There are so many guitar amp types out there these days, it can be really confusing. Today we go over each type, and weigh the pros and cons of each to get the best bang for your buck!
Guitar Amp Types Explained: Something For Everyone!
If you have been playing guitar for a while, you probably know a lot about the different guitar amp styles that are out there. Forums talk about combos, half-stacks, tube amps, modelers, and etc. Regarding this, everyone seems to have a preference as well.
When the electric guitar was first invented, there were only a few different types of amplifiers. Technology was limited to vacuum tubes, and there were no real “blueprints” for guitar amps. Solid state amps would make an appearance later, but the early amplifiers were all very similar.
Leo Fender would go on to blaze trails when it came to amp design. Fender really pushed the limits of what an amplifier could do throughout the 1950’s. Just a few years later over in Britain, Jim Marshall was pushing guitar amp types even further. By the late 60’s guitar amps were bigger, and louder!
When we get to the 1970’s and 1980’s we see so many different guitar amp types and companies, that it started to be confusing. Guitarists had giant rigs that had effects in racks, as well as huge amps and speaker cabs. Some bands had literal walls of speaker cabs behind them on stage!
The 1990’s saw a return to form, and many bands looked for vintage equipment. The “Grunge” era saw guitarists looking for used gear, and older amps from the 70’s. Big amp rigs with rack mounted effects were replaced with spartan simplicity.
The 2000’s have seen a lot of amplifier trends as well, with the Peavey 5150 being the most popular metal amp of all time. If you listened to a metal album that was recorded between 1994 and the present day, chances are there was a 5150 involved in some capacity.
But we also have seen new trends in the new millennium, and these days some amp rigs are so small that you can carry them on a plane with your luggage. Modern guitar amp types have a super wide range, and there is a lot of info to go over.
Why Should You know The Different Guitar Amp Types?
Because knowing your gear, and how to use it effectively is not only rewarding, but it can save you money in the long run. Knowing what gear you are looking for is paramount. Understanding your gear will save you time, money, and frustration. Your equipment know-how is just as important as your knowledge of how to play!
So if you are new to guitar, and wonder what all of these terms mean, strap in! Today we are going to look at all of the different guitar amp types, and explain the differences in detail. If you’re not new, maybe you will learn something!
First, let’s look at the three most-used guitar amp types, and explain their strengths and weaknesses.
Guitar Amp Types: The Holy Trinity
All amplifiers basically work the same, in theory. You plug your guitar up to the amp and the guitar’s pickups send a signal to the guitar amp. The guitar amp then amplifies that signal from your guitar. The pickups are like your “microphone” for your guitar.
Humbuckers produce a thick, full sound. On the other hand, single coil and P90 pickups produce a more brittle sound. Active pickups use a preamp to color the signal of your guitar, or boost it, before it reaches the amp. All of this factors into the sound that your amp produces.
When it comes to different guitar amp types, there are really only three categories. This may seem like a bit of an oversimplification of the subject, because “Hybrid” amps and everything in between do exist. But for the sake of ease, we are going to look at just the top three that are most popular:
- Tube Amps
- Solid State Amps
- Digital And Modeling Amps
While it may seem strange to use technology that is much older, many guitar enthusiasts are looking to the past for tones and inspiration. Tube amps use vacuum tubes or “valves” to amplify the signal of an electric guitar. Tubes are also used in the “preamp” section to color the overall sound of the amp.
Tube amps come in two types usually, based on power: Class A and Class AB. Something like a VOX AC30 is a Class A guitar amp, and it will get dirtier/more distorted the louder you crank it. This means that distortion is controlled by volume alone, and some players prefer this type of tube amp. VOX, as well as many “Boutique” style amps are Class A.
Class AB guitar amps do not use power the same way as a Class A. The Class AB amp has more clean “headroom”. This means that you can turn the volume of the amp up without it distorting as quickly as the Class A amp. Fender, Marshall, and Mesa are all usually Class AB amps.
