One of the biggest contributing factors to your tone as a guitar player is your choice in amplifier.
There are many great options out there these days in the form of digital and solid state amplifiers, but most would argue that the good ol’ tube amp still reigns supreme.
If you’re looking for the best tube amplifiers, regardless of price, then this list is for you.
Snapshot: Best Tube Amps In 2020
- PRS MT15 Amp – Cheapest
- Fender Custom ’68 Twin Reverb Amplifier
- Marshall 2555X Silver Jubilee Amp
- Suhr PT15 IR Amp – Most Expensive
- Tone King Falcon Grande Amplifier
Why Tube Amps?
Any amplifier that uses vacuum tubes or valves to amplify the signal of an electronic instrument is a tube amplifier. This differs from solid state amplifiers, which use transistors to power the amplifier.
You can think of your signal like this: you strum your guitar, causing your strings to vibrate and produce sound. That sound is then captured magnetically by your pickups and then transferred through your cable to the amplifier.
Tube amps typically have both a preamp and a power amp section, both powered by tubes, amplifying and coloring the signal. All of that energy is then dispersed through your speaker as sound at a higher volume than it originally was.
While there are many aspects to an amplifier that change your tone, the choice of preamp and power tube has a very distinct effect. Some of the most common power tubes include 6V6, 6L6, EL34, and EL84. These tubes give a unique color to your sound.
While one would want to have a clear signal on a stereo or radio, guitarists seek out these tubes because they color their guitar’s tone. Next to your fingers and your electric guitar, amplifiers contribute to your unique sound more than any other piece of gear thanks to these tubes.
Tube amps are really fascinating and there’s so much to learn about them. If you’re new to how tube amps work and want to learn more, I really enjoyed this article from MasterClass.
What Makes the Best Tube Amp?
This was a fun list for me to put together because instead of focusing on amplifiers within a specific price range, I just focused on a class of amplifier: tube amps. The prices of all these amps vary somewhat, but they are all tube amplifiers. Tube amps are generally more expensive to make than solid state amps and are usually more focused in their tone/character.
That being said, this makes them deliver that quality and character of tone at the highest level possible. All of the amps on this list achieve a certain tonal quality that is unique and highly usable. They have a build quality that will last you a lifetime if you take care of them.
This is not a compilation of what “history” or “most people” consider to be the best tube amplifiers ever. A list of best amps is highly subjective, and the holy grails of tube amplifiers are so sought after and expensive that a list of those amplifiers isn’t helpful for the everyday musician. This is a list of excellent tube amplifiers that are readily available online for purchase today.
I found this to be a good opportunity to dig deep and look for amps that are made by smaller companies that I think are pushing the industry forward.
I will note that most of the selections on our list of “Best Amps Under $1,000” are tube amps worthy of being on this list, however I wanted to add five new models that I haven’t written about yet.
Without further ado, let’s look at our selections for the top five tube amps of any price range (in no particular order).
The Best Tube Amps On The Market
1. PRS MT15 Head Review
- 15/7 Watts (Switchable)
- 2 Channels
- 6L6 Power Tubes
The brainchild of Paul Reed Smith and Creed guitarist Mark Tremonti was originally designed with heavy players in mind, but it turns out that the PRS MT15 is an extremely versatile amp that has something to offer for just about any genre. It’s a small amplifier with a large amount of potential.
Small, well built, modern tube amplifiers are in high demand these days and the MT15 is a stellar example. It’s a “lunchbox” head unit that is small and easy to lug around with its low weight (18lbs) and metal handle. In fact, Paul Reed Smith says, “these are tools to do a job, and I think they do it all very well”.
It even looks like a metal toolbox. With its foot switchable two channels and switchable 15/7-watt power, it’s an extremely versatile amp that is ready for the stage and studio alike. The back panel has an FX loop and adjustable bias for additional tonal control.
All the controls for the two channels are located on the front panel, with 3 Band EQ’s for each channel. The clean channel has an independent volume control and a pull treble boost, whereas the lead channel has an additional gain control.
The Master Volume for the lead channel is located on the far left, with a universal Presence control located next to it. These controls allow you to have two independently voiced amp channels available at your feet.
The pair of 6L6 tubes in the power section of this amp helps contribute to the lush, thick clean tones on this amplifier. The high end is bright and articulate; perfect for fingerstyle or picking alike. This is what 6L6 tubes are usually used for, so there’s no real surprise there.
