Music & Entertainment

How to Pick an Amp With Tom Morello and Carlos Santana

Written by MasterClass

Mar 8, 2019 • 4 min read

An amp is what magnifies the sound of your electric guitar, making it ring through loudspeakers and out to your audience. Without an amp, your electric guitar strings will hardly make a sound.

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What Is a Guitar Amp?

A guitar amplifier is a piece of equipment that takes the relatively quiet sound coming from a guitar or other musical instrument, increases the power of that sound’s electrical current, and outputs the same sound through a speaker at a much louder volume.

5 Types of Amps

There are several types of amp models, each of which functions in slightly different ways.

  1. Tube amps. The first amps came about in 1912, facilitated by the earlier invention of vacuum tubes, which help facilitate the flow of electricity. Some musicians still prefer the warmer sound of tube amps in their playing, though tube amps tend to be more expensive to maintain.
  2. Solid state amps. This is a type of amp that uses solid state electronics—like diodes, transistors, and other types of more modern semiconductors—to amplify the electrical current. These amps typically have more power than tube amps and are cheaper to operate, as the electrical circuitry does not need to be replaced like the vacuum tubes do.
  3. Hybrid amps. This is a hybrid amp that provides the best of both worlds (tube and solid state). A pre-amp uses vacuum tubes and the solid state boosts power to the electrical current. This helps form the tone of the sound in a way that is similar to a tube amp, while providing the increased power of a solid state.
  4. Power amps. These are electric devices that magnify the electrical current. They have some limitations, as they need to be connected to an external loudspeaker in order to create sound.
  5. Combo amp. This practice amp includes both a power amp and a loudspeaker. These are used typically for rehearsal but do not have a powerful enough speaker for, say, a performance in an arena.

Digital modeling amps like the Line 6 amps recreate the amplification of other amps via software and digital effects.

A guitar amp plugged in

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English Vs. American Amps

The majority of amps are made in either the United States or in England. The sound an amp produces differs greatly between manufacturers.

  • Aggressive sound. British amps are known more for their punchy, aggressive sounds. Guitar players choose these amps specifically for their distortion effects. Some of the best- known amp manufacturers in England are Marshall, Vox, Blackstar, and Orange.
  • Warmer sounds. Amps made in the United States are known more for their cleaner tones and warm sound. They have a brighter, more shining sound that emphasizes the lower and mid tones. Fender is well-known American brand of amps, along with Peavey and Mesa/Boogie.

Tom Morello’s Favorite Amp

Want to play loud and heavy like Tom from Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave? You don’t need anything fancy. Tom has been playing through the same Marshall 50-watt amp head and Peavey 4x12 cabinet for 30 years now, but the choice wasn’t intentional. After having his gear stolen out of the back of a van one night, he needed to find affordable replacements, and the Marshall amp and Peavey were what the local music shop had available. At the time Tom was looking to create the perfect guitar tone; he tried adding different rack mounts and other tricks but was never happy with the results. Eventually he decided it was a waste of time. He found some settings on his amp that he thought sounded pretty good and resolved to never change them again. He never did.

The Best Amps According to Carlos Santana

Legendary Santana guitarist Carlos Santana says:

“All of these amplifiers create a sound wave to reach a destination. Well, what’s the destination? The heart, of course, the heart of a listener. That’s the only destination worth arriving at.”

Here are his top two amps:

  1. The Fender Twin Reverb. The Fender Twin is an extremely powerful amp, based on 6L6 model power tubes. It is known for projecting clean tones at high volumes, when most amps would naturally start distorting. (The player can add distortion at any volume by using stompbox pedals.)
  2. The Mesa/Boogie is modeled on Fender amplifiers using the 6L6 power tube, and thus the company’s amplifiers are known for their power. But Randall Smith (the company’s founder) intentionally added an additional “gain stage” to the amp, which allows for more natural distortion, should the player desire it. So Mesa/Boogie is oddly enough known for both very powerful, clean tones but also for producing more distortion than many other amps, provided that the additional “gain stage” is engaged. Carlos was instrumental in helping an engineer named Randall Smith develop the Mesa/Boogie line of amplifiers—it’s even said that the Boogie name comes from Carlos exclaiming to Smith: “This thing really boogies!”

How to Pick an Amp

While there isn’t a specific beginner guitar amp, novice guitar players may choose to go to a music store and play around with the possibilities. Many players gravitate toward amps with the American style tone (Fender and Mesa/Boogie), and others will prefer a British style tone (Vox and Orange). An interesting middle ground is Marshall, which is a British company but whose amplifiers were initially modeled on the Bassman series by Fender—so there’s a little bit of both Britain and America in that brand’s story.

Try combining single-coil guitars with both British and American-style amps, and then do the same with double-coil guitars. If there is a combination that particularly suits your aural taste, that’s the best amp to start with.