Getting that first Combo Amp...

Jul 10, 2001 (Updated Jan 18, 2002)

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The Bottom Line Go for 100 watts, look for used amps, stick with tubes if you can afford them, solid state will work, otherwise, and don't let built-in effects sway you much.

A lot of rock and roll guitarists start out with a guitar, only. (Because that's all they can afford.) So, after playing licks on their Strat for a year or so, they pool their McDonald's paychecks and head to the store to get an amp.

One way you can go is a combo amp. That is an amp where the preamp, amplifier and speakers are all in one enclosure. This is the most common amp most folks will see.

I've owned a few of these. Most were good, but sometimes they were only good for one purpose. For instance, I had a few 15 watt solid-state amps with 10" speakers. They were perfect for practicing. For performing, I wouldn't have been caught dead with them.

But the fact that you're reading this tells me you're going to own one and only one guitar amplifier. That's not a problem. But what do you do?

My first guitar amp was a Marshall combo with two 12" celestion speakers. It was about 50 watts. (Might have been only 45). This was a good amp, but it had two problems:

1. It was too loud for practice.
2. It was too quiet for gigs.

Too "loud" for practice? Huh? Isn't there a volume knob on those things? Well, the trouble is this amp was a tube amp. You really have to warm up those tubes before they sound good. At low volumes, they have a sort of piercing treble that sounds like you're going to shatter glass. Okay, so, it didn't sound GREAT for practice, but it was serviceable.

However, whenever I'd get together with a band to play, I was always underpowered. It relegated me to the background and playing rhythm, only.

Overall, not a bad amp, but it could have used a little more juice. Looking back, it may have just needed new tubes. However, that was an expense I couldn't have afforded at the time.

So, I'd recommend 100 watts, if you can get it. Once you start playing with other guys, you'll need every single watt.

Do they make 100 watt combo amps? Yes, definitely. So, let's start with our first recommendation:

Recommendation One: for an amp that will work with playing out, you'll need 100 watts. For a practice amp, look for 15 watts or less.

Next step: solid state or tube? I've had both, and frankly, solid state amps sound very, very good. Tube amps sound better. Used tube amps, though, are a gamble. The last one I bought was from an amp technician, so I felt pretty good about it. It had a brand-new set of matched tubes, and was in good shape. However, just buying one without knowing what you're looking for could be dangerous: it could literally catch fire.

Still, I think tubes are the way to go. Those things will heat up, and man, you'll get a good tone out of the thing. There are some great professional guitarists with a good tone, there are some so-so pro guitarists with a good tone. There aren't many pro guitarists around who don't have a good tone, though.

Would I dismiss the possibility of solid-state? No. For one thing, it's cheaper. For another, there's less that can go wrong with it. For a 3rd thing, it sounds good at low volumes.

Do you really have to worry about your tube amp blowing up during a gig? Well, let's just say it doesn't happen often. It happens, but rarely. So, at this point, I'd say take your chances.

Tube amps require periodic replacement of the tubes and capacitors (caps). Caps last decades, but tubes need to be replaced every few years.

It's entirely possible that a bad-sounding old tube amp just needs caps and tubes replaced. However, that's a pricey proposition.

Figure $50 or more for caps (plus installation).

Figure at least $60 (and sometimes as much as $100... plus having an amp tech adjust the bias) for tubes on a 100 watt amp.

Maybe another $50 for preamp tubes.

Tube amps also sell for more money on the used market. At one time, I would have recommended tube amps, and only tube amps.

These days, especially after owning a solid-state amp for over 10 years, I'd say that there are some good solid state amps out there. One that comes to mind is the Fender Ultimate Chorus DSP. (It's the modern incarnation of my old Power Chorus amp.) On e-bay, they seem to go for only $200-300. That's the cost of a couple of re-tubings and a cap job on a used tube amp.

Recommendation Two: if you can afford a tube amp, get one. If you can't, then a good quality solid-state amp will do the job for you. For a practice amp, you may want to go with the affordability and low-power performance of a solid-state amp.

A lot of amps have built in effects these days. In fact, Line 6 makes giant effects processors with amps attached. They're great amps.

Other than the line 6 stuff, though, I'd try not to be too swayed by, "built in distortion" or "built in chorus". It's nice to have, but generally, built-in effects aren't great. Don't let built-in effects get you to spend more money. I remember seeing an amp when I was a kid called a "Spectre", I think. It had every built-in effect under the sun. It also sounded like crap.

Recommendation Three: Don't worry too much about built in effects.

What about brands? Well, let's see what I can remember… Fender, Marshall, Laney, Hiwatt, Crate, Peavey, Mesa… they all make good amps. For the first time amp buyer, just get the best sounding amp you can afford. You can buy used Fenders for about 1/3 to 1/2 of the price of a new one. You can get used Marshalls for about 1/2. You can get used Mesas for 1/3 to 1/2. The rest: you can get for 1/4 or less of the purchase price. It's worth your while to check your local trading post paper for somebody getting rid of an amp.

Recommendation Four: Buy Fender, Marshall or Mesa if you can afford it. Other brands are still good, but won't retain value very well.

Recommendation Five: See if you can get one used. You'll save a mountain of money. If you buy a used tube amp, make them crank it up and play it for a half hour or so, to make sure the tubes won't flake out on you once they're heated up. If the volume is a problem, have them stack pillows and furniture right in front of the speakers to muffle them… just make sure you don't block the airways to the tubes. They get hot.

So, I hope this helps on your quest for amplification. Good luck, practice hard, and make yourself a legend in your own time! (Or 4/4 time, or cut time, or 3/4 time. Or whatever…)

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