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9/29/07

How To Pick Out One Of The Many Top Guitar Amplifiers

It's possible to spend a lifetime researching the top guitar amplifiers - and a lifetime of savings buying - the right amp.

Electric guitars have a pickup that takes the vibrations from the strings, then transforms and transmits them electrically to the amplifier. Once there, the signal gets modified in a number of ways. First, it just gets boosted so the volume is higher. But other effects can be added - distortion, reverb or echo, tremolo and others.

Picking an amp that does that well is partly an exercise in technology evaluation, partly a matter of subjective taste. You can look at specs all day, but sooner or later you have to listen in order to decide which is right for you.

First, you'll need to cover the basics - a volume control, separate controls for bass, treble, midrange. All of the top guitar amplifiers have these, of course, but there's more to the story. You want to make sure that they operate over a wide range, cleanly and without distortion. There should be no hum, pops, scrapes or other sounds from the amp itself. Some hum will inevitably appear at high volumes.

Then you should test the optional controls like reverb and distortion. Have the salesperson play a few licks while you stand at least 10 feet away. Either the salesperson or a third party should operate the controls you request, up and down several times. Listen for a clean, warm tone. Try the same exercise with at least two different guitar/pickup combinations, including your own, if possible.

Look for other controls, such as channel switching and chorus if you intend to pay a little more to get a little more. Make sure you get at least two jacks for the two kinds of pickups - passive and active. Passive pickups respond to vibrations produced, active pickups have a battery that powers electronics that boost or pre-process the signal. You never know down the road what kind of guitar/pickup you may want in the future.

Now's a good time to examine the power rating. You can get along with as little as 10-30 watts, but sooner or later you'll want more. Fortunately, a 50-watt amp will put out enough power to blast a large club and you can get one for a mid-range price.

Extras cost extra. A combo or stack will have more options, with hand-wiring, or good valves (tubes rather than transistors), multiple speakers and so on. You may want extra jacks to plug in a CD player, in order to play lead against some pre-recorded rhythm, for example. It's easy to spend upwards of $2,000 or more for a truly high-end amp, so personal taste and circumstances come into play when choosing one.

But don't wait forever. You'll buy more than one amp over the years, and if you don't get the exact right one the first time out, you can trade it for one of the many other top guitar amplifiers. Combine your new amp with one of the many killer vintage guitars and you will have the real deal.

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