When we first start out learning to play guitar, the amplifier is usually an afterthought. Many beginners either skimp on the amp or put off buying one until later. A bad-quality amp will be hard to dial in and can waste hours that you could have spent practicing (trust us, we’ve been there!). Playing exclusively without an amp will cause you to develop poor habits that will make you sound sloppy once you finally plug in. Learning to use and configure your amp is a crucial part of guitar tuition that should be given special consideration. So, how do you buy the right amp?
First steps first: to buy the right amp, you have to consider a few items. What genres do you like to play? What’s your budget? Do you prefer tubes or solid-state amps? Do you want built-in effects or do you prefer to buy effects pedals separately? Some of these questions have a lot of nuances that a beginner can miss, so we’ll walk through each of these and more in detail. At the end of this article, you’ll learn how to choose the right amp for yourself.
- 1 In Defense of Tone
- 2 Solid-state, Tube, or Both?
- 3 How Loud Can You Get?
- 4 Combos and Stacks
- 5 Portability, Volume, and Miking Your Amp
- 6 Budget
- 7 British vs American
- 8 What Do You Like to Play?
- 9 Effects and Effects Loop
- 10 Headphones, Aux, Bluetooth, and USB
- 11 Conclusion
In Defense of Tone
The sound that comes out of your amplifier’s speaker is the culmination of your technique, guitar, pickups, pedals, and strings. A great amp takes these elements and combines them into something enjoyable – something you’ll look forward to hearing every day during practice time. It’s usually versatile enough that you can get a usable tone quickly and easily without spending too much time fiddling around. A great amp proves that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
In contrast, a bad amp drags your tone through the mud. It can be hard to dial-in and cause you to waste hours of your time in search of a usable sound. Bad amps are harsh, tending to exaggerate certain frequencies to unpleasant degrees. They tend to distort poorly and cause what your playing to lose clarity and definition. You’ll dread playing because it just sounds terrible, no matter how you set it or how you play. We speak from experience: a lousy amp can cause you to quit playing.
Realize that the amp is the heart of your tone. You could have the best technique, an amazing guitar with the highest-quality pickups, and the best effects pedals money can buy, but none of it would matter much running through a bad amp. Don’t be one of those guitarists who skimp on the amp and thinks that any old box with a speaker in it will do. No matter your budget, you’ll be able to find an amp that you love.
Solid-state, Tube, or Both?
Like we mentioned in our Become an Amp Expert article, solid state and tube amplifiers have different characteristics. Tubes have a warmer sound and more natural distortion, while solid-state amps excel at clean sounds. Hybrid amps combine the best of both worlds: tube distortion and a solid-state reliability. You can even find modeling amps today, like the Vox VT20X, for great prices that convincingly replicate the sound of iconic amps from many generations of blues and rock. We’ll talk about the advantages of the different types of amps throughout the article.
Which you choose comes down to personal preference. What sound do you like best? You won’t know unless you hear it. In our reviews, we’ll include sound samples so you’re not flying blind.
How Loud Can You Get?
If you live in a place where you can make as much noise as you want, we envy you! For most of us, the reality is quite different. We all love loud music and feeling of being wrapped in sound. As a guitarist, you’ll need lots of volume to keep up with the drummer and cut through the rest of the music so your audience can hear you. But if you dime an amp in an apartment with thin walls, the noise complaints will flood in, your neighbors will hate you, and your girlfriend will leave you for being so inconsiderate. Don’t be that guy.
Wattage and Volume
Wattage is a measure of power used to rate electric guitar amplifiers. The idea is that more watts equals a louder amp. However, wattage is an imperfect measure of how loud an amp can get. While science tells us a watt is a watt no matter where you find it, guitarists disagree. Solid-state amps and tube amps at the same wattage rating tend to behave differently. There’s no real standard way to measure the wattage of an amplifier. Every manufacturer measures tolerances and variations in their components differently, meaning that an amp’s rating isn’t always exact. Different speakers also need different power requirements, which means the same amp can be louder or quieter depending on the speaker you’re using.
