I try and address different aspects of the practical side of playing electric guitar in church music.
This week we’ll talk about setting up your electric rig for the first time or upgrading it to something better, specifically amplifiers. This is part 2 of a 4 part series. Part 1 can be found HERE. Part 3 can be found HERE. Part 4 can be found HERE.
The Most Important Thing
As I said in the last post, I believe the amplifier is the most important part of the guitar rig. I didn’t always think so, I used to think that the most important thing was to get the right guitar. This thinking stemmed from years of acoustic guitar playing where the guitar is everything in getting a good sound. For years I barely gave the amplifier a second thought beyond how loud it could get. Then one day I was in a guitar shop trying out a reverb pedal when it struck me that this pedal will never sound as good in my rig because my amp wasn’t as good. It wasn’t a bad amp, but it just wasn’t able to compete. So I sold some gear and bought a very good mid-priced amp, and switched my long term gear savings plan from a high end guitar to a high end amplifier which I hope to get in a few years. Since that time I have not regretted that decision. A great amp can make so/so guitars and effects sound much better, while a great guitar will be hamstrung by a low quality amp.
What Kind Of Amp Works Best For Worship?
There is no one amplifier that will work best, only you can decide what will work best for you. There are basically two types of guitar amplifiers: American and British. The American style amp is typified in the Fender company, known for its crisp and clear clean settings and warm tone. The British style amp would be best represented by brands like Marshall and Vox which are known for a generally quicker “break up” which is when the tubes start to into overdrive. There is nothing wrong or better between these two styles of amp just different pros, cons, and preferences.
You might also hear or see references to a Class A or Class A/B amplifier. This has to do with the way power comes to the amp. Class A (Vox) have a shorter tube life but better compression and response. Class A/B (Marshall, Fender) have a longer tube life and more headroom (louder clean sounds). Again its not about right or wrong, better or worse, but about your preference and what sounds good to your ears.
Another difference between amplifiers is combo vs. stack. A combo amp is an all in one unit. A “stack” is an amplifier that is housed separately from the speaker cabinet. The picture at the top of this post shows both stacks and combos. Using an Amplifier “head” stacked on top of a speaker cabinet has some advantages. You can mix and match different speaker sets. You can also run directly from the amp head to a sound board. You can do this with some combo amps as well, additionally, with a combo amp you only have to bring along one pice of gear vs. two. The last thing to consider between stacks and combos is the cost, combo amps are often slightly cheaper than their stack brothers. You’ll pay less if you only buy a amp head, but if you only have the amp, then you are limited and loosing versatility. I personally use and prefer combo amp set ups, but again, do your homework and figure out what will work best for you.
The last major difference in guitar amplifiers is solid state vs tube amp (often called Valves in the UK and other countries). Tube amps use old style, analog vacuum tubes to produce their sound which give them a very warm feel but will add ‘color’ to your tone. Different style tubes will color your tone in various ways. Generally speaking American style amps use either 6L6 or 6V6 tubes and British style amps will use EL-84’s. A solid state amp uses a semiconductor circuit to generate its volume which will not color your tone but does not produce the warms overdrives. Some “hybrid” style amps will use tubes in the pre amp for a warm overdrive then go into a solid state power amp section.
It’s fair to say that Tube amps are more popular in both American and British styles, and you’ll often hear solid state amps shunned by guitar players. Generally speaking I prefer tube amps. All of the amps I’ve owned over the years (1 Marshall, 2 Vox, 2 Fender, and 1 Egnater respectively) have been tube amps. But I’m not so quick to hate on solid state. Jazz players often prefer solid state because they don’t color their tone, and I have a friend who owns a solid state Marshall that sounds better with his vintage Gibson SG than any tube amp he’s tried, so go with your ear and your gut over someone else’s opinion.
These general descriptions isn’t me telling you what amp to buy or which amp is better. It’s me giving a starting point to the worship leader who is setting up or upgrading their electric rig for the first time. Do your own homework. Go to guitar shops and try things out. Ask questions. Some people swear by Vox, others swear by Fender. Some people will rip solid state all night and day but not tell you that album’s like U2’s Unforgettable Fire relied heavily on a solid state Vox practice amp. Do your own research and make up your own mind. The key is to get a good amp that will be the foundation of your guitar tone.
What Should I Look For In An Amplifier?
If I have a mantra for worship musicians it’s “Play Less & be Versatile”. The second part applies here: be versatile. Now, unlike some effects and guitars, Guitar Amplifiers are usually the most versatile part of a guitar rig. Fender amps have used by bands as different as Coldplay and the White Stripes. Marshall amps have been used by bands as different as Queen and country singer Keith Urban. That being said, some amplifiers are specifically geared towards jazz, and others are geared towards heavy metal or hardcore music. Both American and British style amps like Fender, Vox, Marshall, or their clones are a good base point to start in your search for a versatile amp.
The next thing I look for in a versatile amp is what on board features it comes with. The earliest guitar effects at a guitar players disposal were the onboard effects in their amplifiers: Reverb, tremolo/vibrato, and overdrive. Many amps still come with some sort of on board effect and utalizing these tools will save you money and stretch your budget by reducing the number of effects pedals you’ll need. Having or not having a certain on board effect isn’t really a deal breaker for me, but it is a factor in my decision making process. When I first set up my guitar rig, I bought a Vox AC15 that had both Reverb and Tremolo, as well as a”top boost” channel for overdrive. I didn’t use the dirty channel back then, but having the foot switchable Verb and Trem effects meant that I didn’t have to spend money on pedals to do the same job. For the pedals you do buy, having an effects loop on your amp, while not a deal breaker is a very nice bonus.
