Electric Guitar : Gearing Up For Great Sound Part 2 : Amps

Welcome to the second part of this series. Now that you’ve chosen your ax, it’s time to talk about the next piece of equipment you’re gonna need in your quest for great tone: your amplifier. Aside of your guitar, there is NOTHING that will do more to shape your sound than your guitar amp.

Back when I was just starting out, I used to plug my guitar straight into the P.A. whenever I gigged. But I found it virtually impossible to get even a decent sound. Also, my sound would change from gig to gig, because I was at the mercy of whatever the sound guy thought a guitar should sound like, which unfortunately was usually terrible.

I decided to buy an amp. My idols back then were Hendrix, Page, & Clapton, and all those guys had Marshall guitar amps, so I NEEDED a Marshall. And so I got myself a Marshall “Valvestate” combo amp for a couple hundred bucks, and off I went. But for some reason, even though I had the right guitar, and my amp said “Marshall” on it, I still could not get that great tone I was hearing coming from all of my heroes.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the reason is, I was playing through what is called a solid-state amp, and all my heroes were playing through tube amps. The difference between a solid-state and tube amp is that a tube amp uses vacuum tubes to amplify the signal, and a solid-state amp uses solid-state electronics. Although it seems to be a minor difference, it makes a HUGE difference in the way an amp sounds.

At the time, I thought maybe it was because these rock stars were using fancy effect pedals. I went out and bought all kinds of overdrives, distortions, multi-effect pedals, and every other effect you can think of (DO NOT DO THIS!), but I STILL couldn’t get that “sound” I was looking for. It wasn’t until years later, when the band I was playing in opened for an international act, and the promoters provided amps for the bands to use, that I got my first taste of a tube amp. I couldn’t believe how good I sounded!

Now I’m not saying that all SS amps are shit…in fact, some sound fantastic! However, in my experience (and that’s 20 years of playing through many different SS and tube amps) tube amps DO sound better. There’s a reason almost all pros use them. The only SS amp I can think of that is an “industry standard” is the Roland JC-120. The distortion channel on this amp sounds terrible IMO, but the clean channel sounds great. I would recommend anyone looking for a good clean tone to try one of these.

Now, I know that tube amps are more expensive, and if you’re not serious about playing professionally, or you just play at home in your bedroom, there are more affordable alternatives that would suit your needs. There is a (relatively) new technology called tube emulation. These amps use digital technology to emulate the sound of tube amps, and they get pretty close. Two I have tried that sound great are the Roland Cube & the Line 6 Spider series. These let you choose which type of amp you want to “emulate”, such as Fenders, Marshalls, & Mesa-Boogie style amps. Again, these are great if you’re not serious about a career in music, but still want to get close to professional sound.

If you are serious, I would recommend you invest in a good tube amp. Here’s a loose guideline (and I say “loose” because you can use these amps for any style, but like guitars, some tend to be better for certain styles of music).

If you want a clean tone, go with Fenders. Personally, I like Fenders, because the clean tone is second to none, and it gives me a good core sound to add whatever effects I want to it. If you play jazz, country, blues, or any style where you need a good clean sound without distortion, Fenders are the way to go. Also, smaller Fenders have a nice gritty break up when you turn them up, which is also great for heavier blues and rock.

If you play rock, or any style where you need overdrive, a Marshall amp is the best choice for your needs. Marshalls ARE the sound of rock. I can’t tell you how many forum threads I’ve read where guys are looking for a pedal that gives them the “Marshall sound.” Here’s the truth. NO pedal will give you the “Marshall sound.” Only a Marshall amp will give it to you. If that is the sound you’re looking for, get the real deal. You won’t be disappointed. Newer Marshalls are very versatile and will give you tones ranging from crystal clear to full blown metal. Pair a Marshall with a Gibson Les Paul and you get that classic hard rock sound. Think Jimmy Page, Slash, or Ace Frehley. Pair it with a Fender Strat and you get into Hendrix territory.

If you’re going for a more modern heavy metal sound, Mesa-Boogie amps are the way to go. These amps will get you that deep chugging power chord sound along with tight searing highs for lead work. They are also very versatile, and can go from clean to as dirty as you need it. All channels sound great, but that metal sound is where these amps excel.

Another type of amp that is popular is the Vox Ac series. These have more of a jangly tone to them. Think of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Who, or Queen. Great if you’re trying to get that Brittish Invasion type rock sound. More modern players who use these amps would include the Edge, Noel Gallagher, and Radiohead guitarists.

Just a note before we move on to our next topic. There are many companies that make great amps beside the ones I mentioned in this article. Peavey, Carvin, Crate, and Blackstar are just a few of them. However, many of these are basically copies or spin-offs of the ones I recommend. In my opinion, like in my guitar recommendations, you just can’t go wrong getting one of these amps. If you’ve never owned a quality tube amp, go with what’s proven. You will not regret it.

If you can’t afford one of these right now, I would suggest getting a small tube-emulating amp like the Roland Cube or Line 6 Spider, until you save enough money to get the real deal. These amps come with effects, so it would save you the trouble of buying effect pedals. My advice is to not buy any individual effect pedals until you get a good sounding amp.

Don’t cheat yourself. There’s NOTHING like plugging in to a great sounding amp. In fact, once you DO get a good amp, you may find yourself not wanting to use that many effects. The sound of a quality amp is so good, you may not want to “spoil” it with effects!

That does it for this chapter in the journey to great tone. Join me next time as we take a look at the last part of this series: Effects.



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