Providing you already have an electric guitar (not an acoustic), you are going to need an amplifier. Part 2 of the Ultimate Buyers Guide has been designed to help you find the real voice of your first guitar.
If you're a beginning guitar player or just looking to buy your first amplifier, this article was written for you. It should help you understand what an amplifier is, how it works, and which one may be the best for you.
Most people buying their first amplifier have a very limited budget and need to find something that will work well, keep them interested, and not break their back account. With a little knowledge and some shopping around, you should have no trouble finding a good amp for your needs without having to spend too much.
What Exactly Is An Amp?
The term "amp" is really just a shortened version of "amplifier," although it refers to a wide range of things. To hear your guitar any louder than you would hear it acoustically, you need to have it amplified through speakers. A guitar amplifier or "amp" is an electronic device that amplifies your guitar's sound - nothing more. This amp will need a speaker or speakers for you to hear this amplified sound. With me so far?
What most people call an amp is actually considered a "combo amp". A combo amp is one unit that has a combination of an amplifier and a speaker(s). Almost all practice or beginners amps are combo amps. A good example of a combo amp is one of the many small amps you'll see in music stores, usually sold in "packs". Crate, Line 6, Fender, Marshall, Berringer, Rogue, Peavey, Kustom, and Pignose are some of the more popular brands that come to mind that make combo amps, although there are many other brands.
A good example of something that is not a combo amp is the typical Marshall stack. This is made up of a stand-alone amplifier, or "head" that sits on top of one or more speaker cabinets. This head/cabinet setup is used for versatility and volume and is a popular choice among touring professionals. I can also tell you that many professionals use combo amps for recording and touring, although they are very high-quality professional combo amps.
What Makes a Guitar Amp Different Than Other Amps?
An amp made specially for a guitar is voiced differently to enhance the sounds and tones that a guitar makes. There is also a huge different between an amp made for electric guitar and an amp made for acoustic guitar. Make sure you're getting the correct one for the guitar you are going to use it with.
While it's true that more watts usually mean more volume, it is more involved than that. Different type of amps and different brands of amps will have different top volumes - even if they are all the same wattage. The wattage you should get depends a lot on what you want to do with this amp. If you're only going to play in your bedroom, or if this is just a practice amp, you can get away with just about anything from 10 watts on up. You'll want to play it first in the store, preferably with your own guitar, to make sure it sounds good to you. You also want to make sure it gets loud enough for you.
Keep in mind that this little 10 watt amp will NOT be loud enough to play with a band. You may be lucky enough to place a mic to your speaker and run it through a PA, but this size amp is not made for live performance and will not perform well for that. If you plan on using this amp to play with a band and/or perform for a live audience, you're going to want at least a 50 watt amp, possibly more depending on what your budget is.
Extra Features and Effects:
Some extra features you'll find on some of the better amps are headphone jacks and direct-outputs for recording. Having headphone jacks is a nice feature if you live with light sleepers and get hit with some late-night inspiration.
Some guitar players like to use effects when they play. Some amps have effects built into them. Crate, Marshall and Fender are a few that come to mind that make certain models with built-in effects. Amps with built-in effects can be a lot of fun to play with. You can literally spend all day playing with delays, chorus, flangers, reverb, and other effects. If you need an amp that will keep you interested and motivated to play, you may want to consider something with built-in effects. A word to the wise: don't play with effects all the time. They can hide mistakes which can hinder your playing, and can sound very annoying very quickly. Just like anything else, use a little judgment and a little taste when using them and don't overdo it.
Another feature that may be useful for live performance is if your amp has a speaker-out. This will allow you to add another speaker cabinet should you want more volume.
Testing It Out:
To get the most for your money, you're going to want to play your guitar on this amp before you leave the store. Most stores have no problem with you bringing your own guitar in for this purpose. You don't want to play a $2000 Les Paul on this amp and get this awesome sound, and then take it home to find your guitar doesn't sound quite as good.
Before you make the trip to the music store with your guitar, take some time to decide what you're going to play. You'll want to test out how the amp sounds with some strummed chords, with some single-note leads, with some fast power chords - whatever. Just makes sure you make a note to yourself of all the things you want to play on this amp so you don't go blank when you're sitting in the store. Don't worry about impressing anyone with your guitar playing abilities, just forget they're there and play what you think you'll be playing when you get it home.
If you're going to carry this amp around to your friend's house or to practices or performances, you'll want to make sure you can move it around yourself. Some amps can be very large, bulky and hard to carry around. Some are well-balanced and are easier to maneuver. Keep in mind you may need to carry this one-handed up and down several flights or tight stairs or lift in onto high stages. Make sure you can move your own amp.
A small practice amp can run anywhere from $50 to around $300 and up. I would recommend trying to save up at least $150 or so - more if you can. Built-in effects will cost a little more, but might be worth it if you want that. Play some amps with effects and have the salesman or a guitar playing friend show you some of these effects and see if you would want these. They can get addictive to play with, so try to keep it in moderation if you buy one of these amps.
You may not have a big budget for this amp, but you definitely want the best quality for your money. Any amp from Crate, Line 6, Fender, Marshall, Behringer, Rogue, Peavey, Kustom, and Pignose should be decent and not give you any trouble. Just keep the receipt if case it does. There are other brands that make decent amps, but I don't want to waste space listing 2000 different brands. The ones I listed above just happen to be the most common and the ones that came to mind, but they are certainly not the only ones.
On The Road:
You should really resist the urge to load a bunch of stuff (cords, power strips, pedals) in the back of your amp. This can mess up the reverb tank, the tubes, punch holes in the speaker, etc. I've done this a few times when I first started playing, and caused some damage in the process. Do yourself a favor and just use a gym bag or something. You have more room and you won't have to worry about your amp. I use a backpack with a lot of pockets. There more than enough room for everything, I can put extra strings and picks in their own spot, it's easy to sling over your shoulder and you can get cool-looking ones pretty cheap at Target or Walmart.
Just keep in mind that what you are buying is a small beginner's amp. You can't expect it to sound like the $1,500 professional amp that your favorite artist uses. You can still find something that will make you happy and keep you inspired to come back and play more.
I like to use the smile factor when playing amps. It has to make you smile when you play it. You'll know it when you find it, and when you do, it make you want to play all the time and never put it down. That will make you a better musician and a guitar player for life.
For the record, I've been playing over 25 years - most of those professionally. I started playing in 5th grade with a nylon-string acoustic and got my first electric for my 15th birthday. A Peavey T-15 with a 5 watt amp built into the case. My first amp purchase was about a year later and was a Peavey Backstage 15 watt amp. I play that thing so much I wore it out. Today I play with several bands, have been on a few tours, and play a custom shop Stratocaster and a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier.
For more information on Combo Amps, see my previous article "Choosing a Combo Amp". Also read "The Ultimate Buyers Guide. Part 1: Your First Guitar."
Check UG to see the continuation of the Ultimate Buyers Guide.