Here it is, the final edition of the Beginner’s Guide to Amps (part 1 and part 2). Having established the differences between the technologies used in various kinds of amps in parts one and two, we’re now going to look at the distinctions between practice amps, combo amps and stacks and work out which is the right amp for your playing situation.
Practice amps, as the name would suggest, are those designed for home practice. As such, they’re typically small, portable, and of a low wattage: intended to be used in small spaces and played at low volume. Given the low volume imperative, the circuitry in practice amps is almost always solid state or hybrid, with modeling practice amps having become increasingly common in recent years (if you’ll recall Part One, we established that valve based circuits need to run at high volume to do their thing, making them unsuitable for practicing purposes).
Obviously, the main reason you’d want a practice amp is for practicing. Being able to run them at low volumes is great for not pissing off the neighbors and their small size is useful if you live somewhere where space is at a premium. Indeed, amps such as the Blackstar Fly and Orange Micro Crush are so small that you can sit them on a bookshelf.
The downside of practice amps is that they’re not loud enough for full band rehearsals or gigging scenarios. Up against a drum kit, they won’t give you the grunt you need to be heard. For that, you’re going to need to look at options two and three…
When you think amps, you probably think stacks. They’ve been a staple of the rock scene since the late 1960s and are featured in many an iconic image of the likes of Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend.
Stacks are so called because the elements of the amp are literally stacked on top of each other. In a classic set-up, you’d expect to see two 4x12 cabinets (each cabinet contains four twelve inch speakers) with a 50 or 100-watt head (a unit containing the pre-and power amp elements) on top.
Stacks featuring two cabinets are typically referred to as “full” stacks and were a staple of live rock music in decades gone by, when PA systems were limited and maximum volume was a must. These days though, a half stack featuring one cabinet and an amp head is much more common in all but the biggest gig situations.
The main advantages to stacks are that they look cool and sound fucking great. The grunt you get from a 4x12 cab is awesome, especially for balls out rock scenarios and the ability to mix and match heads and cabs gives you greater tonal options. The downside, though, is that they’re bloody heavy, and lugging them around between gigs or setting them up in smaller clubs and bars can prove to be an enormous hassle. So, great on sound, but not the most practical.
While stack amps are made up of components that you stack on top of each other, combo amps feature pre-amp, power amp and speaker in one self-contained unit. Smaller than a stack, combo amps will likely feature only one or two 12” speakers, and as such, may be referred to as 1x12 or 2x12 combos.
They probably won’t be as devastating as your average stack, but combo amps will still have the power to make you heard in a typical rehearsal or small gig scenario.
The greatest advantage to owning a combo amp is their practicality. Combo amps don’t take up nearly as much room as a stack, and with everything self-contained in one box, you don’t need to worry about additional speaker cables. You can also fit one in a car, while you’ll probably need a van to move around your stack. They’re not light, and are still a bitch to carry, but their small size is advantages for getting between gigs and setting up in smaller venues.
When it comes to choosing between practice amps, combos and stacks, there is no definite option. What you choose will depend on your situation; whether you’re in a band and the style of music that you play. Assuming you’re in a band, you’ll also want to consider what other members are using. If you’re still undecided, your best bet is to get out there and try the different options for yourself. See if you can borrow or rent gear to trial it and see how you get on. Explore different configurations, and you’ll soon figure out what is right for your needs.