Marshall amplifiers are almost universally loved and used by guitarists of all persuasions. The only problem with buying one is that a lot of them are really expensive.
However, if you're into the heavy genres, you'll want the best Marshall amp for hard rock; one that will fit your playing style and sound like metal.
In other words:
A Marshall amp will help improve the music you already enjoy playing and, ultimately, make you sound better.
Back to the heavy metal parking lot. | Flickr Commons Image via Chris Piascik
The good news is that some of the most popular Marshall amps also happen to function incredibly well in the hard rock spaces.
Moreover, they're surprisingly affordable.
As far as cheap metal amps go, they're a reliable go-to option and a consistent favorite among professional and amateur players alike.
As long as it says Marshall on it, we're good to go. - Zakk Wylde
They can also accommodate a wider range of musical styles.
Like any good guitar amp, Marshalls are notoriously versatile.
I'll focus on two amps that not only sound metal, but are also much more affordable than the JCM800s that the pros use. The JCM800s are good (amazing) amplifiers, but I'm assuming you don't want to target the $2500 Marshall amps.
Let's try a couple in the $600ish range (and lower).
I've got two in mind:
Two best Marshall amps for hard rock...
The under $700 club...
The DSL series is my go-to recommendation for affordability and high gain. | Image via Marshall
BOTTOM LINE: The DSL15H is a 15W tube amp with four ECC83 and two 6V6 valves, that give you a warn and thick tone, great for both creating and accommodating distorted sounds. There are two channels on the DSL15H, one labeled "Classic Gain" and the other "Ultra Gain." The Ultra Gain channel is your hard rock and metal go-to.
BOTTOM LINE: The 40C from the Marshall DSL amplifier series is a combo offering that provides two channels and an all-valve system. Like the 15H, four ECC83s are present while two EL34s help fill in the power amp. It's heavy, has a great onboard distortion (uses the same Ultra and Classic gain arrangement as the 15H) and boasts a ton of customization and shaping options.
But, what if you're on the high-dollar track?
Maybe in the four-figure club, looking for a heavy metal Marshall amp to compliment your sound?
I envy you.
If I had $1000+ to spend (money to burn) on a Marshall amp, here are the two I'd go after:
Two more of the best Marshall amps for hard rock...
If you have money to burn...
BOTTOM LINE: The British-built JVM205H is a professional-grade tube amp head with a simple two channel system (clean and overdrive) and an included four-button footswitch, perfect for the live performer who might already have a speaker cab on hand. At 50 watts it's fairly loud and provides the same tube grouping as the DSL40C.
BOTTOM LINE: The JVM 215C is basically a combo version of the JVM205H with the same tube configuration, wattage and channel setup. For those who want something more portable, without the need for a speaker cab, the 215C is your best bet with a 12" Celestion speaker and all the power of the head version.
Again, it's hard to go wrong with any Marshall amp.
However, given the established price ranges (both the cheaper and more expensive options) these are some of the best amps for the hard rock styles and metal sub-genres.
They're also what I would consider some of the most widely applicable amplifiers, since they have features that mark a lot of check boxes for value in a guitar amp.
Those check boxes would include:
- Two channels
- Onboard distortion
- Tube/valve circuit
- A versatile EQ
Not only do I recommend these for hard rock fans, but I tend to favor them for guitar players in most musical styles, especially if they use a lot of distortion.
Marshall amps are just so efficient when it comes to handling any kind of high gain.
Whether it's the classic fuzz tones of Hendrix or modern metal from Tool's Adam Jones, anything with distortion just seems to roll out of a Marshall like butter.
All four of these amps are prime examples of that efficiency. However, since I'm trying to focus on affordability, we'll only do an extensive review for the first two, the Marshall 15W tube amp head and the 40W combo.
Let's start with a side by side comparison:
DSL15H and DSL40C
Side by side Marshall product comparison
DSL: The most popular Marshall amp series
As you can see the 40C wins out in a lot of categories, which is not to say that the 15H is a bad option at all.
Marshall cuts down some features (and obviously omits a speaker) to make the 15H more affordable, which has clearly had the desired effect.
If you're not worried about the feature discrepancy and can provide your own speaker cab, it's a fantastic opportunity to get your hands on one of the most popular Marshall amps in existence.
Then again, maybe you'd prefer the added flexibility of the 40c.
I'll dive into an extensive review of both amps to illustrate the optimal uses and value with each one.
Just to be clear about volume:
While it might seem like 15 watts isn't much, it's still really loud.
