Besides an actual acoustic or electric guitar, a decent guitar amp is probably the most significant purchase a guitarist will make. Indeed, an amp is arguably more important to your tone than the guitar itself. Your first 'proper' amp is likely to be based on what your heroes play, but eventually you'll probably end up wanting an amp that better suits fits your own playing style. That’s where this guide to the best guitar amps comes in...
The amp is the key to the door marked ‘tone’. Whether you use overdrive pedals to provide your gain, or you're looking for your amp to provide full bore distortion on its own, the amp you choose will determine the overall character your audience hears.
With a dizzying array of amps on the market, you need to do some thorough research to figure out what's right for you. But thankfully, we've done the hard work for you, pinning down the best heads, combos and modelers from Mesa/Boogie, Orange, Marshall, Vox and many more, as part of our list of the best guitar amps you can buy in 2020. And we've even found the best prices for 'em, too.
With Black Friday on the horizon, it could be worth holding off on picking up a new guitar amp until the Black Friday guitar deals start emerging. We'll be reporting on the best offers right through to Black Friday itself.
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What is the best guitar amp right now?
An elite-level touring guitar amp costs some serious dollar, which puts it out of the reach of most players. But if you've got the budget, however, the Mesa/Boogie Mark Five: 25 is just about the best guitar amp we’ve heard for the money. It marries up versatility, build quality and class, with an astonishing range of tones. If you treat the amp like an investment, as something that will see you through the next 20 years of playing, then the Mark Five: 25 actually represents decent value for money.
If, on the other hand, you need something a bit more financially realistic – for players of any level – then the Boss Katana 100 MkII is easy to recommend. Gone are the days of inexpensive solid-state and modeling amps that promise so much but fail to deliver. The Katana delivers five killer amp characters backed up by amazing effects – as you’d expect from Boss – with plenty in the way of extra tools and tricks.
Best guitar amps: buying advice
At its core, guitar amplification is based on three building blocks – preamp, power amp and speaker. The preamp shapes the tone, the power amp brings it up to the level required to drive the speaker, and the speaker pumps out the glorious tone.
First, there's the question of whether the amp is tube, solid-state, or a digital amp modeler. With tubes, you’re getting the benefits of a physical reaction in your playing: genuine electrical artistry spilling from a row of glowing glass tubes. They deliver a rich harmonic warmth and dynamism that people still flock to, despite all of the advances in digital and modeling technology. If you’re playing at stage volume, and driving the power amp section of the amp, tubes really come into their own in a way that digital and modeling amps can’t truly compete with.
Where digital comes up trumps is through sheer variety and instant gratification. Modern digital amps can pack in approximations of literally hundreds of different models, from all genres, in a way that gives the user a near-infinite tonal palette. For this reason, digital amps are popular in studio environments, where sheer volume isn’t as important as depth of tone and tweakability, or with learners who want to experiment with their sound.
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Debates over solid-state come and go, and there's no denying that class D power-amps and the like are both small and efficient. These options have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years. They tend to lean towards cleaner tones, and make great pedalboard amps, but very few have overdriven and distorted tones that can go toe-to-toe with a pro modeler or real tube amp.
Then, there's whether the guitar amp is a head or a combo. Combo amps combine the pre-amp, power amp and speakers in a single unit, whereas heads require external speakers to use. The benefit of a head is being able to run more speakers if necessary, but in an age of venues shut down for noise complaints, where even your local bar has a decent PA, the need for extra volume isn't as relevant.
There's also the wattage to consider. Simply put, a higher wattage tube amp is louder, but because of reasons a bit too complex to go into here, the perceived volume of a tube amp at the same wattage as a solid-state amp will be louder. This is why you can probably gig with a 20W tube head for smaller shows, whereas a 20W solid-state won’t cut it.
