When it comes to choosing a guitar amplifier, it can be confusing for beginners and veterans alike. Today we walk you through the process, step by step.
Choosing A Guitar Amp: The Options Are Vast!
There are more options for guitar amplification today than there have ever been. Guitarists are calling the last decade or so “The Golden Years” of guitar. Professional quality gear has never been more affordable, and even budget gear is better quality than ever before.
I mean seriously, we have so many options these days. We can get online and have an affordable rig delivered to us in just 3 days, if we want. When I first started playing guitar we would have to search shops, hoping they had something in the “used” section that we could afford. No internet sites existed back then, and “affordable” usually meant “crap”.
Now I’m not some old guy “yelling at clouds” or anything. I’m not mad that gear was harder to come by when I was a kid. In fact, it makes me appreciate the time that we are in right now! I ordered a bass for the studio the other day and it showed up at my door in two days. That is AMAZING.
But since we live in this age of wonderous, bountiful gear, it can also be super confusing when it comes to choosing a guitar amplifier. There are many reasons you may want a new amp, and everyone is different. You may want the amp for:
- YouTube Videos
- Just Jamming
Just like the aspects of acquiring guitar gear has changed from my youth, so has the purpose of gear. It is not as simple as the binary “practice and live shows” purposes anymore. There are so many outlets now, and your amp choice should be based on your needs.
If you are a streamer or YouTube artist, then there is really no reason for you to have an amp stack. Likewise, a small practice amp isn’t going to be ideal for the stage. Some amps ONLY sound good when they are cranked up super loud. So we have to find a balance, right?
Let’s do a deep dive into the different ways to use a guitar amp, and what you should be looking for when choosing a guitar amplifier. We can break this down by the uses/purposes above, and give some great examples of what you should be looking for when it comes to specific needs.
Let’s dig into the features you should check out when choosing a guitar amplifier, and how they can affect your purchase!
Choosing A Guitar Amplifier: Power/Wattage
Wattage and Power is the first thing that most guitarists look for when choosing a guitar amplifier. That being said, wattage does NOT exactly mean volume. People get this mixed up all the time, and while 100 watts is definitely louder than 60 watts, it may not be as big of a difference as you think.
Logic would tell you that doubling the wattage of an amp will mean that it is twice as loud. That is rarely the case, however. Wattage may determine power, but it does not determine volume. Actually, to double the volume of an amp, you would have to do so in factors of 10.
So there really isn’t that much difference between a 15 watt amp, and a 30 watt amp. To double the wattage of a 15 watt amp, multiply by factors of 10. Spoiler alert for those who are not math-inclined, the 15 and 30 watt amps are closer in volume than you thought, huh?
But then there is the HUGE difference in power types. There are two different mainstream types of guitar wattage: Tube and Solid State. There is quite a big difference in the volume of the two, even if they are the same wattage. A 15 watt tube amp is going to blow a 15 watt solid state amp off the stage!
Why Are Tube Amps Louder Than Solid State?
The frequencies of the two types of amps are very different. This has a lot to do with the speaker resistance, or impedance. Tube amps use lower impedance speakers, which allows more current to flow through them. Tube amps can pull more power efficiency, up to 80-90%. While solid state amps do not use power quite as efficiently, and need higher impedance speakers.
Solid state amps are also more harsh on the frequency spectrum than tube amps. This means that tube amps can reach higher volumes without all of the harshness. Tube amps actually sound better as you crank up the volume, while solid state loses fidelity the harder you push the power section. Tube amps “break up” gradually, while solid state has a “cut off” point.
Tube amps can get much louder before that “cut off” point, but they will distort naturally while doing so. Solid state amps have more clean headroom, and do not distort or “break up” naturally, no matter what the volume.
That is the simple version of why tube amps sound louder than solid state amps. This doesn’t mean that tube amps are always BETTER than solid state. Although guitarists will argue about that until the end of time. It just means that they are very different approaches.
We covered a lot of this in our Guide For Amp Types. I think that tube amps, and solid state amps both have their place when it comes to choosing a guitar amplifier. Both serve different purposes, and it totally depends the user’s needs and situation.
The point is, wattage does not always equal volume. The wattage number can give you an idea of how loud you can get, which is helpful when choosing an amplifier. But a 50 watt amp is not “half” the loudness of a 100 watt amp.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the two amp types and how someone would use them!
