So let's be honest, you're more than likely here because you've started looking for a new amplifier and have been met by the tsunami of heads, combos, cabinets, valves, transistors and modellers! But fear not, we are here to shred (hilarious) some light on the situation! All you have to remember is that like most things in music, it is a personal preference so there is no right or wrong!
What Sound Are You After?
Probably the most important thing, first of all, is to find what type of guitar you like playing, or the style you want to play. Many brands are catered for certain markets. Fender and Vox do the cleans through to classic rock very well, Orange and Marshall nail the rock to heavy rock market and if you're after a heavy metal amp, then you will more than likely want to look at the likes of PRS Tremonti signature, Messa Boogie, Peavey and Friedman. Now having said that, do not think that these amps are a one-trick pony, as many of them are incredibly versatile but you may want to choose which sound is a priority for you.
Do I Need A Combo Or A Head And Cab Setup?
There seems to have been a significant shift in people favouring combos over the past couple of decades. You've more than likely seen your favourite guitarist stood in front of a wall of cabinets, which is obviously very cool but not so good on the bank balance or your hearing!
A good argument to get a head and cab is that you can alter your sound by running into different cabinets and speaker combinations. Also if your local rehearsal space and venue may also have a cabinet that you can use, saving the need for you to lug your heavy cab to and from the wagon. Speakers have very heavy magnets in them so this is often where a lot of the weight lies. Combos provide a great way to keep your rig simple and save having to lug extra pieces of gear around. It ultimately depends on what you're using your amp for and how powerful you need it to be, as more power often means more weight!
Do I Look At Valve(Tube), Solid-State(Transistor) or Modelling(Digital) Amps?
So let's break this up and give you a brief overview of what each is and the pros and cons, you can then make your own decision from there.
Valve/ Tube Amps
This technology is powered by vacuum valves that adds power to the signal, this analogue technology gives a distinctive warmth and vintage characteristic to the sound it outputs. One of the most desirable features of this kind of technology is in the way it breaks up smoothly.
It gives that rounded overdrive sound when the signal is pushed to its limits, often described as "bloom". Wattage is on a slightly different scale with these amps, 20 watts is equal to about 100 digital watts, so do bear that in mind when making your purchase.
The downside is this analogue technology often comes with big power units and other parts that add a lot of weight. Another point to be aware of is that as these valves are made from glass, which makes them fragile. Most companies recommend you replace the valves every 5 to 7 years if you don't experience problems before.
Solid State/ Transistor Amps
A solid-state amp uses transistors and circuitry to turn the electric signal picked up by your guitars magnetic pickups, into and audio wave. This technology is much more reliable and has come on in leaps and bounds over the past decade.
You may hear many purist musicians say they sound awful but that statement could now not be further from the truth! These amps do a great job of getting very close to the sounds of a valve amp. They often come packed with features such as extra channels, which is great for swapping between clean and distorted tones on the fly, most have effects such as reverb and more to give your tones that finishing touch. They often weigh considerably less and are no way near as expensive! Sounding good so far?
Some of the best solid-state amps we've seen and heard here at Guitarbitz are the Orange Crush series. User friendly, a range in all shapes/sizes and something for everyone! Also more recently on the scene, we have the Fender ToneMaster series. These have blown our minds, stunning tones, lightweight and line outs so you can run straight into a desk for recording and live applications! What's not to like?
These amps often use part solid-state circuit combined with digital circuitry to give you maximum control over your tone. We often think of these as amps with little computers in them.
These amps are often associated with beginners as they can offer almost every feature a guitarist could wish for, they give a great platform for discovering what tones and effects work for you. Advances in technology and the rise of the profilers mean these amps are becoming feature full staples of many rigs.
If you are planning on using one of these or a solid-state amp for gigging then we do recommend you look at the 100+ watt range. One of our favourites is the Fender Mustang GT100, packing plenty of punch to play a small gig and when teamed up with the foot-switch, you even have a built-in looper!
How Many Watts Do I Need?
Valve wattage and solid-state wattage are quite different. Valve wattage is much higher output, 20 watts in valve equates to about 100 watts in solid-state. So with this in mind, if you’re practicing at home on your own anything solid-state between 10-50 watts. If you want a warm valve practice tone then aim for 1-15 watts. You’ll be wanting to hit at least 70-100+ watts of solid-state for keeping up with a drummer and playing a small gig or 20-50 of valve wattage. If you need anything louder than that, then we suggest apologising to anyone in a half a mile radius!
Do I Need Modelling/Effects Built-In?
Now, this mainly comes down to what stage in your guitar playing career you're at. As if you have not yet discovered what tones you like and what effects you use most to create your sound, then modelling and effects are an amazing way to explore all these avenues. If you're an experienced player that gigs and only uses a tube screamer, then we'd probably steer you away from this unless you wanted a fun practice or studio amp.
What Should I Be Looking For If I'm Going To Be Gigging?
It may seem that if you're gigging you should get as many watts as possible to cover yourself for any capacity venue. However, that way of looking at it is a little old hat... Most venues that are over 50 people will more than likely have a sound engineer, they will want you running into the desk so they have control over your volume. With this in mind, it's not necessary to go over 30 watts of valve volume or 100 watts of solid-state wattage.
A benefit that isn't necessary but certainly a perk is a line out. No valve amps will have this, you'll need a nice mic in front of them. Although some of the newer solid-state amps will, they often also come with cab emulation for the more realistic sound.