British Vs. American Amp Sound
Two Distinct Sonic Palettes
When you hear a beautiful clean tone or bone crushing distortion coming out of a guitar amp, you may prefer a certain type of character. That character can often be traced to two distinct styles of tone - the "British" style and "American" style. These styles are defined by the country of origin of the manufacturers that make these amps and how their sound has shaped music over the years and to this day.
The British Sound
The British character of a guitar amp often starts with EL34 or EL84 power tubes. Many British manufacturers of guitar amps feature these tubes, which are known for an easy, smooth breakup that occurs naturally at lower volumes.
The Marshall sound has often defined British character. The "plexi" clean sound is loud and clear, while the JCM distortion is iconic for that "balls to the wall" sound. Some examples of distinctly British, unmistakably Marshall tone is the distortion used by Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Guns 'N' Roses. These are tones that are defined by a pleasing saturation
The British character of Vox amps have the same smoothness and sweet quality. Known for their creamy cleans, they are also sought after for their ability to have this searingly smooth overdrive. The purest example is Brian May of Queen's soaring, ear pleasing guitar tone out of his Vox AC30.
Manufacturers like Orange offer amps with a crunchier type of quality. This tone is often sought after for high gain or fuzz tones in hard rock or metal.
The American Sound
The American character is exemplified by bold, loud headroom. Often using 6L6 power tubes, these amps can offer massive amounts of volume before breaking up.
It's fair to say that the American sound has been majorly defined by Fender. The dynamic range offered by the many desired amps throughout the years has been sought after by blues artists. The purest example may be the glassy, raw sound of Stevie Ray Vaughan. In fact, he was known to naturally drive his Fender tube amp to the breaking point, which was famously known to be ear splittingly loud in the clubs despite sounding glorious on records. Funk guitarists have often sought out Fender amps for their clean dynamics.
Other American brands such as MESA/Boogie are known to offer distorted tones that have a girthy, aggressive sound that has a bone crushing quality to it, which contrasts to the smooth, thick saturation of a British Marshall, for example.
Boutique manufacturers often hone in and craft an American sound in the vein of Fender, such as Milkman Amplifiers. These amps, while priced at a premium, offer a sound that tightens up the low end dynamics and tames any harsh or shrill elements that occur when turned up loud.
Sounds Transcend Borders
With amp manufacturers experimenting and diversifying, these traditionally "British" and "American" styles often get redefined with the release of new innovative products. For example, in many digital amps, these two styles can be toggled, modified, or blended into a unique sonic character. Take a good look at the guitar amp options available, and of course, always trust your ears.
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