Guitarists still use tube amps a lot, and they are probably the most coveted of all the guitar amp types. Most tube amps have a warm sound, and they react to your guitar playing differently than other amp types. For example, if you play softly the tube amp will pick up every nuance of your playing. Tube amps “react” to your volume, playstyle, and force.
Tube amps also sound great when they are overdriven. The classic “distortion” effect is just tube amps being pushed to the max. You literally “overdrive” the amp, making that sweet crunchy sound that most of us guitarists love. The louder you turn up a tube amp, the better it sounds!
But this is also the problem with tube amps. They really need to be loud to sound their best, and that is not always possible when recording or practicing. Tube amps also require regular maintenance, and if you blow a tube during a show… then your amp is just dead in the water.
So tube amps have some of the best sound quality, but they also require the most care and attention. They need to be loud to sound their best, so tube amps may not be a good fit for everyone. Low wattage tube amps have become popular for this very reason, and some amps are as low as 1 watt.
Tube amps are can also be very expensive, and this can be a problem for beginner players. Most studios have tube amps for recording, and many professional players prefer the sound of tube amps on stage. Tube amps may be outdated technology, but some players still prefer the sound.
Popular Tube Amp Brands
- Bad Cat
Solid State Amps
Solid state is the next on the list of the “Holy Trinity of Guitar Amp Types”. Solid state amps require electronic transistors and modern circuitry to produce sound instead of tubes. Solid state amps also come in a couple of different power types.
Solid state amps are mostly found to be Class D. The Class D amplifier works by PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) and it is the most efficient when it comes to power use. Unfortunately, Class D guitar amp types can sound brittle or lack midrange when you turn them up loud or add distortion. Class D solid state amps handle power the best, but lack fidelity.
Class AB solid state amps are a different story. These work a lot like the tube amp version, but the sound of the amp has much more fidelity. Class AB solid state amps have plenty of clean headroom, and they sound better than the Class D amps. The BOSS Katana is a great example of a Class AB solid state amp.
Solid state amps are the #1 choice for many guitarists because they are more reliable than a tube amp. You do not have to perform maintenance on solid state amps. Solid state guitar amp types are also cheaper to produce/purchase. You often see solid state amps sold for a mere fraction of the cost of a comparable tube amp.
Unfortunately, solid state amps do not “overdrive” naturally when you turn them up loud. They rely on either pedals or circuitry for distortion sounds. This is a good thing for jazz guitarists, since they can be very loud and remain clean. Solid state is also popular when it comes to bass guitar.
Some metal guitarists prefer solid state as well, like Dimebag from Pantera. Likewise, people like Johnny Greenwood from Radiohead also prefers solid state amps for his clean tones. Metallica famously used Roland guitar amps to get clean tones on their early records on songs like “Sanitarium” and “One”.
Solid state amps are also popular with beginners on a budget, since they are cheaper than tube amps. There is a debate among guitarists regarding solid state amps, with some guitarists saying they sound “lifeless”. However, many pros use solid state guitar amp types and prefer the overall sound.
The same companies listed above that make tube amps also make solid state amps. These are usually in the budget category for those big brands, and the solid state versions mimic the tube amp counterparts. The exception to this is Roland/BOSS, as they ONLY make solid state amps.
The Tube VS Solid State debate will always be prevalent in the guitar community, unfortunately. The important thing, is that the amps sounds good to you. Solid state is not as popular as tubes, but it is a great option for guitarists on a budget, and guitarists that enjoy the reliability and tone.
The updated Mustang GTX is a better, bolder guitar amp with an impressive feature set and great performance. A wide selection of accurate and versatile amp models, dozens of effects and 200 onboard presets give you the guitar tones you need for almost any type of music. Modular signal path flexibility lets you move effects anywhere in the chain, while the crisp full-color display lets you know what’s going on under the hood. Footswitch Included!
Digital And Modeling Amps
Out of the three guitar amp types, digital technology is the newest. Modeling technology comes in several forms, and it may not always be a “traditional” amplifier. Companies like Line 6 have made modeling technology popular, and these guitar amp types are used by beginners and pros alike.