What is surprising is the lead channel. Never before have I heard such chunky and tight high gain tones from a 6L6 powered amplifier. Combine this with the boost on the clean channel for mid-gain tones and the MT15 a powerhouse amplifier that can be used in any genre.
- Type: Tube Head (2 x 6L6)
- Power: Switchable 15W/7W
- Channels: 2 (Clean/Lead)
- Speakers: 8 Ohm compatible
- Features: FX Loop, Adjustable Bias, Channel Foot Switchable
Final Thoughts on the PRS MT15 Head
While PRS is known most famously for their guitars, it’s also no secret that they make incredible amplifiers. The MT15 is worth the hype and plays well with just about any guitar out there. It’s a great pedal platform, or it can stand on its own.
2. Fender Custom ’68 Twin Reverb Combo Review
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It doesn’t get much more iconic than Fender Silverface amplifiers, and the Twin Reverb represents that family of amplifiers superbly. This Custom amplifier is a modern revitalization of that classic circuit, giving you a tried and true American class AB amp that has one foot in the past and another in the present day.
This is a bulky, all tube, 2×12 combo amplifier. While the size may require some proper lifting technique, the amp is worth it in its build quality and tone. Headroom is the name of the game with this amp. The combination of an AB circuit, 85 Watts of power, and two Celestion speakers lets you play clean tones at loud volumes.
The amp has two channels. The Vintage channel is voiced like your classic Twin Reverb and the Custom channel has a Bassman tonestack added to it, giving a completely new voiced channel in a Twin body. The folks at Fender reduced the negative feedback on this amp, making it breakup at lower volumes than traditional Twins do, giving you some added versatility.
It also has built in reverb and tremolo.
The controls are classic and simple, with the black witch hat control dials giving the amp an authentic vintage vibe. Each channel has a Bright switch, Volume, and 3 band EQ. On the far right are the Reverb and Tremolo controls. One of the biggest updates in the design of this Twin is that the Reverb and Tremolo work on both channels now.
This is about as classic Fender as it gets. The Vintage channel on the amp has a scooped mid-range to accentuate the bell-like low end and shimmering highs. The Custom channel has a little more low end and mid-range that sounds great when cranked up on the edge of breakup.
With the introduction of the reduced negative feedback allows for greater touch sensitivity and earlier onset of breakup, meaning that your fingers are in control of how the amp reacts. The Reverb is a true spring reverb and the Level/Intensity of the tremolo gives you the right amount of control over the effect.
- Type: Tube 2×12 Combo (2 x 6V6)
- Power: 85W
- Channels: 2 (Custom/Vintage)
- Speakers: 2 x 12 Celestion G12V-70
- Features: Spring Reverb and Tremolo
Final Thoughts on the Fender Custom ’68 Twin Reverb Combo
It is worth making clear: this is not a re-issue of the classic Twin Reverb (that’s what Fender’s ’65 series is for). This is an updated redesign of a classic amp, built for the modern player that wants vintage sounds and more.
It’s a big amp that can take on any stage and would be fitting for country, surf rock, garage rock and more.
3. Marshall 2555X Silver Jubilee Head Review
- 100-watt Reissue Tube Guitar Amplifier Head with High/Low Output Switching
If you’re looking for 80’s metal tones, funky cleans, and everything in between, then the Marshall 2555X Silver Jubilee is the amp for you. Championed by Slash, John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers), and many more, the Silver Jubilee reissue is a godsend for anyone who has ever wanted to get their hands on these highly collectible amplifiers but can’t shell out tens of thousands of dollars for an original.
The Silver Jubilee is an appropriately silver bound head unit with 100 watts of power to wield. It is modeled directly after the original 1997 model, which is essentially a Marshall JCM800 with an extra gain stage available in the rhythm channel.
This effectively gives the amp three channels to work with. It is powered with four EL34 power tubes and has low/high output switching. The channels are foot switchable and the amp has an FX loop to store all of you time-based effects.
The controls on this monster amplifier are pretty straight forward. The Presence, Bass, Middle, and Treble controls apply to both channels. This may not be as tweakable for versatile in live settings as an am like the PRS MT15, but you won’t miss it in the studio or if you are just using this amp for one sound.
