Should You Buy A Small Guitar Amp?
In the last few years there has been an explosion in the popularity of the small guitar amp. Guitarists are no longer opting for big stacks and combos. Instead they are increasingly favouring smaller, low watt combos. And in response to this surge in popularity, companies like Fender and Marshall have created a whole range of small, low watt combo amps.
The great news then, is that if you are looking for a small guitar amp – there are some amazing choices out there.
But before we have a closer look at some of those, I think it is first worth looking at small guitar amps in a bit more detail. The world of guitar amps is difficult to navigate. There are so many different brands and models out there. They all come in different sizes and wattages and they all have different features and functions.
Each of these differences has an impact on your tone, and they are worth understanding. In this article then I am going to cover everything you need to know about small guitar amps, including:
- Why it is challenging for most guitarists to get great tones from big guitar amps
- The key considerations you need to make before you buy a small guitar amp
- How many watts you need
- Some of the best small guitar amps out there for killer blues tones
So without further ado, let’s get into it! Here is everything that you need to know about small guitar amps:
Why Have Small Guitar Amps Become So Popular?
Before we look at the specifics of small guitar amps and their different models, it is helpful to understand why there has been such a surge in their popularity in recent years. And to do so, we need to look at the biggest challenge that most guitarists face when they try to create beautiful blues tones.
It is the challenge of volume. When tube amps were initially introduced, the majority of them were big and powerful. There were no decent PA systems and guitarists needed to play loud to be heard.
Freddie King played a 100 watt Fender Quad Reverb that he cranked to 10. Fellow Texas bluesman Albert Collins did the same. And Eric Clapton achieved his early tones by playing a Marshall 1962 ‘Bluesbreaker’ amp at full volume. Almost all early electric blues guitarists used powerful amps and played them at high volumes.
For non-professional guitarists wanting to dial in great blues tones, this fact presents an obvious challenge. It is that cranking a huge Fender combo or Marshall stack is not an option for most players, who typically have family and neighbours to consider.
A less obvious challenge though, is that playing one of these amps at a low volume, also doesn’t really work.
Traditionally, guitarists bought the same amps as their blues guitar heroes. And intuitively this makes sense. If you use the same gear as your favourite guitarists, you will be able to get similar tones. Unfortunately though it isn’t quite so straight forward.
If you take one of these big guitar amps and play it at a low volume, you will struggle to get a good tone. The amp will sound thin and stifled, and you will never get close to pushing it into a beautiful and bluesy sounding overdrive.
This is because 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 ‘1’ will sound very different to a 10 watt amp set at volume 10.
This then leads to the question – where do you begin in your search for a new guitar amp?
The Benefit Of Small Guitar Amps
It is this question which in part has led to the surge in the popularity of small guitar amps. As mentioned above, unless you are consistently playing in big venues where you can crank your amp, you will never be able to get the most out of a big guitar amp like a Fender Quad Reverb or a Marshall Bluesbreaker. They are just too loud to be played at home or in a small studio.
Conversely, with a small guitar amp you can get a better tone at a lower volume. Lower watt amps are less powerful, so you can overload the tubes within them more easily. As a result, you can push a small guitar amp into that beautiful bluesy breakup at a lower volume.
This is a significant benefit. Most blues guitarists are looking for slightly overdriven tones, most of the time. And most guitarists are not playing in large venues. In fact the majority of non-professional guitarists do most of their playing at home, with the occasional small gig here and there.
If you have to be conscious of the volume you play at, but you want to dial in a beautiful and slightly overdriven blues tone, then adding a small guitar amp to your set-up could be a brilliant choice.
The Problem With Small Guitar Amps
The key downside to using small guitar amps, is that they lack headroom. Headroom refers to how much power an amp can provide before the sound starts to break up and overdrive.
Large, powerful guitar amps like those used by early blues guitarists have a lot of headroom. This means that you can play them loudly and do so with a clean tone.
The same is not true of small guitar amps. If you take a small guitar amp and play it loudly, your tone will start to break up and overdrive.
In this sense, a small guitar amp is more limited than a larger one. With a large guitar amp you can get beautiful clean tones, as well as killer overdriven tones. And you can achieve both of these tones at volume. You can also alter your tone with the use of different guitar pedals, should you so wish.
The same is not true for small guitar amps. With a small guitar amp you can get great clean tones and beautiful overdriven tones, but only at lower volumes. You won’t be able to play with a clean tone at a higher volume.
