When it comes to playing the electric guitar, I often think that I am playing two instruments at the same time: the guitar, and the amp.
Oxford Languages defines “instrument” as an object or device for producing musical sounds.
With that definition in mind, the fact is your amplifier is just as much of an instrument as your guitar is.
Or maybe a more appropriate analysis would be that the guitar and the amp are two halves of the same instrument.
One cannot successfully produce music without the other.
I’m starting this article off with a sense of philosophy and academia to show just how important your choice of amplifier can be.
Even if you are a seasoned guitarist, it is hard to keep up with all the modern developments in the amp world. There are more amps to choose from than ever and it looks like that trend isn’t slowing down any time soon.
How is someone who is just starting out supposed to navigate all this information and make the right choice?
Should you play what your favorite guitarist plays?
Should you choose an amp that has every possible feature in it?
Should you choose something vintage, or something modern? And just what do tubes have to do with any of it?
We at The Sound Junky are here to help.
This is our guide on how to choose a guitar amplifier that best suits your needs.
Amp Budget and Brand
If you’ve ever asked a guitar player which amp they would recommend, the first question out of their mouth is going to be: what is your budget?
Unfortunately you have to start with budget, because guitar gear can get expensive fast and the cheap stuff usually comes at the price of quality.
The good news is that, in my opinion, there is an attainable happy spot between $300 – $2,000 where the increase in quality with every dollar spent is evident. After that, your return of quality per dollar spent starts to taper off. I would recommend finding the perfect balance between how much you can spend and getting what you need out of an amp.
I would also consider your skill level and future aspirations.
If you’re a beginner or looking to buy an amp for a child, buying a cheap amp is a good way to gauge interest without risking too much money.
If you’re an intermediate looking to take your playing to the next level, spending $300 – $500 on an amp can be a good investment.
If you’re a gigging musician, spending $500 – $1,000 on an amp would be reasonable if it is a reliable build and can be readily replaced should it get damaged.
The only people that need to consider spending more than $2,000 on an amp are those who have no trouble affording it or professionals.
Some budget categories to consider
There are a wide variety of brands to consider and you may notice price trends with certain brands. In my research, however, I’ve noticed that with so many great companies and products out there, most brands offer some kind of product for every budget.
Keep in mind that a lot of amps try to model or emulate famous amp brands (and they do a great job at it!) so if you can’t afford the “real thing”, look into what other brands are doing to model the amp you’re looking for.
There are a great deal of boutique brands worth mentioning. These are more expensive amps and are sold through mom and pop guitar shops. Check out your local music shop if high end/hand wired amps are something you’re considering.
Here’s a quick list of amp brands that I think are worth starting your online search with (in no particular order):
Skill Level and Playing Style
Now that you have a price bracket to work with, you should have a more focused idea of what kind of amps are available to you. The next thing to consider is your skill level and the kind of music you intend to play.
Skill level is somewhat quantifiable, and also somewhat subjective. Be honest with yourself and determine if you are a beginner, intermediate, or a professional.
For those who are picking up the instrument for the first time or are still in their first year of playing, you more than likely don’t have much of a playing style yet unless you are seriously focused or inspired by a certain genre. If this is the case, then you want an amp that lets you sound the way you envision your future self to sound, while remaining simple in its design so as not to overwhelm you.
If you have no idea, then going with a simple, small amp is never a bad choice. However, there are also amps out there that allow you to explore a wide variety of sounds.
Here are some amp lists that I would recommend for beginners:
This is probably the broadest bracket of skill level and where most guitar players reside. For the intermediate, you may want to consider picking out an amp that will challenge you and take you to the next level. This could mean choosing an amp with more features, or an amp that sounds specifically like your guitar hero does.
For intermediates, I would recommend a good, high headroom clean amp that works well with pedals. This way, you have a quality amp that can be flexible as you grow as a musician.
With professionals, the sky is the limit, and in all honesty, you probably already know everything I cover in this article. Professionals have a wide array of skill sets, can learn songs quickly (and even write their own), can improvise, and may have a career as a musician.
For the professional, I suggest getting amps that allow you to get the job done. If you are making your own original music, this means getting an amp that fits your genre. If you’re playing for others, this means getting an amp that can adapt to your employer or to a wide variety of genres.
