Though this list doesn’t cover everything, it does attempt to answer the most common questions I am asked by Tonesmiths customers researching amps.
What tone am I going for?
This is always the first thing I address when helping a customer decide on an amplifier. I start by asking them these questions:
“Which amp gave you the best tone you’ve ever experienced?”
“What style of music do you play?”
“What are your main guitars?”
“What guitarist’s tone do you admire most and which amp do they use?”
This establishes a great starting point by narrowing your selection down to the amps that work with your other gear and ultimately apply to your style.
What’s my budget?
Although most guitarists could realistically say about $10, there are always a few other financial resources to factor in. We musicians love to “horse trade” our way up. Place a realistic value on gear you’re planning to sell to help fund your new purchase. Consider non-music related items you want to sell too. Total that all together and add in your slush fund. That’s your budget. If your budget falls short, be patient and save. Your amplifier is a crucial part of your musical expression. Don’t let impatience and a few hundred dollars allow you to compromise on this all-important decision.
PCB, turret board, or terminal strip construction?
There are a few different ways to construct a tube amp circuit. Printed circuit boards (PCB) are the cheapest and therefore the most common. This is the style of construction used in most consumer electronics and by brands like Fender, Marshall, and Vox (Korg) on their non-custom-shop amps. PCBs can prove to be problematic when subjected to heat and vibration, the two things tube amps are known for. If you purchase a PCB amp, be sure the tube sockets and potentiometers are not mounted to a circuit board. This exposes the PCB inside to external impact and one fine crack in the PCB can have catastrophic results.
This is the method of construction made popular by Leo Fender and used by 99% of all boutique amp builders today. Components are laid out on a backing board with turrets or eyelets for surface mounted components to be soldered into place. This method of construction is efficient and effective for getting that vintage sound with a lower noise floor.
Due to the time consuming process (up to 5 times longer) very few manufacturers use this military grade construction technique brought to the tube guitar amplifier industry by Mark Sampson and the Perrotta brothers in the early 90s. Bad Cat and Matchless are the only two widely known companies that still use this technique today. Undeniably, this is the reason their amps offer a level of audiophile sophistication that sets them apart from other boutique manufacturers. In this method of construction the leads from each component are covered in teflon tubing and connected from one terminal strip to the next, thereby eliminating the need for a turret board. This gives the builder freedom to place each full-sized component in the direction and proximity that is most beneficial to overall sound. When this technique is used in conjunction with studio grade transformers and components, it produces an extremely organic touch responsive circuit with an ultra low noise floor.
Combo or head & speaker cab?
Though combos are grab and go and usually $300-$400 less than a head & cab setup, a head & cab configuration offers several advantages:
-Tubes are subjected to less vibration, thereby increasing tube life
-Speaker cab can be placed in an isolation cab without overheating tubes or transformers
-Head can be placed inside the control room while recording
-Freedom to mix and match heads and cabs
-A head in one hand and a cab in the other is sometimes easier to carry
What are my power needs?
As we all know every tube amplifier has a sweet spot that requires a certain amount of volume to discover. This has to do with the way the output transformer, tubes, and speaker respond as they are pushed at higher gain levels. Try to select an amplifier that is powered to allow you to reach that sweet spot without driving the crowd out the door. Consider the size of your most common venue, and also whether your cab is isolated and mic’ed up or a necessary part of the soundstage. Many guitarists find it easier to transport and mic up a lower wattage amp. But, remember higher wattage amplifiers offer clean headroom and a robust bottom end that is impossible to achieve with smaller transformers. So, get as many watts as you can get away with.
Which power tubes are for me?
The only way to find this out is to get out there and try some amps with different power tubes. Words like crunchy, glassy, and chimey mean nothing unless you have an experiential point of reference. If you don’t have access to a music store where you can try a few different amps out, look to the amplifiers being used by some of your favorite guitarists. A quick Google search will usually turn up the needed information on their gear. You can also listen to online demos. But be sure to take degradation of audio quality into account though.
Here’s a quick tone reference for the four most common power tubes:
EL84- loose bass, focused ‘horn like’ mids, chimey highs
EL34- tight bass, complex crunchy mids, chimey/ glassy highs
6L6- round bass, smooth mids, glassy highs
6V6- loose bass, compressed mids, sparkly highs
Which speaker will sound best with my new amp?
Most manufacturers recommend trying the speaker that the circuit was designed around. This is a good starting place. GIve that speaker 100 hours or so to break in. And then if you decide you want to try a different flavor, look into a speaker that’s in the same family but with a slightly different voicing or try a speaker that you liked with another amp of the same genre. Companies like Celestion and Eminence have spec sheets on their websites that can be very useful when looking to enhance certain frequencies.
Do I need a channel switching amp?
This mostly depends on whether you’re a set-it-and-forget-it player who likes to get your different sounds from pedals or if you prefer to get that versatility from your amplifier. Some amplifiers switch between lower and higher gain channels and others just switch between different sounding circuits. Pedal overdrive will never compare to the harmonic richness produced by a tube amplifier’s gain stage. Something to always take into account when considering a channel switching amplifier is whether the necessary footswitch will be an inconvenience for you. They usually only come with a 25′ cable and this doesn’t always work out when your amplifier is isolated off stage.
New or Used?
Most boutique amplifiers depreciate about 35% below the original purchase price. Purchasing used can save a lot of money. There are risks with purchasing anything used and guitar amplifiers are no exception. Actually their more likely to have suffered abuse than most commercial electronics and some problems don’t show up until later. Here are a few safeguards to consider when shopping for a used amplifier.
Try before you buy (with your guitar and pedals if possible). Be sure to test every jack and pot
Buy from a reputable person or dealer with references
Use PayPal or a form of payment with buyer protection
Where should I purchase my new amp?
There are many benefits to purchasing a new amplifier. Especially when looking for personalized features or aesthetics. When buying new ask your friends for referrals. Ask them to recommend a reputable dealer who is friendly, knowledgeable, and values communication. It also pays to build relationships with the people you buy from. Many dealers offer discounts and promotions to existing customers and often pass this special treatment on to any friends they may refer. And don’t be afraid to ask your dealer if they can do a little better on the price. It never hurts to ask.
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