Guitar amps are one of the first and most important parts of playing the instrument. You can use amps with microphones and many other pieces of musical equipment. Knowing how to use an amp will greatly improve your guitar setup, allowing you to try live performances.
To use a guitar, choose which amp you prefer, get all of the cables and other gear, then plug in your amplifier. You can adjust the pickup and the amp to improve the treble, bass, gain, volume, and more. Add pedals if you want to introduce more distortion, boost, and other effects.
Throughout this guide, I’ll show you how to use an amp, whether or not you need a pickup, and much more. Enjoy!
1. Choose Which Kind of Amp You Want
There are many amp brands and styles to choose from, but they all come from three different types: tube amps, solid-state amps, and modeling amps. These three amp types are available as amp heads that connect to speaker cabinets or combo amps that include the speaker in the same enclosure.
Here’s a detailed look at the three types of amps:
- Tube amps: These amps use two tubes (also known as valves) to receive and transmit audio signals. One tube is the preamp tube, and the other is the power amp tube. The preamp tube receives a signal from the guitar pickup, heats a filament, and sends the signal to the power amp. The power amp sends the signal to a speaker.
- Solid-state amps: These amplifiers are much more modern than tube amps. They use two terminals (a negative and a positive terminal) to receive audio signals from the guitar pickup. The second terminal converts the audio signals into sound waves, amplifying them through a built-in speaker or an external speaker.
- Modeling amps: A modeling amp is the newest type of amplifier on the market. It’s designed to mimic high-end solid-state amps or tube amps. Modeling amps include numerous onboard effects, which often removes the need for amp pedals. You’ll save a lot of time and money on modeling amps, but they often sound a bit artificial.
I always recommend that beginners go with a combo amp instead of an amp head with a separate speaker cabinet. Combo amps can’t get as loud as most speaker cabs, but they’re much more compact, easier to control, and require less space. You can also plug a combo amp into an external speaker if you want more volume.
If you’re looking for a beginner amplifier, I recommend the Fender Frontman 20G Guitar Amplifier (available on Amazon.com). This combo amp includes an 8-inch (20.3 cm) built-in speaker that customers claim is perfect for bedrooms and small studios. There’s a host of adjustment knobs on the front of the amp that helps you get used to basic amp controls (gain, treble, volume, bass, etc.).
2. Gather the Guitar Amp Equipment
Amplifiers require a few extra pieces of gear to get started. If you don’t have the necessary cables and other items, you won’t have nearly as good of an experience. Additionally, you might want to consider getting equipment that can convert your amp’s sound signals into digital audio waves for computer editing.
So, what guitar amp equipment should you get?
Your amp cable quality directly impacts the amp’s sound and intonation. I recommend spending a little extra to get the best cables you can. Your amp cables should only be about four or five feet (1.2-1.5 m) longer than the space between your gear. Longer cables can influence the sound signals, which muddy the sound coming out of the speaker.
All electric guitars come with pickups, but did you know that you can swap them out with better ones? Additionally, you can add pickups to acoustic guitars and other string instruments that don’t have them. For example, P90 pickups, humbuckers, and many other pickups change the tones and which sounds are improved or highlighted before entering the amplifier.
You can hook up external speakers to any amp, even if it has internal speakers. External speakers are also known as speaker cabinets (cabs for short). You can use a ¼-in (0.6 cm) cable to connect your amp’s output to the speaker’s input, which means you’ll need at least one additional cable before using the setup.
Anyone who wants to record their guitar amp will need an audio interface. They connect to a computer, allowing you to record and edit everything. Most audio interfaces come with numerous settings, much like amps and pickups. You can connect multiple inputs to some audio interfaces. They also have headphone outputs.
If you only want the bare minimum, you’ll need an amp with a ¼-in (0.6 cm) cable (in most cases). The rest of the gear will drastically improve your music production, but it’s not entirely necessary for all beginners. That being said, all of the previously mentioned equipment is required if you want to record anything you play on your guitar.
3. Plug in the Amp Properly
Plugging in your amp incorrectly can damage your gear. Furthermore, you might not be able to record anything if you don’t know which method works best. Gather all of your cables and equipment before you get started, then make sure everything is off and not plugged into any power sources.
