If you’re in the market for a guitar amp, but are unfamiliar with all the little differences like tube versus solid state, EL34 versus 6L6, or British sound versus American sound, it can be daunting. And what the heck does a “creamy tone” sound like? It can be enough to make you want to pick up an ukulele and move to Hawaii! Armed with the right knowledge and your own ears, you’ll be able to pick the right amp for your needs in no time.
Yes, it seems remarkably uncomplicated and highly un-technical, and there are really no acronyms to cover it. However, it’s important to realize that from the outset, you have to like the sound the amp makes relative to the style of music you play.
A Marshall amp sounds absolutely amazing—if the style of music you’re playing falls in to the Van Halen, Cream, or AC/DC camp. A Fender amp also sounds amazing—if you’re going for more of a Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jerry Garcia or Dick Dale sound.
The best way to determine what an amp sounds like is to play your guitar through it. If you are more of a beginner, not confident about your chops, but want an amp you can “grow into,” have somebody at the store play it for you. The critical issue here is how amp “a” sounds when compared to amp “b,” so do whatever it takes to get a good comparison.
Evaluating Your Needs
High-wattage amps do tend to be physically larger.
Lower wattage tube amplifiers will tend to create harmonic distortion at lower volumes, which is preferable in practice, studio, and miked stage performance. Higher wattage tube amplifiers will distort at higher volumes—which will require more creative mixing for live situations.
The wattage has an effect on both the actual and perceived sound volume. In general, it takes 10 times the wattage of an amp to double the perceived volume. For example, a 10-watt amp will sound half as loud as a 100-watt amp
The wattage and cost of an amp are rarely related, as 10 watt amps can be two, three, or even ten times the cost of a 100-watt amp—depending on the quality of the components and the design. A knock-off 100-watt solid-state amp is inexpensive to produce compared to a boutique 5-watt tube amp.
The drawbacks of tube amps are generally more practical than sonic. A tube amp—especially a large one—can be very heavy: a big negative if you regularly haul your gear up 3 flights of stairs!
Tube amps are also more expensive, both initially, and when it comes to maintenance. A solid state amp simply “is.” Unless you have a massive power surge, your solid state amp will sound the same, year after year. However, vacuum tubes—like light bulbs—wear out over time and will need to be replaced. Tubes are not terribly expensive, but it will be an annual expense.