How to choose an amp
How to choose an amp
Posted by Ian Mayes - Tagged

Are you currently wondering how to choose an amp? When I started looking to upgrade my equipment it became very apparent that things could get expensive quickly, especially without a good guide on what I should be buying. Over the years I have done a fair bit of research into amplifiers, and have played through a lot of different amps. Hopefully the advice here will help make the process a bit easier if you are on the hunt for an amplifier.

1) Find out which amplifiers your favourite guitarists use on their recordings, and see if there is a way of tallying up if one or two amplifiers appear a lot.

This is such a no brainer, but I didn’t think of it until I heard Slash in an interview chatting about how he came to choose a Marshall Amp. He explains how he listened to his favourite guitarists, and realised a lot of them used Marshall amps with humbucker guitars, so guess what he bought!
This may not work for everyone, but it can help people who are searching for a specific sound. Do not get too obsessed with other peoples sound though, most peoples sound comes from the things they play, and the way they play them. If Jimi Hendrix changed to the amp you currently have, he isn’t all of a sudden going to sound like you, and if you buy Jimi Hendrix’s amp, you’re not all of a sudden going to start sounding like him. Remember this is a way of moving towards sounds you like as opposed to an instant fix.

2) Research the type of amplifier you want. One way to think about this is to break it down into three categories.

1 – Acoustic Amps – Great for two things really, acoustic guitars, and some argue, jazz. Though some feel they are too clean even for jazz. Acoustic amplifiers offer loads of headroom, so do not distort easily, which is perfect for acoustic guitars. They usually have feedback suppressors built in, eq geared towards acoustic instruments, and often have a second channel dedicated to vocals. This is all perfect stuff for acoustic instrumentalists, and if you play acoustic guitar the majority of the time, this is a no brainer.
2- Tube Amps – Loud, great dirty sounds, beautiful cleans, iconic sounds by the barrel load, and loads of character. They are expensive to buy, expensive to maintain, sound pretty pants when they are turned right down, heavier than you realise, even after people have told you how heavy they are, and can be unreliable. You need to need a tube amp to warrant one really. They are fantastic for recording in a studio, great for performing to loud crowds, and can shape professional guitarists whole sounds. If you’re not performing regularly to large audiences, playing in large rooms, or recording in good quality recordings, a tube amp may be a bit overkill for what you need, and a real pain at the same time.

3- Solid State Amps – the all rounder. The problem with all rounders? They tend to not do any one thing as brilliantly as their counterparts. A lot of people complain solid state amps do not have the characteristics of tube amps, and they do not have the clean headroom of acoustic amps. This means if you are playing acoustic guitar all the time, you would be losing out by choosing a solid state over an acoustic amp. Solid state amps have come a long way, and we have now also moved into digital modeling amps, compact floor units that require external speakers, and some of these are starting to offer convincing dirty sounds that some say are starting to compete with tube amps.

Solid state amps tend to make the best home amps, practice amps, and mid size amps for playing smaller venues. Usually cheaper to buy, cheaper to maintain, and can be really light and small. They are really practical, great for gigging lots of small venues. With so many solid state amps around, calling them all rounders doesn’t do all solid state amps justice. Some iconic recordings and live performances from your favourite guitarists may well have been done with solid state amps, and that is why my first point can be so useful.

3) Set yourself a realist budget and stick to it.

As mentioned before, buying an amp isnt going to make you all of a sudden sound great. You are on a journey, and your equipment should mirror the journey of practice and experience. If you are a complete beginner with a £1000 amp, and are not paying for lessons, you may have misplaced your spending. If you are semi-pro and trying to build up work, spending a bit less on an amp and spending a bit on advertising your services is probably going to result in more work. As you grow and get more work, you can warrant updating your amp! The market for second hand amps is huge, so whether buying or selling, don’t feel you have to buy new and buy once, be patient and build your equipment over time.

4) Think about practicality.

Driving a smart car to a jam in your friends lounge? Please do not buy a 100 watt tube amp! This also works the other way around, performing at large events? Investigate how to be loud enough and sound right for the work you’re doing. I have a small, 250w TC electronic bass amp, as I spend a fair amount of time getting on the tube in London. If I am not on a tube, I can be bundled into a car with my drummer driving for 2 hours. We have always appreciated the extra space, and not having to sit with cymbals on our laps, just because I bought an amp that was too large for what I needed. It is a balance though, once or twice I have found myself on some larger gigs wanting a bit more headroom. I think practically has to be a healthy compromise, and each individual needs to look at what they realistically need in an amp.

5) Learn something to play that is the sound you're going for, so you can compare if the sound of the amp suits the sound you want.

Want to know how to choose an amp that sounds really rocky? Learn some rock riffs! Want something that sounds nice and bluesy, learn some blues licks. If you play the A Minor Pentatonic up and down through all the amps, you are not putting the sound into the amp that you’re expecting out. Also you can compare amps better if you keep playing the same thing, instead of random stuff.

6) Record yourself and listen back.

Things can sound better or worse when you listen back at home. If you are investing in a really large purchase, consider taking a better recording device, such as a zoom recorder. I often take friends along with me when making purchases. I have a friend who really knows his gear, and is honest with his opinion. I value that a lot and it has really helped me get towards the sounds I want. If you do not have friends who play, and cannot record, perhaps ask the instore clerk to listen to you play and give you their opinion? They are usually really friendly, and very knowledgeable.

Final Thoughts

Knowing how to choose an amp can be a bit overwhelming, especially with the amount of choice out there at the moment. Remember to narrow down your search by researching the sounds you like, setting yourself a budget, and focusing on a criteria that revolves around what you need from an amp. Even after purchasing an amp you love, you can often end up playing through different amps. This is common as your amp may not always be available, so getting your sound through different amps is a really great skill to work on.
Here is some more advice on choosing an amp from Guitar World.
I am a guitar teacher based in Chichester, West Sussex. I offer guitar lessons to all ages and abilities.
Rock Guitar Lessons - Ian playing guitar


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