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The Evolution of the Amplifier

Once upon a time, when guitars amplifiers needed batteries to operate…

For most of us today, the concept of life without guitar amplifiers seems like ancient folklore. In reality, there are people alive today that lived through the invention of the guitar amp. Long before Les Paul created the electric guitar, a world existed where, if you wanted to hear sound amplified, you would go to a movie theatre or public address to hear sound through large and expensive sound systems. It wasn’t until 1927 (according to Wikipedia) that the portable PA and Speakers became available for musicians.

It’s all in the tone
It wasn’t until the 1930’s that amps had an acceptable form of volume and tone control. Some of these early invention had deadly voltage issues and while I haven’t found any stories about musicians getting killed by their amplifiers, you can sense the poetic irony in the thought alone.
By the 1950’s the kinks seemed to be getting worked out and vibrato and reverb became a standard.

The truth gets distorted
Distortion was the tone that seemed to change the game for the popularity of the electric guitar. In the 1950s guitarists like Chuck Berry began experimenting with the distortion. Once Dick Dale worked with Fender to help design the first 100 watt amplifier, the door opened to the world of amplification that came to the forefront of music in the 1960s.
With pioneering musicians like Jimmy Hendrix and Dave Davies of The Kinks, the leash was taken off and the way amplifiers were being used in the process of creating effects and distortions created an extra sense of purpose to the amplifier.

Cover your frequencies
As would be expected, competition between amp manufactures pushed the purpose of the amplifier to suit the needs for an increasingly electrified world. The needs of electric piano, bass guitars, synthesizers and organs, made the expansion of frequency and tonal range inevitable.
In came the subwoofers!

Tube, Solid State, Current State
As specifications changed and got more focused, amplifiers were offered in different configurations. Amplifiers made use of vacuum tubes or solid state transistors, sometimes both. Really, it was and is all about the desired tone. Each type of semi-conductor, be it tube or transistor, have a their own vibes. A guitarist like Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin might want one tone, while Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead will want another. In addition to that, the amplifiers became optional to have separate then the speaker cabinet, allowing the musicians to pair the amplifiers they like the best with their favorite speaker cabinet. Fortunately, for musicians from the beginner guitarist to Geddy Lee of Rush, the options are expansive, with a high range of options in everything from tone and look, to weight and price.

Looking into the future
While the trends are looking like amplifiers are getting lighter and smaller and packing the same, if not better punch than ever before, there is a creative element to the music experience that will keep the amplifier as an important part of the musical experience. As a musician, I can attest that people pay attention to the look of gear as much as they do to the sound. The classic look of a well designed guitar or bass amp will never go out of style. If anything, the popularity of amplifiers like Orange Amps, shows just how much a musician takes pride in having gear that stand out both visually and audibly. If I had to predict the future, something that I foresee, or maybe would just like to see, is the increase of modular capabilities built into amplifiers. Imagine Jimi Hendrix holding his guitar up to his amp and getting a distorted arpeggiator effect!!

Contributor Adam Chase is the CEO of and a professional touring musician that has performed with everyone from Santana, Aersosmith and Crosby Stills & Nash to Fred Wesley, Clyde Stubblefield and George Porter Jr. 
Adam is also a managing partner at Chase Family Music, a company that books and manages bands and puts on events and concerts around the country with an expansive knowledge of the music industry.

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