Iconic electric guitar amps have shaped the sound of generations of rock, blues, and metal. Amps are the lifeblood of any guitarist’s tone. Slash sounds like Slash not only because of his technique or his signature Les Paul, but also because of his Marshall JCM 2555. An amp gives character and depth to your sound. A good amplifier can lift your playing to the next level, adding an extra level to your music. A lousy amp will do just the opposite, making you sound muffled and muddy.
You might have heard terms like “EQ,” “solid-state,” “cabinet” or “gain,” but what does any of that mean? If you’re a beginner, it’s easy to get confused. If you spend enough time fiddling around, you’ll learn about the parts of the amp through first-hand experience. However, because you didn’t take the time to learn it correctly, there will still be holes in your understanding. We’ve created this guide to give you the whole picture.
Like electric guitars, amps have a vocabulary of their own. A great guitarist is familiar with every aspect of their equipment, from their pick to their EQ settings. After all, it’s the combination of your technique and all of your gear that makes you sound like you! Let’s demystify the electric guitar amp, starting from its origins. By the end of this two-part article, you’ll know everything that a modern guitarist should know about this most crucial part of their rig.
First, as a necessary pre-requisite, check out our Electric Guitar Beginner’s Guide if you haven’t already. You’ll learn about the history and parts of the electric guitar. After you’ve absorbed that information and have a solid understanding of how a guitar works, you’ll have a clearer picture of what an amp does to your guitar’s tone.
In this two-part series, we’re going to take a quick look at the history of the guitar amplifier and the different types of amps you’ll come across. In Part Two, we’ll take a deep dive into the parts of the amplifier, as well as the different methods of recording.
Quick History of the Electric Guitar Amplifier
The history of the guitar amplifier begins a few years before the invention of the electric guitar. If you remember from our Electric Guitar guide, being heard was something of an issue for guitarists that played in bands in the early 1900s. Drowned out by the rest of the rhythm section, no one could hear the guitarist. There had to be a better way for the guitarist to stand out.
During the early 1900s, the mechanics of manipulating electricity to create sound was well understood and implemented in fairly common devices like the radio and telephone. Microphone and speaker systems for public address and movie theaters were becoming commonplace, but these were far too large and expensive for the average musician of the time.
In 1928, advancements in tube technology allowed for the creation of portable amplification systems. After some experimentation, the Stromberg-Voisinet company created one of the first electric guitar and amplifier packages. Though it didn’t sell well due to issues with reliability and tone, it had one redeeming quality: the amp. It was relatively light, housing a speaker inside its wooden cabinet – complete with a carrying handle. Though no examples of it survive, it’s influence is seen in amplifiers even today.
In 1931, the Rickenbacker company included a 10-watt amplifier as part of a package with their now famous ‘frying pan’ guitar. Like the Stromberg-Voisinet that came before it, the Rickenbacker amp was a wooden cabinet containing electronic components and a speaker. It was the first mass-produced, commercially successful electric guitar amplifier.
Guitar amps went largely unchanged for about 15 years. A 10-watt tube amp with one speaker was par for the course. But as the electric guitar grew in popularity, so did the audiences. Larger audiences meant bigger venues. Bigger venues meant that 10 watts could no longer cut it. We needed more volume!
In 1947, the Fender Super was born. With 18-watts of power and 2 10-inch speakers, it gave guitarists a much-needed volume boost. These higher-power amps had a bonus ‘feature’: if you cranked the volume, the sound started to distort. Though it started out as an accident, many musicians took a liking to this gritty, emotional tone. The 50s gave way to the 60s and distortion became more popular by the day.
1960s and 70s
As amps began to improve in tone and power, 10-watts became 50-watts, one speaker became four, and the number of amp manufacturers multiplied as well. In the 1960s, distortion became increasingly prevalent thanks to bands like The Kinks, who went to the extreme of slashing their speakers to try and get as much of it as they could. Fuzz became synonymous with Jimi Hendrix. In the race for heavier and heavier distorted sounds, hard rock and heavy metal were born. Effects pedals began to grow in popularity. Some of these effects, like tremolo and reverb, even found their way onto the amp itself.
Vacuum tube amplifiers were the standard ever since the invention of the guitar amp. The status quo began to shift in the 1970s when solid-state (transistor-based) guitar amps took the stage. Transistors were a revolution in electronic circuits. They are the reason we can have phones that fit in our pockets and computers on our desk. Solid-state amps are low maintenance, emit less heat, and consume less power than tube circuits. Sounds like a slam-dunk, right? Not everyone thought so. Tube-enthusiasts feel that tube amplifiers create more natural, superior distortion than solid-state amps, which tend to excel more at clean tones. Even today, the debate rages on.
