What is the best guitar amp and how to choose it?
Buying an amplifier is one of the most important choices for guitarists who want to make the guitar sound so great.
However, there are many brands and guitar amps available and not all of them are created equal.
Some are better than others based on how it make your guitar sound great or bad
And in a way, choosing a good guitar amp is a much tougher than an electric guitar or acoustic guitar.
So which one should you choose? Let me help you
Today, I want to help you choosing the right guitar amp for yourself.
This your complete buying guide to the best guitar amp on the market.
Follow this guide to find out everything you need to know about selecting the best guitar amp overall, best bass amp, best tube amp, best practice amp, best acoustic guitar amp, best solid state amp, best combo amp, best modeling amp and so on. “YES,” it is the complete buying guide that covers all you need about guitar amp.
Let’s start it
How to choose the best guitar amp (amplifier)
There are many myths regarding amplifiers and how to choose them according to our needs: playing at home, bars, theaters, festivals …). The things that usually are in the mind of the musician who is trying to get a new amplifier are a power, if it should work with valves or transistors if a combo amp is better than having the whole set of the preamp, amp head, and speakers.
Questions like “what do I need to play 50W in a festival?”. Or “why does this transistor amplifier is more expensive than my valve amplifier if transistors are supposed to be worse than valves?” Prove that, regardless of the vast amount of information on this object found on the Internet; there are still many guitar players who are completely lost when choosing one of the most important elements of their sound chain.
Many others buy amplifiers that don’t serve them well to their particular purposes, and they intend to fix it by using many different pedals. They don’t know that pedals are made for adding a plus to the signal, no to transform it entirely.
The most important thing is the tone…But what tone? Again, the personal preferences and taste should be the guideline when thinking about this. Materials are important, and they do affect the final sound, but let’s remember that some relatively unknown speakers can function just as well (or even better) than a V30 or a Jensen. Your personal taste is what matters the most.
It is also worthy to mention that, even if there are certain standards for some music styles, the tone and frequency of most amplifiers can be used for many different music genres.
Let’s explain the difference between the main amplifier types, but first, we must understand the basics of the amplifier’s parts and functions:
Best Guitar Amp – Amplifier’s Parts and Functions
It is what generates the characteristic tone of the amplifier. The first part of the sound chain after the guitar produces the electric signal. The preamp drastically alters the received signal and produces a unique sound according to each brand and model.
The preamp is also in charge of the saturated sound’s quality, the specificities of the distorted sound and other essential functions including the general tone. The preamp also has a lot to do with the amplifiers reverberation, and it controls the gain and equalization. This is the distortion level, as well as the change of frequencies or parameters (Bass, Middle, and Treble).
It is the section of the amplifier that enhances the signal and gives it the necessary power to be heard through an amplifier. Most of the amplifiers have a built-in power stage, which differentiates them from the preamps. Preamps don’t produce sound on their own; they need to be connected to a power stage and a speaker, or only to an “active” speaker, which has its own power stage.
The speaker vibrates with the signal received from the power stage and it finally produces sound. Many people think that speakers should have a “flat” frequency.
This is a speaker that doesn’t alter at all the frequencies (Bass, Treble). However, the speakers that alter the signal are usually more valued because they reproduce the sounds we are used to hearing. Concerning this, we must understand that the musician and the public are not seeking for the perfect sound, but a peculiar and recognizable sound.
The speakers we discuss here don’t have that flat frequency response. They enhance the characteristic sounds of the guitar, which are usually more restricted than, for example, a piano or the human voice.
Now, let’s see which are the amplifier types we can choose from and what are the differences they have.
Best Guitar Amp – Amplifier Types
The first aspect we should consider is the general components distribution.
A combo integrates all the elements of the amplifier. This is a preamp, a power stage, and a speaker with its corresponding chamber. As a whole, combos have a tone and sound of their own.
The combo is the amplifying unit preferred by most buyers, among other things, because it is more comfortable. With a combo, we don’t need to carry around different components or to wire these components every time we are going to rehear or play.