Follow this process to properly plug in a guitar amplifier:
- According to Guitar Chalk, you should plug the guitar pickup into the amp before powering it. Otherwise, you could risk dealing with popping sounds, blowing out the amp’s internal speakers (if the volume or gain is too high), or short-circuiting the system. Also, I recommend reducing the gain all the way until you’re ready to play.
- Connect the amp head to the speaker cab unless you have a combo amp. An amp head is useless without a cab. It’ll receive audio signals, but there’s nothing for it to play them through. Combo amps have a short cable connecting the amp head to the built-in speaker, but you can swap the cable or connect it to a bigger cab.
- Plug the amp into the power outlet, then turn it on. Never flip the ON switch before plugging in the amp because it can cause a wattage peak if you do it in the opposite order. Also, I suggest plugging the amp directly into a wall outlet instead of using an extension cord to protect it from power surges.
- Wait for 20 to 30 minutes for the valves to heat up if you have a tube amp. Tube amps need to heat up before you can play them; otherwise, the sound quality will dip. You can use a solid-state amp right when you plug it in. Modeling amps are always solid-state, which means you can use them right away, too.
- If you’re using a microphone to record your amp, plug it into your audio interface, then turn on the 48V power supply. Much like plugging in an amp, you always have to connect the mic before activating the phantom power (48V) button. Many condenser microphones require phantom power to work properly.
Plugging in your amp before connecting the pickup or the audio interface can cause a short circuit. While most amplifiers have fuses and other forms of electrical protection, you’ll still end up causing long-term damage. Tube amps are especially sensitive to electrical issues since the tube filaments can overheat and burn out permanently.
4. Adjust the Guitar Pickup
If your guitar has a pickup, you’ll be able to change several settings before the sound signals reach the amplifier. Some people prefer using an amp without a pickup, but you need a microphone for that method. Check the knobs and switches around the edges of your guitar (usually near the built-in tuner or pickup) to know what settings you can change.
Here’s how I change my guitar pickup before playing through an amp:
- Select which pickup you want to use if you have multiple pickups. If your guitar has more than one pickup, it’ll have a switch or a knob that lets you swap between them. I highly suggest learning which kind of pickups you have, then researching which tones you prefer for your music style.
- Set the bass between the low to middle setting on the pickup. This route prevents it from being too overpowering when it goes into the amp. The amp’s gain will adjust the sound level, so you don’t want too much bass. It can overshadow everything else, making your music sound cloudy or fuzzy.
- Adjust the treble about halfway up the knob. The right amount of treble brings unparalleled clarity to your guitar. Clarity is necessary, even if you want to distort the audio on the amp. Too much treble will make your guitar pickup sound toyish, tinny, and almost ‘wirey’.
- Keep the volume below halfway on most guitar pickups. Your amp’s gain and volume will do most of the work. Much like overusing the bass, you could muddy and ruin the amp’s quality if you have too much volume coming from the pickup. Note: If you’re not using an amp, increasing the pickup’s volume can help when recording on a computer.
A guitar pickup’s placement determines which tones it uses. For example, a pickup closer to the neck of the guitar has more bass, whereas a pickup closer to the bridge has more treble. If the pickup is in between the neck and the bridge, it’ll highlight the mid tones. Many guitar pickups are slanted to use a combination of tones.
5. Set Your Preferred Amp Sound Options
Amplifiers come with all sorts of sound adjustments. While modeling amps have more effects than any other amp type, you can still change quite a bit of settings on a traditional amp. Guitar Gear Finder recommends avoiding online guitar amp presets because no two types of amps sound the same.
Since presets are typically unreliable, consider these adjustments for your amp:
- You can set the bass, treble, and volume on an amp to improve your pickup. I always suggest using the amp’s onboard settings to boost the volume rather than relying too much on the pickup’s settings. Strum, adjust these options, and repeat the process until you’re satisfied.
- Most amps let you change the reverb and gain. Reverb fills the room with more music, making it sound more like a live performance in a large space. You can also change the gain on your amp. Gain lets you increase or decrease the incoming sound signals, which works well with volume.