A Marshall 15W tube amp is still going to rumble in most environments, especially small to mid-sized venues and indoors.
So, don't let the wattage number turn you off.
In fact, Marshall provides a Pentode/Triode switch on the back of the amp that allows you to cut wattage down to 7.5, for smaller environments or bedroom jamming.
In other words, it might be too loud.
Marshall allows you to cut wattage down in the 15H...
With footswitchable Classic/Ultra Gain channels (footswitch supplied), Deep switch to boost lower-end chunk, and on the back panel a Pentode/Triode switch for maximum flexibility (15 Watt to 7.5 Watt), the DSL15H perfectly combines performance, versatility and value for money.
You should have no trouble making noise with the 15H.
Now, this is all assuming that you have a speaker cab to plug in to. The 15H amp head does you absolutely no good without it.
Once you have all that setup, here's what the 15H brings to the table.
Marshall DSL15H valves
The 15H is powered by an all-valve system that features the following tubes installed into the preamp and power amp section:
- Preamp: Three ECC83 tubes
- Power Amp: Two 6V6 tubes and one ECC83
Since Marshall amps are made in the UK, ECC83 is a type of European product code for what is actually the 12AX7 vacuum tube, pictured here:
One of the ECC83 vacuum tubes in the Marshall DSL 15H.
This is one of the most popular Marshall amp tubes and further, is used in a slew of other amplifier brands within this price range and higher.
Having surfaced in the 1940s, it has been the tube of choice for almost all tube amp manufacturers, including Fender, VOX and Marshall.
That's well over 70 years at the top of the pile.
While there's a premium version of the tube (they typically retail around $40) the regular version is completely adequate for the job of the 15H and sounds absolutely fantastic.
For those who are interested, you can get the 12AX7s for around $15 a piece, assuming you target the non-premium variety.
What do the two channels sound like on the Marshall 15W tube amp?
Just to recap, here are the two channels you'll have listed on the front panel of the Marshall 15H:
- Classic gain
- Ultra gain
First thing to note:
These are not two distortion channels.
The "Classic Gain" is your clean channel, while the "Ultra Gain" is your dirty channel.
Clean and dirty channel on the DSL15H. | Image via Marshall
Now, the "Classic Gain" channel does have a GAIN knob, though turning it all the way up to 10 will still only give you a slight crunch, as opposed to a full-blown saturating distortion.
The "Ultra Gain" channel is the spot you'll want to spend most of your time for hard rock and heavy metal.
Particularly with the addition of the tone shift and deep buttons, it can sound really thick and heavy, which is exactly what you would want from a hard rock Marshall amplifier.
Here are some settings to start with, pulled from Marshall's own demo video:
A look at some ideal Marshall amp settings for high gain on the DSL15H | Image via Marshall
The channel selection button will light up with the red LED when the Ultra Gain channel is selected. In the above diagram, Chris George sets the gain level to about 8 while the volume is set to four.
This gives off a thick and saturating distortion, even without the tone shift and deep buttons engaged.
Adding those two features gives you the following tone-tweaking options:
- Tone shift: A mid scoop that gives you a more edgy distortion
- Deep: Adds a thicker bass response to your EQ
With these two buttons engaged, you're getting a really heavy distortion that's perfect for hard rock and metal, with plenty of low-end thud and a modern-sounding saturation.
The deep button on the DSL15H. | Image via Marshall
With the flexibility provided by these two buttons you won't need a distortion pedal.
What you end up getting is a really wide range of distorted tones, that are good enough to surpass the quality you'll get from most distortion stompboxes. And since it's tube driven, the tone will have a warmth and natural appeal that you can't get from a pedal.
Both channels sound fantastic.
Back panel features via the Marshall DSL15H manual
The back panel of the DSL15H has three different outputs that allow you to go to extended speaker cabs, as well as a footswitch input and the Triode/Pentode (half or full power) switch.
Here's a look from the DSL15H manual:
Rear panel features of the Marshall DSL15H. | Image via Marshall
Three speaker outputs provide two 8ohm jacks and one 16ohm jack, which can be utilized depending on the impedance of your speaker cab.
The footswitch is a channel switcher that is included with the purchase.
Here's a quick look at it:
While it's tough to navigate without an LED light, it's still nice to have included at no extra cost.
You'll also note that there's no way to control the tone shift and deep buttons from this footswitch, which is a bit disappointing, though not a deal breaker.
Who is the DSL15H ideal for?
Anyone who wants the Marshall tone and a good clean/dirty amplifier will find that this two-channel option is going to be one of your best bets within the $500 price tag.