The pros of this kind of amplifier are that it is very easy to carry. Even the big models, which are usually 150W maximum, don’t need much space. This makes them ideal o carry by hand or in the trunk of a car. Besides, combos spare you the time and effort of choosing every component separately. Because the same brand makes the elements of a combo for a particular model, you can be sure it will sound nice.
Of course, there are also some cons. In this case, the unitary and indivisible nature of the combo is also its biggest downside. Each combo have an irreversible characteristic sound (unless you make some modifications yourself, which we don’t recommend). This means that the sound produced by an individual model will be the same for all the owners of that model.
We can have four types of sound according to a number of channels: clean, saturated or crunch, distorted, solo channel. But the thing is, and I repeat what I said before, a combo will always have a restricted sound. You can’t combine the sound of its preamp with an external power stage, or use different speakers in order to produce the particular sound we are aiming for.
In short, a combo is easier to handle, “safer” regarding sound because you can know for sure all the component work well together. But it is not very versatile, it can have drastic changes, and it won’t allow you to experiment different elements.
The head is the second preferred choice. Generally, the head is much more used by professional musicians (of course, there are many exceptions). The head includes a preamp and a power stage in its upper unit, but we need an exterior speaker to obtain sound.
This involves several things. Since the head does not produce sound on its own, you must always carry a speaker, which must have the same or greater power than the head (a speaker that receives an overloaded power will break). And it must be able to work with the same resistance (the lower the amount of ohms of resistance, the better the conductivity will be) if we don’t want to ruin our equipment or lose a significant amount of power.
Moreover, a speaker can represent a remarkable difference if compared to another when playing the same head. This is because the speaker will “choose” which frequencies will be more or less highlighted. This means that a wrong choice of speaker ca ruin our tone, which is something very common when playing in a theater where the equipment is provided, and such equipment is low quality in order to spare some costs. A high-quality head with a low-quality speaker has no sense. Because of this, the head option is not only less comfortable but also more expensive.
So why, despite the cons mentioned above, the professional still prefer this option? Because heads tend to have a better performance than the similarly priced combos. We must keep in mind that it is a much more accurate element. Since it doesn’t have it resonance chamber and speaker, the work is done on the preamp, and the power stage must be more thoroughly executed. This, of course, translates into a better quality sound.
There’s another distinct advantage of the head: its versatility. A head can be used not only with different speakers but with more than one at a time. The mix of tones produced by the various speakers generates a unique sound.
A guitarist with a stereo head and four very different speakers could rotate and mix those speakers using different couples, which will allow him to achieve very different sound combinations.
This also goes when using a single speaker. With a single head, we can alternate different equalization and gain levels. This way, a single head can be used for rock, jazz, heavy metal … which is something very likely to happen in the professional world?
This is the last type of amplifying system. It is the most difficult one to handle and to transport. A preamplifier is an entirely specific unit. It doesn’t have a speaker or a power stage. This means that the specificity the preamp gives to the sound signal can be combined with many different power stages (with valves or transistors, made by many different brands).
This combination can, in turn, be mixed with many different speakers. One of its biggest advantages is that it allows saving presets. This is multiple combinations of sound banks, because of most preamps, even the valve ones, also involve the digital technology. Thanks to this, the preamp automatically saves equalization parameters. Because of this, with a three-channel preamp, we can have access to up to 40 sound combinations at all times.
Using a preamp requires adding more elements to the sound chain, which generally need a safe transportation in a particular rack. Evidently, having three elements (preamp, power stage, and speaker) will increase the total weight to be carried. Also, the increased amount of possible combinations makes the tone selection a more complicated process.
It is very likely that some elements with high individual quality won’t work together as well as expected. It is also highly probable that some lower quality components result in an excellent combination. Thus, it is common to find musicians with equipment worth thousands of dollars that sound much worse than the 600 dollars equipment used by another player.
The preamp has another advantage besides being almost infinitely versatile. It is ideal for professional online recordings. This advantage is the result of not having a built-in power stage. All you need to have to make great recordings of your music is a guitar, a mix table with an integrated power stage, and a good preamp. This will record sounds at a professional level.
This is why it is very common to find samples with a great guitar sound (achieved through preamps or emulators as Guitar Rig or Amplitube, which are computing preamps) and a bad drum or voice sound. Of course, it must be said that a high-quality pre-amp often has a larger variety of sound on its own.
