A guitar amplifier is essential if you’re an electric guitar player. How is it composed? What are the different types out there? That’s what we’re going to see in this article.
1. What is an amp?
An amplifier amplifies by definition. But amplifies what? The power of a signal. And the signal comes from the electric guitar pickup, or the acoustic guitar piezo. The current travels through the electric cable plugged into the guitar and arrives to the amp. It is finally treated there and transformed into the sound you hear then in the speaker.
And the process takes only a few milliseconds.
The explanation above is of course over-simplified. The treatment can be really complex and varies from a guitar amplifier to another. Having some pedals can also affect the signal. But if you’re not technically involved, this is all you need to know for now.
2. What are the different types of guitar amplifiers?
You’ve probably seen an amplifier before. The most common configuration is the combo, which consists of an amplifier and a speaker brought together for commodity. Professionals often prefer separate units, called “head” (see picture above) and “cabinet”. Why? Because cabinets can get louder than combos. And the sound quality is often better.
Both configurations can be found for each type of guitar amps. Let me give you a tour of the market:
2.1. Vacuum tube amplifiers
Ahhh… The tube amp! The oldest type of amplifier. Those who lived in the 1960s will remember TV and radio worked with tubes. It was really popular before solid-state amps took over in the 1970s mostly because of their lower price and heat resistance (and therefore, life expectancy). If you were born before the solid-state era, this will look familiar to you:
The good news is that vacuum tube amps are still used by a lot of guitarists – despite the quality increase of the solid-state and digital families. They’re often preferred for their classic guitar tone, and warmth. If you love the 60s guitar sound, this is clearly the amplifier type you’ve got to own.
2.2. Solid-state amplifiers
Solid-state technology was a revolution back in the 70s. But at this time, it was brand new, and the quality often far below the tube technology. As the years passed, solid-state amps became better and better, and nowadays, it’s sometimes hard to tell if an amp has got tubes on its back or not.
One thing is certain. Solid-state amplifiers are cheaper than the tube brethren. So it’s a great choice if you’re a beginner. It’s also lighter. Therefore, easier to take it with you for rehearsing with your mates. And… you don’t have to worry about protecting the tubes from damage or overheating.
2.3. Hybrid amplifiers
Take a solid-state amp. Add some tubes to the preamp or to the output stage. And voila. You’ve got your hybrid amplifier. Here’s the inside of one of them:
The advantage of owning a hybrid amplifier is certainly what it will cost you, compared to a tube amp. Hybrid amps do not need output transformers unlike the vacuum tube family. If you want a high-end amplifier with high power, you might consider the hybrid amp, it’ll save you a lot of money.
2.4. Modeling amplifiers
The newcomer! The digital revolution brought a new technology for guitar amps, which gave guitar players a full asset of cool effects and different kind of sounds. On many of these amps, it’s even possible to change the (virtual) distance between the microphone and the cabinet.
So yes, it’s really great. One downside, however, is the sound fidelity. Though it’s possible to have a sound close to a Vox, Marshall or any amp you wish, it will never be as good as they truly are. Probably because it’s modulated. But it tends to get better and better as years go by, and it’s already quite impressive. Good choice for beginners and people who experiment a lot.
3. Acoustic and bass amplifiers
3.1 Acoustic amps
When in need of being heard in front of a big audience, the acoustic guitarist has two main choices: wire the electric acoustic guitar to the PA system (via a DI box for example), or link it to an acoustic amplifier. Owning the latter gives you the opportunity to change your preferences while playing live – effects, volume, compression, etc, without a pedal.
Acoustic guitar amplifiers can be any of the four types of amps we’ve seen above. Of course modeling amplifiers will not be exclusively for acoustic guitars, but they often have a set of acoustic sounds in their bank. Also, one of the coolest feature acoustic amps usually have is the feedback control. This one can either be a notch filter or a parametric EQ.
3.2. Bass amps
If you’re playing bass guitar, you’ll need a bass amp. You can still hear yourself with a guitar amplifier, but you will need more power if you want to play at stage or rehearsal volume (this is why it’s not rare to see bass amps with wattage superior to 200). Moreover, bass rendition will be better with the right amp.
Again, you can find bass amplifiers in the four categories listed above, and as combos or separated. For more on bass amplification, check this wiki article.
4. Other solutions to amplify your instrument
A guitar amplifier is not the only solution to amplify your guitar or bass. You can do the following:
- Download guitar VSTs on your computer and use loudspeakers or headphones to hear yourself.
- Use a rackmount or a multi-effect device and wire it to some speakers. These devices almost always have a pre-amp digital function integrated to them.