Updated by Bobby
Recently updated on July 6, 2020
Updated product link and checked for availability. Made minor changes to copy and format.
BEST GUITAR AMP: Our TOP PICK
Marshall DSL Series
Versatile, affordable, and all the flavor of what we love about Marshall, the DSL series is simply one of the best-value guitar amp purchases on the market. Both the head and combo versions are excellent on nearly every measurable quality marker.
Above and below, I’ve listed all the best guitar amps I’m most comfortable recommending.
You can read more about each one beneath the product table. If you go through this material before buying, you’ll know exactly what to pay attention to when shopping for an electric guitar amp, regardless of age, skill level, musical style, or tone preference.
These are the best guitar amps we know to recommend, based on actual use and personal experience.
Best Guitar Amps: Top 9 Picks
VOX Pathfinder 10W Combo Amp
Orange Crush 12 Small Combo Amp
Fender '68 Vibrolux Tube Amp
Orange Micro Terror Amp Head
Fender Mustang Guitar Amp
Marshall MG Amp Series
Fender Blues Junior III & IV Guitar Amp
VOX AC15C1 Amp
Marshall DSL Series Guitar Amps
1. VOX Pathfinder 10W Combo Amp
VOX amps are firmly on the vintage or "classic" end of the tone spectrum, catering to blues, jazz and classic rock fans. As a consequence, they are somewhat out of place in a modern rock or metal context.
The VOX Pathfinder is beginner amp best suited for a more vintage tone, with a clean/overdrive switch and a headphone out for quiet bedroom practicing.
Control is simple with volume, gain, bass and treble knobs. We'd like to see a midrange knob, but we did notice that the amp responds really well to tweaking of the volume knob on your guitar, allowing you to dial in a wider range of tones than you'd expect from such a small amp.
IDEAL FOR: Beginners, practice, bedroom jamming, jazz, and blues
2. Orange Crush 12 or 20 Watt Guitar Amps
Next is a similar configuration that gives you a little more modern edge: The Orange Crush 12 (CR12L) and 20 from Orange Amps. These are some of the smallest amps from the Crush line and is one of Orange Amps' most popular practice or "travel" amps because of its price, size and lower wattage. Once again, we would recommend it for travel or indoor jamming that doesn't require a ton of functionality.
For more info on this amp and other similar options, you can checkout our review article of guitar amps under $200.
IDEAL FOR: Practice and modern playing styles
3. Fender '68 Custom Deluxe Reverb Tube Amp
Since this particular article is not bound by a price range we've included amps that are both on the cheap and mid to upper end of the pricing spectrum. The Fender '68 Deluxe Reverb is on the expensive end, yet, it's still one of our favorite combo amp recommendations. The '68 Custom has two channels both equipped with onboard reverb and tremolo effects. Fender does a lot of things well, yet onboard reverb is one of their highlight-reel success stories and is at its best in the '68 Custom. It should also be noted that this is a tube amp, whereas the first two amps we looked at were built on solid state circuits.
IDEAL FOR: Pros, church, gigging, clean tones, and vintage styles
4. Orange Amps Micro Terror (MT 20) Amp Head
The Orange Amps Micro Terror is really small, comparable to a rectangular tissue box, so we only recommend it for basic practice and bedroom jamming.
Yet, considering the price point, it sounds decent and provides value in that limited context.
You get a headphone jack which means a speaker cab is optional and not necessary to use the amp. I'm assuming that since the tube is only in the preamp and not the power amp that a speaker cab isn't necessary (usually you must have a speaker cab hooked up in a tube amp).
In a situation where you just want something that sounds good for simple electric guitar practice, you can start to see where the Micro Terror gets its appeal. It's one of the most popular Orange Amps products, pickup up over 140 reviews on Amazon and consistently finding itself in the top seller ranks within its price range.
It's a high-value option for anyone looking for a beginner or practice amp to get started with the electric guitar. We would award bonus points if you already have a decent set of headphones ready to go.
IDEAL FOR: Beginners, practice, and bedroom jamming
5. Fender Mustang V2 Guitar Amp
The Fender Mustang series is a lineup of digital modeling and practice amps that come in a variety of sizes and wattage levels.
The 20 watt V2 is one of the most popular in the series with a bottom-level price tag and a slew of digital amp models and customization options. For beginners and indoor practice, it's a reliable, feature-rich amp that affords many different sounds and tones.
While it's certainly not "authentic" Fender tone, the Mustang I does a superb job of giving you the variety and experience of multiple Fender amp models.
We like it for beginners and indoor practice sessions where the higher wattage amps aren't necessary.