After all, it is logical to expect great results and thorough manufacturing from a 2000 dollars preamp. The downside is that if you make a littler variation of one parameter, the sound will also vary significantly, and that could mean trying to find the exact sound you want for hours or even day.
As a final summary, everything depends on what you are looking for. If you are not a professional, you don’t know exactly what the tone you prefer is, or you play only a given music style, and your ideal choice is a combo. It won’t be hard to carry, you won’t have to deal with choosing every different component, you won’t need to be as meticulous, and you won’t have to spend too much money.
On the other hand, if you are a versatile musician, and you play with different bands, or if you play at home, but you enjoy the possibility of creating new sounds, you must choose a head or a preamp and power stage as separate units. This will depend on how much versatility you are seeking for and what specific sounds you want to produce.
As a personal example, I have had all three different combinations of elements, and I currently use a pedal set and two different types of amplifying equipment. The first is a head and several speakers, which provides me with a balanced sound, the rock crunch, and clean sounds more appropriate for pop. It also provides me with distortion that goes from hard rock to heavy metal (which is very hard to find in a combo) and a pre-amp/power stage combination obtained through the presets or sound banks I find in the preamp.
I can use it to a wide variety of genres like blues, progressive metal, hard rock, or extreme metal. This is my personal situation, which I don’t usually show in my articles, but in this case, I think it could be helpful for you know how each element can be used.
In the case of combos, I have used them for some particular styles (a rock / heavy metal combo, or a blues / southern rock combo). I have also used them to rehearse or to play in small gatherings.
Best Guitar Amp – Valves, Transistors, Hybrids. What’s the difference?
While choosing the best guitar amp, besides its manufacturing and function, which are technical aspects we won’t discuss yet, valves and transistors have several fundamental differences. In case you are looking for a more accurate article on this topic, we will soon analyze it in another article.
The first thing to consider is the difference in the amplifier’s response to the guitarist playing. A valve amp will always be more responsive to the special touch of each player. This will alter the sound, volume, and even the tone according to the kind of hit the player does: softer or harder touch, the pick angle, and its thickness are some of the elements that will affect the sound.
When we play hard, the valves experience a sort of overdrive. This also happens if we force a little bit the volume (with a booster, for example). The sounds produced by the valve amplifier are more varied and less synthetic than the sounds generated by the transistor amplifiers, in which this effect doesn’t take place.
Now, this doesn’t mean, as most people think, then valves are better: they are only different. The fact that the valve amplifier alters the tone, and the volume makes this type of amplifier the tool of choice for the music styles that require such sensitivity, but in many cases, this is not what the musician needs.
The transistor amplifiers have a much more controlled response, flatter. The sound goes up or down, but the tone does not vary significantly. It is for that reason that some guitar players as Dimebag Darrell, from Pantera, or BB King use transistor amplifiers. They play exquisitely, but they don’t use resources like the saturation. In the case of Pantera, or even “harder” bands like the modern metal ones, everything becomes clearer. There is a preference for a flat sound because the heavy metal rhythms will sound better with a more constant sound. Transistors mean that the volume changes won’t affect the tone.
There are also hybrid amplifiers. These are transistor amplifiers that use one or more valves to achieve that characteristic valve sound. They are more dynamic in terms of tone alteration. This type of amplifier requires less maintenance than the pure valve amp. Of course, we can’t expect that a hybrid amplifier has the same dynamic range and responsiveness to details than the real valve one. On the other hand, it is more affordable.
Finally, we must take into account in guitar amp reviews that there are amplifiers with a valve preamp and a valve power stage, and others with a valve preamp and a hybrid power stage.
Best Guitar Amp – Power / Performance Based On Needs
We are not going to enter an endless debate about this, and we are not going to spend the entire day talking about physics either, but I would like to explain some myths there are. I know it because I get asked about it every day, and I see all the false statements there are on forums.
First of all, more amplifying power doesn’t mean better sound quality. In the case of valves, if such power is not fully seized, the sound quality decreases because the valves don’t work at their best. When this happens, the sound is poor and dense.
