Last Updated: May-31-2018
There have been several changes in the amplifier world since we last took a look at this mega amp article, spurring us to refresh a lot of content. We have replaced some models in our top ten chart, such as the Bugera Trirec and the Vox AV15, with a host of new additions. These include classic combos like the Fender Champion 100 and the Vox AC15C2, with some awesome heads such as the EVH 5150III and the Boss Katana, as well as the super portable Roland Cube Street.
An electric guitar without an amplifier is pretty much a silent acoustic guitar – not much use to anybody. Ultimately, if you play the electric guitar, a good amp is as important as the instrument itself.
Table Of Contents
Plus, we have written a short guide to give you some of the key information that you need to know when buying a new amp. Let’s get stuck in!
|Image||Guitar Amplifier / Rating||Summary||Check Price|
|+ -|| Peavey 6505 |
Total of 4.85/5
A legendary tone monster designed by Eddie Van Halen.
|+ -|| EVH 5150III 50W |
Total of 4.88/5
Eddie Van Halen’s miracle head that packs a whole lot of heat.
|+ -|| Peavey ValveKing II |
Total of 4.90/5
All the tone of a 6505 with less of the power.
|+ -|| Vox Custom AC15C2 |
Total of 4.70/5
A modern reimagining of the iconic AC15.
|+ -|| Boss Katana Head |
Total of 4.78/5
Huge power and tone for a surprisingly low price.
|+ -|| Marshall MG Series MG15CFX |
Total of 4.78/5
Affordable Marshall combo sets the standard for practice amps.
|+ -|| Blackstar ID: Core 10 V2 |
Total of 4.90/5
Plenty of versatility from this cost-effective combo.
|+ -|| Fender Champion 100 |
Total of 4.70/5
A classic Fender combo amp with great power.
|+ -|| AER Compact 60 |
Total of 4.85/5
Huge tone and power from this high-end acoustic amp.
|+ -|| Roland Cube Street |
Total of 4.72/5
A solid dual-channel choice for street performers.
New to the world of guitar amplifiers? Or a seasoned pro looking for your next stage partner? Whatever your level, there are some important things you should definitely know before you make the plunge and buy a new amp. Let’s take a look at the kind of things you will encounter.
Whether you read articles about amps or talk to experts, you will definitely come across these two fundamental amplifier terms. Both describe a type of amplifier and knowing the difference between a head and a combo, as well as their pros and cons, can help you narrow down your options quite considerably.
A combo amplifier is a unit in which both the amp and speaker is integrated. You plug a guitar into one of these, turn it on and you are ready to play. The obvious benefit of a combo is that you have everything you need in one standalone unit, while the sound tends to be optimized by the manufacturer to be the best it can be – there’s no worrying about matching it with a good speaker. Combo amps also tend to be cheaper than heads and, as such, are excellent for beginners. While some are very capable of small to medium-sized performance, the drawback is that combos are limited in power compared to a head. They also tend to be much heavier, which can be a pain when regularly transporting it.
An amp head is an amplifier without the speakers. This is the type of amp that is most often used on stages of all sizes, from small clubs to huge stadiums. The reason is that amp heads tend to offer more power and can be hooked up to several different speaker cabinets. This allows you unrivalled power as well as the freedom to mix and match your favorite heads and speakers. Another plus is that they are much easier to carry around to gigs, especially if the venue has its own cabinet. The disadvantages of heads are that they are generally more expensive than a combo, while you will also have to factor in the cost of a speaker when purchasing one.
Tube vs. Solid State
Guitar amplifiers have seen a major evolution in the past century or so and guitarists are now left with a choice between tube and solid-state amps, as well as modelling and hybrid amplifiers. While there is plenty of information to get to grips with, knowing the basic differences between the various builds will help you make your decision.
Tube amps – or valve amps as they tend to be known across the pond – are the oldest type of guitar amp design. These use vacuum tubes to amplify the signal of your guitar. Back in the day, a tube amp would have been your only option – and it wasn’t a bad option to have!
The main benefit with tube amps is the tone. They offer what is often described as a pure, natural, creamy or fluid guitar tone, which is incredibly responsive to the player’s dynamics. When pushed hard enough, they overload and produce natural overdrive (which is how overdrive first came to be). While their tone is hard to beat for all styles of music, tube amps tend to be expensive, harder to maintain and heavier than other amps. For more on tube amps, check out our dedicated tube amp page.
While tube amps were the only real option for decades, when the silicon chip was created some manufacturers began developing solid-state amplifiers, which used more efficient silicon-based transistors instead of tubes to boost the signal. While some tube players will never admit it, there are several benefits to owning a solid-state amp.
Firstly, they are cheaper than their tube counterparts, which is why most beginners will end up starting on a solid-state amp. They are also much more efficient, easier to maintain (no need to change tubes), lighter to carry, and less fragile. While the tone of modern-day solid-state amps can be incredible, they don’t tend to be as fluid or responsive as tube amps. For more on solid-state amps, check out our dedicated solid-state amp page.
