From monster stacks to boutique boxes, here’s everything you need to get loud

In a memorable scene from the classic comedy film This Is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest (playing the titular fictional band’s guitarist Nigel Tufnel) proudly unveils his new amplifier—one whose maximum volume isn’t 10, but 11. “Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it?” he reasons. “It’s not 10.” Poor Nigel may not have understood physics, but on a deeper level he did know something fundamentally important about rock ’n’ roll guitar: When it comes to crafting the perfect sound, the amplifier is every bit as important as the axe itself. And like the countless variations of Strats, Les Pauls and Flying Vs populating the world, there are similarly endless choices when it comes to selecting the right amp for you.

To sort through all those options, we turned to experts Dave Friedman and Dave Fiuczynski. Friedman is a noted amp builder who runs the firm Rack Systems Ltd. He has created custom amp systems for artists like Van Halen, Linkin Park, My Chemical Romance and the Offspring. Fiuczynski is a groundbreaking jazz-fusion guitarist and professor at Berklee College of Music. In addition to his own recordings, he regularly plays with Screaming Headless Torsos, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Jack DeJohnette.

What are the main types of amps?

FIUCZYNSKI: Tube amps, which use vacuum tubes in their circuits, and solid-state are basically the two big categories.

FRIEDMAN: Tube amps live and breathe more. They have an organic tone and they’re more present. Solid-state offers affordability—but these days, there are also a lot of affordable tube amps. Jet City makes great lower-priced tube amps that come with a good tone for a stock amp just off the shelf.

FIUCZYNSKI: There have been huge strides in solid-state, but tubes still feel warmer. When I was 14 my father bought my first amp, and he didn’t know a thing about guitars. When I told him I wanted a tube amp, he said, “That’s World War II technology! We’re getting you the newest and latest!” I was like, “Dad, no!” I’m open to all sorts of amplifiers, but tubes really make a difference for me. Tube amps can be moody, though. They can heat up and be difficult to maintain.

Are amps suited to particular genres?

FIUCZYNSKI: Generally speaking, a jazz amp is going for a bassier sound, while rock amps will often offer two channels: one clean and one distorted. It’s not a hard and fast rule, though. You have people like Mike Stern, who’s labeled a jazz guitarist, but has no problem putting on fuzz and blowing through chord changes. Ted Nugent will completely rock out on a jazz hollow-body guitar—anything goes.

FRIEDMAN: If we’re talking jazz in the traditional sense, played with a hollow-body guitar, the biggest thing would be very clean sound with no distortion whatsoever. Years ago, people used little Polytone amps for jazz—they were solid-state and produced very clean sounds. If you’re playing more progressive jazz fusion, though, that goes out the window.

What are good choices for metal?

FRIEDMAN: Again, you can go all over the place. Many buy a used Peavey 5150 II and use it with a slightly boosted overdrive from a pedal for a metal tone. That’s more on the low end—you can buy that used for around $500 or $600. On the higher end, you have companies like Diezel, which sound great but are in the $4,000 range. Herbert amps are also pretty popular in that world. In the mid-priced range you can have a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier. That’s a common one for heavier sorts of music.

What makes amps sound different?

FRIEDMAN: The basic components, like the speaker cone, the tubes and such, are essentially the same. The real difference is in the circuit board design—specifically, how many gain stages there are and how much overdrive is built in. As you might guess, a metal amp has a lot more gain stages than a clean jazz amp.

FIUCZYNSKI: There can also be more of a difference in how you set your amp than in the components themselves. If it’s an amp with distortion, it’ll probably have both a “volume” and a “master volume” dial. If you turn “volume” up and keep “master volume” down you’ll get a lot more distortion, and if you keep “volume” down and turn “master volume” up you’ll have a cleaner tone. So it’s all to your tastes.

How do pedals figure in?

FRIEDMAN: The core of a guitarist’s sound comes from the guitar and the amp tone. Pedals and processors add color and texture. They give subtle changes in flavor of the distortion or add a specific effect like flanging or octaves. But it really just adds icing on the tone.

FIUCZYNSKI: For many players the ideal situation is to have a tube amp that just slightly breaks up into distortion, so that when you play a full chord there’s a little hair there. It’s equivalent to going slightly into the red when you’re recording to analog tape. If you push the levels just enough, you get that really cool tape compression sound. So if you kick in a distortion pedal on top of that amp distortion, it’s butter.

How about battery-operated models?

FRIEDMAN: They’re cute toys. (laughs) But I actually do know some people who have used them in the studio to get specific, lo-fi sounds. Pignose makes a clean-sounding amp, and Marshall and Vox have little battery-powered amps that sound a little thicker and more overdriven.

What are your favorite amps?

FIUCZYNSKI: I’m always looking for a big, fat, warm, clean sound. I never thought I’d end up playing an amp endorsed by Steve Vai, but that’s what I’m using when I play with Jack DeJohnette—a Carvin Steve Vai Legacy signature model. Often when I’m touring my rig is too heavy to take, so my wish list to play at each club includes Carvins, Vox AC30, Mesa Boogies and Orange. Since I often don’t know what amp I’ll be playing on any given night, I have to know how to get a great sound using pedals.

FRIEDMAN: Jerry Cantrell from Alice in Chains uses two versions of an amp I produce called the Friedman Brown Eye, one standard and one customized, and he uses both simultaneously. Ray Torres, who plays with My Chemical Romance, has a similar setup—a Brown Eye and Metropoulos, sort of a clone of an old Marshall JMP from 1978. The Metropoulos is set up to sound more classic rock, while my amp is more aggressive with more gain.

Why use two amps at once?

FIUCZYNSKI: If you use two amps, you can use stereo effects. You can have a delay with the sound ping-ponging back and forth between them, and your sound man can mix in stereo with one amp to the right, one to the left. Another reason is to fatten up the sound. I always ask for two different amps. Usually one will have more cutting mid-range and the other will be warmer. I was always told that stereo sounded better when it came to guitar amps, and I never understood it until I was on tour once and my tube amp caught fire during soundcheck. It was a huge hassle to find another amp before the gig—so from then on, I always asked for two. At worst, if one blows up, I’ll still have the other.

–Michael Gallant

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