Guitar amplifiers are a major part of your tone. Some amps can do many things well, while others excel at producing specific tonal qualities. When shopping for a guitar amplifier, you will have to choose between a Tube or Solid-State model, and whether you want a combo, or separate head and speaker cabinet.
Tube based guitar amplifier use old fashioned vacuum tubes to produce their power and process the guitar’s signal. They are very loud, and generate a large amount of heat during operation. Generally, tube amps provide a warm tone that when pushed hard will produce a natural, overdriven distortion that is very sought after by many guitarists. Tube amplifiers will require maintenance as the vacuum tubes need periodic replacement.
Solid-State guitar amplifiers rely on transistors and integrated circuits to amplify and process the guitar’s signal. Although they can’t match the raw power and smooth, natural distortion of a tube amp, Solid-State amps tend to be much more versatile. Modern electronics are often used to produce a broader range of tones than found in most tube based guitar amplifiers. They also run cooler, and are relatively maintenance free.
Choosing between a combo or separates is often a personal decision. Combo guitar amps use a single cabinet to house the electronics and speakers. They take up less space, and are generally easier to transport. Separates give you greater flexibility with respect to speaker size and type. Since there’s more room for components, some argue that separates are built to higher standards than combos, but this is not always true. One really big advantage of separates is that the head can be isolated from vibrations produced by the speakers, extending the life and reliability of the electronic components.
Whichever type of amp you choose, keep in mind that your guitar and amp work as a team. Plugging an expensive, well voiced instrument into a cheap amplifier won’t allow the instrument to reach its full potential. A good amplifier will last you for many years… so don’t skimp!