Modeling technology takes a real life amplifier, and tries to recreate the “feel” and sound of popular tube amps. But while Line 6 and Kemper make physical hardware for modeling technology, other companies are completely digital!
These digital companies like STL Tones, Positive Grid, and Amplitube all make software for your computer. These computer based modelers can be used for practice or recording purposes. But more interestingly, they can also be used on the stage with an FRFR speaker setup. Your entire rig may consist of a guitar, your laptop, and an FRFR speaker!
Obviously, the advantage of modeling amps and software is the amount of options you have. Most of these programs have dozens of amplifier models, as well as speaker cabinet simulators. You often also have plenty of effects to choose from as well, to build a “virtual” pedalboard.
Professional guitarists all over the world have switched to digital setups, since it is easier to tour and transport these rigs. Even big names like Metallica have gone digital! I also see many local bands using Line 6 Helix, and other products on stage as an “all in one” solution.
The downside to digital amps is they can get expensive. MOOER, NUX, and Line 6 also make budget modelers like the POD GO. But the flagship items like AxeFX, Helix, and Kemper are all going to cost the same kind of money as a tube amp.
The other con is that these digital amps sometimes have too many options. Myself and many other users have expressed the feeling of “option paralysis” when it comes to modeling tech. Some of these digital amps are EXPANSIVE, and you end up spending more time tweaking the settings than playing your guitar!
When it comes to guitar amp types, modeling technology is slowly being welcomed by the guitar community. Like solid state amps, modelers are still not as “accepted” in the community as tube amps. Some players use tube amps in the studio, and then use modeling tech while on the road that mimics the studio sound.
There are plenty of free and cheap modelers to try out if you are curious. Digital amp tech has come a long way in the last decade. Some modeling tech sounds just as good as the “real” thing to some guitarists.
Which Of The Three Guitar Amp Types Is Right For Me?
Being a guitarist is all about experimenting with new tones and trying to achieve your own unique voice. So I think that you should use whatever you can afford first and foremost. But you should also use whatever inspires you! You should never let the stigma of these guitar amp types sway you choice.
If you like the sound of a tube amp, and nothing can replace that sound for you, then I think that’s okay. The same goes for solid state and digital amps. You should use whatever works best for you. This is important at the beginner level, but just as important as a professional.
Now let’s take a look at the different ways that amplifiers are constructed! They come in a few different styles, and they all have advantages and disadvantages. Let’s look at the most popular first.
Guitar Amp Types: Combos
Combo Amps are one of the most popular guitar amp types for most guitarists. The term “combo” means that the amplifier and the speaker cabinet is all one unit. This is opposed to a stack/half stack where the two components are separate. You see all kinds of guitarists using combo amps on stage and in the studio.
The amplifier section of the amp is usually mounted to the top of the cabinet, with a speaker configuration below the amplifier section. This “all in one” solution has been around for a long time, and some of the first guitar amplifiers were combos. All of your amp controls are mounted to the speaker cabinet.
Combo amps are so popular because they are easy to transport when you are gigging or going to practice. They are extremely portable, and this makes them the best choice for most guitarists. Combo amps can be tube, solid state, or modeling amps.
Combos are also “closed systems”. This means that every part of the combo amp is designed to “go together”. All of the components are designed specifically to work with one another. Often, even the speaker is designed to perfectly pair with the amp system.
The built-in speaker also comes in several configurations. The most common configuration is a 1×12, meaning there is a single 12” speaker in the cabinet. But you also see a lot of different guitar amp types that use different speaker configurations:
- 2×12 (Stereo)
- 2×10 (Stereo)
The dual speaker combo amps usually allow you to run your guitar signal in stereo. This means that your effects will also be in stereo sound. Some modulation effects sound really cool in stereo such as: Delay, reverb, chorus, and flange. A good example of stereo guitar sound is beginning of “How Soon Is Now?” By The Smiths.
Combo amps come in all shapes and sizes, and just about every amp company makes combo guitar amp types. These are the most popular of the guitar amp types when it comes to construction. Professionals and beginners alike use combo amps on stage and in the studio all the time.
