Guitar Amplifier 102: Using Your First Amp - Guitar Head
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Guitar Amplifier 102: Using Your First Amp – Guitar Head

Welcome to the second installment of our beginner’s introduction to the wonderful but occasionally confusing world of guitar amplifiers. so let’s go ahead and get rid of the confusion right away…

In “Guitar Amp 101” we explain the absolute basics about the different types of gear available to guitarists today, hoping to guide our readers toward purchasing a kit with features to suit their needs. necessities, wallet and ability to lift the thing. climb a flight of stairs. so, with any luck, you are now the proud owner of your first guitar amp. Congratulations!

Reading: How to connect amp to guitar

but how does it work? what are all those controls for? why are there so many plugs, lights, buttons and switches? how come this thing seems more complicated to operate than a commercial airliner?

fear not; we are here to guide you through your first steps in making noise!

are you ready?

first things first; let’s check that we have all the essential elements…

1: electric guitar. obviously

2: amplifier. also obvious but make sure you have the correct power cord, which should normally be grounded.

and don’t forget…

3: lead guitar. This should be obvious, but is sometimes too overlooked. ease. And until the glorious day comes when guitar and amp manufacturers decide to equip all their products with bluetooth as standard, we’ll continue to rely on physical connections between gear. your guitar connects to an amplifier via a guitar cable, also known as a ‘jack-to-jack’ cable, which has a 6.3mm mono ‘jack’ or ‘trs’ (tip-ring-sleeve) plug or 1/4″ on each end of a shielded cable. this is used to transfer your guitar’s unbalanced audio signal to the amp. and definitely worth investing in a good one with high quality connectors (switchcraft or neutrik are brands particularly good) that will last longer.

a short side note here; If your amp consists of a head and a separate speaker cabinet, now is the time to connect them with a suitable cable. newer systems will likely use the excellent speakon connectors, while older kits will need speaker cable, basically the same as a standard guitar cable, but with an unshielded cable that uses a heavier gauge. don’t use a guitar cable as a speaker cable, unless you like fire…

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exploring your amp

Before we plug in and turn on, let’s take a quick look at the amp’s controls and explain what they do. Trust us here, it’s not as complicated as it sounds!

Your team will likely have some or all of the following;

power switch. turns the amplifier on/off. it can be located at the front, top, or (annoyingly) at the back of the amp. tube amps sometimes feature a “standby” as well, which allows the tubes to heat up and stay hot without the speaker being active.

volume. controls the output sound level of the amplifier.

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profit. controls the input level that the amp “gains” from the guitar.

channel change. many amps feature a ‘clean channel’ (with volume control only, usually for a clean tone) and a ‘gain’ channel (with volume/gain controls, allowing you to dial in the overdrive/distortion/crunch sound) . the channel change button switches between these sounds instantly.

equivalent. a selection of dials that can include ‘low’, ‘medium’, ‘high’, and sometimes even more options (‘low-medium’, ‘high-medium’, etc.). some guitar amps have a graphic equalizer instead, which basically does the same job. these controls allow you to tailor your tone, raising or lowering the level of low, mid, and high range frequencies in the sound that is produced.

reverb. the most common effect is usually built into amplifiers. this adds more ambience to the sound, making it feel like you’re playing in a larger space and with more echo.

fx. many modern amps come with a variety of digital effects built in, with dials or buttons that let you choose the type and level of the effect. probably the most complicated part of the manual that came with your amp!

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tuner. another increasingly common feature of modern digital guitar amps. and hey, always handy if you’ve lost your usual guitar tuner!

And let’s not forget all the jacks on the front and back of the amp, which can include;

input. where the guitar connects. it is almost always located at the front/top of the amp.

network input. where the power cord plugs in. it is almost always located on the back of the amp.

pedal. lets you plug in a channel-switching footswitch (which may even have been included with your shiny new amp) and switch between clean/distorted sounds without using the amp’s switch. very useful for concerts and rehearsals.

effects send/return. allows you to connect external effects pedals in a loop.

outline. allows you to send the sound of the amplifiers to external audio devices (mixing console, recording equipment, etc.) at the standardized “line” level.

speaker output. one powered output for connection to compatible external speaker cabinets.

headphones. when you want to practice but no one else wants to listen.

come on!

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Now it’s time to make some noise! start with the amp off for now and follow this step-by-step guide to turn it on for the first time…

1. connect the guitar to the amp.

2. set all the controls on your guitar to maximum and select a pickup of your choice.

3. set all the controls on your amp as follows;

  • volume and gain to a minimum.
  • neutral (low, mid, high) tone controls, usually at 50% or 12 o’clock on the dial, and flat in the middle if you have a graphic equalizer.
  • reverb and effects to a minimum.
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In case you’re wondering why we start this process with the power off, this is to avoid even the slightest chance of hearing the loud crackling sounds that occur when connecting a guitar to a powered amp. really; it sounds awful, and it’s not particularly good for the speaker’s health (too many guitarists have learned that lesson the hard way). so always try to mute or turn off the amp when you connect the cable to the guitar. Alternatively, you can connect the cable to the guitar before connecting the other end to the amp, and unplug the amp before unplugging the guitar.

experiment with your new amp and guitar

You already know a lot, go ahead and experiment with your new guitar through your new amp. experiments are a great way to learn and are always endlessly fun. But aWarning: Experiments are a great way to learn, but you need a solid foundation first.

Now that you’ve started your guitar journey, you need to avoid these 25 fundamental mistakes to lay a solid foundation for yourself.

Ignoring these mistakes will only make it harder for you to master the guitar and you won’t even know why.

So check out the 25 mistakes to avoid as a beginner and put yourself on the fast track to guitar mastery.

there’s more…

This is the last part of our beginner’s guide to amps – here we’ll take a deeper look at how to tailor your sound. read the latest guitar amp chapter 103.

so until next time…

peace out!

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