Buying an Amp – Overview

Introduction

The amplifier market is a bewildering place, with a myriad of products at different price ranges and with different features.  Where do you start in trying to find the best amp for you?  This is not an easy question to answer, but in this article I will try to highlight many of the issues that you might consider.

This article focuses mainly on buying an amplifier for electric guitars.  It does not focus on amps for acoustic guitars, secondhand or vintage amps, or bass amps, although many of the questions are common to all types and they may be mentioned along the way.

I distinguish two levels of issues, or questions that you should ask yourself.  There’s a first level of fundamental questions.  These are the really basic questions that should give you the main parameters for identifying the segment of the market to look at.  Then there’s a second level of more detailed questions on the features and other aspects of your prospective amp.  I characterise the first level as “What do I want to do?” and the second as “How do I want to get there?”.   There’s a third level, called “How am I going to explain this to my wife?” but I’m afraid I can’t help you with that!

So in my view, these are the first level, the most fundamental questions:

1) What do I want to sound like?

2) Where will I be playing?

3) How much can I spend?

In this first part, we look at all of these questions at a high level.  Each one is then broken down into further considerations in its own article.

My Marshall Mini Silver Jubilee 2525H
My Marshall Mini Silver Jubilee 2525H

What do I want to sound like?

This is really the single most fundamental question.  The purpose of an amplifier is to expand and shape your sound, and it’s one of the most significant elements in the chain between your fingers and your audience’s ears, whether your audience is you and your unwilling neighbours, or hundreds of fans (if you’re playing to thousands of fans, you probably don’t need to read this article).  Are you targetting a specific kind of tone (blues, rock, metal, grunge…..)?  Do you need a wide range of tones, for instance for a cover band or for different gigs?  Or do you want to experiment with lots of tones?  The answer will probably help to steer you towards certain brands and types of amp technology.

More information on the page Buying an Amp – Sounds

Where will I be playing?

You might need your amp to play in one or more different environments, and this will have a big impact on the size, power and features of your amp.  We might distinguish a number of different environments as follows – of course, you can break this down further, but I think this is a good start:

Bedroom‘ – i.e. at home on your own, playing for fun

Home Studio‘ – still home use, but also doing some recording

Professional Studio‘ – a dedicated studio with a sound engineer, where time is money

Busking‘ – playing in the street, ready for a quick getaway when the police arrive

Rehearsing‘ – playing together with friends, but with no audience (maybe practising for gigs)

Small gigs‘ – pub gigs or similar small occasions with no house PA system

Medium gigs‘ – larger performances in locations with a PA system

Large gigs‘ – you were big in the 70s and are now raking in the cash in your 70s

Each of these environments has different needs which should be met by the features of your amp.  Naturally, if you use your amp in multiple environments, it will have to meet the needs of all of them, and so it will be harder to find the right amp.  Portability comes in here, too, for instance do you need to take your amp on flights?  How big is your car?  How’s your back these days?

Naturally, this will also depend on whether this will be your only amp or if it will be one of several.  The wider your needs, the more versatile the amp will have to be, but versatility always comes at a cost in terms of one or both of the price and the quality of the amp.

More information on Buying an Amp – Environments

Some Vox amps behind my Duesenberg guitar when I tried it in the shop
Some Vox and Blackstar amps behind my Duesenberg guitar when I tried it in the shop

How much can I spend?

Many bands have written songs lamenting about money, and they were probably prompted by the cost of the gear that they had bought.  There is, of course, a correlation between the price of an amp and its quality, power &/or features.  It’s not a direct correlation because other factors come into play, often to do with perceptions of the brand or origin of an amp.

In recent years, this correlation has broken down in one area, which is the soft amps, i.e. amp simulators running on computers of one sort or another (even on smartphones).  This means that, as long as you already have the relevant hardware, there can be zero-cost options, but they are only really suited to a small number of the environments listed above.

Your budget will also be one of the considerations in deciding whether to buy new or secondhand, although secondhand is not necessarily cheaper if you are looking for rare, vintage gear.

More information on Buying an Amp – Budget

Summary

I hope that these articles have helped you to work out your requirements for your new amp.  One final thought is that you may have multiple amps for different situations, and in that case you can reduce the breadth of requirements for any single amp, meaning that you can choose one that probably better fits those requirements.

All of the questions and issues discussed in these articles are summarised on a single page: Buying an Amp – Summary.