What To Look For When Thinking About Amps
So there comes a time in every player’s life where their present (or completely lacking) amplification device is no longer satisfying or fitting with their needs. Welcome to the never-ending downward spiral of gear-aholics. Now that you have recognized the problem and are looking for a solution, you have to know where to start. Hopefully this post will help both beginners and the seasoned player alike.
Welcome To The Partay…
One thing to keep in mind when amp shopping, is that there is, generally speaking (and this is a generalization), THREE different types of guitar amps. Easy right? Well, kinda. Lets go over the main three and hopefully that will give you and idea of what I’m talking about.
Marshall Amplification has been a mainstay name for electric guitar players since almost the birth of Rock n’ Roll. Marshall has represented a powerhouse for rock guitarists. Their designs (although at first borrowed from Leo Fender’s work) have been used to achieve legendary tones by everyone from The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Van Halen, ACDC, Jeff Beck, Joe Bonamassa, Guns N’ Roses, Cream, did I mention ACDC?… Literally the list will go on forever. Characterized by their overdrive tones, the Marshall name is almost synonymous with the quintessential sound of rock.
Vox Amplification, as it is no surprise, is also legendary in the guitar amp world. Its chime, and unique overdrive has been utilized by many famous guitarists including The Edge of U2, Brian May of Queen, The Beatles, and literally thousands of others. This amps, as well as Marshalls originally hail from England and have a unique sound and feel that is all their own. The AC30 is Vox’s flagship and perhaps most famous amp. It is known to get a deep chiming tone, making for rich sounding clean/slightly overdriven tones as well as classic grinding overdrive.
Fender Musical Instruments Corp. is unique in this list because they are famous for two reasons. One is their amps but the other is for their guitars. Boasting the initial design and manufacturing of such classics like the Stratocaster (Strat for short) and the Telecaster (You guessed it Tele for short), as well as a myriad of others, Fender has already secured for itself a place in electric guitar lore. However, if that wasn’t already enough, they also have their amps.
Leo Fender, the original designer and builder of both the guitars and amps, was said to hate distortion. Therefore, he designed his amps to be predominately “clean” machines. As you may guess, this is mainly what Fender amps are known for, their clean tone. Their sound can be generally characterized as spanky, snappy, and responsive. However, many fender amps also break up quite nicely and can give a very unique overdriven sound albiet, many must be turned up to extremely loud levels to get you there. Classic sounds to think of would be those of The Beach Boys, The Beatles (also), Brain Setzer, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and many others.
So Why Only 3?
Thats a great question! If you have been saying to yourself, “This guy is a moron because there are literally thousands of different amp brands out there”, then I ask you for a moment to explain myself and my seeming gross negligence of the facts.
While there are many, many brands out there, most of them are variations or direct copies of the circuits contained in the above amps. Many manufacturers boast by saying that their amps are one-of-a-kind designs while many are, for the most part, not being completely honest. That is not to say that these other amps are by any means inferior to the Big 3, because many are quite literally better built and have useful modifications/”upgrades”.
The main point of this post is to describe the three main and classic designs so you can say to yourself, “I’m looking for an amp that can give me some blackface cleans (meaning Fender style from the era in the 60’s where their amps had black control plates)”, or “I think I would be into something with a nice Plexi-style overdrive (referring to the Marshall era of amps that were designed on plexiglass turret boards).” Hopefully that makes sense. If not, comment and maybe I’ll put together a list of popular production and boutique amps and their corresponding Big 3 inspiration.
All Created Equal? Nope.
With such a pedigree, its natural to get on the train and grab one of these amps, plug in, and think you have those tones at your fingertips. In the beginning, these amps were what is known in guitar circles as “handwired”. This means that they were assembled by hand through the use of turret-board construction (or point-to-point as it is sometimes referred to as, although not true point-to-point as is the case with amps like Matchless). Here is a picture to demonstrate:
This is what the inside of the above Marshall amp looks like. It’s a block era JTM45. Now for reference, here is what the insides of a Soldano SLO look like:
You might notice the use of a circuit board in the SLO versus that in the JTM45. This is usually what guitarists are referring to when the say something is “handwired”.
The Final Countdown
Here are some links to check out what I believe could be considered some standard tones for each amp in question:
Hopefully this will give you an idea of what to look for. With each choice, there are strengths and weaknesses. There is no wrong choice, just different and, at times, better for some applications. Some general things to think about is what are you looking to do? Use pedals or run straight into an amp? Are you a cleanish country guy or a dirty rocker? Ambient sounds or a more literal defined player?
The Final Word(s)
Your amp will help establish your identity as much or more than any piece of gear that you will buy. Think about what you want to be and try out a lot of different things! I’ll be chiming in with more specific amp and pedal reviews. I’ll investigate high gain channel switchers and boutique, non-master volume, single channel deals. Boutique gear as well as production lines. If your on a quest, you’ll get there. Just keep learning and trying. Hopefully I’ll be able to help you along the way.