The last thing to factor is cost. If you believe, as I do, that the guitar amp is the foundation of your rig’s tone, then it’s where you’re going to want to spend a bulk of your budget. Unlike many other pieces of gear, the cost of an amplifier does not always equal quality. Often times the difference in cost has more to do with an amps Wattage rating, which affects both it’s overall volume, and how loud you can get the amp before it stops producing a clean tone and begins to go into overdrive. So if your budget is small, that doesn’t mean that you have to get a poor quality amp. I’ve own two Vox amplifiers, the AC15 and the AC4, and between the two I preferred the less expensive and lower wattage AC4.
What Should I Watch Out For?
In short: Bells and Whistles. This is why I stress that you need to do your own homework and know what you want. If you go into a Guitar Center or some other shop, the salesman will often try to push you towards whatever amp they are trying to push that week. They’ll show you some little thing that looks cool but you’ll never use in reality.
This is where digital amps try to make their sales pitch. “Look at all the features” sale their promotional material. But using the rule that it’s better to have less gear if its better gear, then we remember that all those “features” may not be a real asset.
Lastly, I would watch out for well meaning advice. When my wife was pregnant with our son we learned to politely ignore the advice of well meaning people who hadn’t had kids born in the last 10 years. Our mother’s had both had kids in different time where medical technology wasn’t even close to what it is now, and husbands like me would have been in the waiting room instead of helping with the delivery. Amplifiers share some similarities here. The times have changed, and so has the technology. In the 70’s and 80’s, you had to have a amp stack because the PA systems were only good enough to handle vocals. Guitar and bass amps had to be loud enough to hold their own. Today, PA systems are so good that I can run a 10 piece band off of two Mackies and a simple 15 channel board. The reality is that as a worship player, you probably don’t need a large wattage amplifier. In fact, in a many churches, having an amp that’s too loud would be a bad thing. Another thing to remember is that old school players often don’t use a lot of effects the way that younger players do, so they don’t factor that into their decision making with amp selection. As a general rule, I prefer an amp to be no louder than 30 watts and really more like 20 or 15.
What Would You Buy?
How much do you have? No seriously, because that affects my answer.
$200 or less:
The 15w Vox Pathfinder solid state amp, which comes with a gain channel, trem, and reverb. I’ve played this amp several times in churches, almost bought one on more than 1 occasion and found it for $150 used in shops and $100 on craigslist. Really solid amp for the money. (note: this is the only solid state amp that I personally recommend to people, although I’ve heard and played others that are very good)
The Bugera V5 5w tube amp. It comes with gain control and reverb. I haven’t played this one but the reviews are great and at $150 you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck.
At this range I’d go with the Vox AC4 line (AC4 TV, AC4 Blue, and AC4 Green). They are versatile and surprisingly loud for their size. I’ve owned an AC4 and it’s very possible that I’ll own one again at some point. Even if you’re looking at a higher wattage or higher priced amp, these little guys are great for playing around the house or those times when smaller is better.
This is the price range that I recommend for someone serious about setting up a worship guitar rig. There are a lot of good amps in this range. I’ve owned both a VoxAC15 and a Fender Hot Rod that fall into this category. Here’s where you get into trade offs. The Vox had foot switchable Trem and Reverb while the Fender’s footswitch controlled Hot and Clean channels (overdrive) and reverb, no tremolo. Now, if in your experimenting you decide that you prefer British over American style amps then your choice is clear, but if you like both pretty evenly, then you have to ask what’s more important. Personally I love tremolo, a lot. The 1st amp I had in high school was my dad’s 1970’s Fender VibroChamp with tremolo built in, and I spent hours messing with that effect, but the reality is that it’s the effect I could most do with out. So I would choose the Fender. But Fender, Vox and Marshall aren’t your only options, just your starting points.
For example. I’m a big fan of the Peavey Delta Blues 115, and other Peavey amps like it. Peavey gets kind of a bad rep as a brand, but I know several players who I respect that swear by them. What that means for you is that you might find a really good deal on craigslist for one, of be able to talk the guys at Guitar Center down a little more because they want to move them.
Personally, I currently use an Egnater Tweaker 15watt amp, that has American style 6V6 tubes in it, but has three analog tone stacks to emulate a Fender, Vox, and Marshall style amp. Is it perfect? No, I’d call it 80-90%, but it’s versatile, which is what I need and at $550 new it was a good value. I plan on getting a higher end amp in a few years (when I’ve saved up enough) but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I kept the Egnater around.
If you favorite uncle has a VoxAC30 or a vintage Fender Twin Reverb in their attic that they want to give you then great, but I generally don’t recommend high end stuff for people who just figuring things out. That’s fairly good advice across the board with guitar gear. What if you put $1500 into an amp and realize that it’s too much wattage or too little? What if you drop money on an amp only to realize that you’re church really needs you to stick to acoustic guitar and electric is just something you do at home for your own enjoyment? Spend the money if you want, but remember that you may be spending a lot of money on something that you really don’t need, plus, you’ll be taking funds away from other parts of your guitar rig.
-Do your homework
-Trust your ear
-Get what works best for you
Next time we’ll talk about Guitar effects and pedals.