It’s generally accepted that a tube amplifier can get louder than an equivalent solid-state amplifier. Tube amplifiers can be pushed harder than solid-state amplifiers because they distort more gradually. Tube amps are generally rated at ‘clean’ levels, meaning at the level before any power amp distortion occurs. This is known as ‘clean headroom.’ A tube amp can be pushed beyond its clean headroom by further increasing the volume (and inducing power amp distortion), so they seem to have more power than what they’re rated for. That’s the generally accepted wisdom for why tube amps sound louder than equivalently rated solid-state amps.
The Right Tool for the Job
Lower-wattage amps between 1 and 15 watts are great for bedroom practice and recording. Between 20 and 50 watts will be good for small gigs. More than 50 watts and your amp will be capable of getting loud, and you’ll need to be careful with it or you risk some hearing damage. Luckily, if you need lots volume for the stage, but also need to be able to practice at home, some amps come with a power attenuator, allowing you to cut the volume of the amp without sacrificing tone. Most amps today also come with a headphone jack for silent practice. Depending on your needs, keep amp wattage in the back of your mind. We’ll be sure to remind you of these details in our in-depth amp reviews.
Combos and Stacks
If you’re not someone who likes to tinker, then a guitar combo amplifier, like the Boss Katana KTN-50, is the right choice for you. “Combo’ refers to an amp that is all-in-one: amplifier and speaker packaged together in a cabinet with a carrying handle. Some combo amplifiers allow you to connect an external speaker cabinet to a combo amplifier, allowing you to easily try out new speakers and getting a different sound out of your amp. However, that’s not always the case, especially on the cheaper combo amps, so you’re stuck with the speaker that came with the amp.
If you want the ultimate in versatility, a guitar amp head would be a good investment. An amp head is what does the actual amplification of your signal. The head is connected to a separate speaker cabinet using a speaker cable, creating what’s called a ‘stack’. This is because the head is ‘stacked’ on top of the cabinet. The speaker cabinet itself has a lot of effect on your tone. Closed cabinets give you more bass and projection, while open cabinets leak some sound, filling your venue a little better and smoothing out the tone to a degree. You want a solidly built cabinet that doesn’t allow your speaker to vibrate and cause unwanted noise.
Generally, combo amps are easy to carry around. They come with a handle, so if you gig often, you may find it less cumbersome than having to lug around both an amp head and a speaker cabinet. Keep that in mind if you wish to play in a band or are always on the move. You don’t have roadies to haul your gear for you!
Portability, Volume, and Miking Your Amp
The speaker is what turns your amp’s electronic signal into noise. Different speakers have different effects on your sound. By emphasizing different frequencies, you get a whole new tone coming out of your amplifier. Bigger speakers can project your music better than smaller speakers.
Speakers can come in many different configurations. Sometimes you’ll find a single 6″ (1×6″) or 8″ speaker (1×8″). These are fairly small speaker setups great for home practice. A 1×12″ speaker configuration can work well for small venues. You can even find cabinets with 4 12″ speakers (4×12″) for filling a stadium with sound.
As a general rule, an amp head coupled with a 1×8″ speaker cabinet isn’t going to sound as full as if it were connected to a 2×12″ cab. More speakers will make you louder. Larger speakers will make you louder. Multiple large speakers will make you sound immense. Some amps even allow you to connect multiple speaker cabinets, allowing you to fill the known universe with your music.
Some players prefer to stick with a smallish, low-wattage combo amp or stack that they prefer the tone of. When it comes time to play live at a venue, the sound guy helps to mic up their amplifier and have it projected through the house PA system. You get a ton of volume and less gear to carry around. Not all venues have great PA systems, so your tone might not be super consistent from night to night. Keep this in mind if you think about joining a band!
Cheap doesn’t always mean bad. Expensive doesn’t always mean good. However, it’s generally true that many lower-priced amps don’t sound great. Built on a budget with inexpensive materials, bad electronics, and poor speakers, they will only serve to muddy up your tone. However, there are good examples of amps for any price point. For the best of the best, check out our Recommendations for Beginner Amps. Let’s take a look at what to expect for your budget.
