Axeman on the ampage (GAS slight return)

Those of you who have been to this neck of the internet woods before may remember that I concluded my post about my acquisition of a used Ibanez Artcore with the words “what I need next is an amp”.  So here we go. What kind of amp should I get?

I get my musical kicks messing about with GarageBand and trying to improve myself as a player by studying books, or working out how to play songs I like. I am the quintessential bedroom guitarist. Right now, if I want to play amplified (using either the new Artcore or my trusty Traveler Speedster that I brought with me to the US), I have to crack open the Mac, connect my M-Audio USB interface and fire up GarageBand. I then have to connect headphones and the guitar. Cables everywhere. Not convenient. The tones available from GB are also frankly a bit pants and it’s very fiddly to mess about with little pictures of stomp boxes, visual EQ, all that malarcky.

I’d really like to be able to just switch an amp on and begin playing without all those extra cables. It doesn’t have to be loud, in fact it would be better if it were quiet. I’m only looking to play at typical home volumes. 15-20W should be plenty.

Back when I first started playing electric guitar, selecting an amplifier was a simple business; you  bought the loudest one you could afford. My first amp, was a 5W solid-state practice amp purchased new from Rushworths in Chester (the kind of music shop where the salesmen used to wear Man at C&A suits and demo guitars with Nile Rogers disco licks). I do not remember the brand. I’m not even sure it had a tone control. It was not very powerful even for bedroom use and I managed to completely wreck it by overdriving it all the time, so after a few weeks it was incapable of clean tones.

My second amp, bought used, again before I was 16, was a huge thing with two 12” Celestion speakers and made by a company called Intermusic (amazingly I just found one tthe same on eBay for 68 quid — see photo!).

Part guitar combo, part domestic appliance, all Beast!It was100W and came in its own flight case with wheels. When it was time to play, you just took the front off. It weighed a ton. It was like lugging a washing machine to rehearsals and gigs. If I recall correctly, it didn’t have any distortion channel, but it did have reverb, which at the time was a major wow for me. The band I was in at the time christened it The Beast and as it had multiple inputs, we ran absolutely everything through it simultaneously; guitar, vocals, bass, keyboards. At our first gig we built a Frankenstein’s monster of a sound system out of the school PA, some speakers borrowed from a pub and other stuff borrowed from the singer’s cousin’s metal band– and The Beast. Sadly, it began farting after about 3 or 4 songs and died shortly thereafter. I can still remember our keyboard player looking panicked, running around mid song twiddling the knobs trying to revive it, then shrugging and grabbing a tambourine for the rest of the set. The speaker transducers had ripped out of the cones and then, without load, the coils had melted and short circuited. It needed two new speakers. I believe I traded as part of a deal for a bass or PA head a year or so later.

My third amp was a 65W Peavey Bandit. It was super nice, but I ended up selling it while at uni and short of cash. I currently have a Trace Elliott Supertramp combo (in British racing green colours), bought in 1994, in storage back home in Finland. At 80W It’s a big green beast, but not with a capital ‘B’. I’ve never had it turned up much more than the number three position though.

Since the last time I bought an amp, things have changed however. In the 1980s, the only mainstream options available were all analog solid-state amplifiers, such as the ones listed above. But since then things have got much more complex.

There are three broad categories of amp now available in addition to basic solid-state.

Tube amplifiers use pre-transistor ‘valve’ technology and have enjoyed a renaissance during the last 10-15 years, as players search for the classic tones from the 1960s and 70s. Tubes distort differently to solid-state transistors, leading to richer and warmer tone. However, they take time to warm up and are less reliable than transistor amps. They also rely on over-driving the tubes in order to achieve distorted tones. This means that the tone is volume dependent. You need to turn them up high to hear the tubes start to crunch. This is a disadvantage (in a practice amp at least) that some manufacturers get around by creating specifically low-power designs and/or adding output attenuators to bleed off power before it hits the speaker. You can get some pretty interesting looking simple tube amps for not much more than $100, but they tend not to include the volume reducing tricks that would make them appealing to someone like me (a father of two young kids who doesn’t want to get divorced over playing dodgy blues guitar at 1 am).

