How To Buy A Guitar Amp

by Leon Waters, Dec. 1, 2014

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Nigel Tufnel: The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven…

Marty DiBergi: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?

Nigel Tufnel: Exactly.

Marty DiBergi: Does that mean it’s louder? Is it any louder?

Nigel Tufnel: Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten.

For every aspiring musician – no matter which instrument they play – watching This is Spinal Tap is a rite of passage. Generation after generation of future greats have split their sides over exploding drummers, none-more-black album covers, and tiny Stonehenge-themed stage props. If you are a newcomer to the world of music, you are now required to buy a copy and watch it immediately.

In amongst This is Spinal Tap’s bountiful wealth of classic scenes sits the above exchange between fictional filmmaker Marty DiBergi and Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel. To many, those lines were little more than great comedic scriptwriting – but to innumerable legions of guitarists and gear builders they were much, much more than that. They were – and still are – a stiff shot of pure, undiluted inspiration!

Welcome to the article your neighbours don’t want you to read.

Step One: The Need To Be Heard

You are here because you want to make a sound. Whatever you want to do with that sound depends on you – your mind, your personality, your life experiences, your story – and you alone. The world of music is somewhat unique, in that there isn’t really a “right” or “wrong” way to explore it. Whether you want to make music for yourself, impress your friends, or be a star, every path is a valid one to walk. But nonetheless, making a sound is where the fun really begins.

Right now, we’re going to help you pick the next essential ingredient to toss into your own personal musical melting pot. By the time we’re done, you’ll have all you need to make your sound – and make it as loud or soft as you please.

Step Two: Glamour-Free Workhorse, Or Backline Superstar?

Guitars are iconic instruments – but they are only part of the total tone-delivering, image-enhancing package. For many guitarists, the amplifiers they play through are as much a part of their image and overall style as the guitars they play and the clothes they wear. Picture Slash, for instance, and you’ll most likely visualise a Marshall stack in the background pushing out the notes squeezed violently yet lovingly from his vintage Gibson Les Paul guitar. Slash’s Marshalls are as much a part of him as his timeless axes, nailed-on-the-head bent notes, grinding rock riffs, and ultra-stylish top hat.

A great place to start when choosing an amplifier is to pack your guitar into a gig bag, stride into a music shop, and let your eyes be your guide. Let your visual inputs wander around the room and allow your subconscious to settle the issue for you. Whether it’s a silver-fronted Fender Hot Rod Deville or a stern and imposing Randall Thrasher, it’s all good.

If you’re set on deciding consciously, that’s fine too. In this case, try considering how each of the amps in the store will match your guitar in terms of visual effect. Take your guitar out of its case and hold it in front of every amp you can see. People might stare, but who cares? You’re on the most rock ‘n’ roll mission of all – and making the right choice is important. A good amp is a serious investment.

Also, think about which amps will fit the style of music you want to play. Intuition will tell you more than you think; a Fender Blues Deville won’t do if you’re into tech metal, but a Blackstar or Engl stack will. You’ll most likely know what fits on sight – but if not, pick any old thing and move on to…

Step Three: Sounds Good, Right?

What sounds good to you? Well, it’s probably early days yet – but you’ll be surprised how much your ears know already. You’ve spent many hours digesting musical sounds, maybe without even realising it – and at this point, it’s crucial to trust your ears, and be assured that they’ll become even more knowledgeable as your musical training progresses.

As you plug the demo-room lead into your guitar’s jack socket, you may have one of two goals on your mind. You may be looking to recreate a style of music with which the world is already familiar – blues, say, or jazz – or you may be on a hyperfocussed quest to follow your own unique musical vision. Either of these options are fine, but they require slightly different approaches when it comes to deciding what sounds good.

Let’s say you’re an aspiring bluesman. Your girlfriend dumped you the other day, you’ve got heartbreak running through your veins, and you want to get it out. Great! You’re right on the edge of achieving that goal. What you need to listen for now is the essence of that style in the tone that results from the unique combination of your fingerprints, your guitar, and the amp in front of you. Stop, breathe, and listen deeply. Allow the rest of the world to melt away. Just be, and listen. Feel the strings cutting into your fingertips as you let bends release and grace notes slip by. How do you feel? Emotionally attached to the music you’re making, or bored? Are you hearing the blues, or not? Fiddle with the knobs on the front of the amp. Listen carefully to how they affect the tone. Direct experience is what counts right now.

If you’re looking for your own unique sound, on the other hand, follow the same steps as your blues-enamoured comrades, but listen differently. What you want here is not just to feel emotionally attached to the sounds you’re making – you also want to feel creatively inspired by them. Just play, and see what comes out. When you play through this amp, do your ideas sound fresh, even unique? Do they sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before? Or do you find yourself running through mind-numbing bits and bobs that you know, in your heart of hearts, that the world has already heard a million times? This path can seem incredibly difficult at times, but it is rewarding. If you find yourself getting frustrated, just stop and focus on your breathing for a few minutes, then try again.

Whichever path you’re on, remember that most amps today have multiple ‘channels’ – settings that change the entire sound of the amp. Channels are generally divided into two categories: ‘dirty’ (which can range from big, distorted rock and metal tones to gritty bluesy sounds) and ‘clean’ (quiet, distortion-free, mellow and peaceful tones). Try experimenting with different channels – but be sure to turn the volume down on your guitar when first trying them, especially if moving from clean to dirty! A tiny room full of sudden ear-splitting feedback is not good for your ears or nerves. Dial the volume down on your guitar, change the channel, bring the volume back up, and see how it goes.

If you find what you’re looking for, fantastic! Move on to Step Four. If not, keep looking. A good amp can cost as much as a guitar, if not more, so it’s impossible to stress how important it is that you find the right fit.

Step Four: Gadgets And Gizmos

In today’s hi-tech, digitally enchanted world, it’s common to see flashy features included in even the most mundane objects. So it should come as no surprise to find that super-sexy guitar amps are no different.

Unfortunately, a full exploration of guitar effects and the arcane world of amp modelling lies beyond the scope of this article – but for now, it’s enough to fiddle with the knobs on the amp, listen very carefully to how each one changes your sound, and have fun. There is a priceless piece of advice to remember on the subject of effects, though: Don't get so sucked into the realm of crazy noises that you forget to try the amp on its other settings (especially the clean channel), buy the amp in a reverb-soaked daze, and get home to find that it sounds rubbish when you take the effects away! It’s an easy mistake to make – and a costly one at that.

Step Five: If The Price Is Right…

The moment of truth. Is this amp within your budget? If so, hand over your cash, lug it out to your car, and put it in the boot; if you put it in the back seat you’re liable to keep looking at it in the rear view mirror and end up having an accident. If not, consider a compromise that suits you and make a note of the exact model and price of the amp of your dreams.

If not today, then one day…

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