Best Electric Guitar Amplifier

If you play electric guitar, there are two categories for guitar amplifiers: practice amps and performance amps. The biggest difference is size, wattage and cost.

Practice amplifiers are around six to 10 watts, and include features found on performance amps. With guitar amplifiers, it’s the power that drives up the price, not features. Power is expensive. It requires heavy-duty transformers, speakers and cabinetry. If you’ll be jamming in a garage or basement band, 15 to 20 watts should be loud enough for a performance amp. A six to 10-watt practice amp will be plenty for practicing and playing along with you stereo.

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Buying a Practice Guitar Amplifier

Fender Frontman practice amp
Fender Frontman practice amp

A practice guitar amplifier is not just an inexpensive performance amp. Even a gigging pro may want a practice amp because:

  • It’s small and easy to move around.
  • You can sculpt a high-volume distorted sound, but at low volume.
  • Many practice amps accommodate headphones for practicing in silent mode.

Brand-name practice amplifiers run as low as $75 and include performance-amp features such as tone controls, and effects such as reverb and tremelo. Here are some things to look for in a practice guitar amplifier:

  • Multiple-gain stages: Gain refers to the amp’s loudness power and your capacity to shape a distorted sound. With high gain, you can get distortion at relatively low volumes. With low gain, you get a clean sound (no distortion).
  • Three-band EQ: Equalization (EQ) provides tone controls for bass, mid, and high frequencies. Another tool to shape your overall sound.
  • Built-in reverb: Reverb is an echo effect that produces a sound like you were playing in a canyon.
  • Channel switching with a foot switch: Channel switching allows you to have two settings, for example one for a clean sound and one for a distorted sound. If you’re playing a tune that requires going immediately from clean to distorted, you just step on the foot switch. Less expensive amps have a toggle switch near the volume controls, you need to stop playing to make the switch. If this is not important to you, there’s no need to pay extra for this feature. You can get the same effect with a distortion pedal.
  • Headphone jack: A headphone jack will silence the speakers and let you hear the full-treated amp sound through headphones. This is handy for late night practice sessions.

Some popular practice amps are:

  • Marshall MG10CD
  • Fender Frontman
  • VOX V9106 Pathfinder
Headphone Amplifier
Headphone Amplifier

Headphone Amps

You can also get a miniaturized guitar amp, about the size of a digital camera, for headphones-only practice. These amps usually come with a belt clip and are battery powered. They offer distortion, EQ, reverb and other sound features. These are ideal for situations where you want to practice in private without breaking out your practice amp.

Buying a Performance Guitar Amplifier

When you’re ready to get louder, you’ll need a performance amp. There are many makes, models and sizes to choose from. The type you want will depend on the sound you’re after. Talk to other guitarists, read guitar magazines, and listen to CDs. Find out what amps some of the artists you listen to are using.A performance amp is more powerful than a practice amp, but this doesn’t mean that it’s only a louder amp. More power will deliver a cleaner sound at higher volumes. If a practice amp is distorting at a particular volume, a performance amp, at the same volume will remain clean.

Fender Twin performance amp
Fender Twin performance amp

A performance amp is more powerful than a practice amp, but this doesn’t mean that it’s only a louder amp. More power will deliver a cleaner sound at higher volumes. If a practice amp is distorting at a particular volume, a performance amp, at the same volume will remain clean.

If you’re planning on playing in a five-piece bar band a 50-watt amp should be more than sufficient. If you’ll be playing larger venues, or at loud levels — like heavy metal — you’ll want 100 watts. Most 100-watt amps can operate at 50-watts. This lets you to play with distortion at lower volume.

Buying a Guitar Amp: Tubes or No Tubes?

Until the 1960s, all guitar amplifiers used glass tubes (or valves in the U.K.). The tubes were considered bulky, and fragile, and they got hot. With the advent of solid-state circuitry it seemed that the tube amplifier would become obsolete. Not so. Many guitar amplifiers, particularly higher-priced ones, still use tubes. Many guitar players favor the tube amps’ warmer, less brittle sound.

Consider that tube amplifiers are more expensive than solid state. They are a bit more fragile and are bulkier and heavier than a comparable solid-state amplifier. If hear your favorite rock star singing the praises of a particular tube amp keep in mind, he’s a well-paid professional, he has technicians to service his equipment, and he has roadies to haul his heavy amps.

A couple of the many popular performance amps are:

  • Marshall JMD1 50W 1×12
  • Fender Vintage ’65 Twin Reverb
  • Line 6 Spider Valve 40-watt 1×12 Amp

Buying an Acoustic-Electric Guitar Amp

If you will be performing with an acoustic-electric guitar you will need an amplifier. You do not want to use an electric guitar amplifier. You need an amplifier specifically designed for acoustic guitars. The acoustic guitar amp is designed to recreate the pure sound of the acoustic guitar without distortion and feedback.

As with electric guitar amplifiers, the price goes up as the power goes up. The size of the amp you need will depend on how loud you need to be. If you play coffeehouses and restaurants you can get by with 50-60 watts.

If you’re playing in a band with electric instruments and drums, may need 100 watts.