The invention of the electric guitar paired with an electronic amplifier in the 20th century ushered in a revolution on the musical landscape. The revolution in sound manipulation unleashed a wave of creativity that spawned the rock and roll boom from the 50s onwards.
In 1932 the first commercially made electric guitar became available. The aluminum Ro-Pat-In A22 Frying Pan lap steel fed the fashion for the so-called "Hawaiian" guitars just before Charlie Christian & Les Paul eveloped their first electric instruments. The utterly inadequate amplifiers of the day hardly get a mention. Valve driven creations which would rarely be able to push out more than 15 watts of power; they were often impractically heavy as they frequently relied on clumsy batteries. Guitarists soon became impatient with the amplifiers' poor bandwidth and terrible distortion at higher volumes.
The Technology of Tone
Without going into a long lecture on electronics; suffice it to say that your amplifier takes the relatively inaudible sound of the guitar strings; which your guitar pickups capture as very weak electrical signals. These travel along the lead into the amp's input channel. Then, using either solid state electronics based on transistors or older style "thermionic" valve technology the signal is boosted in strength (explanation here) to give enough electrical current to really blast the speaker coils. The changing electric current is in the same pattern as the signals coming from the guitar strings themselves and so the speaker bellows vibrate in that pattern; producing a much stronger vibration in the air - which carries a much stronger sound to your ears for you to rock... or relax to.
Here's a very simple demonstration of this process.
That's Enough Theory - What Does it Sound Like?
The quality of sound from different amplifiers is a book in itself. One key difference is whether you decide to buy a valve based amp or a solid state amplifier. Each does the same job but each gives a subtly different final sound - even through the same speaker cabinet. Perhaps the best illustration of the difference between valve and solid state amps is this demonstration set up by Craig McDonald of the Clan.This demonstration uses Marshall Amplification gear and is set up as a reasonably fair test. Do listen: as the sound differences are quite subtle for an untrained ear.
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