Performance Amps for Guitars - dummies

By Mark Phillips, Jon Chappell, Hal Leonard Corporation

Performance, in this case, means anything from cutting through three friends in a garage jam to making yourself heard over the antics of the overly zealous drummer and bass player at Slippery Sam’s Thursday Night Blues Bash.

After you decide to take the plunge into higher-quality amplifiers, you have a galaxy of makes and models from which to choose. Talk to other guitarists and music salespeople, read guitar magazines, and listen to recordings to find out what amps the artists you like use. Your choice of amp is just as personal and individual as that of your guitar. The amp must not only sound good but also look good and feel as if it’s just the right amp for you. The pursuit of the perfect amp is as elusive as the quest for the perfect guitar. Well, almost.

Performance amps are more powerful than practice amps. More power doesn’t just mean a louder amp. Increased power also delivers a cleaner, purer signal at higher volumes. In other words, if two amps of different power are producing the same overall loudness, the more powerful amp yields the cleaner, undistorted signal.

A 50-watt amp is usually more than sufficient for home and normal performing circumstances, such as playing in a five-piece band at a local club or other performance venue. If you play larger venues or play in a genre that requires unusually loud levels — such as heavy metal — go with 100 watts. Some players who desire a squeaky-clean sound and who run in stereo (requiring double the power) may opt for 100 watts regardless, because they can stay cleaner at louder levels.

Many amps can operate at either 100 or 50 watts by enabling you to select the power via a switch. Why would you want to operate at 50 watts when you paid for a 100-watt amp? Because a 50-watt amp breaks up, or distorts, sooner (at a lower level) than a 100-watt one does, and for many types of music (blues, rock, metal), this distortion is desirable.

Once upon a time, all electronic circuits were powered by vacuum tubes — those glass cylinders that glow red in the back of old radios. As technology has developed, solid-state electronics (which consist of transistors and, later, microchips) have replaced tubes, except in guitar amps. The latest generation of amps feature digital technology to model, or emulate, a variety of guitar tones and effects.

Many argue, however, that tube technology still produces the best tone (warmest and fullest, due in part to the way tubes affect the signal) for guitars because, although they’re not as efficient or even as accurate in faithfully reproducing the original signal, tube amps actually deliver the most musical tone. All your favorite guitarists record and play exclusively with tube amps, from the 100-watt Marshall to the Fender Twin Reverb, to the Vox AC30 and the MESA/Boogie Dual Rectifier.

As a beginner, you may not appreciate (or care about) the differences between tube and solid-state tone. You can get good-sounding distortion out of a solid-state amp anyway, which is usually cheaper, so you should probably go with a solid-state amp and ignore the whole tone debate. Besides, you may prefer to get your distortion sound from a pedal, and then the whole issue is moot.

Look instead for features such as built-in effects (reverb, chorus, and so on) and a headphone jack. Above all, listen to the sound and turn the knobs. If you like what you hear and feel comfortable dialing in the different sounds, the amp is for you.