The Best Guitar Amps For Blues
If you want great blues tones, you need to buy the right guitar amp.
Your guitar undoubtedly plays a huge role in your tone. But in the quest for beautiful vintage tones, I would argue that there is no more important component than your guitar amp. After all, without your amp, your guitar is basically inaudible (outside of your bedroom).
With this in mind and regardless of whether you’re looking to gig at the local pub, play huge venues or just practice in your bedroom, you need to invest in a decent guitar amp. It will have a huge impact on your tone and will bring your guitar to life.
Until recently, I had totally underestimated how important guitar amps are for tone. I failed to engage with the more technical elements of amplification and the implication this has on tone. So I ended up wasting time and money on poorly informed purchases.
To save you that hassle and expense – here are my top tips for picking the right guitar amp for great blues tone.
The Basics of Guitar Amps
Although it may feel like overkill, it’s worth having a basic understanding of how guitar amps work. This is key to appreciating their nuances and informing your buying decisions.
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.
Guitar amps differ greatly in this regard. When amps were first used, they created distortion as a by product of their rudimentary circuitry. Far from being harsh on the ear, the distorted sound of these amps was 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.
Distortion is created when your guitar amp becomes overloaded and cannot handle the signal that is being pushed through it. The level at which this happens and the amount of distortion 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).
But regardless of the build or style of your amp, there are three common features found in all guitar amps. These are the pre-amp, power amp and speakers. Each of these plays a key role in amplification, distortion, and the tone you produce.
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 you can overload the pre-amp section and create distortion 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 the majority of volume and tone is produced. 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 distortion. This has a couple of implications. Firstly, it means that generally speaking you can get beautiful clean tones whilst playing at higher volumes if you rely on the power amp, rather than the pre-amp. The implication of this is that if you want to create a distorted tone in the power amp, you have to play at higher volumes.
This is where the sound is pushed out of the guitar amp and made audible. The shape, size and number of speakers in your amp all affect your tone. The speakers don’t have such a profound impact on your tone as the pre and power amp sections, but they do make a difference. It is partly for this reason that many guitarist opt for stacks. This allows them to combine the pre and power amps with different speaker configurations to produce different tones. (see ‘Combos vs Stacks’ below for more detail)
As a result of all of these components and the parts from which they’re constructed, guitar amps all have an individual ‘voice’. You can take the same guitar and set up two different guitar amps on the same settings, and they will articulate tone in very different ways.
In other words, the guitar amp you choose will have a huge impact on the tone you produce. I can’t overstate that enough.
With that in mind, below are a few of the key factors you should consider before you buy a guitar amp:
Valve Guitar Amps
There are two types of guitar amps; valve amps (also known as ‘tube’ amps), and solid state amps. For beautiful blues tones, you need to buy a valve amp. These are the only guitar amps worth considering if you want to replicate vintage blues tones with any authenticity.
Valve amps are powered by valves, also commonly referred to as tubes. These valves receive signals from your guitar and amplify them, but they perform this role imperfectly and inconsistently. When a signal becomes too powerful (which happens when the volume on the amp is increased) the valves alter the form of the sound wave. This distorts the tone of your guitar, changing it from a ‘clean’ tone to one that is crunchy and ‘dirty’. The distorted tones that valve amps produce is thick, heavy and warm sounding. It is the sound associated with some of the best blues tones of all time.
Historically, valve amps used to cause issues. Musicians didn’t have PA systems at gigs and so were always cranking their amps to full volume. The valves in their amps would often overheat and blow out. They were temperamental and unreliable. So engineers began looking for alternatives.
Solid State Guitar Amps
Enter the solid state guitar amp. Unlike valve amps, solid state guitar amps are powered by transistors. These transistors don’t alter the form of the sound wave like valves do. Instead they ‘clip’ it – chopping off the frequencies at the top and bottom of the wave. This also creates a distorted sound, but this sounds more artificial and is harsher on the ear. It’s a more biting sound. As a result, heavy metal guitarists have often favoured these style of amps. But for the blues, they’re a total waste of time. They’ll never get you anywhere near a vintage blues tone so focus your search exclusively on valve amps.
