The magical boxes that make your guitar sound great, are amps right? Great yes. But magic, not exactly. There’s a lot more to them than that. Let’s dive a little deeper.
A guitar amplifier (or guitar amp) is an electronic amplifier designed to amplify the electrical signal of an electric guitar, bass guitar, or acoustic guitar so that it will produce sound through a loudspeaker. They come in many shapes and sizes and can be used to create many different sounds.
In this article, I’ll explain everything you need to know about guitar amps. We’ll cover the history, types, and how to use them. So, let’s get started.
The Evolution of Guitar Amps: A Brief History
- In the early years of electric guitars, musicians had to rely on acoustic amplification, which was limited in volume and tone.
- In the 1920s, Valco introduced the first electric guitar amplifier, the Deluxe, which was powered by a carbon microphone and offered a limited frequency range.
- In the 1930s, Stromberg introduced the first guitar amplifier with a built-in field coil speaker, which was a significant improvement in tone and volume.
- In the 1940s, Leo Fender founded Fender Electric Instruments and introduced the first mass-produced guitar amplifier, the Fender Deluxe. This amp was marketed to musicians playing stringed electrics, banjos, and even horns.
- In the 1950s, the popularity of rock and roll music increased, and guitar amps became more powerful and transportable. Companies like National and Rickenbacker introduced amps with metal corners and carrying handles to facilitate transporting them to live performances and radio broadcasts.
The Sixties: The Rise of Fuzz and Distortion
- In the 1960s, guitar amps became even more popular with the rise of rock music.
- Musicians like Bob Dylan and The Beatles used amps to achieve a distorted, fuzzy sound that was previously unheard of.
- The increased use of distortion led to the development of new amps, like the Vox AC30 and the Marshall JTM45, which were specifically designed to amplify the distorted signal.
- The use of tube amps also became more popular, as they were able to achieve a warm, rich tone that solid-state amps couldn’t replicate.
The Seventies and Beyond: Advancements in Technology
- In the 1970s, solid-state amps became more popular due to their reliability and lower cost.
- Companies like Mesa/Boogie and Peavey introduced new amps with more powerful transistors and better tone shaping controls.
- In the 1980s and 1990s, modeling amps were introduced, which used digital technology to replicate the sound of different amps and effects.
- Today, guitar amps continue to evolve with advancements in technology, offering musicians a wide range of options for amplifying their sound.
The Structure of Guitar Amps
Guitar amps come in various physical structures, including standalone amps, combo amps, and stacked amps. Standalone amps are separate units that include a preamplifier, power amplifier, and loudspeaker. Combo amps combine all of these components into a single unit, while stacked amps consist of separate cabinets that are stacked on top of each other.
Components of a Guitar Amp
A guitar amp includes several components that work together to amplify the audio signal produced by the guitar pickup. These components include:
- Input jack: This is where the guitar cable is plugged in.
- Preamplifier: This amplifies the signal from the guitar pickup and passes it to the power amplifier.
- Power amplifier: This amplifies the signal from the preamplifier and passes it to the loudspeaker.
- Loudspeaker: This produces the sound that is heard.
- Equalizer: This includes knobs or faders that enable the user to adjust the bass, mid, and treble frequencies of the amplified signal.
- Effects loop: This enables the user to add external effects devices, such as pedals or chorus units, to the signal chain.
- Feedback loop: This provides a path for a portion of the amplified signal to be fed back into the preamplifier, which can create a distorted or overdriven sound.
- Presence modifier: This function affects the high-frequency content of the signal, and is frequently found on older amps.
Types of Circuits
Guitar amps can use various types of circuits to amplify the signal, including:
- Vacuum tube (valve) circuits: These use vacuum tubes to amplify the signal, and are often preferred by musicians for their warm, natural sound.
- Solid-state circuits: These use electronic devices such as transistors to amplify the signal, and are often less expensive than tube amps.
- Hybrid circuits: These use a combination of vacuum tubes and solid-state devices to amplify the signal.
Guitar amps include various controls that enable the user to adjust the level, tone, and effects of the amplified signal. These controls can include:
- Volume knob: This adjusts the overall level of the amplified signal.
- Gain knob: This adjusts the level of the signal before it is amplified, and can be used to create distortion or overdrive.
- Treble, mid, and bass knobs: These adjust the level of the high, midrange, and low frequencies of the amplified signal.
- Vibrato or tremolo knob: This function adds a pulsating effect to the signal.
