How to Buy an Amp: A Guide for the First-Time Buyer
When shopping for an amp, don’t take home the first one you plug into. Sure, that amp may feel really good to play, and you may love how it screams, but are you really going to be happy with it when you wake up tomorrow morning?
Here are 10 things you should know before you even consider handing over your money to the amp pimp.
Playing an amp with an instrument you don’t own is like choosing a girlfriend by dating her mom. Bring your main guitar with you, even if you think the store stocks a similar model. An unfamiliar guitar may have a brighter sound than your personal ax, and an amp that sounded sparkly and lively in the store may actually be dull as Anne Heche on Quaaludes when you get it home.
02. Tube, Solid-State or Digital?
While tube technology is still considered state-of-the-art in countries where a potato is regarded as a square meal, these days solid-state and digital amps offer excellent tone for a lot fewer bucks, and with fewer maintenance headaches. However, tube tone is still considered the standard by many top players. Take a blind listening test, and let your ears be the judge.
03. Size Matters
A 100-watt stack is overkill if you live in an apartment and need an amp only for home recording. Conversely, a 10-watt combo is woefully inadequate if you play in a band with a drummer named Thunder Fist. Choose an amp that’s right for your primary application. You’ll need at least 30 watts for playing live with a rock band, but smaller amps often provide surprisingly huge sounds in the studio—just ask Jimmy Page. Also, as a rule of thumb, if you're playing out often, you might want to shoot for at least 15 watts of tube tone.
04. The Sound of Power
Distortion is usually generated by three distinct sources: the power amp, the preamp and the speakers. Many players overlook power amp distortion when trying an amp, but the power amp section is the source of what guitarists describe as low-end chunk and balls. Audition the power amp by turning the master volume way up and turning down the gain. The sound should be lively, with a crisp attack that jiggles your trousers.
05. A Righteous Buzz
Preamp, or gain, controls (sometimes called “volume” on master volume–equipped amps) let you dial in impressive-sounding distortion at low volumes, but excessive preamp distortion can sound too compressed and sizzling at high volumes. Turn down the gain and crank up the master volume until the amp is set at the output level you’d normally play at. Now, slowly increase the gain until the sound becomes as distorted as you want it to be. If the tone is buzzy and lacks dynamics, the amp will have all the onstage presence of an American Idol reject.