More recently, companies have also released ‘digital modelling amps’. These are also solid state amps, but they use digital technology to produce the tones of various different classic guitar amps. So the idea goes, these amps give you access to a huge range of classic tones, all in one unit.
I used to own a digital modelling amp, which I mistakenly bought thinking it would get me those coveted blues-rock tones. Although these amps can help you get decent tones, they lack that warm and natural sounding distortion you get with valve amps. That is the tone of the blues, so if you want to replicate it, keep things simple and don’t get drawn in by all of the bells and whistles of more modern amplifiers.
With that cleared up, there are a few more considerations you need to take into account before you buy your guitar amp.
Combos vs. Stacks
Guitar amps generally come in one of two forms; combos or stacks.
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 (pictured above) is made up of a head and a separate speaker. The head contains the pre-amp and the power amp, but the speaker is a separate unit. You can have a half stack – which is a head and a speaker. Or you can have a full stack, which is a head with multiple different speakers.
Each style of amp has it’s pros and cons. Combos are pretty straightforward. Everything you need is in one place, which means you can transport and set them up easily. This has a practical implication worth thinking about, if you’re going to be gigging or travelling around with the amp.
Whilst stacks are a little more cumbersome, they allow you the option of using the same amp with different speakers. Every speaker has a different shape and so creates a different sound. By altering the speakers you use, you can alter your tone. Thus you get more tonal possibilities with a stack and multiple speaker configurations than you do with a combo.
You also have the option to stack multiple speakers onto each other. This gives you the option of adding more wattage and increasing the volume of your amp. Although most large venues have PA speaker systems, this might be a consideration if you plan on playing at large venues, which leads me on to my final point…
How Much Power Do You Need?
Before you buy a guitar amp, you need to consider how you’ll put it to use. Not doing this is a mistake I’ve made consistently. As a result, I’ve never been happy with the guitar amps I’ve bought .
Guitar amps respond very differently depending on how far you push them relative to their total capacity. In other words, a 100 watt amp set at volume ‘2’ will articulate a very different tone to a 10 watt amp set at volume 10. I used to be of the opinion that more was better (mostly because I thought stacks looked cool!) but now I’m of the opposite mindset. I believe that most guitarists vastly overestimate how many watts they need.
Personal Use vs. Gigging
If your amp is for personal use, do not buy a high watt amp. If you do, you’ll never be able to use it effectively.
This is because it’s unlikely you’ll ever push it past 2 on the volume control. When you play at this level, you’re doing nothing to push the amp to the point of ‘breaking up’ into that beautiful sounding distortion. This is where the tonal magic happens. This was how Eric Clapton achieved his early Bluesbreakers and Cream tones, and how Stevie Ray Vaughan produced his signature tones too.
If you take a powerful amp and play it at low volume, you stifle its natural voice. Your sound will be compressed and thin. I made this mistake when I bought a Fender Hotrod Deluxe (which is a 40 watt amp). Paired with my Fender Stratocaster, it should have been a combination that made for some mean blues tones. But confined to my bedroom, I could never crank it past 2, so I was never able to actualise its potential.
Even when I played gigs, I never found myself in venues big enough to crank it. 40 watts produces a lot of noise. Unless you’re gigging at big venues or you have a sound proof studio where you can play as loud as you like, large guitar amps are overkill. It’s like buying a Ferrari but only being able to drive it at 20 mph. If you do end up playing in a big venue, you’ll find that most places will mic up the speaker of your guitar amp and play it through the PA system anyway, eliminating the need for the extra watts.
Some Practical Recommendations
If you are playing at home, you should buy an amp that has anywhere between 5-20 watts. This will allow you to crank it (or at least not stifle the amp) and get those beautiful blues tones. Some guitar amps also have separate volume controls for the pre-amp and power amp sections. If you are not able to play at high volumes, this is a massive bonus.
Distortion is created in both the pre-amp and power amp sections. The valves in the pre-amp are smaller and can handle less power, so distortion is created in the pre-amp at lower levels than in the power amp. So you can crank the pre-amp by turning the volume to full on this section, whilst keeping the volume of the power amp on low. The quality of the tone won’t be the same as if the power amp was cranked, but it will still be very decent on most valve amps.