Hybrid amplifiers use a tube within a largely solid-state design in order to try and get some of that valve warmth, but benefit from solid-state reliability, flexibility and cost.

Modeling amps take the guitar’s analog signal and convert it to digital format before processing in a DSP to simulate a wide variety of different amp models, including tube distortion and classic speaker combinations. The tones produced are meant to be pretty good, depending on the model you pick. Purists of course will always prefer tube tone, but for the bedroom hobbyist these seem to be a pretty good option

Tah-dah!

Whenever I spend more than about $25 on anything, I always do a pretty large amount of research and whenever I’m looking at guitar gear I even see this as part of the fun. So here it is, a comparison of a few practice amp options. In table form. Yay!

I’m really not interested in the plain vanilla solid-state options, so I’m limiting the search to modeling, hybrid and pure tube types. This is not an exhaustive list, but these are the ones that have caught my eye.

Brand Model Type Output Power (W) Headphone Out? List Price ($)
Fender Mustang I Modelling 20 Yes 109
Roland CUBE-20XL Modelling 20 Yes 160
Fender G-DEC 3 Fifteen Modelling 15 Yes 200
Bugera BC15 Hybrid 15 Yes 109
Vox Valvetronix VT20+ Hybrid 20 Yes 170
Epiphone Valve Junior Simple Tube 5 No 160
Fender Champion 600 Simple Tube 5 No 170
Bugera V5 Advanced Tube 5 Yes 197
Blackstar HT-1 Advanced Tube 1 Yes 250
Blackstar HT-1R Advanced Tube 1 Yes 300

In terms of tone then the Epiphone Valve Junior and Fender Champ 600 look just tons of fun, but the lack of headphone socket rules them out. Plus these are the kind where the tone will be volume dependent. They could be great if I had a shed in a garden to play in, but all I have is a spare room in an apartment.

If money were no object, an ‘advanced’ tube amp such as those from the British company Blackstar might be great, but that’s a lot of cash. The hybrid amps by Bugera and Vox look very interesting. Especially the Bugera based on price.

In terms of modelling amps, Fender has some interesting options. GDEC stands for ‘Guitar Digital Entertainment Center’ apparently and means that you can load backing tracks and guitar lessons onto the amp via an SD Memory Card slot. This doesn’t really appeal to me as I can use an iPod with an aux line in to achieve the same and with so much content available (often free), I don’t want to be locked into buying Fender-branded SD cards. But another feature of the GDEC really does appeal to me – the ability to use Fender’s FUSE software on a Mac or PC to craft tones and then load them onto the amp. You can even apparently download tones from the FUSE user community. Luckily the Fender Mustang I also has the FUSE software capability and seemingly all the GDEC features (presumably the same or very similar processing engine) and with an extra 5W of power, this seems like the better deal.

The Roland Cube series is an alternative modelling amp, but they’re more expensive and lack any FUSE type functionality. Online reviews are also meh compared to the Fender amps.

So logically, the most interesting options appear to be the Bugera BC15 hybrid amp or the Fender Mustang I modelling amp. Really at this point I should go and try these ones out and work out which one I like the best in real life. But I’m suffering for Gear Acquisition Syndrome and I’d really like to have something as soon as possible. There’s nothing interesting on Craigslist and Guitar Center have a $20 coupon right now.

I am going to negotiate with The Authorities with the aim of getting a Fender Mustang I. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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3 thoughts on “Axeman on the ampage (GAS slight return)

  1. That stuff about the beast brought a tear to my eye. I remember all those amps you bought and melting the beast at that first gig . Currently I use a dan electro 15 watt retro combo that packs a belting punch which is in line with my strummer esque sound and style. I’ve recently purchased a sansamp gt processor which I intend to d I through my on stage wedge and just get that and my vocal folding back with the amazing processor doing the leg work our front.

  2. Pingback: Cheap Choob Bug | axestogrind

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