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How to choose the right guitar amplifier

Updated on July 17, 2012
7 Marshall stacks
7 Marshall stacks

Tubes or digital amps?

Trying to pick the right amp can be daunting to the fledgling guitarist. There are so many brands, and each brand sometimes has many varieties to choose from.

Lets start with the main differences between amp circuitry- Tubes VS Transistors/Digital amps.

The original guitar amps produced back in the late 1940's & 50's were all tube amps. The sounds that most guitarists still cherish are sounds actually created from that era, so many hard core tone purists still prefer the sound of tubes. The great thing about tubes is that because of the way they work, they sound great when they are turned up near their maximum output, which makes them produce various amounts of even-order harmonic distortion which is pleasing to the ear. However, tubes do wear out and need to be replaced, and are made out of glass, so they are somewhat delicate and a bit costly to maintain or replace.

Transistor/digital amps have come a long way since they were introduced in the 60's and now are closer in sonic capabilities to tubes, but are still considered second to tubes in overall tone aspects. Partially this is because most transistors when overdriven tend to produce odd order harmonic distortion, which is harsher sounding to the ear than even-order harmonic distortion like those produced by tubes. Even though that aspect seems to have been dealt with by manufacturers, most guitar purists still gravitate towards tubes. The advantage of digital amps is that they can mimic to a fairly high degree the sounds and tonal qualities of many popular tube amps, and also can combine digital effects with them, as well as having computer and midi interface capabilities-which is an advantage in recording applications over tube amps.

Also, transistors and digital amps tend to last for many years before any service is ever needed, so their reliability is also a great selling point. And, while tubes amp tend to be fairly heavy because of all the required components in a tube circuit, transistor amps are generally very light and easy to move, another advantage over most tube amps.

When compared side by side, the advantages of digital amps over tube amps would seem to make the winner of the contest an easy one- digital would clearly seem the superior amp.

But not so fast.

The best tube amps produce tones and response that digital amps cannot match perfectly. And though digital amps can get close, the tubes always seem to have that extra "something" in their sound that guitarists generally prefer- whether its the even order harmonic distortion or some other aspect of tube generated sound -they are still the top dog as far as amp tone goes.

So the choice comes down to this- do you want reliability, studio versatility, many different sounds & effects? Are you mostly recording? Then a digital amp might be the one for you.

Do you play live? Are you a rock or blues player? Do you like warm, round, sizzling tones that just ooze with sonic sweetness and aural blissfulness when the amp is cranked up?

Then you are in the tube zone, my friend.

And tube amps come in a few different varieties, the class A and class A/B amps.

My favorite is the class A amps, which to my ears give the most fidelity when it comes to reproducing all the sonic nuances of a guitar.

Class A/B amps still sound good, but generally are not as faithful sonically as a class A amp- the A/B amps use negative feedback in their circuit to produce more power for the amp than a class A can achieve- but the negative feedback, while increasing power output, kills some of the harmonic overtones of the guitar.

Also, remember that speaker cabinets and the speakers themselves have a big impact on the sound. Open cabinets tend to sound warm and fill the room with sound but tend to be a little less defined in the bass range, sometimes too much so when used with massive amounts of gain. Closed cabinets tend be more focused and tighter sounding in the bass range, and are a more aggressive, directional sounding cab.

High powered speakers tend to break up only at very high wattage, which makes them ideal for very clean, clear guitar tones. But they are not ideal for distortion sounds, as they distort very little because of the stiff speaker cone used to make the speaker. It's less efficient and therefore more able to handle higher power loads before the onset of distortion.

A lower powered speaker is more suited for overdrive and distortion tones as they break up at a much lower wattage/volume level. The disadvantage is that they usually cannot provide lots of high powered clean tones, because they tend to break up easier and at lower wattage levels.

The venues you play will have a bearing on what kind of amp to get- large rock arenas tend to favor large, powerful amps. Small blues/jazz clubs tend to favor smaller, less powerful amps.

Choose your amp based on the kind of music you play, the sound you like, and the venues you play.
Then you're sure to get the right one!

Tone King Imperial Amp

Tone King Imperial all tube amp
Tone King Imperial all tube amp


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    • byshea profile image

      Shea 5 years ago

      Great tips... thanks.

    • jjcane profile image

      jjcane 5 years ago from Mass

      Thanks- Vox or Marshall are always good choices.

    • Deep Metaphysical profile image

      Deep Biswas 5 years ago from India

      Tube amps all the way for me. I used to play during my high school and college days. Not very long ago. I prefer a vox or marshall. Useful little hub you got.