If there is any one single piece of equipment that is as important to the overall sound and feel of live music as the electrical instrument itself, it most definitely has to be the amplifier. Although you are only as strong as your weakest link – meaning that everything from the quality of the pickups to the quality of the cable plays a part – a solid guitar amplifier builds the foundation for which the entire sound of your setup will come from. Sure, this is nothing new as even the greenest of players will undoubtedly know the importance of a quality amplifier, but what many might not realize are all the little differences when it comes to these important pieces of equipment. Depending on your style of music or your instrument of choice, there are several different variations of the amplifier that can not only bolster your sound, but several iterations now come packed with plenty of extra features made to take your tone to the next level. So, for those of you on the market for your next guitar amplifier, read on and check out which variant might just be the perfect one capable of creating that perfect signature tone.
The Two Main Types of Amplifiers
When it comes down to it, guitar amplifiers are made in two main types as far as setup is concerned; you have your all in one combo amp which most of us are familiar with and then you essentially the same components – the amp head and the speakers – just separated. With combination amps, both the amp head, which houses all of the circuitry responsible for signal processing, and the speakers, which are responsible for creating the actual sound, are housed together as one single piece of equipment usually in a rectangular wooden box. Combo amps, like ALL amps, will always have a ¼ inch input jack to connect to an instrument but also sometimes feature additional jacks such as “send” and “return” which are used for connecting electronic effects such as compression and reverb. Also, these amplifiers will sometimes feature an “extension” input jack which can be used for connecting an additional speaker cabinet. Most smaller-sized practice amps and beginner amps are usually sold in this combo configuration due to their more compact size and all-in-one and easy-to-use execution. Additionally, many of today’s modern practice combo amps usually include a stereo RCA jack in order to connect portable music players as well as a ¼ inch headphone jack to allow the player to practice without creating audible external sound, especially helpful for those with sensitive neighbors.
The other form of amplifiers have the amp head separate from the speaker cabinet and the two must be joined together by a cable. In this configuration, the part of the amplifier that houses the circuitry is known as the amp head while the separate compartment that houses the speakers is known as the cabinet, or “amp stack.” Several of the more popular Marshall amplifiers use this separate configuration which is especially popular with harder rock genres such as metal. Most players out there will eventually run into the terms “half-stack” and “full-stack.” A half-stack setup refers to the use of one cabinet with the amplifier head while a full-stack simply refers to using two cabinets with the head. Also, single unit amplifier heads can feature many of the same jacks as those on combination amps.
Sometimes, both variants of amplifiers will include a “line-out” jack which can be used to connect the amplifier to another one in similar fashion to the “extension” jack. Also, this line out can be used to connect directly to a recording console or a PA system although this feature is rarely used as most professional electric guitar players almost unanimously prefer the distinct qualities that the actual amplifier gives to the overall tone which can be lost when connected. Bass players on the other hand do sometimes use the feature as the benefits given with direct connection to a PA or recording console are much more prominent, such as the ability to have a consistently balanced signal.
Variants within Amplifiers
While amplifiers will either be sold in the two configurations discussed above, they are also some varieties specifically made to match certain genres or instruments, such as bass or acoustic guitar amplifiers. Bass amplifiers are made to handle the lower frequency levels given off by the signal coming from the electric bass as well as include extra features that can be taken advantage of. Such modifications include built-in compressors and limiters for a more consistent sound as well as an XLR DI (sometimes referred to as “Direct Input”) for direct connection to a PA or recording console. Additionally, because the lower frequencies created by these amplifiers use more energy and give off more power, external metal heat sinks or fans are commonly used to cool off the cabinet. Acoustic amplifiers are similar to those used by keyboardists in that they are made specifically to produce a clean, transparent and natural sound that take advantage of the transducer pickups and/or microphones used in acoustic electric instruments. Also, acoustic amplifiers commonly include and XLR output jack so that a player can use the amp dually for vocals and their acoustic electric guitar. These acoustic amplifiers will sometimes also include the feature of phantom power so that that player isn’t simply limited to passive microphones (versus active microphones which do require the extra dose of electricity supplied via the phantom power such as condenser mics which are the favorite of acoustic live performers).
Guitar amplifiers are also made with certain styles of music in mind, such as those that feature built-in effects and preamps in order to suit specific genres. Hard-rock centric amplifiers, such as several of those made by Marshall, usually feature preamplification controls, tone filters, and distortion effects that specifically tailor towards genres such as metal or punk rock. Traditional amplifiers, such as Fender’s Tweed amps, do not tend to feature any of the added effects used by the hard-rock style amps and instead focus on producing a more warm, clean and vintage sound, although they do usually feature a control for reverb and tremolo. These type of amps are used more prominently with traditional rock, blues, and country musicians although they have also become popular with modern indie bands looking for a more vintage sound.
And finally, thanks to the advances in digital technology, we now have the modeling amp. These amps are specifically made to recreate the sound and tone of well-known guitar amps, cabinets and effects but can also be used to simulate the way a traditional speaker cabinet sounds when mixed with different types of microphones. Also, these amps can also be made to sound like nothing else at all while instead going for a more unique sound. These amplifiers essentially use the same technology as DAW (Digital Audio Workstation/ Music Creation Software) plug-ins and software made to simulate sounds but come in a standalone physical package. These amps work by digitizing a guitar’s signal using a dedicated signal processor (DSP) along with a dedicated microprocessor which then uses a set of predetermined algorithms that can essentially be configured to produce any sound you’d like (although recreating popular amps is by-far the most lucrative choice for manufacturers). Pretty much, these are amps with built-in computers.
We're not done yet. Come back tomorrow and check our in-depth look at the VALVE AMP versus the SOLID STATE, each one's advantages and disadvantages, their history and why the choice between the two is so hotly debated among players.