Congratulations on buying yourself a top-notch axe — but you’re not ready to shred just yet. A good guitar also requires the right amp to achieve the right sound. Amps can be a daunting purchase (you certainly won’t be starved for choices on the beginner and enthusiast side of the price spectrum) and there are a lot of qualities that need to be taken into account. Want a low-cost amp with lots of power? Shoot for a solid-state amp. Want better sound? We suggest an all-tube amp instead. Want the most tonal variety? A modeling amp will get you all kinds of sounds without requiring a rack of effects pedals. But at any rate, no matter what you’re looking for in an amplifier, these 10 picks cover all the fundamental bases. So purchase, plug in and let’s rip.
Best Dirt-Cheap Amp: Finding a good-sounding amp at a low price point is difficult; finding one with a tube construction is nigh impossible. Yet Bugera’s entry-level BC15 has been repeatedly lauded for its excellent sound and warm tones, especially given its $130 price tag. It also includes a CD input so you can play along with your favorite songs, if you’re just starting out. What’s more, at only 12 pounds it will travel incredibly well.
Vox Valvetronix VT40+
Most Versatile Amp: If you want to play around with a lot of different sounds, but aren’t so keen on starting a collection of effect pedals, a modeling amp is in order. Most modeling amps are solid state, but Vox’s Valvetronix VT40+ combines the same built-in effects you’d expect from a modeling amp with genuine tube amp sounds. These effects include 11 pedal effects, 11 modulation/delay types and three types of reverb.
Orange Crush 35RT
Best Amp for Budding Performers: It used to be that practice amps and gigging amps were two separate entities, but with decreasing costs and improvements in sound, many players are finding that one low-cost amp can do both. The Orange Crush 35RT fulfills the two roles, offering up 35W of power that, along with Orange’s bold looks, make for great stage presence at any small basement or bar gig. And, despite the solid-state construction, the 35RT also produces warm and full classic tones reminiscent of a tube amp.
Line 6 Spider IV 150
Most Fully Loaded Amp: If you want to achieve a certain tone without all the fiddling, Line 6’s IV 150 comes loaded with over 300 preset tones put together by a litany of popular recording artists, and 200 presets modeled off of popular songs like “Whole Lotta Love”, “Purple Haze” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Still not enough? It also features 16 tones meant to mimic history’s greatest amps, as well as 20 built-in effects.
Fender Blues Junior III
Best Blues Amp: The majority of Fender’s tube amps are pretty no-frills, but the result is a very pure and warm sound that makes them ideal for jazz and blues. The Blues Junior III is no different, featuring one channel, three-band EQ, reverb and “fat boost” for creating rounder, fuller sounds. It ain’t much, but if you’re looking to play some blues you won’t get bogged down with unnecessary doodads.
Laney Ironheart IRT30-112
Best Amp for High-Gain Players: A lot of tube amps on the market are great for achieving vintage sounds suited to blues and classic rock, but Laney’s Ironheart IRT30-112 was built to achieve massive amounts of gain for metal and hard rock. Though the Ironheart can pull off these sounds better than many tube amps in its price bracket, it’s still more than capable of less intense tones for other genres as well.
Best Value Amp: The Marshall name is virtually synonymous with good amps, due in part to the fact that just about every professional who has held a guitar has used one at one point or another. But, you don’t need to be Slash just to afford one. The DSL40C toes the line between Marshall’s budget range and their professional models while still providing great tube sound, tonal range and — let’s face it — badge snobbery.
Fender ’65 Deluxe Reverb
Best Amp for Recording: Fender and many of their devotees claim that the Fender Deluxe Reverb is “the most recorded amp in music history.” That’s a tough fact to back up, but whatever the truth is, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the Deluxe Reverb has some of the cleanest tones you will ever hear from a guitar amp, which — coupled with its compact size — makes it perfect for recording in the studio.
Dr. Z Carmen Ghia
Best Boutique Amp: Sometimes it’s better to ignore the big players and go with a boutique amp. Boutique brands are smaller firms that build their amps in house, which usually results in top-notch build quality and unique sound. Dr. Z’s Carmen Ghia is one of the best boutique amps out there, producing clean yet complex tones that are unlike any mass market amp you can get. Just like Fender amps, there is little in the way of features, but you wouldn’t want to muddle the Carmen Ghia’s unique sound, anyway.
Mesa/Boogie Express 5:50 Plus
Editor’s Choice: Though sound preferences are entirely subjective, many rank Mesa/Boogies as some of the finest-sounding amps money can buy, and their price generally reflects that. However, Mesa/Boogie’s Express Plus amps range into the somewhat-attainable range for most beginner and intermediate players. Besides top-notch sound, the Express 5:50 allows for serious versatility thanks to two channels with clean, crunch, blues and burn modes, selectable 5W, 25W and 50W settings and a five-band EQ.