IDEAL FOR: Beginners, practice, and bedroom jamming
6. Marshall MG Amp Series (MG30CFX or GFX)
The MG series is to Marshall what the Mustang series is to Fender. However, the MG series gives you more amp at a similar price tag and a lot more versions to choose from. In fact, there are over 10 different purchase configurations on Amazon, all in addition to the MG Gold, the newest iteration of the series. We believe it's also the highest-value option from the series, giving you 30 watts of power (loud enough to fill some decently large rooms) and four storable channels. Having a multi-channel setup makes the MG30 feasibly useful in a gigging situation, if not for smaller venues.
IDEAL FOR: Practice, simple recording, and jamming
7. Fender Blues Junior Tube Amp
The Fender Blues Junior series takes us into the mid-level tube amp tiers where it competes with the VOX AC series and some of the Marshall DSL combos (we'll cover both of those later). Fender has since released the Blues Junior IV, which is part of the Hot Rod series, all of which have been moved up to their own fourth gen iterations. Since we've only experienced the third gen versions, we're sticking with those for this write-up. However, it should be understood that an endorsement of the third gen version would also - by default - be transferred to the fourth gen version as well, since Fender has only improved on what we believe was already a superb design and value-packed product.
IDEAL FOR: Clean tones, performing, and mid to high-level rigs
8. VOX AC15C1 Tube Guitar Amp
The AC15 and AC10 amplifiers are VOX's answer to Fender's Hot Rod series, boasting a similar set of features and tube power throughout. There are several different variations of each amp, though we're focusing primarily on the AC15C1. With slight differences, the core of this series is consistent, while the AC15C1 (in our opinion) gives you the most value at its price point. You can check prices here.
IDEAL FOR: Clean tones, gigging, jazz, blues, and bright lead
9. The Marshall DSL Series Amps
The DSL series houses some of Marshall's most affordable tube amps, coming in both combo and head versions. The DSL40C ("C" stands for combo) is the 40 watt variation. Next to the Blues Junior, this is one of our favorite overall guitar amp recommendations. For starters, it's a little louder than its comparables at 40 watts with a 20 watt power reduction option. It runs off of four ECC83 preamp tubes and two EL84 power tubes going out of a Celestion speaker with 16 ohms of impedance. The newer version of the DSL (the DSL40CR) comes with an emulated direct out for recording or going directly to a mixing board and allowing you to bypass the power amp.
IDEAL FOR: Clean, heavy, modern, and vintage. The DSL series does it all.
What is a guitar amp and how to do they work?
Guitar amps are made up of the following three components:
- Power amp
- Speaker cab
Most guitar amps, especially those beginners might be familiar with, include all three of these pieces in one box. These are called "combo" amps.
Note that in some cases, the parts of a combo amp can be separated out into different units. For example, you could buy just the preamp or just the power amp. You could also buy a separate speaker cab.
This is the route that a lot of professional players choose to go because it gives them more customization over their tone.
For our purposes, the combo amp is a good example to stick with.
How do I use a guitar amp?
Before we get into knobs and dials, let's talk about how to set everything up, one step at a time. Before turning your amp on, you should have your guitar connected. You'll need the following:
- An electric guitar
- One instrument cable
- Your amp
Use an instrument cable to connect the output on your guitar to the input on your amplifier. The input should be on the front panel and labeled something like "input" or "guitar".
After the Instrument Cable is Plugged In
Once the instrument cable is plugged in, go through the following checklist:
- Check any volume, gain, level, or master knobs and make sure they aren't super high (you don't want to get blasted by a knob that has been inadvertently turned up)
- Turn the amp on and flip the standby switch (if there is one)
- If you have a tube amp, note that it'll take about 10-15 seconds for the tubes to warm up
Setting Volume Levels
The next thing you need to do is an important step. You need to set your volume knobs to a "baseline" depending on the room you're in. To do this correctly, you need to understand how volume in a guitar amp works.
In most amps, you will have two knobs that control volume:
- Preamp volume
- Power amp volume (master output)
Labels for these knobs will differ, but generally the preamp volume control will be labeled "volume" or "gain" while the power amp volume will be labeled "master" or "output".
You can set your preamp volume first, then use the master (power amp) volume to sort of "cap off" your final output to make sure it's not too loud or loud enough depending on how loud you want it to be.
- Set the preamp volume
- Set the master volume
What if you have multiple channels?
Many amps have multiple channels, which means you can use different volume levels or settings and switch between them instantly. In the above example, this amp actually has two channels, with a volume selector for each one.
- Clean Channel
- Gain Channel
If your amp has a similar setup (some amps have up to three or four channels) you should also set these levels.
EQ and Other Settings
Once you have your volume set, you can play your guitar and you should be able to hear it. Though to fine-tune your sound you need to go through the other dials on your amp.
Usually you'll have a three-band EQ, while some amps will add others like presence and reverb.
Certainly there is no right or wrong way to set these knobs. However, there are plenty of conventional amp settings you can test out for yourself. It all depends on what sound you like and what type of music you want to play.
