Wanna be a guitar hero? Amp up

March 20, 2007|by AL WUNDERLICH

"You play electric guitar? Cool."

But how does it sound? Someone getting into the world of electric instruments will soon discover that there's more to the music than the instrument itself.

Amps, effect pedals and more await you and your wallet.

This first thing you need when getting into electric guitar is an amplifier, or amp. An amp is a powered speaker that plugs in to an instrument through a cord, which amplifies the instrument.

The variety of amps is huge. The kind you need depends on your situation. Some amps are better for practice, some for performance, some can be used for both.


The first thing to know is that amps are rated by wattage; wattage translates to how much volume your amp will produce or, as many musical old-timers say, how much "air you're pushing." Practice amps are rated from 5 to 35 watts. A practice amp is incredibly useful, because they're portable and small, and there is usually a time when it's necessary to take an amp somewhere. But the sound quality isn't as good as that produced by a larger amp.

Bigger amps, such as units intended for playing in a band, will be rated 100 watts or higher.

How big an amp you want depends on what you're trying to do with it and on your budget. A practice amp will cost less than $100, whereas a 100-watt amp will run more than $700.

If the amp is not for performing, but you're looking for an amp that has good quality, something between 50 and 80 watts is ideal. Amps of this type generally aren't small enough to make them convenient to carry around, but bigger speaker produce a better sound. They often have better features than a practice amp, like built in effects.

Here's the good news: It's not hard to find good, used amps. Amps cannot be stored unused for a long period of time - the speaker cones and the wire around them go bad after a couple years. So anyone who has an amp and isn't playing it much will usually sell it rather that hang on to it.

A vital part of electric guitar is distortion (the buzzing sound that characterizes standard rock guitar music). Pretty much all amps have some kind of distortion built in, as well as a clean drive to make the guitar sound acoustic.

The types of sounds built in on the amp are pretty limiting, so if you don't want your guitar to sound the same every time, effect pedals are what you'll need.

In a musical instrument catalog, you'll find pages of effect pedals, many with prices of $75 and higher. You can find digital pedals for cheaper prices than analog, and digital pedals contain many variable effects. Although generally not as good as their analog counterparts, digital pedals have come a long way and are a great way to provide many types of sound at a lower price. You can decide whether you want to buy separate pedals for separate effects or go with a single digital pedal with multiple effects. And, once again, there are bargains to be made on used pedals.

Purchasing used equipment is a great way to buy guitar equipment if you have a low budget. It is possible to sound the way you want without going broke.

The goal in buying is to look over all possible options for the best choice. This is a time when the Internet is a friend. You can research a product and read reviews from any site that sells what you're looking for and then check out a place like eBay to see if they have the product significantly cheaper.

Another way to buy equipment is to just go to a music store. Maybe they have decent prices. Buying from a store saves the online hassle. It's sometimes easier to look directly at the equipment you're looking for. Often times you can plug in and try things out.

Another way to get a feel for what different kinds of products are out there is to look in a catalog.

You may know somebody who's trying to give away an instrument or piece of equipment you want. Every fall, students go off to college and they don't want to hold on to valuable equipment while they're away. So ask around. You might know somebody who's trying to give away something you want.

To sum it up, be wise. There's pretty much always a way to find a deal, just keep your eye out, be sure of what your looking for, and your guitar will sound just the way you want it.

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