Put simply, every electric guitar needs an amp. The guitar amp (formally known as an amplifier), strengthens the relatively weak electric signal that is produced by the pickups on the guitar. Then it sends that stronger electric signal to a speaker. This signal amplification and the resulting glorious sounds coming from the speaker is what turns an ordinary guitarist into a guitar hero! (even if you’re limited to playing in your bedroom or garage). If you’re looking to learn about guitar amps for beginners, then you’ve come to the right place!
Like guitars, amps are designed and manufactured in a dizzying number of configurations. Vastly different technologies are deployed to suit different musical styles and budgets. And different guitar amps, along with their myriad of knobs and buttons, have a significant impact on the sounds you’ll hear coming from your guitar. As if that wasn’t enough, at the professional level your favorite guitarists probably use other tone-shaping tools, such as effect pedals, to dial in their unique sound that is not strictly the result of their guitar and amp selection.
But don’t let this news give you the blues because it is still a good idea to try to learn which types of amps your favorite guitarists play. You might not nail their tone precisely the first time you plug in, but you will at least be started in the right direction and can further craft your own tone as you progress and advance.
On a related note, you may already know that it is important to consider what style of music you like to play when selecting an electric guitar. It turns out that the same principle holds true for guitar amps. For example, if you’re really into clean country sounds like those from Brad Paisley, then a high-wattage Marshall amp is going to be very disappointing to you. That’s because Marshall amps are known to produce heavily overdriven and distorted sounds more suited for hard rock and heavy metal. Conversely, if you live and breathe The Beatles, then a Vox amp might be a solid choice for you to produce the crisp British tones made famous in the 1960’s.
Feeling confused? Well fear not, because your friends at Learn Love Guitar happily obsess over all of these details. And we’re here to break down the wonderful world of guitar amps in simple terms to help you decide which type of amp is right for you based on your budget and musical goals. To continue your education and learning, let’s proceed with explaining the major differences between the various types of guitar amps on the market, and which features are most impactful to you, your sound and your wallet.
Guitar Amps for Beginners – Analog vs Digital
Like many other electronic devices we use in our lives, guitar amps have evolved from strictly analog units to highly sophisticated digital models. But in the world of guitar amps, does digital mean better? The answer to that question is: It depends on who you ask. For example, if cost and/or tonal flexibility is the primary driver, then you might say that digital is better. But if you’re a sonic purist and only want the warmest, richest, most natural sounding tones, and you have a few spare nickels in your pocket, then analog amps are for you. Here’s a quick breakdown between the different technologies available in today’s amp market.
Analog Amps – Vacuum Tubes vs Solid-State
Starting in the 1930’s, some of the earliest electric guitar amps used vacuum tubes to increase the amplitude or power of the electronic signal being received from the guitar. This was commonplace all the way until the 1970s when the silicon transistor was developed. Because the manufacturing costs of transistors were so much lower than vacuum tubes, they became more and more popular in the marketplace for all types of consumer electronics. While these cheaper transistor-based amps allowed more customers to enter the world of electric guitars, virtually all professional musicians and working bands stuck with vacuum tubes due to the rich natural tones they produce.
In today’s market, both types of analog electric guitar amps are sold. And while general differences in cost and tonal quality still exist, with tube amps (also known as valve amps) still being generally more expensive and considered higher in quality, the performance of transistor-based amps (now known as solid-state amps) have increased significantly.
Digital Modeling Amps
More recently, a third type of guitar amp has entered the market. They rely on digital signal processing to create the sounds that you hear from the speaker. These digital amps are often referred to as modeling amps because the digital technology can allow the amp to model a wide variety of tones just by selecting from the controls on the amp. The modeling has gotten quite sophisticated such that an entire library of classic analog amp sounds can be digitally modeled into a single amp. So a guitar player can easily switch between heavily distorted sounds typical of a Marshall amp to clean sounds typical of a Fender amp just by turning a dial or selecting a stored model from an onboard menu screen.
Similar to the differences between solid-state amps and tube amps, digital modeling amps are relatively inexpensive and they provide the guitarist with an incredible toolbox from which they can experiment and tinker with different sounds to find the ones they like. Proponents of digital modeling amps will claim that they basically get a dozen or more different amps for the price of one. And opponents of digital modeling amps will curse the lack of natural sounding tones and will insist that only vacuum tubes amps produce genuine and true electric guitar music worthy of a recording studio or stage.
Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation: As I’ve pointed out in other gear articles, there is no single right or wrong answer when it comes to analog versus digital guitar amps for beginners. If you’re on a tight budget and/or you’re buying your first electric guitar amp, then I’d point you in the direction of digital modeling amps. You won’t break the bank and you’ll be able to explore a wide variety of tones to help you find your sound. If you are more concerned about the quality of the sounds you want to create from your guitar and you’re willing to spend a few more bucks, then you can’t go wrong with a classic tube amp to start or continue your guitar journey.
Guitar Amps for Beginners – Design and Construction
Electric guitar amps generally come in one of two basic construction designs: Combos and Heads. A Combo amp is made with the amplifier and speaker integrated into a single housing. This design allows for easy operation and portability because there is only one unit to carry around with you.
