We all remember our first time. For you more experienced players reading this, your introduction to the world of guitar was probably some abominable catalogue package consisting of an unplayable Strat copy and a mini combo amp that sounded like a wasp trapped in a jam jar. If it worked at all, that is. Lucky 21st century newbies have so many more quality options to choose from, so we thought we’d run down some of the key things starters need to consider when taking their first tentative amp steps on the road to stardom…
Despite what we just said in the intro, we’re pretty sure many of you still have your first amps – bad or good.
The lucky ones among you will have scored an older relative’s tube combo as your first tool of the trade, or been taken by an in-the-know in-law or parent to a music store that kitted you out properly. But some of us (can you feel the bitterness?) didn’t have that luxury, and for months – or even years – put up with the aforementioned plastic-feeling, appalling sounding excuses for amplifiers.
Because in those days, there weren’t many more choices out there for fresh players. Well, unless you wanted to start with a full stack and 100 watts of pain.
It’s a happily different situation for beginner axe slingers today.
In fact, there’s maybe even too much choice out there, what with the huge variety – not to mention the increasing affordability – of amps with stacks of features and passable tones on the market right now.
Here, then, follows a list of what you might want to look out for when buying a first amp, whether it’s for you, a friend or family member who wants to start playing, or even the more experienced player who wants a modern affordable option for quiet home noodling.
The rockstar factor
This is deadly important for first timers in particular. After all, most of us get into the six string game because of a guitar hero or heroine who’s inspired us.
And although we know we’re unlikely to get hold of the same amp as them the first time we buy one – or have any chance of sounding like them, maybe forever – it certainly feels good to know we’re a part of the same family.
So a first amp needs to inspire, to look and feel the business, even if we’re not going to be making it sound the business. That said…
The tone factor
Here on the Blog Of Tone we’re all about the, erm, tone.
There’s just no point putting up with an amp that sounds like crap, even if you’re still trying to master the intro to Smoke On The Water.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to insist on tubes straight away. Because although the vast majority of guitar connoisseurs swear by them, they’re perhaps not ideal until you’ve mastered some rudiments of technique and playing dynamics.
No, tubes are not particularly favorable to unexperienced hands and sloppy players, and the last thing a beginner wants is to be put off playing for life because their sound is terrible.
And the good news on this front is that there are many other options out there, namely with solid-state, hybrid and modelling/digital amps. They can all sound great too, are often easier to get to grips with, and, if you’re limited as to how loud you can play because of sensitive neighbors, they can be a blessing.
Why? Because they’re usually able to sound their best at more acceptable volumes. With tubes, unless you’ve got a small amp, or a power soak, or a good master volume, you’re going to have to crank it somewhat to get the sweetest sounds available.
And that can get very loud very quickly!
Loads of features + simplicity = win
Most small practice amps these days can do a lot. Almost all come with bucket loads of built-in FX, many have more than one channel, some have cool connectors for things like headphones and MP3 players, and a few are even designed so you can play acoustic guitars, electric guitars and basses through the same box.
That’s a lot of stuff.
But there’s a catch to all of this too, because beginner amps also need to be uncomplicated. In fact, we’d say it’s crucial you find one that allows you to simply plug in, turn on and rock out without any fuss, or without having to delve into an inaccessible 200-page manual.
Otherwise, you’ll not keep coming back to it, the inspiration will dwindle, and your rock dream’s in jeopardy. And none of us want that!
There’s also no need to pay over the odds for certain features that you might never use. For example, on a first amp, you probably don’t need access to a serial/parallel FX loop or MIDI connectivity. They’re for next time.
For now, focus on the things that’ll get you excited to keep playing and learning. That’s probably going to amount to two channels (clean and distorted), a simple EQ to tweak your tone, maybe a boost control to push everything to 11, and possibly a built-in effect or two (lots of starter amps have chorus, flanger, reverb and delay these days, and you really don’t need more than that to begin with).
Hell, if you grow to love the FX side of things, you can always start collecting stompboxes!
Headphones, MP3 sockets and built-in tuners are also cool, and if you want to plug into your computer, a USB port or similar is a nice touch. But if you wouldn’t ever use stuff like that, then keep it simple.
Like we said, all the extras are for your next amp!
You also need to consider what the amp is going to be for, both in terms of musical stylings and application.
Many amp brands are tied inextricably to a certain player type, so if you’re planning on becoming the next djent superstar, start looking for options that will suit that style. Same goes for metal, or jazz, or indie, or country, or whatever.
Of course, what you’re going to use the amp for will also affect your thinking. If you’re intending to play at home only, size and power doesn’t matter.
But, if you’re planning on using this amp to take to your first band practices, you’ll need something with enough clout to cut through a rowdy drummer.
That’s a lot to take in, but once you’ve done your homework on all of the above, you’re ready. Well then, what are you waiting for?
Get down to your local music store
It’s that simple: head out and try some amps! Go on, it’s fun.
And trust us – if you’ve got one, take your own guitar with you. If you try out a prospective amp with an axe from the store, don’t be surprised when you go home, plug in and find your guitar makes the whole thing sound totally different.
But ultimately, it’s about buying the amp that feels – and sounds – right for you, and that can do everything you’d want from it at this stage in your playing career.
Do that, and you’ll be getting great value for money, however much you choose to spend.
And now all that’s left is to plug in and let the fun begin!
Ultimately, even the biggest guitar heroes started out with a small rig. We’d love to know what amps you guys began your musical journeys with too. Do you suffer the same catalogue shop hell as we did? Or did you get lucky and start out on something you still treasure and play today? Leave us your memories in the comments below…
First published: March 20 2015. Most recent update: December 15 2015.