The Ultimate Guide To Blues Guitar Amps
The world of guitar amps is difficult to navigate. There are so many different brands and models out there, which come in different sizes, and have different features and functions. There are also different types of amps to consider. Will a combo work better for you? Or does a stack make more sense? You might at this point, even be wondering whether a tube amp is in fact the best option for your set-up.
These are just some of points that I will be covering today. In this article I am going to run through everything you need to know about blues guitar amps and the best guitar amps for blues. I am going to cover the following:
- Why tube amps make a great choice for most blues guitarists
- The key considerations you need to make before buying a guitar amp
- The key features you need to understand before buying a new amp
- Some of the main brands that you should consider when looking for your next guitar amp
This article is not a list of all of the different guitar amps out there that will help you dial in decent tones. Included is a list of some brilliant guitar amps. But more importantly, this article is a guide. It will give you all of the information you need to buy the right guitar amp to suit your needs and help you create the tones you are looking for.
So without further ado, let’s get into it! Here is everything you need to know about guitar amps for the blues:
Tube Guitar Amps & The Blues
Before we dive into the world of guitar amps, I think it is first worth stressing their importance within the blues.
In the history of blues and blues-rock music, tube guitar amps have played a hugely significant role. They have been used by almost every notable blues and blues rock guitarist, and have proven popular since they were first introduced in the 1940s.
This is largely because of the sound that tube guitar amps make when they start to overdrive. When you crank a tube amp, it produces a warm and organic sounding overdrive that is just beautiful. It is the sound of blues and blues rock guitar.
Tube guitar amps also react to your playing. They are responsive to dynamics and to the changes you make to your guitar’s volume controls.
This allows you to play in a subtle and nuanced way that is crucial to expressive blues guitar. When you then start to add pedals to your set-up, you can extend this even further. You can think about the ways that your pedals interact with your guitar and amp, and this really opens up a whole range of different tonal options.
As such, I would recommend a tube amp for most blues guitarists in most situations. It is however worth noting that there are some cases where I don’t think a tube amp is the best option.
If you are unsure whether this is the case for you, I would recommend reading my recent article: ‘Tube Amp Alternatives: Are There Any Worth Considering?‘ before you continue here.
The Basics Of Guitar Amps
If you have decided though that you want a tube guitar amp, then the challenge becomes choosing the right guitar amp. And the first step here is to develop a basic understanding of how guitar amps work.
The way that tube guitar amps function is actually quite different to most amplifiers. Most amplifiers – like those you find in radios, speakers and televisions – amplify signal with as little distortion as possible. They play the straight forward role of taking a signal and making it audible.
This was the original purpose of guitar amps when they were first introduced. The aim was simply to produce an amplifier that allowed guitarists to be heard. Yet when guitarists started using them and then increasing the volumes they were playing at, they overloaded their amps. This caused them to overdrive. And it turned out to be a sound that people loved. It is a sound that has since featured on almost every famous blues and blues-rock song in the modern era. It is a key part of the modern blues sound.
In simple terms, a guitar amp starts to overdrive when it cannot handle the signal that is being pushed through it. The level at which this happens and the amount of overdrive that is created depends on the components and build of the amp, as well as the guitar you’re using and a host of other factors.
You don’t need to understand the inner workings of guitar amps when you are buying a new one. That will take you down a long and complex path that will do little to better your guitar tone. Having said that, there are some common features found in all guitar amps which are helpful to know about. These are the pre-amp, power amp, power tubes (also known as valves), and speakers. It is worth understanding the role that each of these elements plays in an amp and the impact it has on tone.
This takes the signal from your guitar – which is very small – and amplifies it, before sending it to the power amp. The pre-amp cannot handle a lot of power, so on certain amps you can overload the pre-amp section and create overdrive more easily and at lower volumes than in the power amp section. This is important if you want great tone but can’t play at high volumes.