Whatever your skill level, try to get the best quality possible for the price point that is appropriate. I think it is pretty normal to spend more money on an amp as your skill level rises.
Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario:
If you’re a country player, then you may have decided to pick up a Fender Telecaster as your primary guitar. This is a great choice. The guitar is naturally twangy, simple, and fun to play. However, if you put that Telecaster through a Diezel VH4 (an amp designed for metal players), then you’re not going to sound like a typical country player. Your amp choice is just as important as your guitar when it comes to playing style.
The people that design amp circuits usually have a certain kind of player in mind. It is apparent that the folks at Fender had country, rock, and surf music in mind when they developed their Silverface amps, as they were designed to remain clean at high volumes.
Marshall, on the other hand, was designing amps for rock and punk players with their higher gain circuits. Then there are amp modelers from companies like Line 6 and Boss that are “all in one” packages that work for just about any playing style under the sun.
I highly recommend that you do your research on amp companies websites to see what kind of players they were making their amps for. They are usually pretty transparent with their intended customer. When in doubt, you can also look to your favorite guitarists for guidance.
I highly recommend the series Rig Rundown by Premier Guitar for inspiration, which you can see below.
Another aspect of amplifiers that is important to take into consideration is the amp build. Amps come in many shapes, sizes, and powers.
Heads vs. Combos
These days, amps can be found in the form of pedals, rack units, even software. Traditionally speaking, the most common style of amp that you will come across are “Head” units and “Combo” units. Head units house just the amplifier and need to be connected to an external speaker cabinet or loadbox to be heard. Combo units have the amplifier and speaker in the same housing.
There are pros and cons to both Heads and Cabs, so take these into consideration when you make your choice. Many amps come in both head and combo units, so if you find an amp you like it is likely you can get it in whatever form you want.
Head Unit Pros
- Can be connected to external speakers for tonal variation
Head Unit Cons
- Require extra cable for connections, more setup
- Require additional purchase of speaker cabinet
Combo Unit Pros
- No setup required
- Unique resonance
- Small combos good for travel
Combo Unit Cons
- Often more expensive
- Harder to vary speaker tone
- Can be heavy
Here is a list of my favorite small combo amplifiers: Best Small Combo Amps
Tube vs Solid State 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.
I’ve written articles for both Tube and Solid State (as well as amp modelers) that go into greater detail about how these amps work. I will list them below. For now, the point I want to make about the debate of Tube vs. Solid State is this:
Trust your ears
What matters most is how an amp sounds, not what it is made up of. It is well accepted that Tube amps have long been the standard for quality amps, but now we live in a time when solid state amps and amp modeling technology is very usable and enjoyable, sometimes even more practical.
While I do typically recommend solid state amps to beginners because they require less maintenance and are less likely to break, I think it is important to focus on how an amp sounds and that it works the way you need it to work. That is why I take solid state amps out to gigs, because I don’t want to risk having a tube break on me.
However, I use tube amps in the studio because they have a natural compression to them, and I think a microphone is capable of picking up the subtle nuances that tube amps add to your playing.
Speaker Type and Size
If you are buying a combo amp or a separate speaker cabinet, the type and size of speaker is something you will have to consider. I would argue that your choice of speaker is the most overlooked feature in an amplifier. It is the last part of your signal chain and it can drastically change the voicing of your amp.
I wasn’t aware of this until I started using the Line 6 Power Cab 112, which has multiple speaker emulations built in. I was amazed at how much my guitar sound changed from speaker to speaker.
Here is a video I highly recommend watching that compares different Scumback speakers.
Speaker size on the other hand is a little easier to digest right of the bat. Typically, guitar speakers are 12”, which allow for a good balance of low and high end frequencies. Smaller speakers like 10”, 8” all the way down to 2” speakers become more common as the size of the amp gets smaller and smaller. There are some good sounding small speakers out there, and they can create a tight sound if that is what you are looking for. For instance, Bass cabinets often use 10” speakers to keep the low end from getting too flubby.
The number of speakers you have also changes the sound of your amp. When you hear someone say they have a “4 x 12” cabinet, that means they have four 12” speakers. The more speakers you have, the louder/fuller your sound will get.
