Choosing the perfect guitar is difficult, but choosing the perfect amp for your guitar is an entirely different beast.
Complete beginners will surely be intimidated by the sheer variations. This is because the guitar amp, ever since its invention, has evolved into so many shapes, sizes, engineering, and even functions that choosing the overall “best” amp is almost an impossible task.
What are the different types of guitar amps? There are Five types of guitar amps which include: Tube amps, Solid State amps, Modelling amps & hybrid amps. People also use DI (direct input) devices and PA for amps combined with affect pedals.
This guide will help you allay some of that burden. We are not sure if you can find that perfect amp, though. Once you are one step into the realm of guitar gears, it becomes an arms race.
1. TUBE AMPS
Hailed as the holy grail of guitar amps, a tube amp is the forefather of all modern guitar amps.
In the first half of the last century, when the invention of digital amps has not taken place, tube amps were the only option for electric guitar players. And even today, tube amps are still loved by guitarists, both novice and professional because of the character and raw quality of the tone produced.
People choose tube amps for their warmth, sensitivity, and highly melodic sensitivity/ dynamics of the tonal sound being output. In addition, its also for those who favour the taste of the past.
Depending on your playing style, the amp can be very dynamic. When we are speaking about dynamics, it includes volume and harshness of the tone. For example, a tube amps will produce a pronounced distorted tone if the strings are struck with moderate intensity yet will be more mellow, giving a warm, even soothing tone if played softly.
Because of this sensitivity, guitarists will agree that tube amps are the best option to convey their emotions and incorporate them into their playing. For this reason, their role is not yet to be replaced.
The engineering of the tube amp is highly intricate, comprising of many fragile and sensitive glass valves, and thus, the amp usually costs more and requires more intensive maintenance than its modern cousins. Also, due to its sophisticated design, the tube amp can be worn down by extensive use, environmental factors (such as dust and damp) and time. In such cases, the tubes can be replaced, which ensues even more cost, depending on the types of amp. Furthermore, the replacement of these tubes will likely result in slight to moderate deviation of the intonation, which many guitarists try their hardest to avoid. With proper care and regular cleaning, the average tube amp can last from 5 to 7 years of usage, after that, replacement is necessary.
Even though tube amps have a more desirable tone and dynamics, people are taken to the cheaper counterparts that are smaller/lighter and require less maintenance.
2. SOLID STATE AMPS
Solid state amps marked the revolution of technology in the manufacturing of musical instruments.
Following the invention of transistors, solid state amps made their first appearance in the world of music. The engineering wise, solid state amps are quite similar to their older counterpart. The difference lies in how they amplify the aural input from the guitar. Tube amps do this using the many glass vacuum tubes or valves inside, while for solid state amps, this process is done by transistors, as such, they are sometimes known as transistor amps.
These days, solid state amps are known and selected for their superb clarity and clean sounds, some are even indistinguishable to tube amps. An advantage solid state amps have over tube amps is the startup. For tube amps, the tubes need to heat up before they can start working. This is not the case with solid state amps. Once the transistors are turned on, they are good to go. And thanks to the use of transistors instead of tubes, solid state amps are much more versatile in comparison with tube amps. This is because transistors are more consistent in amplifying the signals, and for this reason, the overdrive or distortion is not heavily affected when the volume is cranked down, a phenomenon usually spotted in tube amps.
In the past, solid state amps did not receive much affection from guitarists, mainly because they put major effort into imitating the tube amps yet did not arrive at the result effects. However, technology has advanced so much that nowadays, even seasoned guitarists might have difficulties telling the two apart. Beginner guitarists are often introduced to solid state amps as they are plenty forgiving, offering high playability and versatility. They are also more time-proof considering transistors generally do not require replacement and regular caring. Plus, they are more budget-friendly as well!
But expectedly, the debate whether which amp is superior has always been an ongoing one. Despite its constant evolution and advancement to improve, some guitarists still believe solid state amps are simply not worth the investment. One of the major points is “sensitivity,” which are still to this day unique to tube amps. Sensitivity is the ability to produce and distort, overdrive and alter the tone to the volume and even to the playing of each individual. The gain is subtle, but delivers enough impact to be noticed by the trained ears. There is also an argument of maintenance and longevity. Certainly, solid state amps do not require extensive caring and tube replacement, however, when the circuit or the transistors malfunction, it is often fatal to the device itself.
3. MODELLING AMPS
A Modelling amp is a major step-up from solid state amps, utilising modern technology in not only amplifying the input signals but also further modifies them using additional effects.
When it was first introduced, the modelling amp is, in its simplest term, the solid state amp equipped with integrated effects. However, as they progress, this technology is now available for tube amps as well. The key difference between modelling amps and other amps is the Digital Signal Processing (DSP), which allows modelling amps to emulate the sounds often unique to a certain type of amp. For instance, a modelling amp, by default, is programmed to imitate the characteristics of a classic tube amp by Marshal. However, at the switch of a button, this amp can take on the sound signatures of an amp by Mesa or Fender.
