Your Guide To 3 Types of Guitar Amps & How to Pick One That’s Right for You

A female guitarist plays a guitar plugged into a combo guitar amp.
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Any electric guitar player knows they also need an amplifier if they want anyone to hear what they’re playing. There are different kinds of guitar amps, though, so beginning players might be unsure whether they need a half-stack, full-stack, or combo amp. 

Selecting the right system will make a difference in the sound quality (and, of course, the volume) of the music you can play or record, so it’s essential to choose the right one for your style. Each kind of amplifier setup includes its own combination of volume controls, settings, and tones, and they come in a wide range of prices. 

This guitar amp guide will walk you through the three main kinds of amp systems. It will explain the differences between each, and how to decide which will be best for you and the music you like to play. 

Guitar Amps: The Basics

guitar amps

An electric guitar without an amp is barely audible. Plugging your ax into the right amp will bring your music to life, whether your sound is rough-edged hard rock, clean jazz, or anything in between. 

The electronics built into the amp can take the same note from your guitar and turn it into many different sounds, which it then pumps through its speaker or speakers for your enjoyment. Start your selection process, then, by thinking about what kind of music you’re playing, what you want it to sound like, and where you’ll be playing. A few things to keep in mind:

  • Some guitarists like to play with friends or other musicians, including playing in a band with a drum kit or bass. The right amp will allow you to adjust your guitar’s volume so you and your bandmates can hear it over the deeper sounds of the drums and bass. 
  • Guitarists who play gigs or performances will have different needs, so if that’s you, be sure to consider what kinds of places you’ll be playing in. The acoustics of the space where you will be playing music will also make a difference for which type of amp you pick. You may be playing inside and need less volume, or you might be playing outside and require an amp that gets loud.
  • The genre of music you usually play is also an essential factor in choosing the right type of amplifier. Music like heavy metal and rock that includes electric guitar and bass have a more powerful and loud sound. Jazz and blues are less about powerful sound and more about tonal quality. 

A well-selected system will help you create high-quality music that sounds how you want it to sound. It could be helpful to work with an expert or music supply store to select the best equipment for your guitar playing if you aren’t sure what will work for your style or genre of music.

The Three Types of Amps

electric guitar and amp

There are three main classes of amplifiers: half-stack, full-stack, or combo. Each is best suited for a specific guitar-playing style or music genre. Some professional guitarists might need a loud, high-quality full-stack, while an amateur heavy-metal group might opt for a smaller half stack. This breakdown can help you figure out where your musical style falls on the spectrum.

Combo

A combo amp combines one amplifier head unit and at least one speaker. They come in a range of sizes, including small ones that are excellent for practicing. This is a great place to start for beginning players who don’t expect to be playing to sizable audiences anytime soon.

Half-Stack

A half-stack system encompasses an amplifier head unit plus a speaker cabinet that is attached to the amp. The cabinet can typically accommodate up to four speakers. 

Full-Stack 

A full-stack is one amplifier head unit with two speaker cabinets. These can get very large – as you’ve probably seen if you’ve been to a rock concert – to the point where they can be challenging to move. This will also be the loudest option and is meant to be played in larger spaces.

Figuring out what you need as far as size, volume and portability will steer you toward one of these types. A music school can also guide you in picking an amp that works for your music style.

Which Amplifier System Is Right For You?

electric guitar and amp

The best system for your guitar depends on how and where you play, but your experience level and the expense also matter. Professional musicians who plan to record music or play live shows will often invest in a full-stack. Anyone playing guitar just for fun can get the sound quality and volume they need without the significant investment into a full-stack.

Here’s a bit more information on each type of amplifier to make it easy to pick the best one for you. 

Start With a Combo

Combo systems are usually the best place to start as you begin your music-making career. They are the most practically sized option and the easiest to transport. Players can also use these at home without disturbing their neighbors too much, and they are typically the most affordable. You’ll be able to create good sound and tone quality and reasonable volume without breaking the bank. 

Upgrading to a Half-Stack 

Half-stacks are perfect for well-practiced beginning guitarists or intermediate guitar players. They can create high sound quality and powerful volume levels, and they can be affordable. You can upgrade to a half-stack if you feel like you have outgrown your combo amp or if you’re planning to start playing for audiences. One significant benefit of using a half-stack is that it can always be converted into a full-stack later. Musicians who improve their skills and land some music bookings, or those who expect to record music at some point, should probably go with a half-stack that can be upgraded to a full-stack. 

When to Go for the Full-Stack

Full-stack amplifiers are ready to go at practically any venue. You won’t have to worry too much about volume or sound quality because the full-stack is equipped to produce loud music and will also keep up with the volume and tone of the bass and drum players in a band. It’s an excellent choice to make this purchase if you are a professional musician who regularly plays gigs. These units can be pricey, though, so be sure you need this much power before buying.

It’s not unusual for musicians to end up with a few of these options as they advance. Combos might be the amp they practice on at home, with a half or full-stack ready when they want to put on a show or record a song. 

Guitarists who fall in love with playing will often have more than one guitar, and they also might want to experiment with the varieties of sounds they can get from different amps. It’s a fun and easy way to diversify your music.

Your Source for Expert Amplifier Advice

musician with guitar and amp

Sloan School of Music is a great place to get advice on guitar amps since the staff is full of teachers who share a love of music. They are ready to help you decide which kind of amp you need, and they can teach you how to use the different controls to get the sound you want. If you have questions about guitar amps or are interested in lessons, contact Sloan School of Music today to speak with an expert.

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