When buying an amplifier, you want to make sure its power fits your needs. If you are playing at home, a 2 to 5W valve amplifier is more than enough if you don’t want the police knocking on your door. A 20W transistor combo could also work very well for you.
Now, if you rehear in a band that includes a drum set, thighs are different. It is hard to sound good with a power under 30W for valve amplifiers and 50-60W for transistor amplifiers. This goes especially for clean channels, which have less compression and generate less sound.
If you play, live in small establishments and with no exterior sound equipment, the less you should have is a high-quality 80W valve amplifier, although a boutique 50W amp could do just fine, too. In the case of a transistor amplifier, the minimum required is approximately 100W.
In case you are wondering how much additional power you need to play in bigger establishments or outdoors, the answer is … zero! When you play in a larger room or outdoors your amplifier produces mixing, which is why you don’t need a more powerful amp. You don’t need a 200W valve head unless you want to become deaf in front of everyone. Just to give an example, my most powerful amplifying system has 180W valves, but it is designed to work in stereo. This is 90W for each one of two speakers, or the whole 180W for a single speaker but distributed in stereo.
Things to keep in mind when buying the best amplifier – best guitar amp reviews
Guitar Amp Reviews – Amount Of Channels
This is an element most people don’t consider, but it is indeed critical. The channels of the amp control the amount of gain and the style of such gain. We usually find the following channels in amplifiers: the first channel, which is generally the clean channel, a crunch channel or overdrive, and a channel with more gain, which is the solo channel. However, some amplifiers combine the crunch channel and the clean channel, which prevent us from changing channels. These combined channels share a single equalization, and the gain level is predefined y it can’t be changed with a pedal unless it has an added gain control. In short, with the crunch channel and the clean channel combined, we can´t fully benefit from the versatility of the separate channels, but it will save you some time and effort under certain circumstances.
There are also amplifiers that have an extra channel addition the overdrive and the solo channels. This additional channel is more distorted, and it has an independent master and equalization. This means that you could do a solo at the lower volume and less distorted for accompaniment or you could create a distorted rhythmic guitar and then activate the solo channel, with a higher capacity, for one incredible guitar solo.
If you have an arsenal of pedals, an overdrive that produces sounds you really like, a booster, or external distortion, a two channel amplifier can be perfect for you. It will work if you use clean sound, saturated sound, distorted rhythmic guitars and solo sound. Nevertheless, without pedals, you would need at least a three channel amplifier to achieve that. As you can see, the choice of an amplifier also depends on how you are going to use it and if you have additional pedals.
Guitar Amp Reviews – Amplifier Effects
Many people think that an amplifier with a lot of effects is better, but on the contrary, the more effects it has, more you will pay. An Amp with Chorus and Flanger will include the price of that Chorus and Flanger. This is why a cheaper amplifier can be as good as the more expensive one. It just spares those built-in components.
Usually, a good amplifier only has the reverberation, if any effect. There are low-cost amplifiers (as the great cube and microcube from Roland) that include effects and still keep high-quality standards. If this is your first amplifier, your budget is limited, or you don’t have any pedals, you can get a good and straightforward amp. But if you have the chance of buying multiple effects or pedals separately, keep in mind that the amplifier might be slightly worse than those in the same price range. In high-end amps, don’t even think about getting anything more than reverb.
Guitar Amp Reviews – Effect Loop
This is entirely necessary for valve amplifiers if you will use modulation effects (chorus, flanger and other effects that directly affects the sound by modulating the signal). In short: don’t buy a valve amp without loop if you will use it often. Don’t purchase an entire set of effects if you will only use clean and saturated sound. The pedals and effects outside the loop affect the preamp sound inside the very amplifier, which diminish and alter its natural tone and impoverish its sound. It doesn’t really matter if your valve amp is not that good, but you do have to make sure it has an effect loop. Of course, you can always have a more natural style: just you, your guitar, your amplifier and your long hair moved by the wind.
There are other elements to keep in mind, but we won’t extend the debate this time because it’s about much more specific aspects of each model.
The Final Thought
I hope this guitar amp reviews article helps you understanding a little more about the various world of amplifiers, how to choose the best guitar amp and especially that I have cleared the myths that confuse the musician’s minds with their misinformation.