Jazz guitarists are an interesting bunch in many ways. We pine over beautifully exquisite and costly guitars…yet these wonderful instruments are so acoustically inefficient that to play with other musicians in even a small space we often require the assistance of another instrument: the amplifier. The amplifier is often the least understood link in a Jazz guitarist’s sound chain, yet it’s responsible for a significant role in bringing the musician’s message to the audience. In a live situation a guitar can sound no better than what the amplifier will deliver. “The amplifier is truly the other instrument we all play.”
This Primer is meant to start the process of evaluating an amp for your Jazz guitar. By the way, we will discuss only “clean” ideals here. Distorted and synthesized sounds have their own ethic and are a separate topic.
Be true to your guitar
Many iconic Jazz guitar players have developed their unique musical voice around a particular type of instrument. For example, consider Wes Montgomery or early Jim Hall with their Gibson L5/175s, in contrast to Ed Bickert and Ted Greene on their Fender Teles, Freddie Green on his acoustic Strombergs, or Gene Bertoncini on his Buscarino nylon-string. It’s not just a matter of tone, it’s that these guitarists’ musical conception and technique are directly linked to the way their type of guitar responds and sounds. Understanding the sonic scope of your guitar and music you choose to play is integral to the process of defining the right amplifier for your needs.
So where to start?
Your guitar knows what it wants…listen to it! I suggest taking your guitar to a small quiet space and playing a few measures just to hear what it sounds like unadulterated by other factors. A corner and even a bathroom or closet can serve the purpose. Essentially, you want to get a sense of what your guitar sounds like as if you had your ears in front of the guitar, not just from your usual playing position. A corner or small space will bounce the sound back to you.
If you own several different guitars, keep in mind that there is no amp that can “do everything” well, although several modern models of amps and drivers are able to cover a significant amount of ground. Still, electronics, speakers, and cabinets are necessarily designed around specific parameters to serve a particular purpose. Often the more narrowly defined that sonic spectrum is, the better able the “amplification system” can deliver by optimizing each of the components.
I’m ready. Now what?
If you can, simply plug in and trust your ears! Of course, there are many choices so here are some ideas to begin narrowing the scope:
The more acoustic your guitar, the more likely it’s going to want an amplifier system engineered to reproduce what it “hears” from the instrument in as transparent way as possible. For those who prefer playing a nylon-string classical style or flattop acoustic steel-string guitar, you may want to audition full-range amplifier systems with multiple drivers (speakers) to handle lows, mids, and high frequencies. Their broad frequency spectrum and inert cabinetry help provide a neutral mirror of your instrument’s inherent voice.
The closer your guitar is to an electric instrument, chances are that it may want to engage a different type of amplifier to extract color and resonance. In this case, your guitar may be more attracted to single speaker systems (or multiple arrays of the same speaker) within a voiced cabinet. These amps have a more narrowly focused “sonic window” and are tuned to enhance a particular frequency range.
Jazz guitar wouldn’t be Jazz guitar without archtops. Not all archtop guitars are the same. Speaking broadly, there are two main categories of archtops: those built primarily as acoustic instruments and often fitted with a “floating” mini magnetic pickup near the neck, and those that are more electric in nature with full-sized humbucker pickups carved into the guitar’s top.
Many players who own acoustic style archtops prefer amp and speaker systems with an extended frequency range, while electric style archtop players often chose traditionally voiced guitar amps. Still, there are always exceptions, so whenever possible simply plug in and trust your ears. There is nothing wrong with experimenting and improvising…after all, this is Jazz!
Misconceptions: tube vs. solid state electronics.
The electronic industry has long proved that it can engineer that coveted “warm-yet-clear” amplifier sound for the Jazz guitarist in both tube/valve and solid-state formats. Each camp has its loyal group of followers, but for purposes of this article it’s safe to recommend that in terms of “tone” guitarists should audition Jazz guitar amps on face value and without biased predispositions toward a certain technology. There’s no one simple answer.
Sometimes Jazz guitarists have specific needs in an amplifier and acknowledging these requirements helps narrow the field of amp choices. For example, some Jazz guitarists play one guitar, while others regularly use two instruments (e.g., archtop and nylon-string guitars), or play and sing. If you are among that second group, then a two-channel amplifier voiced for Jazz guitar would prove useful.
Also, some players find that amplifiers with multiple control parameters help them precisely dial in their sound to the guitar, the playing situation, or the room, while others value simplicity over flexibility and only want a volume knob. You know yourself…be honest.
Where can I get more information?
You know your needs and preferences better than anyone. If you live close to a store that truly understands Jazz guitar, take your guitar and audition their inventory of amplifiers. Alternatively, contact a reputable online dealer with hands-on knowledge specific to Jazz guitar amps, and ask them to help you in making the best choice for your individual needs.
Michael Biller is the owner-guitarist of SOUND ISLAND MUSIC, a Seattle WA USA based retail store representing many of the world’s leading amplifiers for Jazz and acoustic string instruments. Please visit his site for more information on how to choose an acoustic guitar amp, jazz guitar amp or acoustic bass amp.