Noted amp designer Ritchie Fliegler on getting a satisfying amplified sound
Acoustic vs. electric amps
Most of us are familiar with the concept of an electric guitar amplifier as not only a sound reproducer, but also as a sound creator and enhancer. The extent to which your favorite amp colors the sound of your guitar is immediately apparent to anyone who has ever plugged their instrument “naked” into a PA or recording console. The sound is flat, lifeless, not remotely inspiring. Add your favorite amp or simulator and all of a sudden – THERE IT IS! MY SOUND!
While not as obvious, the same is true for acoustic guitar amps. While they may seem flat with regard to frequency and physical response, a great acoustic guitar amp is far from being a hi-fi device. Acoustic guitars have an extended dynamic range (soft to loud) and wide frequency response (low notes and harmonics to high notes and harmonics) when compared to electric guitars. Also, and this is big, electric guitars can distort and electric amp designers have taken the art of distortion to a high art – acoustic amps need to stay clean all the way.
What is an acoustic amp?
Imagine the technical brief facing an acoustic amp designer. I spoke to noted acoustic guitar products designer and president of Fishman Transducers, Larry Fishman. He addressed the challenges: “An acoustic guitar amp needs to be just as loud, easy to operate and reasonably priced as an electric amp, and it also needs to be clean from low to high. There’s nothing more annoying than sloppy bass notes or the grating type of distortion that comes from a distorting tweeter.”
Acoustic amps also need to have a useful palette of effects, feedback control, a number of auxiliary inputs, and more. It’s a lot to expect and meeting all the requirements is not easy.
Fishman talked about the design process, “When we’re designing our Loudbox amps, when they’re still on paper, we are looking at and considering all of the issues: The need for players’ voices to sound as good as their guitars through the same system. What kind of effects are we going to incorporate? Believe it or not, we also pay a huge amount of attention to cabinet materials and construction. How the cabinet goes together, how stiff or loose it is and other factors all come into play in the resulting sound. We also spec and source all of our own speakers. Nothing is left to chance. Everything is deliberate and designed so musicians can concentrate on the one thing they need to be thinking about: their performance.”
Bigger is not better, it’s just bigger
Acoustic guitar amps typically fall into one of three power ranges:
Small: 50-75 watts
Medium: 110 - 150 watts
Large: 175 watts and up
Depending on where you play and whether you’re a solo or ensemble player, it pays to buy the amp that fits your situation. Extra power comes at a dollar cost and more powerful amps are also larger and heavier to haul around. If you’re looking to compete with a drummer, other amplified players, some vocals and keys, you’re going to need all the gusto you can manage. You need a large amp.
The Fishman Loudbox Performer is a 180-watt, bi-amplified acoustic guitar amp that gets top marks from singer-guitarists who play in louder settings.
If you’re a soloist or perhaps play in a smaller acoustic combo or duo, a medium amp will suffice.
With 120 watts the Fishman Loudbox Artist is a good choice for smaller, acoustic-music settings.
For practice sessions or solo coffee-house gigs and the like, a small amp will get you where you need to be.
The Fishman Loudbox Mini puts out 60 watts—enough to fill small venues and practice sessions.
Finger picker or pick-picker
Something to consider is how you play; what is your style? If you’re a finger-style player who doesn’t use picks, you produce a softer sound level than players who use finger picks or flat picks. Also, if you’re a “big strummer,” you will be putting out much more level than any of the other players. You should consider this when deciding how much power you will need.
Another thing to look for is an input sensitivity control. In the same way a gain knob regulates the amount of distortion an electric guitar amp produces, an input sensitivity control on a well-designed acoustic amp allows you to control your signal so that a big strum won’t distort and soft finger-picked passages will be heard.
The ins and outs of it all
Finally, let’s look at the back panel. All too often we are so fixated on the front-panel controls that we forget to look around the back and see what other features and connectivity options are available in a particular amp. Some of the obvious ones are an aux in or effects loop. Other outputs indicating a well thought-out design are a main line out and individual outputs for each channel. These individual outputs are useful for large amps on big stages and as interfaces for recording gear and other effects.
Check the back panel for a well thought out complement of performance features.
Trust your ears, but make sure you’re listening to the right thing
The ultimate test of an acoustic amp is its overall sound. However, always remember that the sound coming out of your acoustic amp is coming at you, while the sound you hear from the guitar you’re holding is coming from the back of the instrument, which may also reflected off other surfaces . The sound from your amp is also a lot, lot louder.
The acoustic sound and the amplified sound of your guitar will not be the same. What you’re looking for from the amp is a pleasing sound, one that is free from overly colored EQ or drastic compression or other artifacts that may sound nice at first, but can very quickly become fatiguing or annoying.
Noted amplifier historian and designer for Fender and Marshall, Ritchie Fliegler, is also the author of AMPS! The Other Half of Rock ’N' Roll and The Complete Guide to Guitar And Amp Maintenance.
© Fearless Marketing LLC. Used with permission.
Dive deeper with our Acoustic Guitar Amplifier Buying Guide