Choosing A Guitar Amp: Tube Amps
When choosing a guitar amplifier 60 years ago, you only had one choice: Tube amps. Tube or “valve” technology is actually quite old, and we have moved on to more efficient technology in televisions and radios. But guitar amps are different than home appliances, and nothing quite sounds like a tube amp.
As we talked about above, tube amps naturally distort the louder we turn them up. For most guitarists, this is a very good thing. The sound of natural overdrive is all over classic rock albums, and it has been copied by pedals and software.
This is also a problem in our modern day world. If you live in an apartment, chances are the entire building is not going to be too keen on you cranking up your tube amp to 11. Unfortunately, tube amps sound the best when they are cranked up LOUD.
But modern problems call for modern solutions. The last decade or so, lunchbox amps and low-wattage amps have become very popular. These can be super low wattage, down to 1 single watt, so you can still crank the power section without being overbearingly loud.
When choosing a guitar amplifier, most guitarists will tell you that tube sounds the best. I think that can be very subjective, and tube amps are not for everyone. That being said, they make all kinds of different tube amps catered to different styles and genres.
Most tube amps have either one, or two channels. One is for clean tones, and one is for distorted/crunch tones. This can vary between different amps, and some are more fit for blues while other may be more fit for metal. The style or genre of music you play is a big factor in choosing a guitar amplifier.
Tube amps also rarely come with any effects “built-in”. Many tube amps may have reverb built in, but when it comes to other effects, you will need some pedals. If you plan on using chorus, delay, reverb, or any other type of modulation effect with a tube amp then you will need pedals.
Most tube amps take the idea of using pedals into account, and this makes choosing a guitar amplifier that fits your needs much easier. If you plan on using pedals, you want to look for an FX Loop on the back of the amp. This allows you to use your effects more efficiently in the long run, especially modulation.
In my opinion, tube amps work best for guitarists that play live shows. Even a 15 watt tube amp will be loud enough to be heard over the drummer. But more commonly, you see 30, 40, 50, 60, and 100 watt tube amps on stage. Most come in a stack or combo configuration also.
Tube amps can be great for recording as well. Most “serious” studios will have soundproofing so you can crank the amp up when recording. Sometimes the studio will have an isolation room for the guitar amps and the room will be soundproof, then you can hear the full mix/your guitar in the mixing room.
But unless you are using a special low-wattage tube amp, you are probably going to be pretty loud with a tube amp. This is something to take into account when choosing a guitar amplifier that is right for you. If you just want an amp to practice with at home, a tube amp might not be the right choice. Tube amps are best used for:
- Band Practice
- Playing Gigs
- Recording In A Studio
- Any Time You Need High Volume
Of course, you can always get a low-wattage tube amp to use at home. This is especially true if you already have a pedalboard setup. But if you plan on playing in a band, then tube amps might be your first choice when choosing a guitar amplifier. You’ll never have to worry about getting “drowned out” by the rest of the band members.
Tube amps do require regular maintenance, and that is best done by professionals. Changing out power tubes can be easy, but biasing preamp tubes can be downright dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. So that is another cost factor to take into account when choosing a guitar amplifier.
Overall, tube amps sound great and are highly versatile choices for guitarists that want to play shows, or professionally record. Tube amps can be pricey, but they are also part of a long legacy of guitar tones. They are a great choice for pros, or guitarists that plan to take their playing to a professional level.
Choosing A Guitar Amplifier: Solid State Amps
It has been years and years, and “solid state” is still a bad word to some guitarists. If you have been playing for a while like me, then I can understand your bias. Solid state amps were usually reserved to be practice amps “back in the day”. And even then, most were pretty bad when it came to sound.
But even 20-30 years ago, solid state amps were used all the time on stages around the world. Something like the Roland JC120 (seen above) was popular with musicians of all kinds of genres. BB King famously used solid state amps to get his bluesy tones, and even Metallica used Roland amps on recordings. Peavey even released several amazing “teal face” solid state amps in the 80’s and 90’s that are highly sought after today.
Solid state is a great option for guitarists when choosing a guitar amplifier because they are reliable. Tube amps need maintenance to sound their best, and if you blow a tube during a show… you’re in trouble. A solid state amp is more reliable in that aspect, since there are no replaceable parts.
Lots of solid state amps also have built-in effects, and this can be a huge part of choosing a guitar amplifier for some guitarists. We love the BOSS Katana here at EJ for that very reason! All of our staff owns a Katana, and they are great for the stage, studio, streaming, jamming, and practice.
