Does the quality of Amp really matter that much? so long as it makes my guitar go louder it’ll be fine, right?
The guitar Amp is probably the most fundamental part of your sound. It doesn’t matter how expensive your guitar or effects pedals are, if you’re amp is rubbish, then you’ll struggle to get a good overall sound. Historically, the good sounding amps have always been big, heavy, and extremely loud, designed for the professional environment when PA’s were less clever than they are now, and to be heard you needed raw power. A 100 watt Marshall stack isn’t going to be very practical for your Sunday morning service…
Fortunately, we now live in an era where the small, affordable amplifier has really come into it’s own. With PA systems becoming increasingly advanced, and productions moving to “silent” stages with the use of In Ear Monitoring over traditional fold backs, amplifier companies have been shelling out low powered, high quality sounding amps left right and centre. But there are so many options available and so many opinions floating around the world of the ‘tinterweb, that knowing what to buy can be a time consuming and laborious experience, especially if you’re not really sure what it is you should be looking for. Luckily we’re here to try and help narrow that search for you!
Should I buy a Valve Amp or a Solid State? What’s the difference and does it really matter?
In short, yes! You should buy a valve amp. Why? the answer to that could be a boringly long scientific one, but in short, it’s because tubes or valves create an analog signal which sounds warm and natural, and when driven hard, causes the valves to “overdrive” giving sweet, singing sustain that is pleasant to the ear. In contrast solid state amps recreate the signal by converting the signal into a digital wave form and then making it louder. This results in an artificial sound, its much more clinical and a cheap one will cause your instrument, no matter how good it is, to sound flat and sterile.
Technology has improved and solid state technology is now incredibly powerful. Products like the Axe FX II or the Kemper profiling amp are completely digital, and sound so close to the original valve amplifiers, it can be hard to hear the difference. Those products however come with a £1K plus price tag… so maybe not. Traditionally valve amps were always much more expensive, but that is no longer the case as there are now many, low wattage amplifiers available on the market for very reasonable prices.
Below are a list of some of the most popular ones. There are many more…
Blackstar HT-5 Valve Combo £350
We have one of these at Christ Church Mayfair where I go to church. It’s a 5 watt valve amplifier with two channels, clean, overdrive and with a built in digital reverb. Don’t let “5 watts” fool you into thinking it’s quiet. This refers more to how much clean headroom is in the amp i.e. how loud it can go before it starts to distort. 5 watts of valve power is actually only half the power of a 50 watt tube amp, not 10 times less, so it can still keep up with your drummer.
The great thing about having a low wattage amp, is that you can really push the power section hard to get the valves at that sweet spot, where they’re just starting to naturally overdrive and get all that lovely natural compression and sustain, but without it being deafeningly loud. This amp lands in that perfect sweet spot, where it’ll sound good, but without blowing the heads off the front row. Play in a bigger church? Then stick a mic on the front of it and you’re onto a winner.
This model also has an emulated line out so you can line out to the PA. This cuts out the loudspeaker, so if you use an in ear system in your church and need a silent stage, you have this option too. The sound is a little harsher, you lose the warmth of a real speaker, but if you don’t have an amp box to dampen the sound and a mic, this is still a really useable feature.
Likes: Good price, good natural valve guitar tone, not too big or too loud.
Dislikes: Not much, highly recommended.
Fender Blues Junior Valve combo £460
This is just a straight up clean guitar amp, a really good platform for pedals. It’s 15 watts so it’s a little louder than the blackstar and has more clean headroom. It’s physically small, but it can pack quite a punch, so don’t be fooled by it’s size. It has very good pristine tone, but it might be a little loud for many church set ups. If you want an amp to gig with as well as use in church, this could be a great option.
Likes: Very clean, pristine tone with lots of clean headroom, great for pedals, bomb proof.
Dislikes: Probably a little on the loud side for most church applications.
Egnator Tweaker 15 watt Valve combo £429
This is another two channel amp full of a ton of features. This amp has slightly better quality speaker in it than the blackstar does. This amp has a bright switch and you can also change the voicing of the amp to be either more British or American depending on what flavours you like and also what pedals you might be running with this amp. Slightly cheaper than the blues junior, if you don’t have a ton of pedals, you might enjoy the extra options available in this amplifier.
Likes: Offers a lot of tonal versatility, better speaker than the Blackstar Amp, sounds good at lower volumes but has enough power for very small gigs if you wanted it outside of church.
Dislikes: Not much, it’s a little more expensive than the black star option.
So what pedals should I buy? do I need to buy really expensive “boutique” pedals or will a Boss Metal Zone 5000 do the job?