- Presence knob: This adjusts the high-frequency content of the signal.
- Effects knobs: These enable the user to add effects such as reverb or chorus to the signal.
Price and Availability
Guitar amps vary widely in price and availability, with models available for beginners, students, and professionals. Prices can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the features and quality of the amp. Amps are often sold through music equipment retailers, both in-store and online, and may be imported from other countries.
Protecting Your Amp
Guitar amps are often expensive and delicate pieces of equipment, and should be protected during transport and setup. Some amps include carrying handles or corners to make them easier to move, while others may have recessed panels or buttons to prevent accidental damage. It’s important to use a high-quality cable to connect the guitar to the amp, and to avoid placing the amp near sources of electromagnetic interference.
Types of Guitar Amps
When it comes to guitar amps, there are two main types: tube amps and modeling amps. Tube amps use vacuum tubes to amplify the guitar signal, while modeling amps use digital technology to simulate the sound of different types of amps and effects.
- Tube amps tend to be more expensive and heavier than modeling amps, but they deliver a warm, responsive tone that many guitarists prefer.
- Modeling amps are more affordable and easier to carry around, but they can lack the warmth and dynamics of a tube amp.
Combo Amps vs Head and Cabinet
Another important distinction is between combo amps and head and cabinet setups. Combo amps have the amplifier and speakers housed in the same unit, while head and cabinet setups have separate components that can be swapped out or mixed and matched.
- Combo amps are commonly found in practice amps and smaller gigging amps, while head and cabinet setups tend to be bigger, louder, and fuller-sounding.
- Combo amps are also easier to buy off the stock and carry around, while head and cabinet setups tend to be heavier and more difficult to transport.
Solid-State vs Tube Amps
Solid-state amps use transistors to amplify the guitar signal, while tube amps use vacuum tubes. Both kinds of amps have their pros and cons.
- Solid-state amps tend to be less expensive and more reliable than tube amps, but they can lack the warmth and distortion of a tube amp.
- Tube amps generate a warm, responsive tone that many guitarists find desirable, but they can be expensive, less reliable, and tend to burn out tubes over time.
The speaker cabinet is an important part of the guitar amp setup, as it serves to amplify and project the sound generated by the amplifier.
- Common speaker cabinet designs include closed-back, open-back, and semi-open-back cabinets, each of which has its own unique sound and characteristics.
- Some of the most commonly found speaker cabinet brands include Celestion, Eminence, and Jensen, each of which has its own unique sound and quality.
One problem with cranking up a guitar amp to get a genuine, loud tone is that the performance deteriorates as you crank it away. This is where attenuators come in.
- Attenuators allow you to crank up the amp to get the desired tone and feel, but then dial back the volume to a more manageable level without sacrificing the tone.
- Some popular attenuator brands include Bugera, Weber, and THD, each of which has its own unique features and level of performance.
Despite the numerous types of guitar amps available, the main reason to buy one is to deliver the desired tone and feel for your playing style and events.
The Ins and Outs of Guitar Amp Stacks
Guitar amp stacks are a type of equipment that many experienced guitar players require to achieve the maximum volume and tone for their music. Essentially, a stack is a large guitar amplifier that is seen at rock concerts and other large venues. It is meant to be played at the loudest possible volume, making it a challenging option for users who are not used to working with this type of equipment.
The Benefits of Using a Stack
Despite its considerable size and inefficiency, a guitar amp stack offers numerous benefits to experienced guitar players who are perfecting their sound. Some of the advantages of using a stack include:
- The loudest possible volume: A stack is the perfect option for guitar players who want to push their sound to the limit and be heard over a large crowd.
- Specific tone: A stack is known for providing a specific type of tone that is popular in the rock genre, including the blues. This type of tone is achieved through the use of specific components, including tubes, greenbacks, and alnico speakers.
- Tempting option: For many guitar players, the idea of sitting in their bedroom and playing through a stack provides a tempting option for perfecting their sound. However, this is not recommended due to the noise level and the risk of hearing damage.
- Provides a standard: A stack is a standard piece of equipment that is used by many guitar players in the rock genre. This means that it is a way to add to your sound and be part of a larger system.
How to Use a Stack Correctly
If you are lucky enough to own a guitar amp stack, there are several things that you need to do to use it correctly. Some of these include:
- Check the total wattage: The total wattage of the stack determines how much power it can handle. Make sure that you are using the correct wattage for your needs.
- Check the controls: The controls on a stack are pretty straightforward, but it is essential to check them before use to ensure that everything is working correctly.