These are the basics of how to use a guitar amp properly. It gets you started at a place where you can set volume and then experiment with the other features and settings your amp provides.
Difference Between Solid State & Tube Amps
In this section, we'll look at the difference between tube and solid state amp models.
They look the same, and most of us know that tube amps have tubes, of course. But, what's so different between them? I'll answer that question by explaining what the lingo means and what the ultimate differences are between the two types of guitar amps.
We'll also cover the stigmas and pricing differences between the two types of amplifiers, as well as the type of music they're typically used for.
Before we get into the details, let's start with a simple answer to our question.
What is the difference between a tube and solid state amp?
The different between tube and solid state amp models is found in how their preamp and power amp stages are powered. In a tube amp it's powered by vacuum tubes or valves, while solid state amps are powered by transistors or semiconductor circuits.
You can also have what's called a "hybrid" where either the preamp or power amp use tubes while the other uses a solid state circuit.
Speaking broadly, this is the defining difference between the two amp types. While it seems like a simple distinction, the resulting tone, pricing, and feature implications between the two types of guitar amps are far reaching.
To sort these out, I'll talk about the characteristics of each one, starting with tube amps.
Characteristics of a Tube Amp
Tube amps have physical vacuum tubes installed at the preamp and power amp stages. Often you'll have 12AX7 tubes in the preamp and EL34 tubes in the power amp. Here's a quick shot of what they look like close up:
Tube-driven circuits are often installed in older amplifiers with a more vintage style. For example, the Fender Blues amp series, the Marshall JCM heads, and the VOX AC combos are all entirely tube driven.
The tone they produce is also more likely to have a smooth, vintage warmth to it. You'll have more of a warm overdrive, as opposed to a hard-edged distortion, along with a sweeter and more melodic clean tone. However, that's not to say that tube amps can't handle modern metal.
Broadly, tube amp tone is thought to be better and of a higher quality than solid state amp tone.
It's viewed as a more pure and organic form of amplification.
PRICING AND FEATURE IMPLICATIONS FOR TUBE AMPS
As a consequence tube amps are almost always more expensive and lower wattage than their solid state counterparts. It's also harder to add features and flexibility into a tube amp because of the physical tube circuit. This means that tube amps can almost always be explained by the following bullet points:
- Better tone quality (vintage and/or modern)
- Less flexibility (less knobs and tweaking options)
- More expensive
Solid state amps are basically the inverse of this description. Let's take a closer look at their characteristics so we can get a clearer picture of how they differ.
Characteristics of a Solid State Amp
Solid state amps are far cheaper to produce and easier to manipulate with different controls and settings. This is why all modeling amps (amps with built in effects) are solid state, with the exception of reverb and vibrato offered on a number of popular tube amps.
Yet, without the presence of tubes, many guitar players dislike solid state amps because the natural tone quality isn't there.
While solid state circuits can easily emulate tube amps and employ a lot of digital modeling technology, it's still not viewed as "the real thing." However, manufacturers have gotten better (in recent years) at developing solid state circuits and digital amp models that sound really good and make viable - more affordable alternatives - to the more expensive tube amps.
Particularly for modern metal and heavier styles, some guitar players have embraced solid state technology, in part, because it's so good at adapting to their playing tendencies and more sterile tone profiles.
To summarize the difference between tube and solid state amp models, I'd be comfortable saying that tube amps are generally a better-quality amplifier, regardless of music style. Even those wanting a more modern tone will be better served by a tube-driven circuit, perhaps with something from Mesa, Diezel, or even Marshall.
Solid state amps have their place, but the difference in tone is going to be hard for a lot of seasoned players to get past.
Unless you really want the modeling features or the extra flexibility solid state offers, a tube amp is probably your better option.
Amp Distortion VS Pedal-Based Distortion: Which one?
Now, on the topic of distortion:
Is it better to get your electric guitar distortion from a pedal or from your amp?
Most beginners start out with some kind of distortion pedal or maybe the gain on a cheap modeling amp. While there are some really nice pedals and modeling amps out there, it's almost always better to get your distortion from your amplifier and not from a pedal.
There's a reason you don't typically see distortion pedals on professional rigs, even (especially) for the heavy metal guys.
It's almost always better to get your distortion from your amplifier and not from a pedal.
Expensive Amps and the Pros
Adam Jones of Tool, Disturbed's Dan Donegan, and Tom Morello have all used a ton of distortion throughout their careers, yet none of them run distortion pedals as their primary source of gain (if at all). This is because they use high-end amplifiers with tube-driven dirty channels that far surpass the quality of the distortion you get from a stompbox.
