10 Best Guitar Amps | May 2017
- solid-state tonal circuitry
- foot-switchable memory
- overdrive is thin and buzzy
|Rating||4.2 / 5.0|
- fluorescent orange exterior
- 3-band overdrive equalizer
- lacks the warmth of tubes
|Rating||3.6 / 5.0|
- tube logic design
- clean and crunch channels
- minimal external speaker support
|Rating||3.6 / 5.0|
- 100 onboard presets
- 5-year warranty
- limited instructions
|Rating||4.1 / 5.0|
- 3-band equalization
- switchable ohm settings
- limited application across genres
|Rating||4.2 / 5.0|
- custom celestion g12h90 speaker
- easy channel switching
- some grounding issues
|Rating||4.4 / 5.0|
- digital reverb capabilities
- shared 5-band eq
- not responsive to strum intensity
|Rating||3.9 / 5.0|
- speaker options with purchase
- master tonal controls
- classic diamond-stitch grille
|Rating||4.6 / 5.0|
- proprietary app and usb interface
- 40-watts out from a 10-inch speaker
- classic chicken head knobs
|Rating||4.5 / 5.0|
- 12-inch 8-ohm jensen speaker
- silver grille cloth
- gradual responsive overdrive
|Rating||4.6 / 5.0|
A Boy's First Amp
Most guitarists begin their studies on an acoustic guitar, usually a Spanish-style guitar with nylon strings and a small, lightweight body. The nylon strings are a little more traditional and a bit easier to depress with small fingers for most young guitarists, or for any guitarist who hasn't yet built up the hand strength to handle steel.
He or she might even graduate to an acoustic guitar with steel strings long before ever obtaining an amplifier for the acoustics in question, let alone an electric guitar to plug into it. And who are the heroes of the guitar? For the last 50 years it's been Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Tom Morello, to name just a few innovative names. All of these players made their reputations on electric guitars pumping through amplifiers, and at least one of them–or one like them–is likely the reason you picked up a guitar in the first place.
When I started playing, all I wanted was an electric guitar. I got the starter kit with the nylon acoustic and all its trappings, and I hated it. It had no edge, no danger. Then, after a year or so of saving, I bought some Frankenstein's monster of a guitar with parts from a dozen different breeds and a tiny little nameless amp to go with it.
It worked like all amps: the guitar in my hands translated the vibrations from its strings through magnetic pickups into a voltage that traveled through the guitar's wiring and out the main 1/4" cable, then the amp picked up the signal and sent it through a coil of wire around a much larger magnet than those in the pickups, and the vibrations of that magnet shook the cone of the speaker, producing sound. The specific vibrations corresponding to those voltages created specific frequencies of vibration through the air, and my 10-year-old ears were hooked.
No Amp Too Small
If you're getting your amp for the purposes of playing out with a band, it's very tempting to invest in a large amplifier, whether that means a big combo or a half-stack (don't even mention a full stack). I get it; it's what the pros use when they're rocking out at festivals. The reality there is that the vast majority of the time, whenever you see a guitarist with a wall of sound, it's comprised mainly of dummy cabs with no actual speakers. It's for the look.
In reality, arenas and festival grounds are the only places where anything bigger than a half stack would make sense. In smaller venues, the problem is always the same: amps can't be louder then the drums or the vocals. Listen to any good recording of your favorite bands and you'll notice that the kick drum, snare drum, and vocals are the highest in the mix. If you don't replicate this live the songs sound lost and washed out.
Wherever you play you're going to run into one of three sound setups: a full PA, a partial PA, or no PA capacity beyond vocal mics. The PA (Public Address system) is the primary sound system in any venue. A full PA has the board space and amplification capabilities to allow a sound engineer to apply a dedicated microphone to every instrument, amplifier, and drum head, as well as the cymbal spaces.
A partial PA is harder to define, but it's essentially any PA system that doesn't have the capacity to mic your whole band. More often than not, in these situations, mics end up on the kick drum and snare drum for the reasons outlined above. In this case, it does help to have a little extra juice in your amplifier, but try to keep it tamed, nonetheless.
Then, there are the venues where all you get is a vocal mic or two, where you're left to curate your sound all by yourselves. This category accounts for the vast majority of places a young band will play, and if you can hone your tone here you can hone it anywhere. What's most important is that you keep your amps low enough to allow the drummer to play at about 80% intensity. That way, the audience can actually hear all those important vocals, and when your drummer kicks it up to 100%, and you stomp on your distortion pedal, the audience will actually feel a shift.
All this is to say that you don't need to worry about getting your hands on a large amp. Small amps perform better for the overall sound of your band in most venues, and any venue big enough for you to need more volume is going to mic your amp anyway, giving you all the juice you'd need. So, as you look at the amps on our list, you can evaluate them based on their EQ options, their effects, and, frankly, their look.
All Amped Up
Early guitar amplifiers didn't come around until the 1930s, spurred on by developments in electrolytic capacitors and rectifier tubes, as well as by an explosive interest in Hawaiian music and its metal lap steel guitars, which sounded best when miked or amplified.
By the 1950s, guitarists and audio engineers set about altering the sounds of these amplifiers, employing effects, intentionally overdriving the amps to create a natural distortion, and more. In the mid 1960's The Kinks famously took razor blades to the grilles of their amps to create a unique distortion effect.
Solid state systems grew in popularity in the 80s and 90s, as the digitization of audio signals posed a more reliable and less expensive alternative to tube amplification. In recent years, however, many guitarists have been willing to fork over a little extra scratch to get their hands and their ears on the sounds of the past, on the warm tones that the computers can't seem to capture.