- Listen to your sound: The sound that you get from a stack is pretty specific, so it is essential to listen to your sound and make sure that it falls within your taste.
- Convert the electrical signal: A stack converts the electrical signal from your guitar into a mechanical sound that you can hear. Make sure that all of the parts and cables are working correctly to achieve the correct sound.
- Use an extension cabinet: An extension cabinet can be used to add more speakers to your stack, providing even more volume and tone.
The Bottom Line
In conclusion, a guitar amp stack is a specific type of equipment that is meant for experienced guitar players who want to achieve the loudest possible volume and tone. While it offers many benefits, including a specific tone and a standard piece of equipment, it also has several drawbacks, including inefficiency and expense. Ultimately, the decision to use a stack falls on the individual user and their specific needs and taste in music.
There are many choices when it comes to guitar amp cabinets. Here are some of the most common:
- Size: Cabinets vary in size, from compact 1×12 inches to large 4×12 inches.
- Joints: Cabinets can be designed with different joint types, such as finger joints or dovetail joints.
- Plywood: Cabinets can be made from solid plywood or thinner, less expensive materials.
- Baffle: The baffle is the part of the cabinet where the speaker is mounted. It can be drilled or wedged to protect the speaker.
- Wheels: Some cabinets come with wheels for easy transport.
- Jacks: Cabinets can have single or multiple jacks to connect to the amplifier.
What to Consider When Purchasing a Cabinet?
When purchasing a guitar amp cabinet, it’s important to be aware of the following:
- The size and weight of the cabinet, especially if you plan on gigging regularly.
- The type of music you play, as different genres may require different types of cabinets.
- The type of amplifier you have, as some amplifiers may not be compatible with certain cabinets.
- The skill level of the musician, as some cabinets may be more difficult to use than others.
Peavey has produced fantastic cabinets over the years, and they cater to a wide range of circumstances. It can be difficult to select the right cabinet, but with the right answers and research, you can make the right decision for your instrument and playing style.
Guitar Amp Features
One of the most important features of a guitar amp is its controls. These allow the user to adjust the tone and volume of the amplifier to their liking. The most common controls found on guitar amps include:
- Bass: controls the low-end frequencies
- Middle: controls the mid-range frequencies
- Treble: controls the high-end frequencies
- Gain: controls the amount of distortion or overdrive produced by the amp
- Volume: controls the overall volume of the amp
Many guitar amps come with built-in effects that allow the user to create a variety of sounds. These effects can include:
- Reverb: creates a sense of space and depth
- Delay: repeats the signal, creating an echo effect
- Chorus: creates a thick, lush sound by layering the signal
- Overdrive/Distortion: produces a crunchy, distorted sound
- Wah: allows the user to accentuate certain frequencies by sweeping a pedal
Tube vs Solid-State
Guitar amps can be divided into two main types: tube amps and solid-state amps. Tube amps use vacuum tubes to amplify the signal, while solid-state amps use transistors. Each type has its own unique sound and characteristics. Tube amps are known for their warm, creamy tone and natural distortion, while solid-state amps are often more reliable and less expensive.
USB and Recording
Many modern guitar amps include a USB port, which allows the user to record directly into a computer. This is a great feature for home recording and allows the user to capture the sound of their amp without the need for microphones or a mixing desk. Some amps even come with built-in audio interfaces, making it even easier to record.
The physical form of a guitar amp can have a big impact on its sound. The size and shape of the cabinet, as well as the number and type of speakers, can dictate the tonal characteristics of the amp. For example, a smaller amp with a single speaker will naturally have a more focused sound, while a larger amp with multiple speakers will be louder and more expansive.
When it comes to guitar amplifiers, wattage is an important factor to consider. The wattage of an amplifier determines how much power it can produce, which in turn affects its usage. Here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to amplifier wattage:
- Small practice amps typically range from 5-30 watts, making them ideal for home use and small gigs.
- Larger amplifiers can range from 50-100 watts or more, making them better suited for larger gigs and venues.
- Tube amplifiers generally have a lower wattage than solid-state amplifiers, but they often produce a warmer, more natural sound.
- It’s important to match the wattage of your amplifier to the size of the venue you’ll be playing in. Using a small practice amp for a large gig can result in poor sound quality and distortion.
- On the other hand, using a high-wattage amplifier for home practice can be overkill and may disturb your neighbors.