If you’re planning on gigging in large venues or can play as loud as you like, then the world is your oyster. You could buy a huge powerful combo or a stack if you wanted. Generally though, I would still advocate being conservative with your wattage.
After all, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be playing loud all the time when you’re just practicing. But at whatever volume you’re playing, you will want great tone. You’re only going to achieve that when the amp is cranked and running hot.
Which Guitar Amp is Right for You?
With all of that in mind, we can now start to look at some of the best guitar amps out there for the blues. As with the guitars I recommended in my last article, it’s always a good idea to look to the greats for inspiration. Though having said that, the world of guitar amps is a little more complicated.
This is partly because of the practicalities you need to consider that I’ve mentioned above. Jimi Hendrix might have produced amazing tones through his huge Marshall stacks. But he was also playing before the use of PA systems and so needed all of those watts.
Famous bluesmen also used a much wider variety of guitar amps and configurations of different guitar amps than they did guitars. This again makes the landscape a little trickier to navigate.
So rather than list off every famous amp ever used, I’ve provided a list of the most notable brands and some of the models that will help you achieve great blues tones. I’ve made the assumption you aren’t playing huge venues, so this list is aimed at those playing at home, in the studio or in smaller venues.
Fender are as famous for their guitar amps as they are their iconic guitars. Generally speaking, their amps have beautiful clean tones and a lot of ‘headroom’. When they do break up, they produce a warm but subtle distortion. As a result, their amps have been used on some of the best blues songs of all time. Stevie Ray Vaughan and all of ‘The Three Kings’ used them, along with countless other famous players.
Many of the famous Fender Guitar amps – like the Super Reverb – are very powerful. Although there are reissues of these models, they’re 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:
If you’re gigging or have the ability to play at higher volumes, then your choice really opens up. Some of the best Fender guitar amps that are also higher in wattage are:
Marshall guitar amps are renowned for their crunch and heavy distortion. As such, they were popular with players like Jimi Hendrix, Paul Kossoff and Eric Clapton in his early days. As with Fender, many of the classic Marshall amps are powerful combos and stacks that are inappropriate for home use.
But like Fender, Marshall have also brought out a range of lower wattage amps. I have tried some of these (the DSL range) and truthfully, I really didn’t like how they sounded. I thought the distortion sounded thin and harsh. Although they are valve amps, they sound much more like solid state amplifiers and so I wouldn’t recommend them.
Having said that, Marshall have just brought out an ‘Origin’ range which are modelled on the classic amps from the 1960s and 1970s. From what I’ve seen, these look great. Within this range, there is the Marshall Origin 20w Combo, and also the Marshall Origin 5w Combo, both of which would be perfect for home use.
There is also the Marshall 1962 Bluesbreaker that is worth considering. Used by Eric Clapton during his time with the Bluesbreakers, it’s an amp responsible for what many view to be the gold standard in blues guitar tones. Clapton famously achieved his tones by fully cranking his amps and creating distortion in that way. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to crank it in the same way, but even at lower levels you’ll get some beautiful tones with this amp.
Vox guitar amps may not be as frequently associated with blues tones as some of the other amps listed here. They deserve an honourable mention though, if for nothing other than the fact that Rory Gallagher relied solely on a Vox AC30 for his beautiful blues tones.
Vox amps are a little sharper and produce more ‘jangly’ tones than either Fender or Marshall. As such, they’re not as adept at creating that warm and creamy distortion. But they do produce a heavy and fiery lead tone that will cut through the mix and make a great choice for heavy blues-rock. Just listen to the amazing tones on songs like Bad Penny, Road to Hell and Million Miles Away by Rory Gallagher.
The Vox AC30 is a great choice, but it is a loud amp and so probably isn’t the best for home use. If you’re constrained by circumstance and have to play on the quiet side, then either the Vox AC15 or the Vox AC15C1X make great alternatives.
Orange is perhaps more celebrated amongst guitarists who are searching for heavy rock tones. They have however created a number of guitar amps that are great for the blues.
Jimmy Page is the most notable Orange Patron, but their amps have long proved popular with those in search of a heavier blues-rock sound. Paul Kossoff used them alongside his Marshalls and more recently blues-rock bands Rival Sons and Blackberry Smoke have also used them.