There are separate master volumes for each channel, however, and a universal input gain where the Pull Rhythm Clip is located.
While many associate Marshall amps, especially the Silver Jubilee, with heavy gain, I most enjoy the amp for its clean tones (especially with a Strat). If Gibson guitars love Fender amps, then Fender guitars found their love in Marshall amps. This amp in particular clips so organically on the rhythm channel with single coils going into it.
The high gains are phenomenal as well, giving you fat, but balanced distortion appropriate for 80’s metal and classic rock. The mid-range is growly and aggressive. Push the amp through the Silver Jubilee 4×12 extension cabinet and you are really off to the races.
- Type: Tube Head Unit (4 x EL34)
- Power: 100W
- Channels: 3 (Kind of)
- Speakers: None
- Features: FX Loop
Final Thoughts on the Marshall 2555X Silver Jubilee Head
The 90’s aren’t known for many pieces of iconic gear, but this is one of the few worthy amps. If the day comes where I have an expendable income to buy any classic amplifier I want, the Silver Jubilee will be at the top of that list.
I won’t even need an original. I’d be perfectly happy with this reissue model. It’s a versatile amplifier that portrays a unique time for Marshall amplifiers and has been used on countless classic records for many a good reason.
4. Suhr PT15 IR Review
- Front Panel: Input, Aux Input, Headphone Input, IR Level, (CH1) Bright Switch, Gain 1, Bass, Treble, Level 1, (CH 2/3): Bright 2/3 Switch, Gain 2, Gain 3, Bass, Middle, Treble, Level 2, Level 3,...
- Back Panel: H.T. Fuse, Mains Fuse, Mains Input, Reactive Load Parallel Output, Reactive Load Disconnected Output, Impedance Selector, FX Loop Send, FX Loop Return, Footswitch (TRS) jack,...
- FX Loop: Tube driven, buffered
The folks at Suhr have created the world’s first every hybrid amplifier: The Suhr PT15 IR. It is the first tube amp to feature an internal reactive load and built in IR’s. This makes the PT15 IR the perfect solution for guitarists that want true tube amp tone with full control over the volume.
The Suhr PT15 is a 15W all tube powered (6V6) head unit amplifier. The innovative features of this amp include a built in Suhr Reactive Load and an onboard IR loader for speaker simulation. It has three channels built in to give you a wide variety of tone possibilities and the 16 IR slots can be channel switchable.
The amp also has a built-in headphone amplifier, so you can practice through the amp without using a speaker. You can use a speaker if you want, but the built-in reactive load and IR’s make this optional when it wasn’t before.
At first sight the PT15 looks to have a confusing control layout, but it’s not as bad as it seems. You have controls laid out for each of the three channels. Channel 1 (based off a Suhr Bella amp) has controls for Gain, Level, and a 2-Band EQ. Channels 2 and 3 have their own Gain and Level controls as well, but share a 3-Band EQ.
Every channel has its own bright switch as well. On the far right are the universal Master and Presence controls and channel switch.
To the far right are your controls/light displays for the onboard IR’s. The amp has 4 banks with 4 cabinets in each, giving you a total of 16 IR’s to choose from and you can load up third party IR’s. You can then use the headphone amp on the far left for quiet practice or send the signal out to the FOH or your mixing console.
Making an innovative hybrid of Tube/Digital amp designs wouldn’t be worth doing if the amp didn’t deliver in terms of tone. Rest assured, the PT15 not only delivers great tones but also a wide variety of them. Channel 1 gives you a hot-rodded American clean amp tone capable of sparkling cleans to edge of breakup tones.
Channel 2 is where all of your tight, crunchy rhythm sounds live and Channel 3 is the lead channel for soaring, rich harmonic solos. The amp combines the best of American and British voiced amps.
The Suhr Reactive Load is an innovative piece of technology that doesn’t color your tone in any way. It allows your amp to be voiced accurately into whatever IR you choose. The onboard Suhr 2×12 cabinet IR is also really pleasing, so even if you don’t want to load up your own IR’s you get a world class Suhr developed IR automatically.