- Modeling amps come with effects and loops, including chorus, ambiance, and more. Change all of these settings to fit your play style. If you don’t know what you prefer, you can turn them all off at their respective switches. Modeling amps can be a bit overwhelming for beginners, so you can overlook these settings for now.
- Some amplifiers let you adjust the presence. This setting brings additional clarity to the treble in your music. Increase it in small increments until you’re happy with the results. Too much clarity can take away from the electric sound of an electric guitar, but it can also boost an acoustic guitar.
One of the main reasons that beginners get confused by amps is that they have the same settings on multiple pieces of equipment. Having to adjust the volume, bass, and treble on two or three items can be a bit weird. Keep in mind that they never override one another. Instead, they work together to form clarity or distortion.
6. Add Pedals to Your Guitar Amplifier
Pedals let you take your guitar amp to the next level. You can use pedals with almost any amp you’ll come across, including modeling amps with preset effects. Pedals are often used to enhance the sound quality and tone of your music. For example, you can use boost pedals to make your amp sound louder (this is very useful for quiet combo amps).
Review this list of tips and tricks before adding pedals to your guitar amp:
- Richard Pryn suggests plugging in your amp and keeping it off until the pedal is connected to avoid popping noises. Not only are these sounds annoying, but they can also blow out your speakers. Popping sounds are typically made by speaker cone vibrations that can rupture.
- Connect the amp’s input to the pedal’s output, the amp’s output to the pedal’s input, and the pedal to its power supply. You’ll need two cables for most pedals. Some of them have built-in cables that you can plug into the amp. Plug the pedals into a modeling amp’s effects area to save input space.
- Pedals don’t replace your amp’s onboard effects. You can use them in addition to the existing loops. Many people choose modeling amps, then add pedals for all of the effects that they don’t come with. For instance, you can get distortion pedals if you like playing rock music.
- You can use digital pedals if you don’t have amp pedals. Digital pedals are relatively new compared to regular guitar pedals. They’re found in the vast majority of digital audio workstations, which means you can only use them if you connect your amp to the computer. However, they’re excellent money-savers for guitarists on a budget.
- Some amplifiers have pedal switches that need to be activated to turn on the pedals. If your pedals don’t seem to be doing anything, make sure they’re activated on the amplifier and the pedal. They also need an external source, which is usually a nearby power outlet. Some people plug their pedals into power inverters, though.
7. Record Your Amp With a Digital Audio Workstation
Recording your amp is much easier than you might think. Anyone with an amp and an audio interface can record and make several digital edits. There are dozens of digital audio workstations to choose from, many of which are free. For instance, Apple has Garage Band, and all operating systems can use Band Labs’ DAW.
Follow these five steps to record and edit a guitar amp on a computer:
- Plug the amp into an audio interface or record the amp with a microphone that’s connected to an AI. The cables you’ll need vary based on the interface you have. For example, some of them require XLR cables, whereas others need TSR cables. Make sure you know which cables you need before getting the AI.
- Connect the audio interface to a computer, a smartphone, or a tablet, then open the desired digital audio workstation. You’ll need an external power source if you want to use a 48V condenser microphone with a smartphone or a tablet. You can use USB splitters to connect the audio interface to the device and the device to a wall outlet.
- Make all of your desired amp and pickup settings before recording anything. You can also adjust a lot of effects on the audio interface (usually the same settings that you’ll find on your amp). It’s best to keep all of the knobs around the level across the board until you edit them in the digital audio workstation.
- Register your audio interface in the DAW, turn on the amp, then click ‘Record.’ You’ll see your AI in the DAW, not your mic or amp. For example, a
FocusriteAI will be listed as ‘Focusrite Scarlett 2i2’ or whichever model you have. If you don’t set it as your default recording option, your DAW will use the built-in computer speakers.
- When you’re done recording, edit the recording with DAW presets, EQ knobs, and more. EQ knobs can seem confusing but they’re actually just your regular treble, mid, and bass listed as high, mid, and low. You can also use EQ graphs and sliders to fine-tune your recording before exporting or uploading it.
Read Also: How to Record a Guitar Amp
How To Use a Guitar Amp Without a Pickup
You can use a guitar amp without a pickup by connecting a microphone to the amp, then strumming your guitar into the microphone. Keep in mind that setting a proper distance and adjusting your strumming intensity can help out quite a bit when it comes to clarity and quality.
