Best Guitar Amps 2020
|2||Orange Amplifiers Rockerverb 50 MKIII|
|3||Boss Katana 50|
|4||Orange Jim Root Dark Terror|
|5||Marshall Plexi JTM-45|
|6||Fender Master Twin|
|7||Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus|
|8||Fender Champion 40|
|9||Fender 68 Custom Deluxe|
|14||Fender Bassbreaker 30R|
|16||Fender Mustang GT 40|
|17||VOX MINI3 G2|
|18||BOSS Katana Compact 7 (Mini)|
Types of Guitar Amps Explained
The electric guitar has to be one of the most exciting instruments out there. And it’s not only just the basic sounds that it can make but the overall flexibility and the sheer amount of options that come with it. Of course, electric guitars don’t work on their own. You need something to amplify the passive or active signal coming from them. Sure, you can play them unplugged, but that’s impractical outside of quiet bedroom practices, and even then it’s not quite effective. Aside from amplifiers, we also have an abundance of pedals and other units that add effects or completely change the guitar’s original tone, much like guitar VST Plugins. This is why the instrument is so exciting as it brings so much versatility into pretty much any genre that comes to mind.
But what we’re interested here are the guitar amplifiers and different types that were developed over the years. After all, amplifiers are one of the main components of your tone. In fact, many would argue that it’s the essential component and the one that makes the most impact. Of course, there are different ways to categorize amplifiers and the most common division is depending on the technology that’s used for processing the guitar signal. In this sense, we have the basic division on tube, solid-state, and digital modeling amps. Other than that, we have amps made especially for bass guitars and those designed for acoustic guitars. Other than that, we also have amps of different sizes and power levels. In this brief guide, we’ll look into the main types of amps and explain how are they special.
Tube amps, also known as valve amps, takes us way back to the first half of the 20th century. Although the technology is kind of “outdated” in a way, these amps are still the most valued ones. These amplifiers use vacuum tubes to conduct the signal and further amplify it. The biggest advantage in the ears of guitar players and music listeners is the “warm” kind of tone and the dynamic response that they provide. The harder you play and the more you push the volume level, the guitar tone “breaks up” and distorts. Back in the old days, the late 1940s and the early 1950s, sound engineers regarded this as an error, an unwanted side-effect. But since both the musicians and the audience loved it, tube-driven distortion turned into a widespread thing.
Of course, just like any other type of an amplifier, tube guitar amps have a preamp section and a power amp section. The preamp section includes the main tone-shaping features, including the equalizer and distortion (usually made as one or two separate channels). In this section, we can usually find 12AX7 tubes, which are interchangeable with ECC83 tubes.
The power section is where the signal gets amplified and “prepared” to go through the speakers. While most tone-shaping happens in the preamp section, power sections of tube amps have their own way of further shaping the tone. This also depends on the particular amp model, and some amps get more tone-shaping within the power amp section. Here, we also find bigger vacuum tubes, most commonly 6V6 and EL34.
While their tone and dynamic response are popular among guitar players, tube amps come with their own downsides. The biggest problems come down to maintenance and handling. You now only need to be careful when transporting them, but the tubes should be changed once in a while, about every 6 months if you’re playing them often. Additionally, their tone might not always be that consistent, which can be problematic if you’re frequently gigging. After all, tubes are pretty sensitive, and even the slight changes in current can impact the tone. This is why other equipment is often needed if you want to have a more consistent tone with tube amps, which comes as an additional cost to their already high price.
Since tube amps proved to be complicated, it was only a matter of time when amp manufacturers would look for more practical solutions. The invention of transistors was crucial for many different industries, including the music industry. So instead of those bulky and heavy tube-driven amps, we got more compact and practical devices. Of course, their price is significantly cheaper and they’re way simpler to maintain compared to tube amps.
Another advantage comes down to the fact that you don’t need to push the volume up high in order to get the full potential out of them. This way, you can get a good tone even at a lower volume. On the other hand, there are a few other aspects at which these amps are not as nearly as good as tube-driven ones. First, the tone of solid-state amps is more “sterile” and they don’t provide you with any dynamic response at all. Their distorted tone is more “rugged” and it feels as if there’s more compression applied to it. It’s not “worse,” but many guitar players still prefer tube-driven tones over solid-state stuff.
In the end, they’re way cheaper compared to tube amps and are usually very popular among beginners, intermediate players, and enthusiasts who don’t feel like spending a lot on guitar gear. There are also professional-tier solid-state amps, like Roland’s legendary Jazz Chorus series. Additionally, some famous guitar players, like Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell, preferred solid-state amps over tube ones.
What we refer to as acoustic amps are guitar amplifiers designed and voiced in such a way to work with acoustic guitars with piezo pickups or microphones. In some way, we can say that these amps are like smaller PA systems as their overall frequency response is “flatter” compared to electric guitar amps which focus mostly on the mid-section of the audible spectrum. So aside from the big speakers, they can also include tweeters to cover the higher-end better. In most cases, acoustic amps include both instrument and microphone inputs, giving solo performers two channels.
In most cases, acoustic amps are more powerful compared to conventional electric guitar amps. This way, you get more headroom and the amp has less chance of distorting the tone, which is an unfavorable effect with acoustic performers.
Of course, we also have amplifiers made specifically for bass guitars. When it comes to the technology, bass amps can also come in a tube or solid-state formation. But the most important trait is that their circuitry is designed in such a way to deal with lower frequencies. Additionally, speakers and cabinets are also designed to support lower frequencies. If you’d plug a bass guitar into a regular guitar amp, you’d not only get a very “thin” tone but also risk blowing out the speakers and a few other components.
We’re living in a time when even the most complex devices can be made in smaller sizes. That’s also the case with guitar amplifiers, and we have plenty of portable compact models that are intended for home or backstage practice sessions. They’re usually solid-state amps at a very low wattage, mostly below 10 or even 5 watts. In some rare cases, we also have tube portable amps, like Blackstar’s HT1R.
Digital Modeling Amps
Now, here’s where the tricky part comes. With the development of digital technology, we started getting digital amp emulations in many different forms. Instead of relying on analog signal paths that we have with solid-state or vacuum tube technology, digital amp modelers convert your guitar’s analog signal into digital information and process it in that format. Some would not refer to them as amplifiers, but rather more complex multi-effects processors. However, some of the modern examples, like Kemper or Axe-Fx, come with preamp and power amp sections and can be attached to either guitar amp cabinets or PA systems. And their main idea is to replicate the tones of many different amps, even those vintage tube-driven ones. This also includes the dynamic responsiveness of tube amps.
Most of the solid-state amps that we have today come with an additional digital amp modeling device. This way, you can get plenty of different tone presets and other options within just one simple combo amp.
The so-called “hybrid” amps combine the solid-state and tube-driven technology in their circuitry. We already know how expensive and complicated tube amps can get, but they still have some very desirable tone characteristics. This is why many manufacturers started making amps with a tube-driven preamp section and a solid-state power amp. This way, you get some warmth and dynamic response, especially with the distortion on. There have been some examples of hybrid amps that feature a tube-driven power section, but these are pretty rare.
In the end, we would also like to mention the so-called “multi-purpose” guitar amplifiers. These basically serve as portable PA systems and have circuitry and speakers that can support electric guitars, acoustic guitars, and bass guitars. When you turn it on and plug your instrument, you get to choose whether you want bass, guitar, or acoustic mode. One of the best examples of such amps is Line 6’s Firehawk 1500, which features an amp modeling section and has a total output power of 1500 watts.