Finally, you'll want to have a think about your gain requirements. If you're a pedalboard user, you may well already have an array of overdrive and distortion pedals, and you're just looking for a clean platform to amplify and complement those tones. However, for some players – especially those of a metal persuasion – there's simply no substitute for a high-gain amp, which produces a richer, more 3D character than many stompboxes. Be sure to bear in mind the number of channels an amp possesses, especially if you're looking to switch on the fly from clean to distortion.
The best guitar amps available today
With a tube preamp and a solid-state power amp, the Orange Micro Terror manages to stay shockingly tiny while delivering 20 watts of output. Through a 4x12 it's deceptively massive, although because it's so low in wattage, there's not really a true 'clean' sound on offer.
Still, it's approximately a million times better than the entry-level amps we had when we were younger, and at a push you could probably play small shows with them. We've switched out one of our amps with the Micro after a technical difficulty in the past (yes, it's small enough to bring as a backup in your pedalboard case), and we don't think the crowd noticed.
That said, it is relatively quiet, and the Tiny Terror is noticeably louder when you're playing out. Still, for the price, who can argue?
It’s helpful for learner guitarists to choose an amp that will allow them to experiment with different sounds. As great as tube amps are, they tend to stick to one core job and focus on doing that brilliantly. Digital effects, on the other hand, give the player a chance to try out different sounds and combinations of effects to find the sound that suits them best.
The Boss Katana 100 MKII is, in many ways, the perfect ‘first’ or backup amp for most people. It packs in a host of Boss effects, along with a selection of great sounding amp models, and will easily manage the step up from practice to small gig. Hooking the Katana up to your computer grants you access to deep editing of parameters, while we also loved the way it can record direct into a digital audio workstation via USB.
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For an amp to gig small clubs, play at home, or in practice, there are few amps more practical than Fender mini combos. We like the Jr IV because it has a 12" speaker, which to our ears is always substantially fuller and more balanced than most 10" speakers out there.
Though this amp only really does one thing, it does it well; however, due to its size it does break up rather easily, making it not always the best option for pristine cleans. It's also a bit of a studio secret weapon for this reason, as it can be driven to early hard saturation.
Read the full Fender Hot Rod Blues Junior IV review
Launched over 60 years ago, the Vox AC15 is the veteran of the pack in this best guitar amps guide. Yet still people gravitate towards that famous grille, lured in by the promise of one of the guitar world’s most recognisable tones. Everyone from the Beatles to Brian May has used Vox AC amps over the years, drawn towards one of the warmest clean tones out there.
The Vox AC15 is a superb choice for rock, pop and blues, and we particularly liked the built-in tremolo and reverb sounds which make for some epic surf-rock tones.
Mark Tremonti and PRS have established themselves as one of the longest-running endorser/endorsee partnerships in the guitar world. Between them, the pair have offered up stacks of affiliated signature guitar models, but the PRS MT15 marks the first time they’ve collaborated on an amp.
The MT 15 follows the standard lunchbox amp blueprint, packing in two channels and switchable output power to make for an ideal tool for practice, recording and small shows. It’s geared towards higher gain fans, with the 6L6 power amp tubes dealing up plenty in the way of treacle-thick saturation. The included FX loop is a nice touch, as is the individual EQ controls for both channels, making the PRS MT15 a decent package for the gain fiend in your life.
Read the full PRS MT 15 Mark Tremonti Head review
We’re yet to come across anyone with an overly extreme or negative opinion on Blackstar’s range of reasonably-priced tube amps. You hear phrases like solid, dependable, reliable and unpretentious, and that’s no bad thing. Take the Blackstar HT Club 40 MKII, for example, which is the brand’s mid-range offer. It doesn’t pack in crazy features you’ll never use, or cost a fortune, or fall apart every time you load in after a show. If you want high gain, sure, it can throw down the filth with the best of them. Likewise, if you want an authentic, bell-like clean sound, no problem.
Like the rest of the HT family, the Blackstar HT Club 40 MKII is a Good Solid Amp that will do you proud without breaking the bank. It may not set your heart alight with every power chord, but it’ll certainly get the job done.