Follow this quick process for more details:
- Connect a TS or TSR mic to your amp.
- Turn on your amp, then position your guitar about 6 to 10 inches (15.2-25.4 cm) away from the microphone.
- Strum or finger pick the guitar, adjusting the amp’s volume as you go.
Note: Your guitar pickup doesn’t do anything if it’s unplugged. You can adjust the treble, bass, and volume all you want, but it won’t change the way it sounds going into the mic. Instead, make all of these adjustments on the amplifier and the mic (if it has onboard settings).
How To Use an Amp With Two Guitars
Using an amp with two guitars requires multiple inputs or an input splitter jack. Both methods let you plug both of your instruments (or a guitar and a microphone) into the amp without getting additional equipment. Keep in mind that you won’t be able to split which speakers both instruments go through, so they could drown out each other.
Here’s an in-depth breakdown of this method:
- Plug one guitar into its own input if your guitar amp has two of them. If it only has one input, use a ¼-in (0.6 cm) cable splitter (or whichever size cable your guitars use).
- Reduce the volume and gain to a little below halfway on the amp. This lets you take control with the individual guitar pickups to prevent them from sounding like white noise.
- Increase the lead guitar’s pickup volume, then slightly reduce the backup guitar’s pickup volume. Make all of the desired adjustments on both instruments, including treble, bass, etc.
What To Know Before Using a Guitar Amp
Before using a guitar amp, you should know that its noise output is often tied to its wattage, maintenance suggestions vary, and there are many ways to boost your amp speaker’s output. Amplifiers come in all shapes, sizes, and styles, so they have many different ways of using and repairing them.
Solid-state amps often range between a small 10-watt amp to a massive 100-watt amp. A 100-watt amp is perfect for big venues, but it’ll vibrate the walls off of most bedrooms. On the other hand, a 10-watt amp is ideal for bedrooms and people who don’t want to wake the neighbors.
That being said, these wattage numbers aren’t the same for most tube amps. A 10-watt tube amp can be almost as loud as a solid-state amp that uses two to three times more electricity. This is because tube amps use their energy much more efficiently than solid-state amps. They’re also much more energy-efficient than modeling amps.
Note: Tube amps sound better when they’re played at higher volumes, but their quality dips if they’re below 25% volume.
Troubleshooting a Guitar Amp
There are many ways to troubleshoot a guitar amp, including adjusting the volume and gain on every connected piece of equipment, making sure there’s a reliable power source, and checking if the fuse is blown. You should also check the cables’ condition, then make sure you have all of the correct inputs and outputs.
Let’s look at each of these problems and solutions below.
- It might seem silly, but it’s very easy to forget to adjust the gain and volume. Gain controls the incoming sounds, while volume controls the outgoing sounds. If there’s no gain, your volume won’t do anything. If there’s no volume, you won’t hear any results from the gain.
- Use a multimeter to make sure your amp is getting enough power. Most amps use as little as 10 watts to 100 watts, which isn’t a lot of electricity. Nevertheless, a low-end cable, power splitter, or wall outlet can limit how much energy the amp is receiving.
- You can find blown fuses by unplugging the amp and pulling out the fuses next to the power cable inlet. Most amps have one or two fuses. If the filament is damaged or the glass is broken, you need a new fuse. Use a multimeter to test the fuse while it’s plugged in, too.
- Check every cable, ensuring they’re not broken or damaged, then make sure that they’re connected to the correct ports. It’s very easy to mix up inputs and outputs on an amplifier, especially if they’re right next to each other. Additionally, small tears or exposed wires on a cable can render it useless.
All guitar amps work with cables and electricity, which means that energy is usually the primary cause of the problem. Always test every part of your amp when you’re troubleshooting volume problems. Unfortunately, blown speakers can also cause the amp to sound awful. You’ll have to replace them to repair the audio quality.
Guitar amps are great for recording, playing louder music, and more. They’re usually the first piece of equipment a guitarist uses after picking out an instrument. I’m confident that the aforementioned step-by-step process will help any beginner learn how to master their amplifier very quickly. Good luck!