There are so many different amplifiers for an electric guitar these days. While that is an awesome thing if you realize musicians today have more options than ever to find the sound they are looking for, it can also be a very daunting task if you are just starting out. But don't fret, it is not as hard as it may seem.
- Decide on a budget. Like guitars, amps vary in price considerably. You can find brand new ones for as little $50 whereas high-end amps can be at least a several thousand dollars used! There will be considerable differences in sound as you pay more. However, there are diminishing returns; while there may be a significant difference between a $50 amp and a $200 amp, there may be less of a difference between one that is $2,000 and $3,000. If you are buying a guitar and an amp at the same time, I would suggest trying to buy the best amp you can buy (even if it is at the expense of buying a nicer guitar) because many people believe the amp plays a far more crucial role for your tone than a guitar.
- Figure out where you will use the amp. Since amps vary a lot in terms of function, sound, and volume, it is important to decide where you will use it. For example, buying a huge stack as a bedroom practice amp will probably be overkill. Likewise, buying an expensive boutique amp for bars may not be the wisest idea. However, that very same amp could work well inside a studio.
- Decide if you want a stack or combo. These are the two basic designs for amps. In a stack configuration, the amp does not come with any speakers. Instead you need to purchase a cabinet with speakers inside and wire up your amp to the cabinet. While this may sound tedious, it will allow you to experiment with different speakers more easily. More importantly, there is less chance that you will hear rattles since the amp and the speakers are separated. On the other hand, combos are often more compact and easier to carry and set up.
- Pick the type of amp design you want. The oldest design is the tube amp, named after the vacuum tubes inside the amp. While this is older technology, it is generally regarded as the superior choice in terms of sound. It is often more sensitive to your touch and its overdrive sound (a type of distortion sound) is thought to sound more warmer and natural. On the downside, they are heavy and somewhat more fragile than the other options. They also require you to buy tubes every so often as tubes will eventually die like lightbulbs. If you go the tube amp route, also note that different tubes create different characteristics in your sound. Fender and Marshall use different tubes (which usually cannot be inter-exchanged) and their sounds are very different.
The solid state design is a more modern design. It does not require tubes. Although it has a harsher, less-desirable overdriven sound compared to the tube amps, they are also cheaper and often lighter.
Hybrid amps are solid state amps that have a tube preamp section to "model" the sound of a real tube amp. While most will probably say this is an improvement over the solid state design, it is still not quite up to par as tube amps.
Lastly, we have digital modelers. These are not really amps but are digital units that can mimic the sound and characteristics of certain amps. These are convenient if you just want to plug into a PA system and still sound good. Line6's POD is one of the more popular and affordable ones. Some of the high end ones like the AxeFX are thought to be close if not equivalent to their actual amp counterparts.
- Decide upon an ideal amp weight. Amps vary tremendously in terms of weight (some approach the 100lbs mark). If you know you will be gigging often with the amp you will purchase, you may want a lighter amp or one with wheels.
- Decide how much wattage (ie volume) you really need. One thing to note here is that wattage and volume differs significantly between solid state/hybrid amps and tube amps. I won't go into the physics and details but if you look around, many solid state amps are greater than 100W. Compare that with the venerable Vox AC30, a tube amp used for stadium concerts by bands like U2. That tube amp is only 30W! For tube amps, anything around 5W is usually more than enough for bedroom playing. For smaller venues where you will mic the amp, 15W should be sufficient.
- Figure out the features you want on your electric guitar amp. Some people like effect loops for their pedals (so that they can place certain effects like delay after the distortion in your amp).
You can also buy a multichannel amp that has two or more channels with different settings. For instance, you can set one channel as "clean," one as "slightly overdriven," and another as "heavy, lead overdrive." It's kind of like having multiple overdrive or distortion channels.
Lastly, some amps have built in effects. Reverb is usually the most common but lately, many amps have been coming in with built in digital effects. In my opinion, these digital effects are nice to play around with but don't sound as good as pedals and are much more awkward to use in a live setting if you like to keep changing your effects during your set.
Some amps have lots of knobs to tweak your sound while others have just one volume knob. However, don't fall into the belief that more is better. Many well-regarded amps (like the Dr. Z Carmen Ghia) have only one or two knobs; the amp has already been "tweaked" by its designer to sound its best.
- Most importantly, decide on your desired sound. Figure out what sort of amp will get you the sound you need for your style of playing. If you like to play blues rock, buying an amp that is renowned for metal sounds is probably not a good idea.
Additionally, most amps can be described as imitating the sound made by Fender, Marshall, Vox, and Mesa-Boogie amps. Marshall and Vox are British sound amps (because they are made in Britain). Marshall is known more for its darker, warmer sound while Vox is known for its bell-like sparkly trebles. Fender tends to be cleaner sounding than Marshall. Mesa-Boogie is known for its ability to get high saturated overdriven/distortion sounds.
While those are just some of the considerations in finding an amp, the most important one is to have fun. While many musicians look at buying gear as a journey, nearly all will also say it's an exciting and fun process. Don't make it a chore!