As with a larger guitar amp, you can of course use guitar pedals to alter your tone when using a small guitar amp. But in contrast to using a larger amp, if you are playing loudly, your base tone will not be clean. In other words, if you are playing a small guitar amp at volume and you step on an overdrive pedal, you will be adding more overdrive to an already overdriving amp.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on the type of tone you want to create. It is just something of which you need to be aware.
Understanding Your Playing Context
Choosing the right amp for your set-up all comes down to understanding your playing context. And at this point is worth pausing to really think about your personal circumstances and what you want from your amp.
If for example you alway need to be conscious of your volume and you are looking for an overdriven bluesy tone, then you don’t need to worry about headroom at all. In that context, you just want a small guitar amp that will help you dial in a great blues tone, at a lower volume.
Conversely, if you favour a cleaner blues tone (like B.B. King) and you are frequently gigging with a loud drummer, you might want to choose a guitar amp that has more headroom. In this circumstance opting for a very small guitar amp might not be the best move.
There is no one guitar amp or piece of gear that will work for everyone. What works for you will depend on your playing style and personal circumstances, in addition to factors like practicality and budget.
How Many Watts Do You Need?
At this stage, you might be wondering just what size of guitar amp you should be considering.
When most guitarists talk about big and small guitar amps, they are talking about wattage.
As I will explain in a bit more detail below, to rely on wattage as the only measure of an amp’s size and ‘loudness’ is problematic. It is however a useful way of determining which guitar amps you should be looking at. And from there you can then take a more granular approach to finding the best guitar amp for your needs
At a very basic level, I would define an amp of 15 watts or less as a ‘small’ guitar amp. Amp manufacturers now offer amps starting at 1 watt. So when you are looking for a small guitar amp, that really is the range you should be concentrating on.
Amps in the 1-5 watt range break up quickly and at a low volume. So if you are playing at home and want a slightly overdriven blues tone, then an amp of that size could be a great choice. It would however be more difficult to gig with an amp of this size. You would have to be playing a small gig with a band that didn’t want to play at a very high volume. If you were competing with a loud drummer it is unlikely that you would be able to play with a clean tone.
Conversely, amps in the 10-15 watt range have more power and headroom. Their tones stay cleaner up to higher volumes and as such they are more suitable for gigging. Depending on the model of your amp, you might struggle to drive an amp this big when you are playing at home. 15 watts might not sound like a lot, but as I will explain below, a 15 watt amp can in fact produce a lot of volume.
Finally, and as you might expect, amps in the 5-10 watt range have characteristics that sit somewhere in the middle.
As suggested above then, the size of the amp that you choose should be determined by your playing context.
The Problem With Using Wattage As A Guide
The slight complication here, is that using wattage as your only guide when choosing a small guitar amp is a little problematic.
This is partly because of the way that wattage is calculated. Intuitively you would think that a 100 watt amp is 10x louder than a 10 watt amp. But this is not true. In fact a 100 watt amp is only 2x louder than a 10 watt amp.
Wattage is not a measure of volume. Rather it is an indication of the power of an amp. The more watts a guitar amp has, the harder you can push it before it starts to overdrive.
Using watts as a gauge of how loud an amp will sound is further complicated by the variety of other factors that contribute to volume and the way we perceive volume. The size and type of speaker in your amp, the tubes in your amp and the amount that you are compressing your signal all have an impact on how loud your amp sounds.
As such, you can have 2 different amps that have the same wattage, but sound much louder or quieter than each other.
Key Factors Affecting Your Tone
With this in mind, it is not enough to just look at the wattage of an amp and use that to dictate your buying decisions.
If you so wish, you can get really deep into the various elements that alter the volume and characteristics of an amp. In future articles I will explore some of these elements in greater depth. For now though, it is worth being aware that there are a range of different elements that affect the volume and tonal characteristics of an amp. Some of the main elements to consider are as follows:
- The type of tubes in an amp
- Whether an amp has an open or closed backed cabinet
- The number of speakers in an amp
- The size, type and efficiency of the speakers in an amp
We can look at speaker efficiency to illustrate this point. When guitar amps were first introduced, their speakers were inefficient. As a result, early amps started to break up and overdrive at a lower volumes. This is because the speakers in these amps started to overdrive. Yet if you took one of those early amps and replaced the speaker with an efficient, modern speaker, it would sound totally different.