It's small enough to work for bedroom jamming and garage bands, though also loud and intense enough to handle mid-sized gigging venues and most semi-professional live scenarios.
It's truly a great balance between some of the cheaper amps and the more expensive JCM heads.
All skill levels can make it work.
From a style perspective, anyone from the blues and jazz world to the heavy metal crowd will love the tones it provides.
It's one of the "safest" amp purchases I know to recommend.
Now, for those of you who don't have (or want to have) an external speaker cab:
The 40C is one of the single most popular Marshall amps on the planet, catering to both the beginner and the advanced professional.
In regards to guts and functionality, it's fairly similar to the DSL15H.
However, the 40C does have a number of notable features that you don't get with the DSL15H.
- 40 watts instead of 15
- Celestion speaker cab
- Additional EQ options (presence and resonance)
- Lead 1/2 and Clean Crunch buttons
The main difference is that this version is 40 watts instead of 15. However, it does come in three total wattage variations:
- Five watts
- 15 watts
- 40 watts
Pricing varies for each one where, predictably, the lower wattage versions are cheaper.
A more obvious discrepency is the fact that the DSL40C has a built-in speaker. This speaker is a single 12" Celestion Seventy 80, with 16 ohms of impedance.
By themselves, these speakers retail for about $75.
The Celestion Seventy 80 guitar speaker.
Celestion is a household name in the guitar amp manufacturing world, whose speakers are widely used in guitar combo amps and cabs, without regard to the brand of the amp manufacturer.
So, rest assured you're not getting a cheap speaker rip off.
It's the real deal.
Another feature that might draw you to this particular amplifier is the inclusion of reverb with a separate control for each channel.
Here's a closer look:
Reverb controls for both channels are located to the right of the EQ dials. | Image via Marshall
You'll also notice two additional controls in the EQ section of the panel:
Omitted from the DSL15H, these knobs provide more tone flexibility, especially when combined with the reverb controls on each channel. While it's hard to notice the difference without those controls, tinkering with them will allow you to hear a lot more variety in your tone.
Personally, I like presence to be a little higher, especially since I'm used to Fender amps, most of which have presence control included.
It's not a knock against the 15H, but the 40C definitely gives you more variance in your EQ to work with.
If you're big on tinkering with your tone, the 40C is likely to be more satisfying in that regard.
Additional tone-shaping features
The 40C also includes a button for Lead 1 and 2, which function on the dirty channel (Ultra Gain) basically giving you two different types of distortion.
Lead 2 is a little heavier and thicker, while Lead 1 provides a brighter response.
On the clean channel there's another button called "Clean Crunch" which gives you a lighter, more classic-sounding distortion, reminiscent of the classic British tube sound.
Neither of these buttons (Lead 1/2 or Clean Crunch) come on the 15H.
Marshall two-button footswitch included
The footswitch that you get with this amp controls both the reverb and channel selection via two buttons.
There's still no LED, as the unit is a very basic setup.
However, the footswitch itself is included at no charge and makes the amp a lot more convenient. Live performers will find this to be a fairly crucial add on.
Who is the Marshall DSL40C ideal for?
All genres and skill levels can make it work, though the extra tone-customization options seem to lend themselves really well to high-distortion environments.
You'll have no need for a distortion pedal and the amp itself is plenty loud, either for live performing or any kind of large room.
The full/half power control is included here, allowing you to scale things down for smaller venues.
While it is more expensive than the DSL15H, it saves you the cost of the speaker cab (often a $200ish expense) and piles on a lot more features that make the 40C more useful in a wider-range of scenarios.
Those who like to tinker with their tone, particularly distortion, won't have much to complain about.
Best Marshall Amp for Hard Rock without Tubes
I want to highlight some solid-state alternatives that still have the Marshall name tag.
Often times tube amps will have a more warm and classic tone than their solid state counterparts, though it doesn't mean those solid state options aren't worth a look if you're trying to get into the metal arena.
In many cases, they're much cheaper.
Both of my suggestions are part of the MG series.
CFX is a 30 watt combo while the HCFX is a 100 watt amp head. They're cheaper than the amps in the DSL series, but are entirely solid state.
With some built-in effects, they're designed more for beginners and those who don't want to invest as heavily in an amplifier.
The $200 - $300 neighborhood will be enough to land you one.
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Other Marshall amps and your thoughts
Have thoughts about the amps listed here? Perhaps you know of one that should have been included?
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Flickr Commons Image via iSchumi