As the name suggests, this is the section of the amp that generates power. This is where your guitar amp produces the majority of its volume. The power amp is much more robust than the pre-amp section. It can handle more power and will require more volume to push it into overdrive. This means that you can play at a higher volume, without causing an amp to overdrive.
It also means that if you want to cause your power amp to overdrive, you will have to crank the volume on your guitar amp.
The speaker pushes sound out of your guitar amp and makes your signal audible. The shape, size and number of speakers in your amp all affect your tone.
In fact there are those that would argue that the speaker is one of the most important components in a guitar amp. It is partly for this reason that many guitarist opt for stacks. This allows them to combine their pre and power amps with different speaker configurations to produce different tones.
There are a whole range of different ways that the design and build of a speaker can affect your tone.
To give just one example, we can look at speaker efficiency. When guitar amps were first introduced, their speakers were inefficient. As a result, the speakers in early guitar amps started to break up and overdrive. So part of the sound of those early players came from their speakers overdriving.
However, if you were to take one of those early guitar amps and replace the speaker with an efficient, modern speaker, the amp would sound totally different.
That is just one example. But the same is true if you change the number and size of the speakers, or the materials from which they are made.
The final component to consider, which has a huge impact on your tone, is the type of vacuum tubes that are used in your guitar amp. Again this is a highly technical topic that is beyond the scope of what you need to know when buying a new amp.
But having a little knowledge here is helpful, as there are different types of vacuum tubes that are used in guitar amps. And each of these different tubes have different tonal characteristics. Some of the main types of tube you are likely to come across when looking at guitar amps are listed below. This is not a full list of every type of power tube out there. Instead it is a list of those that you are most likely to encounter when buying a new guitar amp for the blues:
6L6 tubes were amongst the first tubes to be manufactured and were used in all of the early and iconic Fender guitar amps. As such, they produce what most guitarists describe as an ‘American’ sound (more on this below). 6L6 tubes are often used in ‘clean’ guitar amps that have a lot of headroom. As such, they have been – and continue to be used – in big and powerful guitar amps like the Fender Bassman and Fender Twin Reverb.
The 6V6 is a smaller and less expensive version of the 6L6. Like 6L6 tubes, the 6V6 is associated with clean and glassy tones and an American sound. The key difference between 6V6 and 6L6 tubes is that is that 6V6 tubes don’t have the same amount of headroom. As a result, 6V6 tubes tend to be used in smaller guitar amps, like the Fender Deluxe Reverb and Fender Princeton.
At the other end of the tonal spectrum are EL34 tubes. EL34 tubes were first used by British amp manufacturers like Marshall and Vox in the 1960s. As such, they are typically associated with a ‘British’ sound (more on this below). In contrast to 6L6 tubes, EL34 tubes overdrive more quickly and are associated with higher gain amps. These tubes were used (and continued to be used) in large Marshall combos and stacks.
EL84 tubes share many of the same tonal characteristics as EL34 tubes. Again, the key difference is that EL84 tubes are smaller and break up more quickly. These tubes were famously used in the Vox AC30 and are a big part of what gives that amp its characteristic bite and defined top end.
Understanding Guitar Amps
All of this information might feel like overkill. But I would argue that having this understanding of some of the key components and characteristics is very important. It will empower you to make the right buying decisions and prevent you from even considering amps that won’t work for you.
There is a huge amount of information out there about guitar amps – from speaker size and configuration, to the materials used to build them, to the importance of power and output transformers. If you have a natural interest in that material, then go for it! It will enrich your guitar playing journey, and that is only a good thing.
Conversely, if you have no interest in developing an in-depth understanding of guitar amps, you don’t need to worry.
All you need is an appreciation of the way that the components listed above affect the tonal characteristics and ‘voicing’ of an amp. And the most important point to remember here is that generally guitarists talk about ‘British voiced’ guitar amps and ‘American voiced’ guitar amps.
American & British Voiced Guitar Amps
This distinction is arguably too simplistic. But it is a much easier way to discuss and compare all of the different characteristics of various guitar amps, than it is to speak about individual components, as I have done above.
