Ultimate Guide to
Electric Guitar Amplifiers

The world of guitars can be a confusing place, and it seems like there are so many words you have to learn before you feel qualified to talk about the subject!

Read our guide to dispel those myths, and learn everything you need to know about guitar amps.

Introduction

So you have chosen your electric guitar, and now you need an amplifier to go with it. Fortunately for you, there's loads of choice to fit every kind of budget, size and style.

Unfortunately, with so many options it can be hard to work out what is right for you. Don’t fret however (pardon the pun), as we have created this guide to help you through the world of valves, combos and more, so that you can put together the right rig.

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Valve vs Solid-State vs Hybrid vs Digital

This is one of the more vital choices you will make when choosing a guitar amplifier. It will not only affect the kind of price bracket you are looking at buying within, but also the spec of the amplifier and even the tone. Let’s quickly cover what each of the amp types are and look at the benefits of each:

Valve Valve amps are what you have most likely heard on almost every record with electric guitars. They are the professional’s choice, as their response and tone is considered to be second to none. They are also the loudest option as well, even at lower power ratings. The downside is that they run off valves or tubes, and require a lot more upkeep and maintenance over other amps.
Solid-state Solid-state amps are generally a lot cheaper, lighter and reliable than valve amplifiers, but the tone is never quite the same. Very popular with beginner to intermediate players, and depending on the style, pros as well. Built in a very similar way to a valve amp but using transistors instead of the aforementioned tubes, they still generally offer the same range of sounds as a valve amp.
Hybrid Hybrid amps may not be the most common anymore, but they still have their place in the guitar amp world. Normally they would use a valve preamp with a solid-state power amplifier. This generally means the amp would be more reliable and would have the classic solid-state high frequency response that was popular with metal guitarists in the 80’s and 90’s. Guitarists like Gus G, Dimebag Darrell, Michael Amott and Chuck Schuldiner have all used hybrid amps during parts of their careers.
Digital Either great value practice amps, or extremely high-end with very little in between. Digital amps sit in this weird space where it is either great for beginners and intermediate players, or super-pro with prices that match up to imported boutique valve amps. These amps look to emulate the sound of a valve amplifier using digital technology, which does give it a certain edge in the fact that everything is down to software. You can then, in theory, upgrade and improve the models over years without ever having to buy a new hardware unit.

Combo vs Stack

Guitar amps normally come in one of two formats, combo or stack. A combo amplifier is an all-in-one unit that has the amplifier and speakers together in one enclosure. A stack separates the amplifier and speaker cabinet. The amplifier in a stack is known as an ‘amp head’ and the cabinet is known as…well a cabinet.

Combos: These were designed for the guitarist that needed to take up as little room as possible and needed to get from gig-to-gig quickly and easily. Originally, there were only combo amplifiers as it was only years later when amps got a lot more powerful that people wanted a separate head and cab.

Nowadays, most of the combo amps you see will be either small practice amps or vintage style amps generally made for studio or touring use. Companies like Vox, Fender, Tone King and Mesa Boogie all make stunning medium to high range combo amps; proving that combos are always an option even for pros.

Stack: Stack amps are interesting as they were originally made to help portability when you wanted to use very large and loud guitar amps. While the most common format you will find is a large head and 4×12” combo there are plenty of variations bigger and smaller that all have their own place in the amp world.

For example, smaller bands may not have the space to take a 4×12” with them on the road, so they will instead replace it with a 2×12” or even 1×12” speaker cabinet. This saves a lot of space as you are normally only mic’ing up one speaker anyway.

These smaller cabs also have a great use at home in studio and practice setups where you don’t need to push 100w of valve goodness out to a stadium sized audience. Not only do they take up less space but they also are a fair bit quieter than their larger counterparts.

Another big advantage is that it allows you to mix and match your amps and speakers. Say you find one cabinet that you adore for every style but want the option of changing the amplifier with a stack you can just change the head and you have a completely different sound.

Here is a little list of different cabinets and what they are good for.

1×10 Great for small combos where clean or crunch tones are the end goal. Can also handle a decent amount of gain depending on the speaker but don’t expect much punch. Often used for small gigs and studio work.
1×12 Slightly larger than your normal 1×10″ speaker so it allows you to get the extra grit and low end punch that isn’t available on smaller speakers. Often used for practice and studio work.
2×10 Gigging sized clean and crunch amps can get away with a speaker of this size. Still better suited to clean and crunch tones rather than high gain. Normal gigging size speakers for vintage styled amps.
2×12 This has become the modern gigging stnadard for most musicians as they are easy to transport while still having a big and powerful sound. Very useful for both live and studio situations.
4×10 Not the most common size but entirely possible to find in vintage amps. These are the loudest version of the 10″ classic sound but most of the time a 2×10″ will do. Used nearly exclusively live.
4×12 The rockstar standard. When watching pros on the big stage you will almost certainly see a couple of these. They are big and heavy but the low response and power they produce are second to none. While they are used in the studio they sound best on the big stage.

