Finding Your Sound Pt 1: Types of Amps

So- you have your electric guitar (I am partial to the Les Pauls), you have had a lesson or two, and now are ready to perform. What is the ONE element you absolutely need to perform?
An Amp.
So, for my first topic today, faithful viewers, is on Amps. Without an amp your guitar is just… *chink chink chink*

In fact, most guitar purists/snobs believe that the only thing coming between your guitar and amp is the cord connecting. I know for myself that if something weird happened and I had to go without my pedalboard (heaven forbid!), then I could get by with just my amp.
So what amp do I play and recommend?
There are two main types of Amps: Single state, and Tube. Both have their distinct sounds and uses. As always, I will discuss tube amps first.

Tube amps are built around a vacuum tube which power and sound flows throughout. They generally have a warmer sound and most snobs (buzzword here is “Analog”) prefer these. The old tube amps were so dependent on the power and tubes that you had to plug them in at least 10 mins before showtime so they would have time to warm up. The fun thing about tubes is that you can easily push them into overdrive naturally. You can play soft, then push your volume on your guitar and if you play hard (or use a volume boost pedal) the sound is naturally distorted and clipped. And that my friends is the start of Rock ‘n Roll.
In fact, most tube amps sound best at loud levels as more power flows throughout them and they “breathe” better. Tube amps are perfect for small setting and contain a warm sound that is hard to duplicate. There is a reason that all the snobs still use them. For general performance of a variety of styles this is a great choice.

Cons- the cost. You will pay at least double (at least!) what a solid state cost at the same size. You will also notice that a tube amp can get pretty loud when compared to same wattage as a solid state. There is a formula for figuring out amp wattage output wise, but lets say that tube amps will be 2 to 3 times that. So a 15W tube set will be very competitive with a 30-50W solid state.

And the way tubes process sound… its hard to describe… but the sound carries and cuts through soooo well!

Solid State amps are glorified large speakers with preamps. They are harder to break up naturally (if at all), but receive feedback from the guitar well. The feedback (or overdriven preamp) cause a darker, harsher distortion. Its noted that that the distortion from a solidstate contains a high range of harmonics, even sounding close to octaves depending on the amount of distortion and the player. I personally feel like there is a longer, natural sustain- not effect induced. Tube amps do not have this full harmonics nor amount of distortion. Albeit, the harshness of the amp depends on the situation- if you are a metal/grunge player this is ideal to you.
A pro is that the amp does not need the breathe room a tube amp does. You can play a solid state from volume 2 to 11 (thats right, 11!!) and it sound equally good, just at different sound levels. A tube amp will sound slightly warmer and smoother the louder you crank it.

Cons/pros– there is a very sterile sound. You can get exceptionally clean tones from it (there are specialized solid states for jazz). I also noticed that when palm muting, there was a great resonance, almost natural reverb. It picks up the slight, soft sounds easy. So your tone seems more colored than a tube amp, depending on the individual characteristics of that amp.
This is why some effects (TS9) are used to “warm” an amp up, also known as “taking the darkness away.”

Now, we can talk of the modeling amps which are solid state; however they incorporate differing programs to simulate tube amps and otherwise. The Line 6 models are perhaps the most popular right now. They work well for most people. The ones I have played were highly versatile with a collection of tones, effects and options. Several guitarists I know use these due to the fact they can play bluesy quieter worship Sunday mornings, then higher gain-screaming leads for the youth service on Wed nights. Cons: can be expensive. Most people find that while they have MANY sounds, they do not have any really GREAT effects. All will do, but a simple Boss pedal in comparison makes it sound inferior.

My views:

Tube amps are great. I currently use one (more in next post). With me as a guitar player in a worship band, this is a very versatile piece of equipment that allows me to play sensitive, soft passages up to fast-driven riffs.

Solid state amps are perfect for harder rock, or exceptionally clean jazz sounds. My first amp was a 40W Epiphone. Its not extremely loud, but did get good tone. I still use this amp to this day. In performance I simply mike it.

Modelers are designed for people who need a bit of everything. My view is they are not quite as good as the others. If you only want an amp when you play, then get just an amp. If you are going to get a pedalboard, then you may be better off getting a tube or solid state by itself. Those that have spent the time working and programming their modeler swear by it however. If you are into the modern worship movement (or modern virtuosos of guitar), then you recognize the name Lincoln Brewster. This guy only uses a Line 6 POD X3 Live in performance, no amps attached! So if someone who flat out ROCKS only uses a modeler… hmm, maybe I need to look into it.

To pick out an amp, bring the guitar you will be playing and go to a guitar store and try out everything they have! Many people have gone into a guitar shop wanting a “Fender” or “Marshall” (the buzz words in amps) only to walk out with a cheaper no-name that they loved with a great sound, better overdrive, and a lower cost. The key is finding what you like and the sound you want to achieve.

I cannot stress this enough- the amp is what is solely responsible for your sound along with your guitar. Be sure to use it accordingly!


2 Responses

  1. ditto on using smaller amps. They sound good and you can always put a mic in front of them if you need to be louder.

  2. you can also get this thing, I think it’s called a grill, or a hot iron, to hook into your tube amp. i’m not talking about household appliances here but i think it allows you to use the the settings found at higher levels on tube amps while spreading out the heat generated from the amp or something like that, and allowing you to play at a lower volume setting. I’m pretty sure that’s what it does, but, correct me if I’m wrong.

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