As you might expect from the name, American voiced guitar amps are those that were originally produced in America and used by American musicians. These amps have beautiful clean tones and typically quite a lot of headroom. They do not break up and overdrive quickly. And when they do, their overdriven tones are softer.
Fender is the company that everyone refers to when talking about American voiced guitar amps. And as a result, players like B.B. King, Freddie King and Stevie Ray Vaughan, represent the Fender sound, along with the countless other guitarists who played and continue to play their amps.
Conversely, British voiced guitar amps are better known for their overdriven tones. British voiced amps are quicker to break up and overdrive, and they have less headroom. They typically have a more pronounced mid-range.
Marshall, Vox and to lesser degree Orange, are the big British amp companies. Marshall amps were famously played by a whole range of (mostly British) guitarists, including: Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Gary Moore. Jimi Hendrix and Paul Kossoff also used them, as well as Peter Green in his early career. Marshall have created some of the most iconic guitar amps ever made.
Vox amps were first made famous by bands like The Shadows and The Beatles. Blues and rock guitarists like Rory Gallagher and Brian May then started to play them a number of years later.
Combos Vs. Stacks
The final important feature of guitar amps you need to consider, is whether you want to have a combo amp, or a stack.
A combo is a self contained unit that has all of the elements required for amplification. It contains the pre-amp, the power amp and the speakers, all in one shell.
A stack is made up of a head and a separate speaker. The head contains the pre-amp and the power amp, but the speaker is in a separate unit. You can have a half stack – which is a head and a single speaker cabinet. Or you can have a full stack, which is a head with multiple speaker cabinets stacked on top of each other.
From a purely tonal perspective, stacks offer a level of versatility you can’t achieve with a combo amp. You can use the same amp head with different cabinets and speaker configurations, and this can totally alter your tone. As such, you get more tonal possibilities with a stack and multiple speaker configurations than you do with a combo.
Taking A Practical Approach To Tone
Despite this extra tonal versatility, I actually think that a combo amp is a better choice for most guitar players. This is partly from a practical standpoint. Combos take up much less room than stacks, and are also easier to transport. So regardless of whether you are regularly gigging or playing at home, using a combo is much easier.
More importantly perhaps, I don’t think that the benefits of using a stack are relevant for most guitarists. As mentioned above, the main benefit of a stack is that you can play the same amp through different speaker configurations. This is great for tonal versatility. But it presents an obvious practical challenge for non-professional guitarists. And that is the issue of space. If you are doing most of your playing at home, then storing a whole range of different speaker cabinets is likely to be problematic.
Even if you do have the space though, I am still not sure that it makes sense to prioritise different speaker configurations over other elements of your rig. Unless you have already built your perfect set-up, I would recommend that you look at your guitar, pickups and pedals before you rush out to buy more speaker cabinets. Not only will changing those elements of your rig have a profound impact on your tone, but you will be able to make those changes without incurring so much cost, and definitely without taking up so much space!
A Guide To Guitar Amps For The Blues
With all of this information in mind, we can now start to look at some of the best guitar amps out there for the blues. Although a huge part of choosing the right amp comes down to personal preference and context, there is a shortlist of guitar amps out there that I would recommend.
Most of these are aimed at guitarists who are predominantly playing at home. As such, for the most part they are smaller and lower wattage guitar amps. However I have included some exceptions to this and noted where this is the case.
Here are some of my recommendations, across a range of different brands and prices:
Over the years, Fender have produced some of the most iconic guitar amps of all time. In fact they were one of the first well known amp manufacturers, and their amps were used by most of the early blues guitarists. Generally speaking, Fender guitar amps have beautiful clean tones and a lot of ‘headroom’. This means that you can play them at a greater volume without their sound breaking up.
When Fender amps do break up, they produce a warm and softer sounding overdrive. Fender amps are ‘American voiced’ amplifiers. They have been used by too many famous blues guitarists to mention here. Some of the most notable include, B.B. and Freddie King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins, Peter Green and Derek Trucks, amongst countless others.
Many of the iconic Fender guitar amps – like the Fender Super Reverb – are large and powerful. Although there are reissues of these models, they are probably a bit too loud for home use. As such, I think a lot of the Fender range is inappropriate unless you’re gigging. They do however have some smaller models that are excellent for the blues:
- Fender Blues Junior IV
- Pro Junior IV
- ’57 Custom Champ
- Fender ’65 Custom Princeton Reverb
- ’68 Custom Princeton Reverb
If you are gigging and are looking for something with a bit more headroom, then the Fender ’65 Deluxe Reverb would also make a great choice.
In very simplistic terms, you can look at Marshall guitar amps as being the antithesis of Fender amps. In 1960, Jim Marshall and his son Terry opened a music store in London. It quickly became popular with a number of notable British musicians, including Pete Townshend of The Who. Some of these musicians – who were playing a heavier style of rock music – started to complain about the guitar amps that were available to them.
2 years later, Jim and Terry Marshall released their first amp, the JTM 45. Tonally, this amp was very different to the popular Fender guitar amps of the day. It broke up into overdrive more quickly and had a more biting and aggressive sound. It is for this reason that Marshall amps quickly became popular with a whole range of blues and rock musicians including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Billy Gibbons and Jimmy Page, amongst many others.
As a result of Marshall’s history and because of the many British guitarists who used them, they are described as being ‘British voiced’ guitar amps. Historically the company was famous for huge stacks. But in more recent years they have released a range of smaller amps aimed at producing British blues-rock tones at lower volumes. Some of the best amps on offer here, across a range of different prices are as follows:
Regardless of their size, Marshall guitar amps typically break up quite quickly. So if you are looking for a more overdriven and grittier sound, without disturbing your neighbours, one of these amps could be a great choice.
Of course, the 20 watt options are quite a bit larger. So if you are doing all of your playing at low volumes, those wouldn’t be my first choice. But if you are looking for a relatively small guitar amp that you can play at home and also gig, they could work well.
Of these slightly larger combos, there are head versions of the Studio Vintage Plexi and the Marshall Origin 20W. There is also a 1 watt head version of the Marshall DSL1CR. So if you want to build a stack, one of these smaller heads could work well. You could then pair it up with one of Marshall’s smaller vintage style 1×12″ cabinets.
Vox are another notable British amp company. They initially rose to fame in the late 1950s when the Vox AC15 was used by Hank Marvin of The Shadows. Bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds then went on to use various different Vox guitar amps.
Within the blues, Vox amps have been most notably used by Rory Gallagher. Gallagher played a Vox AC30 for most of his early career to craft the fiery blues tones you hear on albums like On The Boards and Deuce.
Gallagher’s use of the AC30 inspired Brian May, who has used the same amp ever since. If you are looking for a similarly biting and fiery tone then, a Vox amp could be a great choice.
The AC30 is a very powerful amp that is too loud for guitarists playing at home. Fortunately though, Vox have some great low volume alternatives:
If you are looking for a small guitar amp that breaks up at a low volume, then either of the AC4 models would work very well. You will be able to add that characteristic Vox bite and aggression to your tone, but at a much lower volume.
The AC15 is still a pretty loud and powerful amp. As such I wouldn’t recommend it if you are only playing at home. If though you are looking for something that doesn’t break up so easily – but which you can push into overdrive – then the hand-wired version of the AC15 could be a brilliant choice. It has 2 channels and also a master volume control.
Supro amps have been used by some of the most notable bands and artist in blues and rock since they were first released in the 1930s. Of these, Jimmy Page is arguably the most famous. He used a Supro on many of the early Led Zeppelin recordings, and used a Supro amp to play the iconic guitar solo on ‘Stairway To Heaven’.
Supro amps have since proven popular with guitarists like Joe Perry, Joe Walsh, Lenny Kravitz and Dan Auerbach.
After the company was revived in 2013, Supro have produced some brilliant small guitar amps that are perfect for home use. Some of the best are as follows:
As you can see, the Blues King comes available in 3 different sizes. So if you are looking for a great and affordable small guitar amp, any of those could be a great choice. All you need to do is decide which size of amp would best suit your set-up.
Orange amps are arguably better associated with heavy rock and metal tones than they are with the blues.
Yet despite that, over the years they have been used by a range of famous blues and rock guitarists.
Jimmy Page is the most notable Orange patron. But more recently, musicians and bands like Marcus King, Fantastic Negrito, Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown and Blackberry Smoke have also used Orange guitar amps.
Many of the popular Orange guitar amps are large stacks, and as such are inappropriate for home use. Having said that, the company has brought out a range of smaller combos and heads. Some of my top recommendations here are as follows:
Orange amps produce heavy tones. And in fact their dirty sound is more distorted than it is overdriven. As such these amps wouldn’t be my first choice if you are looking for a lower gain, more vintage sound. If you are looking for extra gain though, then any of these amps would work well.
Completing the line up of British amp manufacturers is Blackstar.
Unlike the other amp manufacturers listed above, Blackstar are a much younger company. They released their first guitar amps in 2007.
Like Orange, Blackstar amps are popular with guitarists in search of heavier guitar tones. Billy Gibbons has used some of the Blackstar guitar amps in recent years. Blues-rock guitarist Jared James Nichols also endorses the amps.
Some of the best blues guitar amps they offer are as follows:
As is also true of Orange amps, Blackstar guitar amps would make a great choice if you are looking for heavy blues and blues rock tones. These amps are also very competitively priced and offer a lot of value for the money. So if you are budget conscious, a Blackstar amp could be a great choice.
Boutique Guitar Amps
In more recent years, there has been a huge surge in the popularity of boutique amp manufacturers. Boutique guitar amps are hand-wired and made with higher quality components than batch produced amps. They are often built to replicate a certain sound, or are modelled on amps from a particular era. So they can make an amazing choice if you want vintage blues tones, or if you want to recreate a very specific tone.
It is worth noting that many of the companies listed above produce ’boutique guitar amps’. It is also worth noting that the term ’boutique’ is used quite loosely. There are big boutique amp companies that have large teams and operations. There are also tiny boutique amp companies where all of the guitar amps are built by just one person.
Proponents of using these very small guitar amp companies argue that the build quality and components used are superior to those of larger companies. Whether this is strictly true – and whether the tone of these guitar amps is significantly different – is a topic that remains up for debate. But it is worth being aware of these differences and their implication on the price of different boutique guitar amps.
As with regular guitar amps, it is also worth recognising the inherent tonal characteristics of any boutique guitar amp. There are a huge range of different boutique companies and amps out there. And to categorise each of these companies as either offering American or British style guitar amps is of course overly simplistic. But it is a useful way of roughly navigating all of the different boutique companies out there.
American Voiced Boutique Guitar Amps
If you are looking for beautiful clean tones and for an amp that will provide a great platform for guitar pedals, then one of the following companies would make a great choice:
Two-Rock are one of the most established boutique amp brands out there. Doyle Bramhall II, Matt Schofield and Joey Landreth are just some of the notable blues guitarists to use Two-Rock amps.
Their guitar amps are quite powerful, so they might not be suitable if you are doing most of your playing at home. But if you want beautiful Dumble style clean tones, one of their amps would be an amazing choice.
If you want beautiful blues tones at a lower volume, Milkman amps would be a great choice. They offer a range of small, low watt guitar amps perfect for playing at home. John Mayer has previously endorsed Milkman amps, and they have since proven popular with guitarists looking for vintage style American tones.
Similarly, a Tone King guitar amp would make a great choice if you are doing most of your playing at home. Although their amps come in a range of sizes, they all have attenuators built into them. In this way you can dial in a killer tone without disturbing your neighbours.
Finally, I would also recommend looking at Morgan guitar amps. Virtuoso guitarist Josh Smith uses their amps and illustrates the extent of their versatility. He uses them to go from a super clean jazz tone, all the way through to heavy fuzz tones. Either the PR12 or JS12 would be a great choice if you are doing most of your playing at home.
British Voiced Boutique Guitar Amps
Conversely, if you are looking for a slightly more overdriven and aggressive sound, I would recommend looking at one of the following boutique amp companies:
In recent years, Friedman have become hugely popular with guitarists looking for heavier tones. Yet whilst many of their endorsed artists are playing quite heavy styles of music, I do think that Friedman offer some great guitar amps for blues players. Their amps overdrive and break up at a low volume, which is great if you have to play at low volume. They also offer a number of small guitar amps which are perfect for home use.
Bad Cat offer a range of British voiced guitar amps that are designed for guitarists both gigging and playing at home. Their amps give you the option to switch between different pre-amp tubes to cause a different type of break up at different levels. They also have a master volume control which allows you to dial in the tone you want but at a lower volume.
Unlike many of the boutique brands listed here, Rift offer a diverse range of guitar amps. Many of these are American style amps, based on early Fender Tweed amps. But the company also produce a number of brilliant British voiced guitar amps based on the amps used in the British invasion of the 1960s.
Finally, I would recommend looking at Hamstead guitar amps. They have 2 British voiced guitar amps – the Artist 60+RT and the Artist 20+RT. Although both of these guitar amps are larger and slightly more powerful, they both have multiple power modes. So you can play them at a lower volume and still get great tones.
How To Buy The Right Guitar Amp
As you can see, there are a lot of different factors to consider when you buy a guitar amp. There are different sizes and styles of amps, as well as different brands.
To make sure you end up with gear that works for you, it is worth thinking through all of the information outlined here. If that feels like too much to manage, then just focus on the key factors which will have the biggest impact on your decision. These are as follows:
1.) First and perhaps most importantly, consider the tonal characteristics you want your amp to possess. Are you looking for a softer and smoother American blues sound? Or do you prefer a slightly heavier and more overdriven tone?
Of course, every guitar amp has a degree of versatility. You can get beautiful clean tones from a Marshall in the same way that you can push a Fender amp into heavy overdrive under the right circumstances. Yet guitar amps do have a fundamental voice that you can’t change. So make sure you are clear on what you want in this regard.
2.) Secondly, look at the volume that you are able to play at. This will dictate the size and power of the guitar amp you choose. And this in turn has an impact on your guitar tone. In my last article ‘Should You Buy A Small Guitar Amp?’ I explore this topic in great detail. So if you are unsure of the size of guitar amp you should be looking at, head over there before you continue your search.
3.) Finally, it is worth thinking about the role of your guitar amp within your set-up more broadly. There is enough material here for another article altogether. But let’s say as an example that you really want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. You might focus all of your attention on buying an American voiced Fender amp. But if you play a Gibson Les Paul – rather than a Fender Stratocaster, you won’t be able to create the tones you have in mind.
The guitar amp you use is just one piece of the puzzle. It is certainly significant, but think about how it pairs up with your guitar and pedals. All of the components of your rig define your tone, not just your amp.
Some Closing Thoughts…
Well there we have it, all of the key information you need to know about guitar amps for the blues.
This is not exhaustive. There are of course more brands out there which will help you to create beautiful blues tones. But I hope this helps give you the information you need to buy the right guitar amp for your set-up.
My final piece of advice, is to take your time over the decision. If you can, go to a guitar store and try as many different guitar amps as you can. This will give you a sense of which guitar amps are right for you.
Good luck! And if you have any questions at all that I can help with, just pop them in the comments or send me an email on [email protected] I’d love to help!
P.S. If you enjoyed reading this article, please share the love 😁 Thank you!
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