Choosing the Right Wattage for Your Needs
When it comes to choosing the right amplifier wattage for your needs, here are some things to consider:
- What type of gigs will you be playing? If you’re only playing small venues, a lower-wattage amplifier may be sufficient.
- What type of music do you play? If you play heavy metal or other genres that require high volume and distortion, you may need a higher-wattage amplifier.
- What is your budget? Higher-wattage amplifiers tend to be more expensive, so it’s important to consider your budget when making a decision.
Ultimately, the right amplifier wattage for you will depend on your individual needs and preferences. By understanding the differences between small and large amplifiers, tube and solid-state amps, and the factors that affect amplifier wattage, you can make an informed decision when choosing your next guitar amplifier.
Distortion, Power, and Volume
Distortion is mainly characterized as an overdriven sound that is achieved when an amplifier is turned up to the point where the signal begins to break up. This is also known as overdrive. The result is a heavier, more compressed sound that defines rock music. Distortion can be generated by both tube and modern solid-state amps, but tube amps are more sought after for their warm, pleasing sound.
The Role of Power and Volume
In order to achieve distortion, an amp requires a certain amount of power. The more power an amp has, the louder it can get before distortion sets in. This is why high-wattage amps are often used for live performances. However, it’s important to note that distortion can be achieved at lower volumes as well. In fact, some guitarists prefer to use lower wattage amps to achieve a more natural, organic sound.
The Importance of Designing for Distortion
When designing an amp, it’s important to take into account the guitarist’s desire for distortion. Many amps have a “gain” or “drive” knob that allows the player to control the amount of distortion. In addition, some amps have a “bass shelf” control that allows the player to adjust the amount of low-end in the distorted sound.
Effects Loops: Adding More Control to Your Sound
Effects loops are an essential piece of gear for guitar players who want to add fx pedals to their signal chain. They allow you to insert pedals into the signal chain at a certain point, typically located between the preamp and power amp stages of the amplifier.
How Do Effects Loops Work?
Effects loops usually consist of two parts: a send and a return. The send lets you control the level of the signal that reaches the pedals, while the return lets you control the level of the signal that comes back into the amplifier.
Placing pedals in an effects loop can have a huge impact on your tone. Instead of running them in-line with your guitar, which can result in poor sound quality, placing them in the loop allows you to control the level of the signal that reaches them, ultimately giving you more control over your sound.
The Benefits of Effects Loops
Here are some benefits of using effects loops:
- Allows for greater control over your overall sound
- Lets you finely sculpt your tone by adding or removing certain types of effects
- Provides a way to add boosts, compression, and distortion to your signal without overdriving the amplifier
- Allows you to avoid getting highly distorted or poor-sounding effects by inserting them at the end of the signal chain
How to Use an Effects Loop
Here are some steps to start using an effects loop:
1. Plug your guitar into the input of the amplifier.
2. Connect the send of the effects loop to the input of your first pedal.
3. Connect the output of your last pedal to the return of the effects loop.
4. Turn on the loop and adjust the send and return levels to your liking.
5. Start playing and adjust the pedals in the loop to sculpt your tone.
Tube Amps vs Modeling Amps
Tube amps, also known as valve amps, use vacuum tubes to amplify the electrical signal from the guitar. These tubes have the ability to produce a smooth and natural overdrive, which is highly sought after by guitarists for its warm and rich tones. Tube amps require high-quality components and are typically more expensive than their transistor-based counterparts, but they are the go-to choice for live performances due to their ability to handle high volumes without losing their sound quality.
The Revolution of Modeling Amps
Modeling amps, on the other hand, use digital technology to simulate the sound of different types of amps. They typically have multiple uses and are more versatile than tube amps. Modeling amps are also more affordable and easier to maintain than tube amps, making them a popular choice for those who are willing to sacrifice having a “real” tube amp sound for the convenience of being able to simulate different amp types.
The Difference in Sound
The main difference between tube amps and modeling amps is the way they amplify the guitar signal. Tube amps use analog circuits, which add a natural distortion to the sound, while modeling amps use digital processing to replicate the sound of different amp types. While some modeling amps are known for their ability to simulate virtually identical tones to the original amps they are modeling, there is still a noticeable difference in sound quality between the two types of amps.
So there you have it, a brief history of guitar amps and how they’ve evolved to meet the needs of guitarists.
Now you know how to choose the right amp for your needs, you can rock out with confidence! So don’t be afraid to amp it up and don’t forget to turn up the volume!
I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.
Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:Subscribe