In this series I try and address different aspects of the practical side of playing electric guitar in church music. This week we’ll talk about finding the best amp for worship.
Almost daily someone does a google search for “the best” whatever for worship (amp, guitar, pedal, etc). Less frequently but still regularly I’m asked the same question in some form or another. Usually I give an honest dodge and say something like “there’s no such thing as ‘the best’, only what’s best for you, so you need to do your homework.” Today won’t be much different. I’m not going to tell you what THE best amp is. Instead I want to give you a frame work to make your choice.
More than with any other piece of gear, I’ve found that there is no guitar amplifier that has it all, not one. In my opinion, the difference between single coil and humbucking pickups or digital vs analog delay is no where near as dramatic as the difference between EL84 (Vox) and 6L6 (Fender) style vacuum tubes. When I bought my amp I didn’t get everything I wanted because that amp doesn’t exist, but I got the best amp possible for what I need.
Below is a list of questions that I asked myself that led me to make my choice, and at the end of this post I’ll talk about what I bought and why I chose it. These questions aren’t in any particular order. Some of them didn’t become apparent until I had tried a few amps out, but put together they were the basis for my decision.
Question #1: Tube or Solidstate?
I didn’t ask this question. There was no doubt in my mind I would get a tube amp (or valve as the British call it). I’m a tube amp guy. What’s the difference? I’m gonna let the folks at Musicians Friend explain the technical differences HERE, but mostly it comes down to preference. I like tubes. I like how different tubes will change and shape your tone. I like the clarity of sound and the way that you can push them into a natural overdrive. Not that I haven’t played solid state amps I’ve like, cause I have, I just know what I prefer.
Question #2: Clean or Dirty
Some amps like the Fender Twin Reverb are known for their clean tones while others like the Orange Tiny Terror are known for their incredible overdriven sound. Neither are wrong or bad, but I knew that since I primarily play in churches that I needed an amp that could give me very clean tones. Not only was playing in a church a factor, but since I’m a “modern player”, I need an amp that will accept pedals well, so unless it has an effects loop, a ‘dirty’ amp isn’t going to be for me, not matter how much I like it.
One of the amps that stood out most to me as I was shopping around was the Swart STR. It’s a 5watt tube amp with a killer natural overdrive and an amazing tube reverb. But at it’s heart, the STR is not a clean amp, so I knew that I wouldn’t work for me. The same is true for a Vox AC-15 (blue) that I tried out. While it was capable of clean tones, what really stood out was it’s overdriven sound and it just wasn’t what I needed.
Some amps have an effects loop so you can use the amps overdrive and then run your delays and reverbs after, but then you don’t have controls to change from dirty to clean.
Question #3: American or British
All lot of the decision between clean or dirty can be solved by deciding between an American (Fender) or British (Vox, Marshall, Orange, etc) style amp. A few months back when I was amp shopping, I came really close to going back to Vox. The AC30 is such a core part of so many bands that I love and artists who’s tone I respect. But when it came down to it. I decided that if I was only going to have one amp I wanted that American sound (Fender) 1st and foremost.
Even within the two “sounds” there are different options.
With American style amps you can pick “Blackface” voiced amps (Fender Blue Deluxe, Tone King Imperial, Two Rock, etc) or “Tweed” voiced amps (Fender Bassman, Tone King Falcon, Victoria amps, Swart, etc). The black face amps tend to be cleaner, while the Tweed’s are still clean but with a bite to them. The Tone King Imperial actually has two channels, The “Lead” channel is a Tweed voice and the “Rhythm” channel is voiced like a Blackface amp. American voiced amps tend to have 6L6 (larger wattage) or 6V6 (smaller wattage) tubes.
The British style amps will have the Marshall/Orange with are designed for higher gain, and the Vox style which have a bit of “chime” to them. British voiced amps tend to have EL84 or 34 tubes.
The tubes (EL vs 6’s) are a great indicator what an amp is designed to do, although it’s not everything. Some people get great American sounds out of amps like the Dr Z Maz 18 or Fender Blues Jr. which both have EL84’s and you can get a British tone out of a Tone King’s 6V6’s if you crank the lead channel’s “mid-bite” high enough.
Now, there are brands like Egnater that allow you to mix or choose between tube styles, but those amps have their own limitations, so they aren’t the perfect answer they’d like to be.
