How to Choose the Right Electric Guitar Amplifier

Updated on November 30, 2016

The guitar amplifier is an international symbol of rock and roll. Huge lines of Marshall Stack amplifiers have adorned the stages of many a rock star, blasting out powerful rock tones for over fifty years.

There are a huge number of amplifiers modern players have access to, from small boutique amplifiers for soft blues right up to massive metal monsters. With so much choice out there it can be incredibly difficult to choose the right amp for you. Even if you are an experienced player, the options available can be truly bewildering.

This article will show you exactly how to choose your perfect amp on a budget, and help you to make better decisions next time you shop.

The Main Three Types of Guitar Amplifier

There are three common types of amplifier that are available to electric guitar players, and which choice you make will be informed by your needs and personal playing style.

  • Tube and Valve amplifiers. Valve amplifiers were the first guitar amplifiers available to the public. They are so called because they use vacuum tubes (or “valves”) to increase the energy of your guitars signal so that it is large enough to drive a speaker. They are often favoured for their raw, natural tone and responsive dynamics, but they are generally more expensive than other amplifiers and many require loud volumes to get a really great tone. Valve amplifiers also need the valves replacing around once every year, meaning they can be expensive to maintain. Keep it in mind that a valve amplifier is usually two to three times louder than a solid state or modelling amp with the same wattage.
  • Solid state amplifiers. Manufacturers of guitar amplifiers realised that they could use transistors instead of valves to amplify the guitar signal, reducing costs and weight and increasing usability and practicality. They are very popular with jazz guitar players as they don’t colour your guitar tone as much as a valve amp – that said, they often do not have as much dynamic response or all-out crunch as valve amplifiers, making solid state amps less popular with rock players than valve amps.
  • Digital Modelling amplifiers. Advancements in modern technology have made it possible to combine the advantages of both of the above amps. Digital modellers are light and fairly cheap (just like solid state amps) but use modern circuitry to emulate the sound of valve amps. They often feature built-in digital effects and can emulate the sounds of many of the most popular amplifiers every produced. They are excellent for convenience and versatility, but it is debatable whether the sound quality is as good as a real valve amplifier.

What do you think is the best kind of amplifier?

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Factors to Consider When You Buy

  • Make sure you always try new amplifiers with your own guitar and pedals before purchasing. This will make sure that the tone you get in the shop is the same as the tone you’ll get at home or at a gig – after all, the guitar and amplifier work together to create your sound so if either one is changed it has an impact on the whole rig. Try out lots of different amplifiers at varying price points within your budget (yes, even the cheap ones – they may surprise you) to get a good idea of what is available and how your guitar tone reacts to different amp types and styles.
  • The volume of the amplifier should be suited to your needs. If you only play at home, for instance, the power of that fifty watt valve amplifier is going to be wasted, and you won’t be able to have it loud enough to get the best tone. Likewise, if you frequently play gigs and performances then a fifteen watt digital modelling amplifier just isn’t going to cut it. Make sure that the amp you choose can handle your needs without being too over-the-top.
  • Another important thing to consider is the weight and size of your amplifier. If you frequently play with a band, for example, you don’t want to purchase a very large amplifier because you’ll have to carry it in and out of venues all the time. You have to balance this with your volume requirements and find a nice middle ground that suits your needs. You could even buy the amplifier separately as a head and a cabinet, meaning each part can be carried separately (rather than together, as is the case in a combo amp) to reduce weight.
  • And what about versatility? Consider the styles you play and the number of different tones you need. If you stay firmly within the same genre for example you may be better suited to the raw tone of a valve amp, whereas players who prefer playing lots of different styles of music could be better suited to digital modellers and their endless plethora of tones.
  • Also factor in functionality – how many different controls do you need? Some amplifiers have knobs for volume and tone and that’s it, whereas others contain all manner of different settings and functions. Which you choose comes down to how picky you are about your tone, and how much variety you need from your amplifier.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully this article has given you a good idea of what to consider when purchasing a new amp. The best advice we can give is to simply try everything out – reading and watching videos can only get you so far. Have fun, and go out and buy a new amplifier!

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