I had the opportunity to speak to local guitar guru Ryan Bennett this week about his pet hate: amp myths. Ryan keeps coming across guitar players who are sold the wrong stuff. "I feel angry - not angry but disbelief - about what goes on. I get passionate about my music!"
This article was previously published on the AudioJungle blog, which is moving on to a new format in 2010. We'll be bringing you an article from the AudioJungle archives each Sunday.
Ryan explains, "A music shop sold some cheap Marshall stacks to some musos I know. After a year of gigging they realized they could have spent their money better. Don't trust everything a music shop tells you."
Ryan is a guitarist and bass player who has been playing for eleven years, and gigging for eight. He loves playing rock, and is music director for a church. His guitar gear includes:
- a Heritage - the same as the 64 Les Paul
- an Ernie Ball Silhouette Special with awesome DiMarzios
- a Maton EMC325 acoustic
- a Hughes and Kettner Puretone tube amplifier ("an angry little thing")
- a BOSS GT-6 effects processor.
Here are eight guitar amp myths that make Ryan cringe:
1. Bigger is Better
Ryan: "Bigger isn't always better. You need to consider issues like portability and what's appropriate for the situation you play in. Big is wrong for most situations, and when it's not the sound guys can put you through the system."
Conventional wisdom says that unless you're doing huge outdoor concerts, you won't need anything bigger than 100 watts, and most guitarists won't need more than 50. Many guitarists report shredding a pub to pieces with a 30 watt amp.
If you've never bought an amp before, you may be aiming for too many watts. I've seen some forum posts from new guitarists asking if 500 watts would be enough! The responses from experienced players warned how easy it is to cause damage to your hearing. How big is your amp?
2. Double Watts is Double Volume
Ryan: "This seems to fool a lot of new players. We hear logarithmically, so double watts is not double volume."
Amplifiers create changes in air pressure which our ears hear as sound. In general, doubling the number of watts will double the sound pressure level. But it takes around ten times the sound pressure level before our ears hear the volume as double. This gives us a ballpark figure that it takes around ten times the wattage to double the volume. So a 100 watt amp will only sound slightly louder than a 50 watt amp.
In the real world, the volume of a speaker depends on a lot more than the number of watts going through the amp. The size and number of speakers, and the power efficiency of the circuitry also play a large part. If you'd like to read more, compare this helpful theoretical article with this practical one by Bruce Engater who makes guitar amps.
3. Brand Name is Everything
Ryan: "This is my pet hate. I meet a lot of people who only love Marshall. Their top end stuff is great, but they make rubbish too. An old bloke once said to me, 'You know what I've found? Everyone makes porridge!' Everyone makes cheap stuff. And cheap stuff is cheap stuff. Some no name or less common brands make awesome cheaper amps."
When buying high-end gear, you'll rarely have a problem when buying a well-known brand name like Marshall, Fender, Peavey, Yamaha, Roland, and Crate. But I would never want to buy a brand's cheapest model without listening carefully, and comparing it to other amps in that price bracket, especially those without big brand names. Some companies focus on the lower end of the market, and do very well. Make sure you buy something you like the sound of.
Have you found an amazing low-cost amp? What are your preferences for the high end stuff? Let us know in the comments.
4. You Have to Have a Stack to be Cool
Ryan: "Stacks are heavy and big. They're hard to transport and hard to carry. They're too loud for pubs and clubs. With all the noise restrictions today you don't get to drive them. At a gig you get plenty of punch out of a combo. I met a dude who plays five nights a week, and used a Fender Hot Rod DeVille combo. He spent most of the time playing with the volume on number one. If you want to sound good, go for a combo."
Professionals who play in big outdoor arenas and have roadies use stacks. For the rest of us they're too loud and too heavy. And even if you need the extra volume once in a while, miking your amp generally sounds great.
I'd be interested in hearing from players who use stacks. Why did you make your choice, and what advantages (and disadvantages) have you discovered?
5. Tubes are Fragile
Ryan: "I hear this all the time, and I'm sick of it. I've owned several tube amps, and they have never broken. They've been thrown into the back of cars and vans, and taken on five or six hour road trips. One of my tube amps has never had a service. After three years had it checked out, and got the all clear."
Tubes are made out of glass, while transistors are made out of silicon. I understand where the concern comes from. Ryan's practical experience is helpful. Milbert Amplifiers have a great comparison of tube and solid state amps, including the advantages and disadvantages both ways.
6. Built-in Effects are as Good as Pedals
Ryan: "You can pay $500 for an amp with delay, or $500 on a delay unit. Which is going to sound better? Listen to U2. The Edge can use fairly basic effects, but they have a quality you can't get out of built-in effects. Pedal effects have more features and more settings."
That being said, I've known some guitarists who only use built-in effects. An old friend, Victor, loved the sound he got from his Roland Jazz Chorus.
But any guitarist who is serious about using a variety of effects is well advised to invest in a good multi-effects processor. Most that I see around are the Roland or BOSS GT-series, but there is a huge range to choose from.
7. You Can't Get Tone Out of Solid State
Ryan: "I like tubes. They have nice sound and nice sustain. But, if I had my time over again, I'd go solid state. They're lighter and better for gigging. Tech 21 are making awesome stuff these days. They use a modeling process to get valve tone, and get an awesome sound. If you're going to buy solid state, buy good quality solid state."
"Modeling" digitally simulates the sound of well-known guitar amps, cabinets, and effects. This allows one solid state amp to sound like a variety of tube amps. It is also possible to buy a device separate to the amp to add modeling. Line 6's popular Pod is one example.
8. A Really Good Amp Will Make You Sound Awesome
Ryan: "A really good amp will amplify rubbish. The best tone control you can do for your amp is to get a good guitar, set it up, and get good strings on it."
"Garbage in, garbage out" works on amps as well as computers. A good amp is an important part of every guitarist's arsenal of tools, but it is only a part. It's no replacement for talent or practice. It won't make a bad guitar sound any better.
Ryan: "The key thing is that in most cases you do get what you pay for. Consider your budget when choosing your amp. You won't get a $5,000 sound for $500. Trust your own ears and buy the best you can."
Have you been taken in by an amp myth? Do you have any more to add to the list? Buying the right amp is one of the most important decisions a guitarist will make.