In a way, an amp purchase is a much tougher decision than an electric guitar.
An amplifier is that other thing you’ve got to buy, which can be frustrating, when all you really want is to get your guitar and play.
To make matters worse, here’s how the amp-buying process usually goes:
Step 1: You search for something low cost just to get your guitar plugged in.
You go to your retailer of choice and start looking for options you can afford. So far so good.
Step 2: You end up with one of the amp packs, bundles or practice amps on the cheap.
The amp you choose is one that is suggested or marketed as the “best” beginner guitar amp, and is almost certainly solid state.
Step 3: When you plug everything in it just doesn’t sound “right.”
In fact, it sounds downright cheap. It’s just…blah.
Sure, it makes noise, but it doesn’t sound like an amp should and feels as though it’s tainting your guitar’s true tone.
Step 4: You wistfully look forward to the day when you can spend $1000 (or more) on a decent tube amp while, in the mean time, putting up with a cheap solid state piece of nonsense.
Here’s your resulting dilemma:
You need to find a way to replace your amp without having to spend top dollar and without exchanging one crappy amp for another.
Moreover, it would be really nice if you could get that authentic, warm tube amp tone right now.
And it can happen if you know where to look.
Best Tube Amps: A Few Good Candidates
|#1||Marshall DSL Series 15H|
|#3||Fender Blues Junior|
|#4||Kustom Defender Series|
|#7||Hughes & Kettner Tubemeister|
Some Honorable Mentions
There are a few amps I wanted to mention up front because of their price and popularity, though they didn't quite make the full column cut.
They're somewhat smaller, but can still be great fits in the right context.
However, I did cheat a little and include one really good non-tube option.
#8: VOX AC4C1BL Custom Tube Series: One EL84 tube for the power amp and a 12AX7 tube for the preamp make this one of VOX's smallest tube amps. It's a simple volume/bass/treble EQ with four watts of power and a fantastic, vintage tone.
#9: Orange Amps Micro Terror 20-Watt (tube preamp): In this 20 watt amp head, the preamp is powered by a 12AX7 tube while the power amp is solid state. It's a good practice option for someone who already has a speaker cab.
#10: Marshall MG101CFX (Marshall's non-tube series): It's solid state, but it's also a Marshall. Moreover, it's one of their most popular budget amps, with 100 watts of power, built-in effects and four programmable channels. The MG series is the only non-tube exception.
My two favorites...
1. VOX AC10C1
BOTTOM LINE: You get a budget tube amplifier that gives you the well-known and sought after warmth of the historical VOX tube amps, that cannot be reproduced in digital systems. The AC10C1 is a great example of cutting size and wattage without losing quality and. In my opinion, it’s one of the best all around guitar amplifiers in this list.
BOTTOM LINE: I’ve honestly never played a bad Marshall. This one is cheaper simply because it’s one of the lower wattage tube amps in the DSL series. You’re getting the tube sound and quality of Marshall on a smaller scale. Even at 15 watts, it’s plenty loud.
#1: Look for amps that cut costs by reducing size and wattage not tone and sound quality.
Write this down:
“Any 15 watt tube amp will still be really loud.”
You don’t need a big 50 – 100 watt amp to make a lot of noise.
The best 15 watt tube amp is going to be far better than an average 100 watt solid state amp.
Look for amps that are lowering cost by offering a low watt version of a nice tube amp. A good strategy is to look at a reputable tube amp series and just target the smaller variations.
Find a high-quality amp line and look for the low-wattage options, as they’ll usually be much more affordable. | Image via Marshall
This means you get the sound quality and tone of a more expensive amp, but in a smaller box.
The Fender Blues Junior III (we review it below), which is a smaller relative of the Fender Deluxe and Deville, is a great example.
#2: Avoid the features that don’t really matter.
An amp with built in effects, extra picks, “rock star settings” and all those other gimmicky add-ons don’t help your tone. Avoid them. Steer clear of the amp kits and avoid the cheap beginner or practice amp Easter eggs.
While you can’t always be certain where a company might be cutting costs, the tone of a small tube amp is not something that can be easily masked. Amp manufacturers can’t bull crap their way to a great tone. This means that if you shop simply based on tone-related features, you’ll always be better off.
Those features are primarily the following:
- Tubes or valves
To make this list I’ve started by making sure these two features are primary considerations with each recommendation.
I’ll share with you seven of the best low wattage guitar amps that will make your tone sound more professional, and are tube driven, while managing to stay comfortably affordable.
2. VOX AC10C1
Best Option for Pedals
The difficult thing about diagnosing an amp for a pedal, is that it’s a bit of a backwards errand. The ideal pedal-friendly tube amplifier will depend a lot on which pedal you’re using.
I would advise to first find a tube amp you like, then choose your pedal from there.
Hughes and Kettner makes a great pedal called the Tube Factor distortion. Expensive, but worth consideration.
Also note that the distortion of a good tube amp’s gain channel is often preferable to that of a pedal. In fact, if you don’t have a distortion pedal already and you buy the tube amp, wait and see if you’re satisfied with your amp’s distortion first, before you go out and buy a pedal.
You may find that the amp’s distortion sounds better to you than what you might be getting our of a pedal.
Otherwise, there’s no “best” amp for a distortion pedal.
If you have an amp with a thick and clear clean tone, most distortion pedals will fit nicely over top of it.
Solid State or Tube Amp?
The technology in solid state amplifiers has improved over the years, though tube amps still retain their status as the more genuine and desirable of the two options.
Tubes just produce a warmer and more full tone than what you’ll get with solid state circuitry.
The difference between tube and solid state amplification is typically easy to recognize from a sound-quality standpoint.
Solid state amps are also becoming more digitized with built-in effects and other features that are harder to produce in a tube amp. Thus, tubes are the more “organic” and purist-friendly approach, which means guitar players tend to prefer them.
You’ll seldom see the pros with solid state rigs.
The difference between tube and solid state amps can be compared to the difference between digital and analog circuitry in pedals. They can both sound great, but one has more vintage appeal and is thought to be more genuine than the other.
Other Guitar Amp Buying Guides
- Best All Tube Practice Amp
- Cheap Metal Amps (solid state options)
- Best Guitar Combo Amps
- Best Marshall Amps for Hard Rock
What do you think about the best tube amplifiers list?
Have something in mind that should have been added?
If you know of another good tube amp under (or around) $500, please email me and let me know.
Could you use more gear help?
Producing “great tone” is a worthy pursuit, but not always an obvious one.
We all own a unique collection of gear that seems to sound different all the time. That’s normal, but still something we need to learn to deal with.
We need to learn our gear.
You’ll learn a lot and get access to a number of other resources that all guitarists can benefit from.
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Nicholas Erwin