Want to switch from pristine cleans, to vintage crunch, to face-melting distortion within seconds? You’ll probably want a modeling amplifier. Based on digital sound processing, modeling amps will combine many (sometimes hundreds) of iconic, vintage and modern amp sounds into a single unit, easily selectable at the twist of a dial or press of a button. Of course, the downside to modeling amps can be their recognizable digital tone, but when this means you have a whole guitar store worth of amps at your disposal it doesn’t tend to put many guitarists off.
Hybrid amps are a strange beast. As the name suggests, they combine multiple technologies to produce a unique hybrid amp experience. They may use the digital front end of a modeling amp with a tube-based power stage, or a tube preamp with a solid-state power amp. The benefits of this style of lesser-seen amp is that you can sometimes get the best of both worlds, with the awesome tone of a tube amp, but with the processing power of a solid-state amp. These amps tend to be cheaper than tube amps and generally easier to maintain.
In terms of power, the higher the wattage, the more volume the amp can offer. Combo amps tend to be available in anything from 5 watts to 100 watts, while heads can go much higher again.
For beginners looking to practice their first notes, chords and songs, nothing more than a couple of watts is needed – in fact, most dedicated practice amps won’t offer much more than 10 watts. If you are planning on jamming with a full band or starting to gig in small venues (think bars, clubs and small halls), then anything from 15 to 50 watts will suffice. Bigger gigs, including auditoriums and outdoor festivals, will demand upwards of 100 watts.
When it comes to combo amps, the speakers included will usually give you a good idea of what to expect in terms of power and performance. While bass amps are in a category of their own, guitar combos tend to use speakers of anywhere between 3″ right up to 15″. Obviously, the bigger the speaker, the better suited it is for the stage, while having more than one is an instant upgrade to the power available.
A rule of thumb is to go with the most power your budget will allow. Sure, if you are a complete beginner, you don’t need 50 watts, but if you do have aspirations of performing to crowds, there’s no harm in buying something more powerful then growing into it.
During your search for a good guitar amp, you may run into some terminology used to describe amplifiers, some of which may seem a bit strange. Let’s go over some of the most common terms you might come across.
Quite simply, a stack is an amp head plugged into a speaker cabinet. Just think of a stadium gig – the amps used to power that epic sound are stacks. You can have either full stacks (a head connected to two speaker cabs, used for big performances) and half stacks (a head connected to a single speaker cab).
Preamp Stage / Power Stage
Every amp will have a preamp and a power amp. These are often referred to as the preamp stage and power stage. The preamp picks up the signal from the guitar and boosts it so other parts of the preamp can manipulate it (this is where EQ and gain kick in). The power amp then takes that modified signal and boosts it to a level where the speakers can push it out. You will run into these terms most often with tube amps, as different tubes are installed in each of these stages.
An equalizer (more often called EQ) is the device that allows you to adjust certain frequencies within your tone. The 3-band part implies that the EQ offers three points of control: bass, middle and treble. While 3-band is the standard, you can also have 2-Band EQ (which tend to offer just bass and treble), as well as 4-band EQ, 5-band EQ (low-bass, mid-bass, midrange, upper-midrange, treble) and upwards! Of course, the higher the band, the more versatility the amp offers. But 3-band tends to be the easiest to get to grips with.
From loopers to distortion, effects pedals are a major part of guitar playing these days – and there are two ways to feed these pedals to the amp. You can run them from the front through the instrument input, or you can use an FX loop. The benefit of the latter is that it allows you to insert effects between the preamp and power stage. It’s a complicated topic that relies on a lot of trial and error – not to mention personal taste – but plugging boosters (overdrive, distortion, wah) into the front and then using an FX loop for modulators (chorus, flanger, delay) tends to deliver the best results.
This budget price range is home to compact, low-powered combo amps, which are mainly designed for beginners and home practice. Despite their low volume and limited features, you can find some exceptional sounds and versatility that will make practice sessions good fun. This category can throw up some poorly made cheap amps, so stick to bigger brand names, such as the Blackstar ID:Core 10 V2, which is a great example of what a $100 guitar amp should offer, including low power, decent tone, good EQ and a variety of amp voices. While you may outgrow one of these affordable amps after a year or so, they are a great way to begin.
If you can afford to start on an amp in the sub-$200 segment, you will see an instant upgrade in the amount of power as well as additional features. In this category you are looking at very good practice rigs, although as power is still pretty low they may not be suitable for more than small casual performances. This is the first category where you will find both amp heads and tube amps, although the choice of these is very, very limited. One of the best amps you can grab for under $200 is the Marshall Code 25W. This combo provides a solid tone, 25 watts of power and plenty of amp voices and effects to play around with.
For guitarists looking to gig, this is the best category to start shopping in because stepping into the sub-$300 range offers some great diversity as well as real stage-worthy power. As well as improved solid-state combos, amp heads and tube amps become more readily available in this range, even if they are a little basic. Some very powerful modeling amps are available too, such as the Line 6 Spider V 60, which packs a stage-worthy 60 watts of power, with more than 200 amps, cabs and effects models built in.