Then comes the issue of volume. While a tube amp sounds the best when it is cranked up to 11, a solid state amp sounds the same cranked as at lower volumes. Solid state does not “break up” like a tube amp, and it relies on circuitry to make the “overdrive” tones.
This is why most practice amps that you will see while choosing a guitar amplifier are going to be solid state. Practice amps are generally low wattage solid state amps that are meant to be played at lower volumes, or with headphones.
Solid state amps also have more clean “headroom” available. The solid state amps do not distort or break up when you turn them up louder. They just become… louder. This is a blessing and a curse since natural overdrive sounds so good. But again, this lack of natural overdrive is usually made up for with on-board effects.
Some solid state amps also have a bit of modeling technology built in, which means you can get loads of different sounds. Amps like Blackstar, The Katana, and Line 6 all have different amp “types” available in one amplifier. With these “all in one” amps, you can hook them up to your computer via USB, and edit the sounds and effects.
Well, I’m sold! Solid state definitely has the features you could possibly want when choosing a guitar amplifier. They can do all of these different sounds, and are usually less expensive than tube amps as well! Solid state usually costs only a fraction of what tube amps will set you back.
Pump the brakes. So why do Solid State amps get all the hate if so many artists use them, and they are so versatile?
Well, this comes down to what we started with: Power. Solid state amps are not anywhere near as efficient as a tube amp when it comes to power and output. A 40 watt tube amp will be so loud, that turning it up past halfway would be ear-piercing. A 40 watt solid state amp will have a hard time keeping up with a loud drummer.
So they aren’t as loud as tube amps, big deal. But some guitarists are also of the opinion that Solid state is “lifeless” or “sterile” sounding. This is a strength and a weakness, since solid state amps stay clean at super loud volumes. In turn, that can make them sound dull compared to a tube amp, that breaks up naturally when it is loud.
So solid state amps are great for all kinds of guitarists. If you need a great practice amp to use in a situation where you cannot be loud, solid state is a great option. I have several 10-15 watt practice amps hanging around the studio, and they are great for quiet practice sessions.
Any modeling amp like the Spark Amp, or something akin to modeling like the BOSS Katana, is going to be solid state. Then have been some tube/solid state hybrids over the years, and while that is a good idea… it never really took off.
Most solid state amp have a “direct out” or “headphone out” feature for recording with an interface. Some also have a USB feature for recording. This makes solid state amps the best choice for:
- Some Pro Recordings
Pretty much any time you want to be able to have built-in effects, solid state is going to be the way to go. Most of these amps have onboard effects, and something like Line 6 has based the entire design around amp models and effects. Fender, BOSS, Blackstar, Peavey, and Line 6 all have great options for amps with effects.
Solid state is a great choice for many guitarists of all proficiency levels, and the amps are only getting better in quality. If you plan on playing live, then either get a high wattage solid state, or maybe consider a tube amp. Otherwise, solid state tech is catching up with tube amps as far as tone goes! There are lots of options out there!
Choosing A Guitar Amplifier: Amp Sims/Digital Processors
There are lots of reasons for having a physical piece of equipment when choosing a guitar amplifier. Some people like to plug up to an amp, and just play. Having a physical amp sitting right in front of you is the traditional way to play electric guitar. It feels “right” for most of us but a physical amp is far from the only choice out there.
Over the last decade, another option has become VERY viable. Digital amp sims, and small processors like the Helix have replaced entire guitar rigs for some players. These digital options can be broken down into two different types to simplify the situation a little.
Processors/Multi FX/Amp Modelers
These are things like the Line 6 Helix, or Pod GO. They look like pedalboards, and have multiple switches, along with an expression pedal. The picture above is the Helix, and it is one of the most popular processors right now. Kemper is also very good, as it models actual amplifiers.
Processors are “all in one” solutions for recording and playing live. They usually have tons of different amp models built in, as well as tons of effects. These can be recorded with USB straight to your computer, or by using an interface. But they can also be used live with an FRFR speaker (Flat Response) on the stage, or even “ran” straight into a venue’s sound system.
Processors usually have lots of guitar amp types to choose from, and they model some amplifiers that would be impossible for most of us to buy due to rarity. You then dial in amp settings you like, and “save” them on the processor’s memory. Most processors allow you to save hundreds of presets, giving you the option of just about about any sound you can imagine.