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The EQ profile of Hughes & Kettner's flagship tube heads has always been somewhat controversial. With a tube layout that's akin to a Marshall and a genesis in hot-rodding Marshalls, it's always surprising how much smoother the cleans of an H&K are, even if the gains are fierce.
The TubeMeister Deluxe packs enough power for small gigs, but can also be run all the way down to 0W for true silent practicing. It's got an integrated H&K Red Box DI, which means that either live or in the studio it's easy to get consistent tones.
Finally, it's pretty compact. Not as svelte as the Victory or the Orange, but given that you can pick one up new for two-thirds the price of the Victory, it's good value for money if you like the distinctive H&K sound.
Compared to some of the amps on this list, this mini JCM800 looks positively lacking in features. However, it reminds us that maybe you don't need the bells and whistles. Maybe what you really need is fantastic sounding amplification, and no distractions. If that idea resonates with you, then this is probably the amp for you.
From grunge to doom, to noise rock, the SC20H is a fantastic foundation for a guitar rig, it's built like a tank, and it's a classic for a reason. And, while the big version remains famously frill-free, Marshall has equipped the SC20H with an effects loop and direct recording output making it a beast of a studio amp.
Read the full Marshall SC20H Studio Classic review
As the signature guitar amp of British YouTube star Rabea Massaad, the Victory VX Kraken has some pretty impressive credentials. Based on the sound of the Marshall JCM900 and the Peavey 5150 Mark II, perhaps the defining modern amp for metal, an encounter with the Kraken sounds as intense as you’d expect from the name.
The result is an amp that contains incredible clean and dirt sounds, and also some of our favorite saturated gain sounds, in a compact package that you can easily gig with. In fact, it's small enough that you can fly with it as hand luggage.
The Mesa Mark V comes in a variety of sizes from the full-tilt 90W head down to a compact 25W offering. Though some features are streamlined or removed, the 25 loses none of the key tricks, while becoming small enough to take on public transport. 25 watts is just about enough to gig and record with, and there's a reason why the Mark IV and Mark V have become legendary.
Sure, partly it's about the prestige of Mesa amps in general, but the IV earned its stripes through session players seeking a Swiss-Army-Knife amp. The tubes used also offer a clue; whereas other Mesa heads like the DC5 used 6L6s for a more rectifier-like tone, the EL84s are a different beast, while the clean channel has a distinctly Fender-like chime about it.
However, with Mesas, the stock tones aren't really the whole story. With a three-band EQ and boost functionality, these can be radically altered into new territory, and the distinctive graphic EQ on the front panel allows for even more drastic tone shaping.
When it comes to modern metal, there have been few players and producers as influential as Misha 'Bulb' Mansoor of Periphery. Obviously if you're looking for djenty modern metal then the Invective is more than capable of delivering, but it's for some of its other features that it's just as interesting.
Firstly, there's a range of power-switching options, meaning you don't have to run it full-blast at 120W the whole time. Second, there's a boost function that is modelled on the Ibanez Tubescreamer. This is because many modern metal tones are achieved by smashing the front-end of a tube amp using a Tubescreamer with the 'level' control all the way up.
Third, there's auxiliary power outs, so you can run your favourite pedals in the amp's effects loop using the amp as a power source.
Finally, though the amp itself is based on the 6505+, a common complaint of the series has been a somewhat mediocre clean channel, something that Misha specifically fixed on the Invective. This makes this guitar amp far more than just part of the 5150 line, but a substantially more versatile improvement. This is fitting really, as EVH defined the new metal sound with his 5150 signature amps; maybe the Invective will do the same for a new generation.
Read the full Peavey Invective .120 review
A lot has been said about the Kemper and its capabilities elsewhere, so we won't recite an exhaustive specs list – suffice it to say that this is an endlessly extensible professional amp modelling unit.
The powerhead version of the profiler is exactly what you think – by combining the profiler head edition of the Kemper with a 600 watt solid-state power amp, the powerhead can be used to drive a speaker cabinet, making it all you need for amp duties both in the studio and live.