The only real con to using a combo amp is the fact that it is all one piece. If the speaker fails, or the amp section itself fails, you are dead in the water on stage. Some tube amp combos can suffer from “tube rattle” if the vibration of the speaker makes the tubes move, making unwanted noise come from the speaker.
Tube amp combos are also a little harder on your tubes, making the tube lifespan a little shorter. Between making the tubes rattle, and transporting these combo guitar amp types, the tubes get a real workout. Solid state and modeler combos do not have this problem, of course.
The combo amp is still the most popular of all the guitar amp types since the pros generally outweigh the cons. If you play a large stage environment (such as a festival) then your guitar amp will have a mic in front of it anyway. So most combo amps have everything you need to play gigs, and record.
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!
Guitar Amp Types: Stacks And Half Stacks
Just like combo amps, stacks and half stacks are just another design choice. All versions of the “stack” configuration will have the same components: An amplifier “head” and an external speaker cabinet. These “stacks” come in a couple of different iterations.
A half stack will have one speaker cabinet with and amp head on top. A full stack will be like the Marshall in the middle of the picture, and it features two speaker cabinets under the amp head.
The amplifier head is just the amp by itself, and we call it the “head” because it sits at the top of your stack configuration. Amplifier heads have speaker outputs, usually on the back of the amp, and uses cables to connect to the speakers. This works like your home stereo receiver. Your home stereo has the receiver, but it needs speakers connected to make actual sound.
Stacks work the same way, and there are a ton of different ways to configure a stack. In fact, this is the main appeal of having a stack setup. For example, you can have a Marshall amp head, but then use any compatible speaker cabinet from another brand. Some people even make their own speaker cabinets!
Common Speaker Cabinet Configurations
- 8×12 (Full stack)
So the biggest advantage of using a stack setup when it comes to guitar amp types, is the versatility of customization. You usually start with an amp head that suits your sound and needs. Then you can choose the matching cabinet that is meant to pair with the amp head, or you can choose any other cabinet that you want!
So if a 4×12 setup is just too much for you to travel with, you can easily purchase a 2×12 instead. It is also popular to change out the speakers in a cabinet for a different sound. Some guitarists mix and match speaker types in a single cabinet.
Of course you can do this with your combo amp as well, but you are limited to the size that the combo was meant to use. If your combo has a 12” speaker, then you have to replace it with another 12”. Combo amps are generally limited to the speaker configuration it came with, although some allow you to have an expansion cabinet.
With a stack, you are not limited to what kind of speaker setup you have. Guitarists like Adam Jones from TOOL likes to run his Marshall stack in “true stereo”. This means he has two 4×12 cabinets on either side on the stage, making his stage sound massive.
So when it comes to stacks, the main advantage is how much you can customize your rig. Stacks are also going to be much louder than a combo amp, and this is vital for some players. Bands that play outdoor gigs often need the power of a stack.
Stacks can also be great for the studio. If you visit any of the larger professional studios, you will usually see a rack of amp heads. This is so you can run multiple amp heads at once while recording to get a totally unique tone.
Unfortunately, stacks are also large and can be tough to move around. If you are playing local gigs at small venues, a stack is overkill. Sure, it looks cool on stage. But transporting it to the gig, and trying to get a decent stage volume is going to be tough.
So while you have lots of power, volume, and room for customization…this all comes with a price. Stacks are big and heavy to move around, and can often just be too much for smaller gigs. You can always downsize to a 2×12 or 1×12, however. Amp heads also avoid the “tube rattle” issue that you have with combos.
Right out of the box, the Marshall DSL is a great amp for many applications. The two channels can cover four stages of distortion, giving you total control of your sound. The distortion is classic Marshall and sounds great. The DSL is almost a blank canvas when it comes to crafting tones.
Guitar Amp Types: FRFR And Pedalboard
As we stated earlier, modeling technology is really catching on, and even big name artists have made the switch to digital. This has a lot of advantages over your traditional “amp rig”. All you need is your preferred amp modeler/processor and an FRFR speaker.