Thanks to its wonderful versatility, modelling amps are generally recommended for players and bands who dabble in many genres, from pop music to metal. In some cases, with a modelling amp installed, a guitar beginner or a band on a budget may not need to have multiple amps to practice with. Even more interesting, some modelling amps are fitted with integrated special effects, allowing guitarists to freely apply and experiment. They offer a wide range to play with, too, delay, reverb, and even overdrive or distortion, you name it.
Similar to solid state amps, modelling amps are often manufactured without glass tubes, and instead operate using transistors and circuits, they are much more portable, and as a result, less of a hassle when travelling. And again, thanks to their design, modelling amps are less likely to fail due to the tubes being burnt out and needing replacement. The circuit also ensures the longevity of the amps. You will hardly notice any deterioration in the sound output, which is a forever issue with tube amps.
But needless to say, this amp may not be able to fully mimic the output of other amps, especially those which are known for their high sensitivity. This is a major disadvantage of transistor amps compared to tube amps. Fortunately, high-end modelling amps are nowadays fitted with tubes in order to recreate the vintage feel many guitarists craved for. There is also a debate by traditionalists that the application of digital technology will slowly kill creativity in music. And this is not an argument without evidence to back. These amps have the potentials and even capabilities to replicate and archive pre-made tones and effects almost indistinguishable to those of a renowned guitarist. Yet, it’s still relatively far-fetched to claim that this will be the doom of original music, as tone and effects alone are not the contributors to the talent of a musician.
4. HYBRID AMPS
As the name suggests, a hybrid amp combines the engineering of the traditional tube amps and the more technologically advanced solid state amps.
The tube amps, throughout the development of music creation, have been praised and loved by guitarists of all background for their tone and the ability to convey the player’s feelings. The solid state amps, while they do not provide the same lovely tone, are unmatched in versatility and reliability. Thus, the invention of the hybrid amps is purely an attempt to combine these offerings into one complete package. This is usually done by having a glass tube section in adjacent to a circuitry section. For instance, a typical hybrid amp may have a glass tube on the preamp and solid state power amp. This way, the amp can deliver the responsiveness of a tube amp and flexibility of a solid state amp.
Of course there would be some tradeoffs. While the hybrid amps inherently have the characteristics of other amps, they do not excel as alternatives for either of the two amp types. Sure, the use of circuitry allows for more flexibility; for instance, built-in special effects or pre-made tones of other amps at a switch of a button. Yet at the same time, they cannot offer the same portable characteristics of the solid state amps: they are heavier and require more regular maintenance due to the tubes. Furthermore, they may have tube sensitivity and tone, but that subtleness is not as impactful, and, as a result, does not have the same effects as authentic tube amps. Also, engineering a design to house both the tube and the circuitry make the hybrid amp much more expensive than a regular transistor amp. However, the difference between the hybrid and the solid state may not be good enough to justify the further investment.
These days, it becomes much harder to come across a true hybrid amp. Even though the concept is good and its effects are definitely there, the hybrid simply does not meet the expectation from guitarists. Nonetheless, there are still high quality hybrid amps on the market. They are manufactured as modelling amps with glass tubes fitted and integrated special effects.
5. DI Box and PA System
Stands for Direct Input, a DI Box, in essence, removes noises during signal transmission from the guitar to a PA system. Due to differences in impedance between the musical instrument and PA system mixers or the recording console, direct signals from a guitar will usually produce interference – the annoying yet everlasting humming noise.
On a side note, musical instruments such as guitars or basses do not produce effectively transmitting signals. In fact, due to electrical incompatibility, guitars (high in impedance) and mixers (low input impedance), generally, do not go well with each other. Directly connecting the guitars to a PA system can result in loss of clarity and volume and more noises. For guitars and amps, this is usually not an issue. Amps can go well with high-impedance instruments, and, for this reason, can take on frail signals from the guitars without producing undesirable noises or loss of signals.
Thus, to connect a guitar to a PA system, mixer, or microphone preamp, a DI Box is very much recommended. To remove the noise, a DI Box can convert high-impedance signals from the guitars to low-impedance signals, which are compatible with the PA system or mixer.
In the briefest possible term for beginner guitarists, an amp is the guitars’ steroid, giving the signals more power before feeding them to the speakers. Guitar amps are manufactured in many options, suiting the needs of each player. For practicing and low-power purposes, combo amps are recommended. They are easy to set up, less bulky, require less tuning, and they have enough power for a limited audience. Half and full stack amps are more suitable for larger stages. These amps come with a head and a cabinet for more tuning capabilities and volume.