A $100 budget can get you a very decent, bare-bones amplifier. Combo amplifiers are the standard here – you won’t find many guitar amp heads sold for this low. The Orange Crush12 and the Fender Frontman 10G are highly recommended amps for this price.
In this price range, low-wattage combo amps with smaller speakers are the norm. They won’t melt fill a stadium with sound, but they’ll be good for bedroom practice. These amps usually have a few knobs for gain, EQ, and volume. Built-in effects are rare and not always great quality. The vast majority of amps at the $100 price point are solid-state, but there are a couple of tube amps that are worth considering. Modeling amps in this price range are difficult to recommend because they can be hard to dial in. They also tend to sacrifice depth for breadth. Instead of a couple of good sounds, they usually have many okay sounds.
A step up to $250 opens up a lot more doors. You will no longer be at the ‘bottom of the barrel’. There are some very good amps in this price range, like the highly regarded Boss Katana KTN-50.
Tube amps aren’t super common in this price range, but hybrid amps are plentiful. Hybrid amps give you the best aspects of both tube and solid-state. You can find some pretty good guitar amp heads if you prefer to buy a head/cabinet instead of a combo amp. The Orange Micro Terror is one of the standout heads in this price range.
Compared to lower-priced amps, modeling and built-in effects will be better. Speakers are bigger and wattage ratings are higher, meaning you can pump out more sound and play even louder. A few amps in this range have USB jacks and line-outs, giving you more options for higher quality recording. While the components used in these amps aren’t top-of-the-line, they still sound great.
$500 can get you a whole lot of volume. Combo amps in this range can have multiple speakers, allowing you to get even louder than you thought possible! On the Marshall Code 100, you get a crazy 100 watts of power and 2 12-inch speakers! You’ll commonly find multi-channel amps with separate EQ controls for even more versatility.
On amps in this range, you can find even higher-quality recording options like DI outputs. Sound quality will also improve due to better, higher-quality components. Tube amps will have higher quality tubes and solid-state amps will have nicer distortion.
$1000 and above
Iconic, professional quality amps can be found in this price range. Mesa/Boogie, Marshall, Vox – this is where these manufacturers sell their best of the best. You won’t find many modeling amps or amps with built-in effects here. These amps tend to focus on sound quality first and foremost. The Fender Twin, Mesa Dual Rectifier, Vox AC30 – legendary amps that have stood the test of time. If you can afford them, you’ll be playing through a piece of music history.
British vs American
Let’s take a quick detour to look at the iconic sounds you’ll come across and the amps that embody them.
Believe it or not, the brand and model of tubes used in a tube amp can noticeably change its sound. After World War II and beyond, when the economy boomed and tube amplifiers started to become more common, manufacturers on both sides of the ocean started using tubes that were most common in their country. In America, the Sylvania 6L6 tubes were ubiquitous, so they were used in most tube amplifiers. In Britain, the Mullard EL84 was used. Due to the differences in these tubes, music from both sides of the Atlantic had special characteristics of their own.
Marshall amps are the stereotypical British sound. British amps tend to sound aggressive, with an emphasis on treble. They distort easily, which is great for rock and metal players. Since their inception, Marshall has been one of the dominant forces in hard rock and metal music.
Fender is considered the embodiment of the American sound. They tend to sound warm, with less harshness in the higher end of the spectrum. Fender clean tones are pristine. Country, blues, and jazz musicians love their Fender amps. However, don’t let that fool you into thinking they’re one-trick ponies. Fender amps still happily push into overdrive, creating thick, full-bodied distortion.
Don’t let the stereotypes lure you into thinking that a particular brand is only good for a particular type of sound. Amps from Fender, Marshall, and others are used in every genre. Knowing the difference between the American and British sound lets you know what type of tone you enjoy, making it easier to find the right amp for your preferences. Some modeling amps even have a switch that lets you choose between British and American voicings. Knowing the difference can help when you’re trying to emulate the tone of a specific band or generation of music.
What Do You Like to Play?
Like we mentioned in the last section, certain types and certain brands of amps sound different than others. They emphasize different frequencies or distort differently. How does this relate to the type of music you play?