With $500 in your pocket, buying a good amp becomes a lot easier. In fact, it’s probably as expensive as most casual guitarists would ever need to go. This category includes a big choice of both amp heads and combos, solid-state and tube amps. While they make great practice amps, they are all worthy of small to medium-sized gigs and studio recording. For example, you can find the excellent Peavey ValveKing II. This little amp head offers the same beastly tone as the iconic full-size 6505, with 20 watts of power and solid controls.
Welcome to the world of premium! While there are several tiers of boutique amplifier priced higher than $1000, this category is when you really start to hit the high end. Some of the most iconic guitar amps sit in this section, although all models are capable of performing on big stages and professional recording studios with pro-grade features, exceptional tones and massive power, extending into 100 watts and above. One amp you will find in this market is the legendary Peavey 6505 Plus head, which has helped shape the sound of metal over the past few decades.
As nobody wants to lug around a 50-watt combo when casually travelling, many guitarists rely on portable amplifiers to quench their amp needs while on the road, street corner or beach. Power isn’t particularly important in this category – size and weight are the most crucial aspects. Other factors such as being battery-powered and having a headphone jack are also key features of these amps. One of the most impressive is the Roland Cube Street, which is a street performer’s dream as it offers great portability, a decent 5-watt output, two channels and several on-board effects.
You didn’t think we would forget bass amps, did you? Due to their inherent differences in design, bass guitars require a dedicated amplifier – using your old Fender Champion isn’t going to cut it. Bass amps offer more power, with some outputs reaching 1000 watts or more. Like guitar amps, bass amplifiers come in many shapes and sizes – including heads and combos – although the mid-range Hartke HD500 offers a stage-worthy 500 watts of power in a portable combo unit, with great controls and an excellent balanced tone.
While you can play one through an electric guitar amp, an acoustic guitar will sound its best if it is played through a dedicated acoustic amplifier. While similar in structure to electric guitar amps, acoustic amps are primarily designed to offer transparency. In other words, it strives to reproduce the tone of your acoustic guitar’s natural sound as closely as possible. Interestingly, they almost exclusively come in a combo format, while most acoustic amps will have two channels – one for the instrument and the other geared towards microphone use. The AER Compact 60 represents what a great acoustic guitar amp looks and sounds like, with enough power for stage use as well as a high-end organic tone.
While it is possible to practice on a huge stack, it’s more convenient (and probably more sensible) to practice on a compact, low-powered, versatile practice amp. These little combo amps are one of the most important tools in a guitarist’s tool box, especially for beginners who should avoid ‘dry practice’ (i.e. without an amp) as it encourages bad habits. Many amps can be considered a practice amp, but one of our favorites is the Fender Frontman 10G – a very affordable practice amp that offers 10 watts of power, solid Fender tone and a headphone jack for quiet practice sessions.
Tube amplifiers are the original amplifier and still seen as the best way to amplify an electric guitar – and for good reason! Despite impressive advances in amplification technology, nothing beats the natural sound of a vacuum tube that has been pushed to its very limit. In fact, for many guitarists it’s either tube or nothing, as the volume, vibe and fluid sound profile of these amps is extremely hard to replicate. One model we really like is the Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister TM18H, which has killer looks, delivers a delightful tube tone, has switchable wattages, and doesn’t break the bank.
Whereas tube amps are the traditional, solid-state amplifiers represent the modern guitar amplifier (even though they have been around for decades). While some guitarists refuse to consider solid-state amps worthy of their time, models such as the Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus are proof that solid-state amplification is not only capable, but preferable in some cases. This high-end amp offers 120 watts of power, professional-grade tone and awesome versatility. It’s a good reflection of this segment, which offers endless versatility with affordable prices, low maintenance and incredible reliability.
Combo amplifiers are the most popular type of guitar amplification these days. While amp heads are the source of incredible power, it is the versatility, convenience and simplicity of combos that makes them the go-to choice for so many – from beginner to seasoned pro. Combos come in a variety of flavors in all price ranges. While the practice amp and budget markets are awash with combos, there are also some epic premium models such as the Fender ’65 Princeton Reverb, which is a revamp of one of the most epic tube combo amps ever made. .
While anything with decent gain could be used for metal, a dedicated metal amp is the only thing a dedicated metalhead would want to use. These amps are actually very similar to other styles of amp, with one big difference – they are loaded with massive gain, which is essential for metal. A perfect example of what makes a great metal amp is the EVH 5150III. Designed with Eddie Van Halen, this all-tube amp head is an absolute beast in term of power and gain, with face-melting distortion and 50 watts of power.
Buying a new guitar amp is easy. But, as you will have seen, ending up with the right amplifier for you isn’t as straightforward. Amps are not something you buy every day, so take your time, read our guide, use our categories and charts as inspiration, and ultimately you will find something that will suit you and your playing perfectly. Good luck in your hunt for the perfect amp!