For example, Jones often uses Diezel amps to record Tool's studio tracks:
This is how you get smooth, high-quality distortion like you hear on "Fear Inoculum:"
Most of the modern rock and metal distortion tones you hear come from an amplifier like the Diezel VH4. The Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier, Marshall JVM, and Randall 667 heads are also going to show up in the hard rock realm quite a bit. In almost every case, they'll be the preferred method of handling distortion.
But, these amps are super expensive!
It's true that most of the amps that are sought after for their powerful distorted tones are also at least $2000, if not encroaching on the $4000 mark (looking at you four-person company Diezel).
But, if you can't afford an amp like this, you do have options that can still get you a really high-quality distortion without spending a ton of money.
Primarily, you have three choices:
- Buy the high-dollar amp if you can afford it
- Find a cheap amp with a high-quality distorted tone
- Use a high-quality distortion pedal that's modeled after a tube-based amp distortion
The Cheap/Used Method
In my situation, I went with option number two. Last year - for my birthday - my wife found a used Mesa Rectoverb combo on Craigslist for about $500, so we drove over to Lexington to meet the guy and pick it up. It's an older amp, but the distortion is absolutely fantastic.
Here's a look at the amp with a bad sound-proofing job:
And here's what it sounded like:
This setup gave me an amp with an onboard distortion that is better than just about any pedal. Though as you'll see below the next section, there are some pedals that can compete with it.
Cheap Amps that Have Good Onboard Distortion
If you don't want to buy used or if you just can't find something that suits you, there are some cheaper amps that still have a decent distortion source.
Here are a few we'd recommend checking out:
These amps all hover around the $500 and $600 price point, brand new. While this isn't as cheap as you might like to see, it's certainly more affordable than the $2000 and $4000 price tags we were seeing with the pro-level options.
Distortion Pedals that are Actually Good
There are a few distortion pedals that can compete with the high-quality amp-based distorted tones you get from Mesa and Diezel. These recommendations are based on distortion pedals that we've actually tested in-house, so note that we've also took our own pictures during the process and put up some simple demo videos.
Primarily, we recommend two:
Both of these pedals are not only great distortion sources, but are built more like amplifiers, able to function as their own preamp.
The Heavy is more expensive, but probably the better-sounding of the two pedals and certainly more flexible:
Here's a quick audio demo:
The Amptweaker TightMetal JR, though it has far less control and functionality than the Heavy, has a high-gain tone that's similar in quality.
Here's my simple demo of the Amptweaker's tone:
These pedals are exceptions to the rule of amp-based distortions always being better than pedals. Both the TightMetal and Empress Heavy can compete with amps like the Mesa Rectifier with comparable sounds. The moral of the story is that you shouldn't cheap out on your distortion pedal, if you decide to go that route.
Spending $150 to $300 for a distortion pedal is not overkill, especially if you plan to use it as your primary distortion source.
It's still much cheaper than a $2000 amp.
A lot of guitar players who are just getting into effects don't realize that it's better to get distortion from an amp.
Distortion pedals are just a familiar image, which makes a lot of people assume that's the best way to get distortion into your rig. But I would advise bypassing the pedal and instead, if you're able to, invest more heavily into your amplifier.
Even beyond your guitar, it's the most important aspect of your electric guitar rig when it comes to the tone you'll be able to produce.
If you invest more money in your amp, you won't need a distortion pedal at all.
In this editorial Bobby highlights some of his favorite tube amps that are at or near the $500 salary cap. No solid state technology here whatsoever.
An editorial focused on Marshall amps that highlights the popular manufacturer's highest value combos and amp heads.
Combo amplifiers are the most popular form of guitar amplification, primarily because they combine all three components necessary to amplify a guitar; preamp, power amp and speaker cab. Combo amps are more compact, more convenient and easier for beginners or those who just prefer a simpler guitar rig.
While they aren't as popular and usually don't sound quite as good as tube amps, solid state amplifiers often have more customization options and are cheaper. They're a far more modernized way to amplify a guitar and can still deliver a ton of quality, as in the Roland JC-22 combo.
In this editorial we focus on the nicest metal amps at the lowest possible price, which have a modern edge and can church out high gain levels for a metal-friendly onboard distortion.
Summary and Conclusion
When all the research and shopping dust settles, you should not only know a lot more about guitar amps, but you should be able to kind of fall into a niche with the amp you buy. If you know what kind of music styles you prefer and which amps are most likely to benefit those styles, you can narrow your choice down and have a better shot at getting something you really like.
That's what an article like this is really all about.
It's meant to help you understand the product so you can narrow down your search and get something that is tailored to you like a suit that fits perfectly.
Hopefully our advice has helped get you closer to that point.
Questions and Comments
Maybe you have a question about a different amp or think there's one we should add to our best guitar amps list?
Mention it in the comments section below and we'll check it out.
We're big on making recommendations based off actual, real-life experience, so if you can bring some of that to the table, we want to hear it.
Thanks for reading.