- Type: Tube Head (6V6)
- Power: 15W
- Channels: 3
- Speakers: Onboard Suhr 2×12 IR, up to 16 IR’s storable
- Features: Suhr Reactive Load, IR’s, Buffered FX Loop, Headphone amp, USB jack
Final Thoughts on the Suhr PT15 IR
In my opinion, this is without a doubt the most innovative amplifier to come out within the last year. The needs of guitarists are changing, and many are being asked to perform at lower stage volumes.
There are plenty of good digital solutions, but to see that Suhr is innovating the tube amp to fit into the new world of guitar playing is exciting and relieving.
This is a brilliant, fun, and world class sounding amplifier.
5. Tone King Falcon Grande Combo Review
- Type: Tube - 5881 x 2, 12AX7 x 2
- Channels: 3 settings
- Speakers: Eminence
The Falcon Grande from Tone King expands upon their Gremlin amplifier design to give you a 20W combo amp with three classic sounding voices on it. Combine that with a two-spring reverb and you have all your classic electric guitar tones covered.
The Falcon Grande is a 20W, all tube, 1×12 combo amplifier. It three amp voices (rather than proper channels) including Rhythm, Tweed, and Lead. The amp has both high and low input jacks. It stands out aesthetically from all the other amplifiers with its turquoise wrapping and TV-style design/control panel. Its most notable feature is a built in attenuator, which allows you to get pushed-tube sounds at lower volumes.
While most amplifiers have a horizontal control layout, the Falcon Grande utilizes a “TV-Style” layout with vertical controls and big dial control knobs. There’s a control for Volume and Tone across the board. It also has a Voicing control that lets you choose between the Rhythm, Tweed, and Lead voices.
The Reverb dial controls the volume of the reverb effect and the Dwell dial controls the decay length of the effect. On the back is the control for the Ironman II attenuator, which allows you to keep your amp’s core tone any volume for the stage or home recording.
The Falcon Grande combines a highly interactive Volume/Tone control set with the three amp voicings to give you nearly any American voiced amp tone you would ever need. The rhythm channel is like a Fender Silverface amp, with shimmering highs and bell like clean tones.
The Tweed voice sounds like the best brown amp you could ask for and the lead channel cranks up the gain to solo worthy saturation. It makes for a great pedal platform or works great on its own. All this tonal versatility is supported by the custom voiced, 12” Eminence speaker and the reactive load built within the attenuator. The reverb is superb and would be great in surf rock or country music.
- Type: Tube (2 x 5881)
- Power: 20W
- Channels: 1 with 3 Voicings
- Speakers: 1 x 12” Custom Eminence
- Features: Ironman II Attenuator, 2-Spring Reverb
Final Thoughts on the Tone King Falcon Grande Combo
There is something special about small combo amplifiers. They occupy their own space and deliver a really unique tone. The Tone King Falcon Grande is particularly special because it delivers amp voicings that resemble history’s greats, while still managing to have its own “thing” going for it.
It also continues to push tube amplification technology into the future, which I am all here for. It’s a great example of an American voiced combo amp and it looks sharp too.
Tube Amps Are Tools at the Least, But at the Most…
They are an extension of you.
Paul Reed Smith had the first part right, these amps are tools that are meant to get a job done. That is why they have to be built so well. That is why they can cost a pretty penny.
However, a well-built amp doesn’t just guarantee to work as a tool should. It allows you to choose how you want to sound for the world to hear. Sure, they will work as advertised, but they will also have some surprises in store for you.
Tube amps have been the standard for electric guitar amplification for over 70 years. Now, the landscape and needs of the everyday guitarist have changed. It is true that there are digital solutions (I use and advocate for them all the time). The fact remains, digital amp models are trying to capture what tube amps do AND can’t do.
Let me say, what they can do is pretty awe inspiring. Some of the amps on this list, thankfully, are even evolving what a tube amp can do.
These are tools and instruments. That is what makes these amps worth having. They aren’t always the most practical and they can be pricey. But they sure do sound good.
- Marshall MG30-DFX Review – An All Purpose Amp
- How To Choose A Guitar Amp Like A Boss (Beginner to Pro)
- Flatsons FGA-3 Mini Amp Review (Hands On)
- Blackstar FLY 3 Mini Amp Review (Hands On)
- Behringer HA400 Review – My Experience With This Headphone Amplifier
Davis Wilton Bader is a professional guitarist/writer based out of St. Louis, MO. He plays in the bands Lumet and The Outskirts.