Welcome to this, my first article exclusively aimed at helping you become more gear savvy. In this installment we will cover the different types of electric guitar amps. Since most peoples advice on equipment is about as reliable as an S-Type Jag, I will do my best to give you as unbiased of an opinion as I can muster. So before you head down to Guitar Center, give this article a once over.
The first piece of gear I want to look at is guitar amps. To my mind these break down into four categories: tube amps, solid state amps, hybrid amps, and modeling amps. Tube amps are amps that contain preamps and power amps powered by tubes. There are also class A and class A/B type tube amps. But since the vast majority of modern rock amps are A/B, that is what I will focus on here. Most modern rock amps rely on the preamp for most of the tone you hear, which is why there can be anywhere from four to eight preamp tubes depending on the amp. In the power section you will usually find two power tubes for a fifty watt amp, and four for a hundred watt model. Nearly all preamp tubes are 12AX7 tubes (or ECC83's for you Brits). The power tubes are usually 6L6 tubes for so called American tones (Fender, Mesa Boogie, Peavey), or EL34's (or 84's) for the so called British sounds (Marshall, Vox). Older amps relied on the preamp for tone as well, but often only got their rock mojo going when they pushed the power tubes into distortion. This type of distortion is called power amp saturation. It can only be found in all tube amps. In most peoples opinion there is nothing to compare to the sound of an all tube amp cranked up in all its glory. The downsides to these types of amps are usually that they are far more expensive than other amps, require a good bit of up keep, and are not totally consistent from night to night. One day you may love the tone, the next it might keep you wanting something more.
Pros - Tone, baby
Cons - Temperamental, require maintenance, inconsistent, huge credit card debt
The next category I will cover is solid state amps. These guys used to get such a bad rap it's pathetic, but these types of amps have come a long way. Solid state amps contain no tubes, and rely on a circuit to get the tone. The tone in these kinds of amps used to resemble a person ripping a sheet of paper while screaming, but modern solid state amps sport tones that could please all but the most snobby tube freak. There are great solid state amps available from big manufacturers such as Peavey, and Marshall and they are priced for nearly any budget. They are absolutely consistent, and in my experience, pretty bulletproof. The cons are simply that they don't sound as good as tube amps. However, many of these make up for what they lack in tube tone with an impressive array of onboard effects, saving you even more money that would have gone to stomp boxes.
Solid State Amps:
Pros - Consistent, affordable, onboard effects
Cons- Tone could leave some less than impressed
Next up are hybrid amps. These are the compromise of the amp world, which attempt to split the difference between all tube and solid state. Generally these contain a preamp tube or two, and an all solid state power amp (sorry but no power amp saturation here folks). Since most rock and metal players get the majority of there tone from the preamp, it seems like a no brainer to divide the tubes this way. The tone of these amps is very good, easily rivaling tube amps for about ? of the price. Of course with no power tubes you can't drive the power amp, but as most working musicians who play clubs and have to deal with club front of house sound men can tell you, you won't get a chance to crank the amp anyway. Sound guys don't usually like a lot of bleed from the stage. Of course if you play arenas, or mostly do sessions, the lack of power amp saturation could be something to think about. All in all, I can't think of too much negative to say about them.
Pros - Moderately priced, very good tone
Cons - Not quite as good of tone as tube amps, no power amp saturation
Last are modeling amps. These are the newest kind of amps to saturate the market, and I am betting if you do any home recording you probably have dealt with some sort of modeling device. These are in essence a computer hooked up to a power amp and speakers. They take a digital model of the amp tone they seek to emulate, and all you have to do is turn a knob and you can go from a pristine Fender twin, to a roaring Marshall, to a devastating Mesa rectifier. Nearly all modeling amps contain effects as well, which make them an even better value. The big question mark here is tone, since these amps do a great job of nailing the flavor of the desired amp, but not the nuances. That being said they will get you 75% of the way there for a pretty reasonable price, and if you consider how prohibitively expensive it would be to go out and buy all the amps modeled you can see why this is a growing amp field. The biggest selling point here is versatility; you simply cannot find any other amp type that will give you more different tones in one package. One other cool thing is that many of these amps also contain direct emulated outs which means that they can double as a direct recording box, pretty cool!
Pros - Incredibly versatile, onboard effects, moderately priced
Cons - Don't nail the nuances of amps modeled
So after soaking up all of this info, the question becomes clear. Which one is best? I am afraid I can't answer that because it really depends on the player and situation. What kind do I use? Well I have owned and played through all of them, and I can tell you that each has its own strengths and weaknesses. My advice is to figure out what your price range is, and literally try everything in that price range. Tube, solid state, modeling, hybrid try them all. Also don't be so seduced by brand name, and certainly don't assume that expensive always means better. One other thing to keep in mind is that a great player will make nearly anything sound great. Eddie Van Halen use a homemade $150 guitar through an old junky amp he had laying around and gave birth to a tone that amp builders are still trying to match 30 years later. Nice gear is great, but it certainly doesn't make up for hours in the practice room.
Till next time, keep on shreddin'.
Scott Allen is a 1996 graduate of the Musician's Institute, G.I.T. He currently teaches guitar to 65 to 70 students weekly at Northridge Music Center.
His latest CD is entitled "III", featuring his impressively fluid playing, with a style marked by an incendiary sense of phrasing.