JAMS NOTES: Is the Guitar Amp Dying?
(Whaa…ha…ha!!! I’ve got you with my controversial headline. The click has been tallied and my evil plan accomplished. Now on to the mediocre content…)
I’m super excited about the post this week, simply because it features excerpts from local musicians. I always love including the perspective of other local musicians. I tend to have the view of a grumpy old guy that sits on his stool in the back of the store clutching his cane while hurling insults and sunflower seeds at would-be customers. (Retirement goals). My opinions are just that, my opinions. Sometimes they tend to be dumb or just wrong. So, I love including opinions from players that are actually living the local musician scene. At JAMS, I just simply supply the tools and hang out in my cozy little shop fixing guitars. This panel of musicians are the ones putting it to use in real life. So, I ask them, “Is the guitar amp dying?”
Before we check out their response, let me expand upon this question and explain why I bring it up. I have the unique experience of owning and operating a music store that deals primarily with guitars and related accessories. Over the last couple of years I’ve seen amp sales drop significantly at my store. I still sell a ton of small practice amps, suitable for beginners or experienced players wanting a simple home practice solution. The focus here is on the larger performance size amps and half stacks. Sales numbers for those types of amps have dipped down quite a bit. I’ve also noticed the influx of pedal amps, pedals with cab sims, and of course multi-effect units designed to go direct in a PA. So, will guitar amps be obsolete in 5-10 years? Is there a need for them or will they be found only in museums next to the fax machine and telegraph machine?
Is the guitar amp dying? Let’s see what are panel has to say about it:
Johnny Ruedrich - Home Recording Guitarist
“As a home studio enthusiast, recording guitar used to be something I struggled with. Putting a 57 in front of an amp and cranking it is hard to do in a home studio without making a lot of folks angry. But wow have things changed! With products like the Helix, Boss IR 200, amp sims, and the Two Notes Captor X, you can get really good recordings and not disturb anyone. Forest Whitehead produced Kelsea Ballerinis first hit record and used amp sims for every electric guitar on the tracks. That being said, in my opinion, nothing beats a tube amp with proper mic placement. I personally like the Two Notes Captor X more than my HX stomp or the Boss IR 200 because I can use my tube amps with it. Are real amps a thing of the past? I don't think so. Nearly every player I know prefers a tube amp. But there is definitely a place for all these new products and they keep getting better and better. I believe the future of guitar amps (real or simulated) is gonna be incredible. I'd recommend jumping into both worlds. You can never have too much gear right?”
Joe Ettling - Scatterguns Lead Guitarist
I found some data on the amplifier market including all types of instrument amps, showing a cumulative 42.8% decrease in amplifier sales from 2005 to 2021 (Statista Research Department, Jul 27, 2022). While the numbers are down, even as global guitar sales have increased in recent years, I think it's important to realize that there are simply more options for players to hear their electric guitars now. The impressive array of digital processors, plugins, IRs and simulators simply didn't exist 15 or 20 years ago, either in quantity or especially, quality. This influx of effective equipment options has, in my mind, forced the traditional amplifier to move aside and make room in the market. I prefer traditional amps, but I acknowledge the new gear is good, and it's gaining ground. As these new options continue to evolve and grow, I predict the amplifier will yield even more of its market share. I don't think the guitar amp as we know it will ever "die", because there will always be some individuals who prefer the old school approach. Additionally, amps currently still have a place for smaller gigging bands. Many venues don't provide much of a PA for shows, and I wouldn't be comfortable running my rig directly to front of house in those situations.
Eric Burton - Worship Pastor, Media Specialist
Is the amp dying? I don’t think so. But the desire for a smaller footprint and the ability to go digital while maintaining great tone on the go is for sure on the up. And the options have never been better. From Helix, to Kemper, and now the Nueral DSP, I’m blown away with the quality and tone people are getting from them. I still rock my tube amp and individual pedals but am tempted more and more every time I have to lug everything around to make the switch.
Trey Gosche - Home Studio Guitarist
Most guitar amps are limited to 1 or two types of tones. Some pedals/processors can be limitless in comparison to owning one amp. I believe the pedals are more affordable and practical, especially for young people without a lot of money or knowledge using gear such as amps. Along with today's technological advancements digital processors can recreate most any tone or sound you get for using a real amp. Why have one when you can have them all. Also decreases your gear load when gigging.
It does depend on your needs. The guitarist who primarily records demands the versatility, convenience, and control of plug-ins and other alternatives from cranking and mic-ing. Those who constantly perform need the raw pure power of a loud amp and value consistency over versatility. That makes the question harder to answer. Either way, it's clear that the guitar amp is not as popular as it used to be.
I personally blame the Line 6 Helix for bringing this amp armageddon on us. Ampless options have been available for decades. In my youthful days it was way easier to get my Digitech RP100 to sound bad then it was to get it dialed in for good. Along comes the Helix and now the tone difference between traditional amps and digital reproduction is much closer. The perception that tube amps are “the only way” started to shift and guitarists started experimenting with the alternatives. Droves of guitarists traded their rigs for Helix types. Then, they realized that they missed their individual pedals. More innovation and change leads to pedal IR and pedal size amps, so we can still use our favorite pedals. The “standard” way to set up your guitar rig expanded to many methods. The fact that there are more excellent options has pushed the necessity of traditional amps way down. However, most everyone on the panel, including myself, agrees that a large tube amp is a unique experience no modeler, no processor, no plug-in can achieve.
One of the best ways to predict the future is studying the past. Pianists and drummers are standing from afar mocking our dilemma as they have already walked through this scenario. Most modern pianists will agree that a digital keyboard is way more versatile, convenient, portable, and cost effective than a traditional piano. But, for purity of tone and playing experience there is nothing better sounding than a grand piano. Same with a drum set. Electronics kits have come a long way to provide the feel and sound of a drum kit. You can’t compare the convenience and versatility of a good quality electronic kit. But most drummers, neigh, all drummers prefer an acoustic kit over an electronic kit. So while innovation is great and it produces the next wave of instruments, musicians never completely separate themselves for the purity of the traditional.
Is guitar amp dying? I conclude no. Even though the market has created a vast number of innovative alternatives, that same market continues to feed us new innovative large amps too. I would say that amps are no longer essential for electric guitar players. I can see that today’s player can learn, develop, record and perform without the need of a large combo amp. But the guitar player is a unique musician, never satisfied and always hungry for more gear. As long as there is money to be made then companies will still produce amps. It's safe to say the more options available the more we must have. So in the future, there may not be an amp in every guitar player's home, and not every band may drag around large amps. However, for those who need to cover every aspect of guitar gear, you’ll find a dusty large box sitting in the corner of the basement ready to fire up when called upon.
Special thanks to the group of guys that contributed to this piece. I appreciate you guys taking the time to offer feedback, perspective and support.