Some guitarists say that they will always prefer a real guitar amp, but processors allow you to have ANY guitar sound you want right at your fingertips. Do they sound as good as a cranked tube amp? Well, that’s the current debate these days. Some big artists have moved to digital, like Metallica, so even pros have made the switch.
There will always be people that say “only tube amps sound good” and turn their noses up when any technology is involved. But in a blindfold test, could most guitarists tell the difference between digital and “real”? Maybe some could, but I can assure you the audience definitely doesn’t care.
So when you are choosing a guitar amplifier, sometimes a traditional amp won’t fit your needs. Maybe you play in a cover band, or even multiple bands, and you need different amp types for each song. This is a great option for people that record also, since you can dial in songs exactly the way you want with multiple amp types.
Fully Digital Amp Sims
Fully digital option exist as well, and are definitely something to take into account when choosing a guitar amplifier. These are amps that only exist on your PC/Laptop, you will need an interface to plug your guitar up to your computer. There are a lot of these services, and we have covered tons of them.
We have looked at free amp sims, the expensive paid ones, and the one I personally use: STL Tones in the studio. Each one of these programs cater to different genres, and some artists even have their own “packages” that the artist uses in the studio.
Lately I have been blown away with the quality of digital amp sims. I have used them on several recordings, and they sound amazing. I have even used some of the free ones on a song or two. Amp sims range from free, to super expensive studio suites. So the option are limitless, making choosing a guitar amplifier much easier than hardware options.
Amp sims are a great option for guitarists that just want to record. But they are also perfect for someone that has limited space for a practice rig. I know a lot of college students that use amp sims in their dorm room, because they already have a computer and headphones. All you need is a small interface and your guitar!
I encourage all guitarists to at least give amp sims a try. Most of these are easy to set up and get playing, and they sound very convincing. I have a 5150 preset that sounds almost exactly like the actual amplifier. Amp sims are becoming better every day, so give them a shot before you dismiss them!
Choosing A Guitar Amplifier: Which One Is Right For You?
Most guitarists will agree that choosing a guitar amplifier is a highly personal thing. Everyone likes different things, and every guitarist has different needs. When I am recording. for instance, I use all kinds of amp sources. Sometimes I use tube amps, sometimes my Helix, sometimes amp sims.
Versatility is key when recording guitar. But not everyone is recording an album, and some guitarists just need a great practice amp. So its really important to take a look at your own needs when choosing a guitar amplifier type. Because everyone will have different needs and wants.
If you are looking to buy your first guitar amp, take a look at all the different types, and use this guide to decide which features are important to you. I know plenty of guitarists that have amp sims on their computer, and that is all they use. Likewise, I know plenty of people with big tube amp setups.
Choosing a guitar amplifier is all about what you need and want. Don’t listen to the people that say you “must have XYZ to be a SERIOUS musician”. I know pros that have gone totally digital, and pros that still have a classic amp setup, with everything in between! Get the amp that is right for YOU.
The BOSS Katana MKII 100 watt combo amp is a stage ready beast! You get 8 preset slots for different tones, as well as a dedicated FX loop for all of your pedal needs. The built in attenuator allows you to play quietly at home, or full stage volume with the turn of a knob. Get our #1 pick for any guitarist!
What should I look for when choosing a guitar amplifier?
The first thing to look for, is power. How loud do you need to be? If you are playing in a band, obviously you want enough power to be louder than the drummer. However if you are just playing at home, too much power can be overkill.
What types of guitar amps do pros use?
When choosing a guitar amplifier, looking at what pros use can give you a clue. pro guitarists use all kinds of different amps. Some pros use tube amps, while some use digital rigs. There are tons of options these days for choosing a guitar amplifier, and it really comes down to your needs and budget.
Which guitar amps haver built in effects?
Several companies make great amplifiers that have built in effects. Line 6, BOSS, Blackstar, Fender, and Peavey all make some really great amps that have built in amp models and effects that you can tailor to your own sound. These are not only great for the stage, but also great for recording. Most come with footswitches to control the effects, or have an optional footswitch sold separately.
How important is choosing a guitar amplifier?
The guitar amp is arguably the most important part of your tone. The amp is what makes the sound coming from your guitar’s pickups. So the amplifier type that you choose will be the #1 component of your entire guitar rig. For example, a Fender Tweed is going to sound much different than a Peavey 5150!