with built in reverb.
If reverb is non-negotiable then that will rule out quite a few options but also help you to get a smaller shortlist. But if you’ve already got a good reverb pedal or are happy to invest in one then you can forget about needing amp reverb.
What Pedals you Use
Do you have a huge pedalboard? Tend to use a lot of effects? Or do you primarily get your sound from the amp?
This is important to consider because if you need a pedal platform then that’s obviously the sort of amp you should be getting. And many amps can be awkward when it comes to taking pedals.
Doing your research to find out how the amp or amps you might be considering play with pedals and if they don’t get along with certain ones is going to be important.
How Many Amps you Own
This one is a little tongue in cheek but at the same time do you really need another amp? I mean really?
Trust me, I know how addictive buying new gear can be. That excitement of the new guitar, amp or pedal you can play with. The new sounds you’ll be able to get with it. It might even make you play better!? (It never does..)
But it’s best to be realistic. As good as getting a new amp might make you feel at the time it’s a temporary high. You’re better off being honest with yourself and accepting that you don’t actually need another amp.
Instead you could make the effort to try and get the sound from your current setup. Or think about a new pedal instead which is likely to be cheaper and smaller.
Or at the least move one of your current amps before adding a new one to the stable!
Tips for Buying a New Amp
These are a few extra tips to help you make a final decision:
- Try in person before you buy – not always easy but if you can it’s best to actually play and hear the amp before buying it. It may sound great on a YouTube demo but we all know they can be misleading.
- Buy from somewhere with a good returns policy – if you have to buy online then check the terms of returning items. You should be looking to try the amp/guitar/gear and still return it for a full refund. Often you’ll get something like 30 days to test out the item and still be able to send it back.
- Make a list of what your minimum requirements are first – that way you’ll be able to quickly eliminate lots of amps as you search. Once I had a shortlist of options I also made a table of their features and specifics like weight, dimensions, price, watts etc. That made it easier to compare them directly.
Buying a guitar amplifier is a big investment. So you don’t want to get it wrong.
Hopefully this guide will have helped to clarify some of the fundamentals you need, what you can live without and ultimately whether you even need a new amp. Take time, consider every aspect and don’t rush your decision and if you do choose to buy a new amp your far more likely to get it right the first time.