You may not need any speakers! Modern amp modelers allow you to plug straight to the House PA or your computer and you can hear yourself through their monitors or your in-ears. It all depends on how you’re going to use the amp…
Intended Use – Live or Home Performance
When it comes to choosing amplifiers, I find it helpful to visualize where and how I will be using the amp most. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to figure this out:
- Do you need to be heard in a band setting?
- Do you plan to take the amp out gigging?
- Are you just planning on playing at home?
- Do you need the ability to practice silently?
- Is this amp going to travel with you?
While there are some amplifiers that can work in every situation, the perfect, universal amp that is perfect for every scenario hasn’t been created yet. That is why new amps are still coming out after nearly a century of production.
Playing Live with a Band
If you want to play along with a band, assume you will need an amp that is loud enough to compete with a drummer, as this is the loudest acoustic instrument you’ll come across. There’s no good way of turning those things down.
In order to choose an amp that is loud enough for playing live, focus on amps that are rated for 20W or higher and that have at least a single 12” speaker. The size of room you plan to play in has a huge impact on the appropriate amp too. Choose the wrong amp for the wrong room and you will be asked to turn down, or you won’t be heard at all. A bar requires a small combo amp. An arena requires a 100W beast (or two) and multiple 4 x 12 cabinets.
- Pro Tip: Higher wattage amps are good for getting clean tones at high volumes. This is called a “high headroom” amplifier. The opposite is true for dirty tones, in which lower wattage amps break up at lower, more appropriate volumes.
Even with keeping the size of your room and the type of band you’re playing with in mind, I think it is always safer to roll with a smaller amp if you are playing in a well-equipped stage with a PA. These days, the need for a wall of amps isn’t real or appropriate. Small amps allow for ample stage volume that can be controlled for the audience by the sound technician.
This is also a good time to mention travel, as gigging means you have to take your amp out of the house. Taking your $10,000 tube amp is not a good idea, as you risk theft and breaking an expensive piece of gear. Lugging around 50 pound amps will aggravate you and your unpaid roadies as well, so this is just another reason to consider small, reliable amps.
Here are suggestions on gigging/travel amps
Playing at Home
For the most part, the amp that you take out on stage with you can still be used as a practice amp at home. However, in my experience I’ve found that having a dedicated practice amp is much more enjoyable and results in more frequent practice time.
If you’re just playing guitar as a hobby and you plan on staying at home, I would recommend desktop amplifiers. These amps stay on your desk and can be connected to your computer. They come with multiple amp models to explore and offer a great introduction to home recording as most have USB connectivity and act as a recording interface.
They often come with small speakers if you want to play aloud for others to hear, or headphone jacks if you have a sleeping baby in the bedroom.
You’ll often hear professionals say that their rare or fragile amps are “retired”. What this often means is that they remain at home or in the studio. I do this with my favorite tube amps. I have taken them out to gigs before, but now that I have amp modelers that sound great, I like to keep my classic amps at home to use in the studio.
This way, they work for longer, both physical and figuratively on recordings, and I don’t have to worry about breaking them on the road.
For more information on choosing good home practice amps, check out this article:
The More You Know, The Easier It Is To Choose Your Amp
Amplifiers can be incredibly complex instruments and there is a lot to learn. Compiling everything into one article is impossible. There have been books written on amps and there is still information left out of them.
The thing to remember is that all of this is supposed to be FUN. Whatever amp you choose should resonate with you and make you want to play the guitar more.
And if it turns out that the amp you choose doesn’t work for every application, or that you want to get a new sound, then you’re like most of us guitarists out there that own multiple amplifiers.
The best piece of advice I can offer is that you try amps out in person as often as possible. The more amps you try, the more confident you will feel buying amps online. Every amp sounds different once a different human steps in front of it. Figuring out how you sound and how other amps sound make a huge difference in your knowledge of amplifiers.
Congratulations on choosing the electric guitar, and thus the guitar amplifier, as your instrument.
Now, go out and play!
Davis Wilton Bader is a professional guitarist/writer based out of St. Louis, MO. He plays in the bands Lumet and The Outskirts.