Now we’re getting into the realm of ‘what makes a good guitar sound’, and this like most things, is subjective to the beholder, but there are a few rules of thumb which are helpful as a starting point.
To make my guitar sound big, surely I need lot’s gain?
A common misconception! Unless your playing in a Metallica esq. band where the style requires a high gain tone, try and stay away from it as much as possible. The instruments in your band will have a much more organic sound to them, and we want to achieve this with the guitar. Keeping the sound clean to slightly broken up with a tube amp running at the sweet spot will give your guitar that big, fat, natural sound. Then we can use a pedal to just push the amp that little bit further into an overdriven sound when we want it. So buying the right sort of pedal will really make a big difference.
Really you want to purchase an overdrive pedal rather than a distortion pedal. An overdrive pedal does just that, it overdrives the amp. This gives us a really warm, natural sound, that gives us a lift without overdoing it. There are literally 100’s and 100’s of ones to choose from. The best thing to do would be to visit the guys at “That Pedal Show” and watch their video on drives, super helpful and they’re good players, so you can hear the pedals with some decent playing.
Their channel is here https://www.youtube.com/user/TheGigRigDaniel and you can search loads of great videos.
But below are some of my recommended overdrive pedals at various price points.
Boss Blues Driver £60 mark
A budegt pedal, but a very good one. I would not recommend going cheaper than this, most other cheaper products are not worth spending the money on, but this is very usable affordable pedal. Again it’s great for just giving your clean sound that extra push over the edge into warm overdrive.
Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer £100 mark
This has been a classical staple for 100’s of guitar players the world over, and is the basis on which most other drive pedals are based on. This pedal gives you a little bit of grit and boosts the midrange (the frequencies your guitar sits in) enabling you to cut in the mix a little better. This is the basic one and works really well.
Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer £150 mark
Similar to the first one, but with a superior chip inside, giving a much smoother, more amp like response. This is a very popular pedal and you’ll have heard this on countless albums, Christian and non christian alike. Built like a tank, this will get you into that “pro” tone territory straight away.
Lovepedal Amp 11 £139
Stunning overdrive pedal, full, open organic sound. The great thing with this pedal is it has a built in boost, which can give you a little bit of extra gain should you want it, but with out it landing in Metallica land. A very very nice pedal. _ Highly recommended.
What About Delay Pedals?
A delay pedal essentially repeats a note you’ve just played. This can be a very effective in creating big ambient sounds and giving your guitar a bit of room to breath in. This is another essential pedal worth investing in.
Boss DD3 delay pedal £80 mark
A popular and affordable digital delay. If you want a good delay with a variety of settings this is a good price point. The only downside of this product is it can be a little sterile sounding and can make your overall sound a little synthetic if you’re not careful.
TC Electronic Flash Back £100 mark
Probably one of the best delays on the market at this price point, it has a ton of different delay features. Along with their downloadable tone prints, the options are endless and it dounds very respectable – highly recommended.
Strymon Time Line Delay – £350
The mother of all delays. Midi controllable with loads of ambient effects and sounds, with the ability to change delay presets on the fly. Arguably the best on the market right now – but it is really expensive.
This is a super handy tool. It essentially replaces the volume knob on your guitar, and puts it at your feet, so you can do all those volume swells whilst keeping your hands free to play the notes, rather than faffing with the controls the whole time. They’re usually between £80 – £100. You can easily find them online, but boss do a very good one for a very reasonable price.
What guitar should I be using?
Well this question is very difficult as it comes down to personal taste. The one piece of advice I would give you would be to use a guitar with low to medium output pickups. High ouput pickups don’t necessarily mean a “better” tone. With low gain settings, high output pickups tend to sound harsh and aggressive, they lack the openness and sweetness that lower ouput pickups possess. For high gain and modern sounds, more output can be preferable, but in this situation, you’ll quickly be wishing you had a decent strat or tele, as apposed to your battle axe shred machine.
What guitar you like will be down to personal taste, but a good Fender Strat with a humbucker in the bridge gives you an exceptionally versatile instrument. Even a Mexcian strat at around £500 – £600, with a good amp and good pedals will give you a very good, usable tone. A more expensive guitar might sound better, but it won’t make you play better, and your sound is the total sum of it’s parts, so spend your budget wisely! A £2000 guitar into a £200 solid state amp won’t sound as good as a £600 guitar into a £400 tube amp withe a couple of good pedals.
If you want any further advice feel free to drop me a line and I’ll do my best to answer your questions!
Phil Short- Christ Church Mayfair