By night, it’s all about spotlights, scissor-kicks and stack amps. But by day, you’re more likely to find the average musician hunched alone in a bedroom, coffee on the side, working on speed-picking at a volume that won’t have the bloke downstairs banging on the ceiling. To improve, you need to practise. To practise effectively, you need the right amp. At this point, you’re probably picturing the stunted, sexless, feature-free guitar practice amps of the bad old days, and glazing over. Scrub that stereotype. While practice amps typically offer modest power, the market has undergone a quiet revolution, and these days they’re anything but dull. Here’s five tips to get a practice amp made perfect.
10-Watts is plenty for practice
Human nature draws us to girth and grunt, but it’s critical to remember the application you have in mind. If you’re a fresh-faced newbie, and this amp is strictly earmarked for bedroom practise, a hell-raising decibel-machine is less useful than a compact, single-speaker 10-watter with good raw tone. If you’re practising alone, you could even get away with a matchbox-sized headphone amp that plugs direct into your guitar jack. Wattage requirements step up if you’re looking to rehearse with a drummer, and again if you’re gigging – but don’t lose sight of the fact this is a practice amp, and if you stick with this music lark, it’ll probably be supplemented with a larger model for live.
Solid state is (usually) good enough
The majority of practice amps are solid-state, while a handful of pricier models offer genuine valves. There’s still a whiff of elitism surrounding the valve format, but don’t sweat it. Valves do sound killer, and if you’re a well-heeled veteran who’ll be taking this amp into the studio, then knock yourself out. If you’re practising at home, though, it’s not a point to get hung up on; solid-state amps are cheaper, lighter, don’t need cranking to get filthy and usually have more features. Plus, there are far more out there to choose from.
You’re far more likely to practise if you sound the part, so don’t settle for a amp that ties you to one nails-down-blackboard tone. A multi-band EQ for adjusting treble and bass is a no-brainer, but these days, many practice amps pack in the fireworks, including features like switchable clean/gain channels, onboard amp models and built-in effects that would wipe out your overdraft if you bought them as stompboxes. Obviously, the more your amp does, the more it’ll sting you… but a life without tweaking isn’t worth living.
Focus on chop-building features
The clue is in the name. If you’re buying a practice amp, you’re presumably looking to boost your chops – and there’s plenty of features out there to help. Some amps have built-in rhythm patterns to get your timing locked down before you hook up with a flesh-and-blood drummer. Others feature loopers, letting you overdub parts and build up solo musical pieces. Cleverest of all are the new wave of amps that allow USB connectivity to computers and iOS devices. With this kind of amp, you can interface with apps like Cube Jam to record songs, jam with your favourite MP3s and use phrase trainers to slow down and unpick slippery solos. Exotic stuff, but don’t forget the humble tuner and headphone jack: perhaps the most useful practise features of all.
Don’t be seduced by stardust and sales patter
It’s easy to be blinded by celebrity endorsers, big-name brands and slick sales assistants, but most important is to choose the practice amp that feels right to you. Scour the Internet with a list of criteria and arrive at the music shop with a shortlist of potential choices, but be prepared to make a U-turn based on what your trusty ears tell you on the day. There’s a simple rule of thumb in this game. If it sounds good to you, then it is good.