Speakers

Another really interesting part about building your amplifier is choosing the right speakers. While it may seem daunting most amplifiers do have interchangeable speakers that you can upgrade or change at any point. So no matter if you have a combo or stack there are modifications you can make to get your sound.

There are three main speaker builders in the world that will fill most of the amplifiers you see from day to day. Celestion, Eminence and Jensen. While other companies do make speakers even on pro grade amps these three names you will see everywhere.

In guitar amps you will most commonly find 10” or 12” speakers. 10” models are great for more vintage inspired tones and small combos while 12” models suit a larger and punchier tone which is better for rock and heavier styles.

But even past that there are so many 12” and 10” speakers that how do you know what models are right for you? Generally speaking your best option is what comes in your amp as it would have been tested to find what works best. If you do want a change however here is a list of some of the more popular speaker models and what they sound like.

Celestion Vintage 30 Go to choice for the guitarist that needs every sound in one amp. With it’s tight and bright high end this speaker really cuts through a mix so you are sure to be heard. Used a lot in high gain rock and metal this speaker handles overdrive incredibly well especially when matched with a fatter sounding speaker in a 2×12 or 4×12 setup.
Celestion Greenback Really popular for clean to mid gain overdriven tones the Greenback has a smoothly boosted midrange. You might not hear these on a lot of higher gain tracks but don’t put them down yet. Just like the Vintage 30 these speakers work great on their own or in tandem with a more powerful low end powerhouse.
Celestion Creamback Designed in the 60’s with a stunning upper midrange the Creamback has found its home with blues and rock guitarists like Hendrix, Clapton and Beck who at the time needed a more powerful speaker that really projected the midrange. This speaker comes in a couple of versions with different magnets that either make it keep its vintage tone or have a more of a modern vibe that will suit heavier overdrive.
Celestion G12T-75 This speaker has spent most of its life living in the world’s most popular black and gold speaker cabinet. Compared to the Vintage 30 this speaker has a similar amount of output but with a lot more low end. The extra low end really helps you fill out a stage more without needing as many cabinets. It is also a great match for the Vintage 30 or Greenback if you are playing some seriously heavy guitar as it just gives you a lot more punch and lets the midrange sing.
Celestion Seventy 80 This is not a speaker you will see as default on high end gear but for those looking in the midrange these will be fairly common. This great value speaker has a tight and responsive sound that works for a lot of rock and metal styles. If you are a modern style player this is not a bad shout.
Celestion Rocket 50 The Rocket 50 may not spend much time on the biggest stages in the world but if you need one amp for all styles and don’t have much of a budget you can’t really go wrong with a set of these in your amplifier.

Of course other speakers are available in a whole range of different sizes and styles. Some are even made out of really interesting materials like the Eminence Cannabis Rex which is made out of hemp. The easiest way to find out what speaker responds best with your guitar and amplifier is just through trial and error. Luckily on nearly all amps changing the speaker is very easy so no expertise is needed.

Impedance and Watts

When looking at guitar amplifiers you will see these words quite a lot, especially if you are hunting for a stack amp. This is because these affect what speakers will work with your current amplifier. If you buy a mismatched head and cab it can cause serious damage to both pieces of kit.

Wattage is the power rating of your amplifier. This is how much it can push out of the speaker at maximum volume. Do not get it confused with a volume rating as power does not correlate directly. Some 15w amps can be much louder than other 30w amps. It all comes down to the design and how it was built (valve, solid state etc.). This means as long as cabinet wattage > amp wattage you are fine.

The Impedance is an interesting thing but all you need to know is that your head and cab need to match. For example if you cab has an 8 ohm input make sure you use the mono 8 ohm output on your head. If you are using multiple cabinets it can get a little complicated and changes on an amp by amp basis.

For example you may buy an amplifier with an 8ohm output at 100w but your cabinet may have a 8ohm input and can only handle 60w. At bedroom volume you may not cause much damage but once you turn up something will go wrong.

That is why it is important to always buy a cab that matches impedance (ohms) and can handle at least what your amplifier is rated at in terms of wattage. Normally with 4×12 cabs this is not much of an issue as most speakers are rated high enough to handle most heads when split over 4 speakers. When using a single or dual speaker setup though you do have to be extra careful that you do not damage anything.

If you are not sure always try and find the matching cab that was meant to go with your head. Not only will it often deliver the best sound but it will also run extremely safely as well.

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