Many of the most popular Orange amps are stacks, with some of the most popular ‘heads’ being:
Mesa Boogie are famous in the world of heavy metal for producing some of the most hardcore guitar amps ever created. I’d written them off as being the reserve of all of the shredders out there, until I recently tried the Mesa Boogie Lonestar and was amazed by the tones I produced.
Although the amp has the capacity to play at 30 watts, it has a selector that allows you to play at 5, 15 and 30 watts. So you can play at relatively low volumes and still achieve great tones.
Beyond the Lonestar, there is the Mark V combo, which can produce some killer blues tones and perform well as an all round workhorse. If you’re looking for a stack, then the Mark V:25 Head would also be a brilliant choice.
Boutique Guitar Amps
In the quest for vintage blues tones, more guitarists are turning towards boutique guitar amps for their sound. Boutique amps are hand-wired and made with higher quality components than batch produced amps. They are often built to replicate a certain sound, or modelled on amps from a particular era. So they are an amazing choice if you want vintage blues tones.
Boutique amps are always more expensive than regular amps, but if you’re willing to splash out a bit more, then some of the best brands to try are Two Rock, Hamstead and Bogner. I would also strongly recommend Friedman. I wrongly thought their amps were geared more towards heavy metal, but I almost bought a Mini PT Pink-Taco 20 after trying one a couple of weeks ago!
Combining Amps and Guitars
The amp you use is only one part of the equation. It makes a huge impact on your tone but it’s worth remembering that without your guitar, your amp is useless. It’s the way the two act in synergy that produces great tone.
In blues and blues-rock, you’ll see similar combinations of guitars and amps cropping up. Fender guitars and amps typically go very well together – and produce a distinctly American blues-rock sound. Just think of the tones of guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughan.
On the other side of the spectrum, Marshalls and Gibson Les Pauls pair very well. For many, the Gibson Les Paul and Marshall combination Eric Clapton used with the Bluesbreakers marks the gold standard of electric blues tones.
That of course isn’t to say that the single coil guitars won’t sound great through Marshalls (just look at Jimi Hendrix!) or that you can’t be much more inventive with your pairings. Rather it is to say that you should be aware of how your guitar and amp react with one another.
My advice for buying guitar amps is the same as with buying all guitar gear – go to the shop and try it out for yourself. Watching youtube gear demonstrations won’t cut the mustard, as it’s hard to gauge how your specific guitar will sound unless you try it out in person.
Perfecting your Rig
I didn’t appreciate how differently amps would respond when paired with different guitars until I tried out a few guitar amps with a friend recently. I was playing a Fender Strat and he was playing a Suhr. The Strat had single coil pickups; the Suhr had high output double coil pickups. We played the same amps; trying out a Fender, Friedman and a Mesa Boogie. The guitar amps that sounded amazing with the Strat sounded terrible with the Suhr and vice versa.
The guitar amps that paired well with the Strat rounded off the naturally sharp and thin sound of the single coil pickups. They added warmth and depth to the sound. But when paired with the high output pickups on the Suhr, the sound was too bright and too sharp. The guitar was driving the amp too hard and so there was no natural break up in the amp.
Some Closing Thoughts…
I cannot stress this enough – go to a guitar store with your actual guitar before you buy your amp. Try as many different guitar amps as possible until you find one that works for you. I did this recently and not only did I have a cracking time, but I tried amps I previously hadn’t considered. I went expecting to fall in love with a Fender or Marshall, and I left with my eye on a Friedman, which produced some beautiful blues tones.
Just make sure you consider the questions I raised earlier:
– Can you produce the tones you want at the volume you’ll be able to play?
– Does the amp provide you with the versatility you need?
– Does the amp pair well with the guitars you use?
If you can afford it, I would go with the expectation that you might end up spending a little more. When I tried out a few different guitar amps last week, I found there was a huge difference in quality and versatility between the Fender Blues Junior and the Friedman Taco. The former costs £600; the latter costs £1750.
The world of guitar amps can be tricky to navigate. The technical language, nuances and quirks of amps can be a little overwhelming. I hope this has proved helpful and if you have any questions, please just drop them in the comments below.
Also keep your eyes peeled for my next article, where I’ll be covering the final piece of the blues tone puzzle – pedals!
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