Another construction design for guitar amps is to separate the amplifier from the speakers into two entirely independent units. In this configuration, the amplifier is called the Head and the speaker(s) are called the Cabinet or Cab for short, named for the housing in which the speakers reside. When a separate Head sits on top of a Cabinet, it is often referred to as a half-stack (as shown in the picture) and a Head sitting on two Cabinets is known as a full stack.
Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation: While combo amps are generally limited in power compared to their Head/Cab counterparts, they are still plenty loud for 99% of guitar players around the world. Unless you’re a professional guitarist who plays very large gigs beyond your local bar or church, combo amps will suit all of your needs and then some and are our preferred choice for beginner, intermediate and advanced players alike.
Guitar Amps for Beginners – Power, Volume and Distortion
A couple key factors drive how much power a guitar amp generates when strengthening the electric signal received from the guitar and processing the signal through the speaker. This amount of power translates into the loudness/volume you hear when you play. The two key factors for tube amps are the number/type of vacuum tubes and the number/type of speakers.
For example, low and mid-wattage tube amps (less than 30 watts) may feature two vacuum tubes in both the pre-amp and power sections of the amp and single 10” or 12” speaker. While more powerful amps (50 watts and greater) may include 4 vacuum tubes in each section along with dual or even quad speakers in the cabinet.
So how many watts do you need in a guitar amp?
You’ll find a million articles and blogs written about this subject, and because I’ve read a ton of them and played through a variety of different amps, I can help you understand this in simple terms. But first, I have to do a little more explaining on another difference between tube amps and digital modeling amps. And that is their method and ability to produce overdriven or distorted guitar sounds.
Let’s turn our attention back to digital modeling amps for a second. Because of the sophisticated micro-chips and software inside the amps, they can be dialed in to produce many different guitar sounds. These can range from clean to overdriven to full-on distortion with just a turn of a dial. And the key thing to know is that they can do this at any volume. So if you want to play head-banging heavy-metal in your bedroom at night and not wake the neighbors, a digital modeling amp, especially one that comes with a headphone jack, might be your new best friend. Remember though that the potential downside of this simplicity and flexibility is that the tone you hear can sometimes have a slight digital sound to it, depending on your listening sensitivity and the quality of the amp.
Vacuum tube amps aren’t quite so easy to control in terms of balancing volume and distortion. That’s because producing distorted sounds from a tube amp happens when the vacuum tubes are overloaded (sonically described as over-driven) with the electric signal. In other words, on some tube amps, in order to hear the sweet overdriven sounds of the blues or the heavier distortion sounds of rock or metal, you have to really crank the amp to literally overload the tube circuits.
On some more basic tube amp models, this may prevent you from rocking out in your bedroom at night without disturbing anyone. The good news is that there are two ways to create over-driven and/or distortion sounds on a tube amp even at bedroom-level volumes. The first is that many tube amps are fitted with either a Gain control or a separate Master Volume control. This dual-volume system allows a heavier signal to be sent to the pre-amp tubes to create the distortion and then dialing back the signal being sent to the speaker to keep the volume down.
Another way to generate various tone-shaping sounds is to use guitar effects pedals, also known as stomp-boxes. These fun and handy little devices allow you to apply overdrive, distortion, reverb, tremolo, chorus, delay and other effects on your guitar tone without having to crank to the amp all the way to 11 like the geniuses in Spinal Tap.
Check out my article on guitar effects pedals to learn more.
You will also likely notice that for a given price range, the power ratings on digital modeling amps are significantly greater than tube/valve amps. So does that mean that in order to get a lot of volume at a decent price you should stick with higher powered digital amps? While the answer may seem obvious, in reality that is not the case. While the power of both types of amps are measured in watts, the loudness of the sound produces from two different technologies, as measured in decibels, can be perceived by the ear quite differently. What this means is that a 40W tube amp will usually sound much, much louder than a 40W digital amp. This is the result of technical differences related to negative feedback, the speaker’s impedance and other stuff that you might need a degree in electrical engineering to fully understand.
What is important to grasp though are two fundamental rules of physics as they relate to guitar amps. The first rule is that if you double the power output of a guitar amp, let’s say from 20W to 40W, the volume increases by only 3 decibels. And an increase in sound volume of 3dB is generally considered to be the smallest change in sound volume that the average human ear can detect. The second rule is that if you increase the power output of a guitar amp by tenfold, you end up only doubling the sound volume. So 100W amp is only twice as loud as a 10W amp. Don’t blame me for these rules, blame physics!
Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation: I’ve met a lot of guitarists who strive to play massive 200+ watt amps because they see them on the stages of their favorite bands playing in giant arenas and/or they just think they’re super cool. The truth is that these powerful amps are likely way more amp than you’ll ever need. In the digital amp world, a 40W amp is more than enough to meet your needs. And a tube amp as low as even 1W can still produce enough volume for any home guitarist just getting started. Believe me, if you buy a 40W tube amp and crank it anywhere past 7 on the volume dial, your windows will be rattling and your ears will be ringing. A tube amp in the 5-30W range is the sweet spot for home and small gigging guitarists.
If you’d like to review my recommended electric guitar amps for beginners at various price points, click on any of the following links: