Monday, April 16, 2012

Guitar amp shopping - I'm a bit overwhelmed at the moment

I'm going to take a break from my Japan stuff (still writing that top ten list!) to talk some more about my other big life obsession: guitars! And stuff that goes with them.

Photo by devkoDE

I'm shopping for a new amp. It's really hard! Maybe some of you are, or have been, in the same boat. Right now I only have a tiny little Marshall practice amp, and it's basically junk even for a practice amp. When I was younger and played bass in a band, I thought I knew a little more about amps than I do now - I had a Peavey and then an Ampeg bass amp, both solid state, but I always wanted a tube amp. One of my band's guitarists had a Marshall tube combo amp (I don't remember which one), and even though I didn't like that specific amp much, I did like the tube warmth and I've always liked the Marshall crunch. Marshall also makes a lot of amps with an overdrive channel so you can play distorted without blowing the house down from volume. In an ideal world, I would probably buy a Marshall combo amp that can do everything.

There seem to be two basic schools of thought with guitar amps - all else grows out of these two general approaches:

  1. The amp should be a jack of all trades, including all tones and effects you could ever want. You should never need to add another pedal to your setup; pedals just muddy the sound of the amp and add noise.
  2. The amp should do nothing but amplify, and provide a natural reference tone as the basis for whatever else you want to do. Any effects or tonal changes you want can and should be achieved with pedals.
Obviously two opposing viewpoints there, but it's why we have stuff like Line 6 solid state "modeling" amps and even Marshall type tube stuff with separate OD channel and effects loops on the one hand, and then things like Fender's vintage reissue line that basically have nothing extra but analog reverb on the other. Sure, some amps kind of straddle the line or end up in between the two extremes, but I think they still originally grew out of one of those two approaches.

I go back and forth on which camp I'm in and it's one reason why I'm having trouble picking out an amp. But if you're in the same boat as me, I think it would probably help to firmly plant yourself in one of those two schools and start looking from there. Do you want an amp that does everything, or do you want an amp that provides the cleanest, most natural tone that you can then add onto yourself?

You would think that by now, there would be an amp that can do everything and provide a really clean, natural reference tone. Well, maybe there is, but I haven't found it and I don't know many other guitarists who have either - otherwise the aforementioned Fender reissue line or even something like the Marshall Bluesbreaker would not continue to exist. Every amp that can do great distortion seems to sound like shit when played clean. Every amp that does modeling through transistors seems to sound really mechanical and thin. Most amps that sound great clean just won't ever break up into distortion, or only do so when REALLY loud. And it goes on like that. Amps that try to be jacks of all trades end up masters of none, it seems.

And you can always add distortion to a great-sounding clean amp. But it's really hard to fix up the clean sound of an amp that can't naturally do it.

Or at least, that's my opinion - and I guess that's putting me basically into that second camp. Which is why I'm probably gonna end up buying this:


The Fender Twin Reverb. I'm about 51% on this right now. Everybody says this is the reference amp for "the Fender sound" and the best clean amp in the business. I've heard it and I agree, it is the best sounding clean amp I've heard. And as top-end amps go these days, it's not really that expensive. A high-end Marshall or Orange amp will run up to $3,000; the Fender Twin costs about $1,400 new. Still probably overpriced, but not as bad as the competition. (If I buy one, I'll try to get it for less.)

I could still change my mind, especially if anyone's got any suggestions. In fact, originally I was looking at much lower-end amps in the $500-$600 range, but I just wasn't satisfied with any of the options. I had narrowed it down to the Vox AC15C1, Fender Blues Junior NOS, Marshall Haze 40, and Marshall Class 5 at that level. The Marshall Haze is an "everything" amp but it's built like junk and it sounds like crap clean. The Class 5 is built just as poorly although it's a much simpler amp; I did want reverb, though, and an amp that was loud enough to gig with clean before breaking up. The Vox... I dunno, I just don't like Vox, even though a lot of bands I like use their amps. By themselves, I feel like they just sound really compressed and weird.

I had almost settled on the Blues Junior but then had an epiphany and said "screw it, if I'm going to buy a Blues Junior, I may as well sell some stuff and get the Fender amp I really want." And that's the Twin Reverb. With the Twin Reverb, I feel like I'd be set for life. Plenty of bands I like play 15,000 seat arenas with a mic'd up Twin Reverb. (Of course, plenty of bands I like also play those same arenas with Marshall stacks.)

I do think there's a danger in overthinking this. A lot of really famous guitarists picked their gear based on either what was available to them cheap, or what their favorite bands played. And most of them stuck with the sounds they grew up with - if not the actual brands - as they got older and more famous. There wasn't a lot of thinking involved, at least initially, and a lot of the thought put into it later was on how to refine what they'd already achieved, not how to get an all-new sound. (I admit I'm biased by my favorite bands too - though there is also this, which is just a whole lotta Marshall.)

We'll see. I'll post an update when I actually buy something - who knows, maybe it'll be something I haven't even found yet!

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.

About Me

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I'm married. I like to travel. I have no kids. I have a house... that I'm bad at maintaining. I used to collect classic video games. I own a lot of musical equipment that far outstrips my ability to use it. When I was younger, I was in a band. I like gadgets, and I'm an Android guy. Someday, I would like to live on a different planet.

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