Guitarists that run this kind of setup are looking to be as minimal as possible when it comes to actual size and stage footprint, but as versatile as possible when it comes to tones. Something like the Line 6 Helix can be your ENTIRE rig if you are a little tech savvy!
The way most guitarists “go digital” when it comes to guitar amp types is with a processor/modeler and an FRFR speaker. The actual speaker can be used in the place of a guitar cabinet on stage, or it can be used as a personal monitor on stage and your processor runs directly to the soundman.
I think there are a ton of advantages when it comes to these guitar amp types and setups. You can gig with way less gear, and have everything programmed for your entire set. I see lots of cover bands using this setup, because they can program a custom patch for every song on the setlist!
The downside, of course, is the technology part. Not every guitarist is going to want to program patches, and some players prefer the sound and feel of an actual amp on stage. Likewise, not every venue you play may be ready for your digital rig! Which means you will have to use the FRFR for the audience to hear you.
On the plus side, more venues are prepared for digital rigs these days. Many bands play on a “silent stage”. A silent stage means everyone is playing a digital rig, running to the soundman, and they use in-ear monitors to hear themselves on stage. Polyphia is famous for having a “silent stage”.
Guitar Amp Types: Finishing Up…
Playing guitar is all about self expression, and the tools you use to express yourself. Your amp choice is one of the many factors that make up your individual style and sound. So just like choosing the “right” guitar for you, finding the right amplifier setup is just as personal.
Lots of guitarists play the same amp that their heroes play, and there is nothing wrong with that choice. Others may have found a particular amp, and stuck with it over the years because it does everything they need it to do. Some guitarists change amp rigs all the time, searching for the right tone!
The Important part is finding the guitar amp types that work for you. It doesn’t matter what works for other people. I know plenty of guitarists that need a full digital setup with 100 sounds to get the job done. I also know people that plug directly into the amp and just play. Both options are “correct”.
The best way to find the right amp for you, is to get out there and experiment. Go to your local shop and try out all the amps you can. Try out your friend’s amps. You never know what might be the thing that inspires you next!
The Line 6 Helix LT does almost everything it's big brother does, with a few slight changes. The Helix LT is still a powerhouse "all in one" solution to your guitar rig!
What are the different guitar amp types?
The most frequently used guitar amp types are: Tube, Solid State, And Digital/Modelers. Each one has their own sets of strengths and weaknesses, so it is important to try them out to find the best fit for you!
What is a Combo Amp?
A combo amp is on of the most popular guitar amp types. Combo amps feature an amplifier that is built in to a speaker enclosure. These come in all kinds of shapes and designs. The most common is the 1×12 configuration.
What is a Guitar Amp Half Stack?
A guitar amp half stack is a common amp setup that features two parts: The amp “head” and a 4×12 speaker cabinet. You also often see guitarists use an amp head and a 2×12 speaker cabinet since it is easier to transport.
What Is A Guitar Amp Full Stack?
A “Full Stack” guitar rig is made up of an amp head, and dual 4×12 speaker cabinets. Marshall is one of the most popular brands that make “full stacks” and it is a literal wall of guitar sound! Most full stacks are 5-6 ft. in height.
Are Modeling Amps Worth It?
Modeling technology has come a long way, in a short time. We have seen some really popular guitarists make the switch over the last few years. many professional guitarists use modelers and digital rigs these days on tour.
What Bands Use Modelers Or Digital Guitar Rigs On Stage?
Lots of artists use digital guitar rigs on stage these days, some you might not have suspected:
Avenged Seven Fold
And many more!
Christoper HortonChristopher has been playing guitar and piano for 27 years. He has been active in the professional music industry for over two decades. He has toured for years with several bands and music projects. He worked in LA as a studio musician and engineer working with bands like IAMSOUND, Baroness, Kylesa, Black Tusk, Reflux, and Tripping Daisy. In between giving private lessons, he is recording a solo album for 2022-2023. Christopher plays Schecter guitars, BOSS amplifiers, and uses STL Tones in the studio.
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