How Does a Guitar Amp Work: Breaking Down the Basics

You can’t get far with your electric guitar without an amplifier. It’s the device that takes the raw signal from your guitar and transforms it into a powerful, sonorous tone that can fill a room or even a stadium. But have you ever wondered how does a guitar amp work?

In this article I will provide a simple way to understand the workings of an amp with illustrations, and help navigate the difference between different types of amps. Let’s dive in.


How Do Guitar Amps Work

In short, a guitar amplifier works by receiving the weak electrical signal from a guitar’s pickups, amplifying it via the preamp and power amp stages, and then sending it to the speaker to produce sound. The amp’s controls and any built-in effects shape the tone of the sound along the way.

To better understand this process let’s follow the path of the signal from the moment it enters the amp to when it’s emitted as sound.

The Input – Signal Start

The input is where you plug in your guitar on the amp. When you pluck a string on your guitar, the pickups generate a small electrical signal. This signal travels down your guitar cable and into the amp via the input jack. This is the first step of the signal path.

Amps can have 1 or 2 inputs. These inputs still go through the same circuitry but provide more flexibility for the player, such as being able to use 2 guitars, or switching tones quickly by input switching.


Preamp – First Amplification

The signal first enters the preamp stage, where it’s amplified to a level that can be manipulated by the amp’s controls.

These include the tone controls—usually bass, mid, and treble. They let you shape the sound by boosting or cutting certain frequency ranges. If your amp has built-in effects, like reverb or chorus, the signal will pass through these next.

preamp-controls-on-amp-illustration-showing tone controls, preamp gain controls and input

The preamp is the first place where the tone of your guitars signal is “shaped” by the amp. For tube and hybrid amps preamp tubes play a huge part in overall sound of the amp. Solid state amps depend on transistors for amplification of signal in the preamp and are less tone rich compared to tubes.

Power Amp – Second Amplification

The power amp stage is where the real amplification happens. The power amp takes the processed signal from the preamp and amplifies it further so it can drive the speaker. Overall, this boosts the signals volume and headroom.

preamp-and-poweramp-in-tube-amp-illustration-showing preamp tubes-and poweramp tubes in an amp

Tube amps will usually have a few tubes for the power amp. Here, the tubes are less about tone and more about power, a lot of the time power amp tubes will appear larger than preamp tubes for this reason. However, power tubes still contribute to the tone of the amp, so choice matters.

circuitry-of-a-solid-state-amp-illustration-showing transistors and capacitors

Solid state and hybrid amps depend on 1 or 2 power transistors for amplification of the signal in the power amp. Here is where transistors shine providing stable amplification with more headroom and less negative effect on tone. Power transistors themselves do not contribute to tone, unlike tubes.

Speaker – Sound Production

Finally, the signal is sent to the speaker, which converts it to sound waves. The size, number, and type of speaker can have a big impact on the final sound. Check out the various examples of Celestion speakers I provided below. This is my personal favorite brand of guitar amp speakers.

guitar-amp-speakers-example-illustration showing 4 types of celestion speakers

Larger speakers can produce more bass frequencies, while smaller speakers can produce more treble. You can also connect to additional speaker cabinets for more output (think Cream in the late 60’s).

Types of Guitar Amps

I want to discuss the types of amps in a little more detail here. Previously, we made the distinction between the types of amps and their amplification for both the preamp and the power amp. Now, lets look at each in more detail.

Tube Amps

Tube amps are also known as valve amps. They use vacuum tubes to amplify the signal. They’re known for their warm, rich tone and natural overdrive. When you play softly, the sound stays clean, but when you play harder, the sound breaks up into a smooth distortion.

example-of-tube-amp-for-guitar-illustration-showing a fender deluxe reverb tube amp

Tube amps have been my ultimate favorite for years, regardless of the type of sound I am trying to achieve. I have played vintage boutique tube amps as well as Peavey tube heads perfect for metal. The tone produced by tube amps is simply superior to the other amp types.

Their quality in tube amps is reflected in the amount of players they attract as well as their higher price tag. Also keep in mind tube amps require more maintenance, as tubes need to be periodically replaced.

This is actually a good thing, because you can change tubes to your liking to adjust the tone of your amp.

Solid-State Amps

Instead of tubes, solid-state amps use transistors for their amplification process. Solid-state amps are known for their clean, clear tones, but some guitarists feel they lack the warmth and character of tube amps. They’re more reliable and lighter than tube amps, and they require less maintenance.

example-of-solid-state-amp-for-guitar-illustration-showing a blackstar silver line stereo deluxe amp

Most new players start with a basic solid-state amp due to their convenience and price tag. However, there are much more expensive and quality models available as well. Due to their reliability, these amps will require much less maintenance, but this comes at the price of tone since transistors are not able to replicate the unique tone of vacuum tubes.

Sweetwater has a great video discussing the difference between tube amps and solid state amps. I recommend watching it if you want more details on the differences between these two standard types of amps

Hybrid Amps

Hybrid amps are a good option for someone looking for an amp that combines both tubes and solid state technology. In hybrid amps the preamp stage is amplified by tubes, but the power amps stage is powered by transistors.

This way the amp captures the essence of tube amps and the reliability and headroom of solid state amps. Hybrid amps never really took off, however. Most guitarists still value the tones of fully tube powered amps, myself included.

Digital Amps

Also known as modeling amps, digital amps use digital processors to simulate the sound of various types of amps. They’re very versatile and can emulate the tones of various tube and solid-state amps. I have used the Scarlett 2i2 and 2i4 interfaces for many years now.

They are perfect for dialing in specific tones, using various effects, all from your computer. You will need software to run the interface, such as Ableton or Logic (my preference).

using-a-digital-amp-interface-illustration-showing a guitar and a computer connecting to an interface for recording or playing

Conclusion: How Does a Guitar Amp Work

Now you should have a good understanding of how does a guitar amp work. The signal path takes us from the input to the preamp, power amp, and finally the speaker. At each step the tone of your guitar is formed through the various electric processes. In the end what you hear is the beautiful sound of your guitar.

I personally love the combination of using a tube amp for home pracatice and a digital modeling interface like the Scarlett for home recording. This way I get the best of both worlds and still enjoy collecting or testing new amps.

Hope you found this helpful, feel free to drop a comment. Thank you for reading!

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