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In Defense of Good Guitar Amplifiers

April 13th, 2012

This is somewhat a continuation of an earlier blog regarding the benefits of a good guitar amplifier, owning more than one amplifier and also the general state of amplifier sales.

Over the past decade we’ve witnessed a couple significant trends in amplifiers. One of those trends was the rise of the boutique amplifier business. This trend may have peaked at the during the recession of 2009, but there has been an explosion of small builders making everything from faithful vintage reproductions, to interesting and creative new designs. The boutique boom may have also reinforced the realization that 15-30 watts is typically more than enough for most jamming or club situations.

The rise of digital modeling amplifiers was not originally a topic that I was going to address, but it at least deserves honorable mention. Early pioneers like Johnson and Line 6 drove the concept that a player could in theory have many historic amplifiers in one cabinet. This has become a permanent fixture in the amplifier world, culminating in high end audio products like the Eleven Rack and the Fractal Axe-FX. Some of these products have frighteningly good emulations, although typically the more “processed” the sound you are emulating the better they perform. Getting a Fractal to sound like The Edge is more satisfying than getting it to really sound like a Deluxe Reverb.

The other significant trend over the past 5-7 years is the rise of really inexpensive tube amplifiers. In my opinion, once the boutique industry proved that simple low-powered amps were a great way to get wonderful tone at reasonable volumes, manufacturers with access to low cost sourcing took that concept to overseas with the idea of offering much lower cost with the same features. If you think about it, a 15 watt amp with three tubes and four knobs is not technically hard to make, and in China it’s also incredibly cheap to make. So now instead of paying $1500 for a hand-wired Tweed Deluxe clone, a player can go to their local big box and get a 10 watt all-tube Chinese screamer for $299.

So the trend these days is that players are buying fewer amplifiers, and they are also buying cheaper amplifiers. In 2008 the average price paid for an amplifier was about $340, and there were 1.1 Million sold. In 2011 amplifier sales were 900,000, and the average cost had dropped to $255, 25% drop in average price (in contrast the average guitar price over this period dropped only 9.8%). This is a significant trend over a short period of time, and higher end amplifier builders must be feeling it. While the drop in average price may be partly due to post-recession caution and less disposable income, I think there is also a perception that, “Hey, it’s got tubes and it’s a grand less, why spend more?”

Why indeed. Guitar players incessantly focus on their axe, but often treat the amplifier as an appliance that will instantly transform the wonderfulness of their guitar into beautiful music. It’s almost as if you could plug into your washing machine and essentially get the same tone. Truth be told, the amplifier is at least 50% of “your sound,” maybe more. Heck, the just the speaker in the amp is a major determining factor in how you sound.  Amplifiers are inherently complex and every component — transformers, capacitors, type of tubes, layout, speakers, component values — has a contribution to the overall quality of your tone. Every manufacturer has a cost target they need to meet, but there is no way that the $299 amplifier manufacturer pays the same attention to detail regarding component selection than the guy making the $1000 amplifier does. When a manufacturer chooses to save $1.50 by installing an inferior speaker or transformer, they risk making an otherwise reasonably good product into something flat and uninspiring.

With amplifiers it’s not just the labor that costs money, it’s the hardware. A worker in China can solder just as well as a worker in the USA. They can probably fabricate a cabinet and apply tolex just as well too. It’s not as important that you can solder, it’s what are you soldering. Is it a transformer made by people who really know what makes a quality product optimized for guitar, or is it a transformer that went out for bid and was chosen because it was $.15 cheaper?

Historically, China’s edge has of course been labor. And while the landscape in China is changing, in general labor has been cheap, and the majority of their costs are in the materials. When it comes to manufacturing, they are much less sensitive to labor cost as they are to material cost (in many ways the complete opposite to the US). When a Chinese manufacturer needs to reduce cost, there is much more leverage in reducing material cost than labor cost (this is changing too: See Indonesia). The plain truth is that China is a very good place to assemble product. The risk in China is not the ability to assemble quality products, but the quality and reliability of the material supply chain. With material cost being king, there is intense pressure to squeeze every cent out of material cost, often to the detriment of product quality.

The point is that component quality and selection is critically important to the sound qualities of a guitar amplifier, and  the costs of these materials are essentially the same regardless of where the product is manufactured.  The $299 guitar amplifier is not using the same components as the $1000 amplifier, period. The parts really matter, and at this time, most of  the top quality amplifier components are not being made in Asia. Can you assemble a “kit” of top quality components and ship it to China for assembly? Sure, and you will pay to ship the components to China, and then you will pay to ship the amplifier on a boat back to the US. It will still cost less, but probably not a lot less, and that amp will have a pretty large carbon footprint.

Ultimately, good amplifiers cost money, and good amplifiers matter just as much as your guitar. I’m not suggesting that in order to be happy and have good tone you must spend at least $1500 on an amplifier. But to some degree cost and quality of sound are inextricably linked. Take the Vox AC 30 for example: They are made in China and run anywhere from $999 to $1500. Vox/Korg is taking advantage of lower cost labor, but they are also not skimping on components, including shipping British-made speakers to China. These amps are made in China, they are not junk, but they are also not inexpensive.

A quick story: We were recently displaying at a guitar show that had a lot of custom builders in attendance. So this was not an amp show, it was a guitar show. But some of these builders were displaying guitars that cost thousands of dollars, but all they brought to demo product were $150 10 watt modeling amps. Result: They sounded like garbage. What were they thinking? On the other hand, we brought a couple Rivera heads, a Rivera 1×12 cab (and to be to “PC” a Rivera RockCrusher Attenuator). When somebody tried any of our guitars, people stopped and listened. The guitars sounded good because the amps were good.

Playing through a really good amplifier that melds with your tone and style is a transformative and immensely satisfying experience. Choosing an amp needs to be taken seriously, and placed on the same level as choosing your guitar. You may even find that one  amplifier — just like one guitar — does not adequately address the range of tones that you are looking for. However, once you find an amplifier that speaks to you, you may find that the constant urge to experiment with pedals, pickups and guitars suddenly becomes much less urgent.