An amplifier can play most anything you throw at it. However, like guitars, some amps tend to do better at specific types of music than others. You can play metal on a Fender Twin, but it won’t sound like your metalhead friend’s Peavey 6505. At the end of the day, if it sounds good, who cares?
Like we said before, low-to-mid gain amps like Fenders tend to be used by blues, country, and classic rockers who don’t need insane amounts of distortion. If you enjoy Fender cleans, but want to play hard rock or metal, you can always find a good high-gain distortion pedal that will give you more gain than the amp alone could have. This will work just fine and will be a fairly versatile combination. Putting a distortion pedal in front of lower-to-mid gain amps will give you the best of both worlds and increase your versatility. This will give you a gain boost without needing to buy a new amp. You’ll be playing anything from blues to heavy metal with ease.
Amps capable of higher-gain, like Marshalls, Peaveys, and Randalls, tend to excel at hard rock and metal. That doesn’t mean you can only use them for super high-gain genres, however. Stevie Ray Vaughan famously used a Marshall JCM800 for his crunchy blues tones. Kerry King of the heavy metal band Slayer uses the same amp. While you won’t find many musicians playing the blues on a 120-Watt Peavey 6505, there’s nothing that says you can’t. Though a heavy metal amp may not be the perfect blues amp, it will still be adequate.
Modeling amps can be useful if versatility is more important to you than specialization. Just select a voicing and you’ll be playing the blues, jazz, or chunky heavy metal riffs in no time. They’re great if you don’t have time to experiment with pedals, EQ, and creating a tone from scratch.
As you can see, you can play almost anything out of one amp. Like guitars, some amps specialize at certain genres, but there’s nothing wrong with using them outside of their ‘intended’ purpose, especially as a beginner. If you know you want to play high-gain music, then buy a Marshall or Peavey. If you want to focus on blues, classic rock, or other low-to-mid-gain music, then a Fender will serve you well. In our reviews of electric guitar amps, we’ll be sure to let you know how well an amp does at different types of music.
Effects and Effects Loop
Effects are a considerable part of many guitarists’ signature sound. Some prefer to have as simple an amp as possible and have all their effects on a pedal board. Others like an amp with all the bells and whistles. Built-in effects give you extra versatility without having to spend more money on effects pedals. Reverb is fairly common on amps of all budgets. Other amps, especially beginner amps, have dozens of effects. If you like the amp, but find the quality of effects wanting, you can always build a pedal board with your choice of effects. We’ll soon have a section of the site dedicated to creating your own pedal board!
An effects loop is a useful feature found on more mid-to-high range amplifiers. It allows you to move some effects after the preamp section instead of before it. This cleans up your tone and minimizes noise in your signal chain. If you have a pedal board, an effects loop is a must have on your amp.
Headphones, Aux, Bluetooth, and USB
If you need to be able to practice in silence, headphones are a godsend. Coupled with an auxiliary input, you can jam along to your favorite music without disturbing a soul. The majority of amps have a headphone jack, but occasionally you might come across one without it. If silent practice is important to you, be sure you’re getting an amp with a headphone jack!
On some modern amps, you’ll find Bluetooth and USB connectivity. Bluetooth can serve many purposes depending on the amp. It can be useful for streaming music to your amp without an auxiliary cable. On some Fender amps, you can even use the Fender Tone app on your phone to wirelessly modify the presets and equalization on your amp!
USB can be useful as well. For example, some Vox and Yamaha amps allow you to modify your amp’s presets and effects. Some amps even let you record using the USB input. Just remember that not all amps allow you to record using USB, so be sure to read the reviews or spec sheet to be certain. We’ll be sure to let you know of any restrictions in our reviews.
There are a lot of considerations when it comes to buying the right amplifier. From budget to gain to portability, there’s so much you need to keep in mind. Now that you’ve finished this article, you know what to watch out for. In the future, when you look at a list of specifications for guitar amps, you’ll know exactly what you’re looking at.
If you want to check out some of the best amps for the money, check out our list of recommended amps. These are some of the best amps on the market, so you might learn even more by checking out a few of these reviews!