Question #4: Combo or Stack
Back in the day, PA systems weren’t good enough to handle much more than vocals, for guitarist that needed to keep up with drummers and singers the “Stack” was born. An Amplifier head sitting atop one or more speaker cabinets. Aside from guys for whom the stack has become a signature part of their rig, they have fallen out of use in favor of the combo amp. Pro players that are still using amp heads often will go from the amp head straight to the PA. Worship Players I know who still use Heads and Cabs are either players who like to mix and match and enjoy using amp heads with cabs that they weren’t meant to go with, or players who’ve “just always done it that way.”
I’ve always owned combo amps (speaker and amplifier in one box). There was no real question for me about this.
High or Low Wattage
The higher the wattage, the more “head room” the amp has, meaning the louder you’ll need to turn the amp up before it’s tubes start to break up in that “sweet spot”. Wattage is actually very important for the worship guitarist to consider. Years ago, I was playing at a moderately conservative church. I had two amps: one a 60 watt Fender, the other a 4 watt Vox. I could never get the Fender loud enough to hit it’s tonal “sweet spot” and the Vox was quiet, I almost had to keep it too quiet so that it didn’t start to break up and distort when I was running pedals with it.
When I was shopping for my current amp I took wattage into consideration. I needed something that wouldn’t distort too quickly, but it also had to be an amp where I wouldn’t need to crank it to 11 before it started to sound good. I settled on an amp in the 10-20 watt range as a happy medium and targeted my search there (although I kept an open mind for an amp out of that range, cause you never know).
Transport: Easy, Hard or Back Breaking?
Some folks buy their amp and leave it at church and then use a cheap practice amp or POD, etc at home. But many of us don’t have that luxury. Even though I have the freedom to leave my amp at the church, it needs to be moved off the stage after every service because I don’t play every week and we have another church that uses the building Sunday afternoons. Plus, every so often I need to use it in the youth room, so I needed to factor in weight and transportability. It’s one thing to transport a Vox AC30 from the stage to the gear room (maybe 10 feet) but the stage to the youth room or the parking lot is a long walk. When I was younger I would have just suffered but now I’m trying to take care of my back so I can hit my 40’s and 50’s and be active. So weight and size factored into the equation.
I’m going to let the good folks at Fender explain what an effects loop is HERE. My last few amps have had one and I really grew to enjoy it’s benefits. They are an extra cost for the builder, plus some builders and players have a bad taste for them because of some poorly made ones on amps in the 90’s and because the vintage designs don’t use them. Personally, I love effects loops! But many of the amps I was looking at didn’t have them.
Here’s my take: if your amp has an effects loop, then give it a try and you might just find it cleans up your signal and tone a lot. Since that wasn’t an option for me, I threw a JHS Little Black Buffer on my board to help keep my tone. If you don’t play with pedals this won’t be an issue, but if you do and you have long cable lengths or you like to run your amp hot, an effects loop might be a feature to check out, but since I was looking for a clean amp it wasn’t a deal breaker for me.
ON BOARD EFFECTS
My first amp was a vintage Silverface Fender Vibrochamp that my dad let me use. It had a built in Vibrato circuit that I spent hours getting lost it. Whether it’s a Vibrato/Tremolo, a good lead channel tube overdrive, or a real spring reverb, some effects just sound better when it’s a part of the amplifiers design. A lot of players won’t care at all about on board effects and that’s fine, its just something worth considering. If you’re setting up your guitar rig, you can save some money on pedals and save some room on your pedal board.
Personally, I knew I wanted a really good, tube driven spring reverb in whatever amp I bought. This kept me away from some really good amps like the Tone King Falcon (no reverb) or the Fender Super Sonic 22 (solid state driven reverb).
Note: I’m not talking about amps with onboard digital effects like the Fender DSP100 or Vox VR series or anything by Line 6. They almost never sound good (to my ears) and are often found on lesser quality amps. Your amplifier is the most important part of your tone, don’t sacrifice it to save a few bucks on pedals. See more about that HERE.
WHERE DOES THIS LEAD US?
For many of you, your answers to the above questions will lead you to a very different place than mine did. This would all be based your church, your style of play, budget, and a whole bunch of other factors. But I believe that in the end, no matter what amp you choose, you’ll come to realize that along the way you had to make compromises to find the best amp to suit you and your needs.