Modeling amplifiers were the next advancement in the 1990s. In an attempt to capture the sounds of specific iconic amplifiers, modeling amps use a digital modeling device to change their tone to mimic the voice of a famous amp like, say, a specific Marshall or a Vox. Though they’re usually seen as a beginner’s tool, any guitarist can benefit from the versatility of a modeling amp.
One of the most recent evolutions in guitar amp technology is digital amp simulators. Since the early-to-mid 2000s, computers have revolutionized the way we record and play music. Bias and Amplitube, shown above, are programs that can convincingly simulate a guitar amplifier using a technology known as Digital Signal Processing. You plug your guitar into your computer or your phone using a digital interface, change some settings, and record! Pretty cool, huh?
Common Types of Electric Guitar Amps
Like most other electronics of the early 20th century, tubes (also known as ‘valves’ in the UK) were ubiquitous, found in all kinds of electronics from radios to televisions. The original guitar amplifiers were tube-based electronic circuits. They were the standard for guitar amplifiers up until solid-state amps showed up in the 1970s. The overdriven tube sound defined generations of music.
Tubes are still in use today. Most professional guitarists prefer the sound of tube amplifiers due to their ‘warmer’ nature and their more natural distortion sounds. Though they need some maintenance and extra care, tube-amp owners are happy to accept a few drawbacks for superior tone.
The increasing use of transistors in the 1950s spurred an electronics revolution and the invention of digital technology. Electronics were no longer restricted by the size, heat generation, fragility, weight, and high-power consumption of tubes. In the 1970s and beyond, more and more amps used transistor technology. Cheaper to produce and lighter in weight, solid-state amps improved on some of the drawbacks of their tube-based predecessors. However, many guitarists disagree that solid-state amplifiers sound better than tube amplifiers. Digital transistor technology, they argue, doesn’t produce as natural a tone as an analog tube-amplifier.
There is a special category of amps known as ‘modeling amps’. Inside these amps is a special digital signal processor (‘DSP’) that can mimic (or ‘model’) specific sounds. Solid-state modeling amps can convincingly replicate the sound of almost any amp. A DSP can even model a bass guitar amp! You get a lot of bang for the buck with digital modeling technology, which is why it’s commonly found on lower-priced amplifiers.
However, don’t think that digital modeling is the only game in town. The Vox AV series of amps, for example, contains analog modeling technology. Instead of a digital signal processor, the AV series uses multiple tube-based circuits to shape its tone. However, analog modeling won’t have as much ‘range’ and versatility as a digital-based, solid-state modeling amp. And because you’re adding even more tube-based components to the amp, it weighs more and runs hotter as well. But, because the modeling is analog, some guitarists feel it sounds more natural than a digital modeling amp.
If you want authentic tube technology along with the versatility of digital modeling technology, you’re in luck. A modeling hybrid amp might be perfect for you.
There are two main sections inside an amplifier, which we’ll talk about in detail in a later section of the article. In short, an amp consists of two separate components: a preamp and a power amp. The preamp does the tone shaping and gain response while the power amp handles the volume adjustments. In a pure tube-based amp, both of these sections are tube-based. A solid-state amp contains a solid-state preamp and power amp.
However, in a hybrid amp like the Vox Valvetronix VT20X, tube and solid-state technologies work together. In hybrid amps, the preamp section is tube-based while the power amp is solid-state. This gets you natural tube distortion and warmth combined with solid-state reliability. Hybrid amps are a good middle ground if you don’t want to commit fully to one technology or the other.
What about using a solid-state preamp and tube-based power amp? That’s also possible! This configuration is common in hybrid modeling amps. Because the preamp, which does the tone shaping, is solid-state, integrating a digital signal processor chip into the solid-state preamp is easy.
Digital Amp Simulators
A step beyond modeling amplifiers – amps that mimic the sound of other amps – is the digital amp simulator. Amp simulators (or ‘amp sims’ for short) are applications that run on your laptop, desktop, or even your Android or iOS phone/tablet. These programs are entirely digital, requiring only an interface that connects your guitar to your computer or phone. By using digital signal processing (like you find in a modeling amp), amp simulators allow you to do everything you can do with a typical physical guitar amplifier and more. You can even use it to record your own music without any other gear. Some amp sims even allow you to create a virtual pedal board! Depending on the features you want, amp sims can range from anywhere between $10 up to thousands of dollars.
So far, we’ve covered the basic history of the guitar amplifier. We also went over the different types of amplifiers you’re likely to come across, including tube and solid-state amps and their advantages/disadvantages.
In Part Two, we’ll talk about the different parts of the amplifier and what effect they have on your tone. From the knobs to the speaker, we’ll cover it all! We’ll finish up the series by going over the different ways of recording your amplifier.