This is just one example. But you can apply a similar idea to any of the points above.
In short, the volume of a guitar amp, the tone that it produces, and the way it responds to your playing depends on much more than just its wattage.
How To Choose The Right Small Guitar Amp
At this stage, you may understandably be feeling a little lost. There is a lot of technical detail behind guitar amps and how they function. Understanding some of this information is empowering. It can definitely help you to make the right buying decisions. Equally though, too much information can be detrimental. If you go too deep and overanalyse everything, you may never actually take the step of buying a new amp. If you feel like you are at risk of falling into this second category, then strip everything back to basics. Just follow these 2 steps:
1.) Establish exactly what you want from your new amp. Over the years I have bought a lot of guitar gear that wasn’t right for me. And every time I made this mistake it was because I didn’t take the time to properly consider why I was buying the gear, or if it was going to work within my personal playing context.
Take the time to really think through what you want. Don’t just think about tone. Consider volume, versatility and practicality. It is the safest way to ensure you buy gear that will actually work for you.
2.) Similarly, and if you are in a position to do so, go to a guitar shop and try the amps out for yourself. There is so much that goes into a guitar amp. And even though 2 amps can have similar specs, they might sound very different. They can respond differently and have different tonal characteristics. It is hard to judge this through online demonstrations or reviews. But as soon as you start trying different amps out, you will get a feeling for what is going to work best for you.
A Guide To The Best Small Guitar Amps
Although a huge part of choosing the right amp comes down to personal preference and context, there is a shortlist of small guitar amps out there that I would recommend. And all of these have the potential of producing beautiful blues tones in the right context. Here are some of my recommendations, across a range of different brands and prices:
Over the years, Fender have brought out a number of small guitar amps that will work brilliantly for home use or at small gigs. Fender amps are ‘American voiced’ amplifiers, and have great clean tones. They have a bright top end and are typically quite scooped in the mid-range.
Some of the best amps on offer here, across a range of different prices are as follows:
- Fender Blues Junior IV
- Pro Junior IV
- ’57 Custom Champ
- Fender ’65 Custom Princeton Reverb
- ’68 Custom Princeton Reverb
Of the amps listed here, the ’57 Custom Champ is the smallest and the best option if you are looking for an amp that will break up at lower volumes. This amp has also been used on a wide range of famous blues recordings, including Derek & The Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. So it would be an amazing choice if it works for your budget.
At the other end of the price range, either the Blues Junior or Pro Junior would work well. They both have slightly more headroom and so would make good choices if you are playing with other musicians and need a bit more volume.
Marshall is better associated with huge stacks than they are with low-volume, small guitar amps. Yet in 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 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.
Famously used by guitarists like Rory Gallagher and Brian May, the Vox AC30 is one of the most iconic guitar amps of all time. It is also one of the loudest! yet whilst that particular amp is much too powerful for home use, Vox have brought out some great, small guitar amp 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 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.
Since they were first released in the 1930s, Supro amps have been used by some of the most notable bands and artist in blues and rock. Jimmy Page famously used a Supro amp on early Led Zeppelin recordings. They have since proven popular with musicians like Joe Perry, Joe Walsh, Lenny Kravitz and Dan Auerbach.
Since the company’s revival 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.
Alternatively, if you are looking for something that is a bit larger and has more headroom, the Supro 1648RT Saturn Reverb could work well.
Orange & Blackstar
If you are looking for heavier blues and blues rock tones, then both Orange and Blackstar have some great small guitar amps. Some of my top choices here are:
Both Blackstar and 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.
As a final bonus, these amps are very competitively priced and offer a lot of value for the money.
Finally, there are some amazing boutique amps out there if you are looking to spend a bit more and make an investment. There are a lot of different boutique amp manufacturers to choose from, but some of my top recommendations for the blues are:
Although these small guitar amps are in a much higher price bracket, they will help you to dial in some beautiful blues tones. Morgan Amps are those used by the virtuoso guitarist Josh Smith (the JS12 is his signature model). Similarly, Milkman Sound Amps have previously been endorsed by John Mayer.
If then you are looking for a small guitar amp and are happy to spend a bit more, any of these amps would make a great addition to your set-up.
Getting Big Tones From A Small Guitar Amp
Regardless of which small guitar amp you go for, I think it is worth acknowledging that a small guitar amp is still going to fundamentally sound different to a big guitar amp.
That might sound obvious, but it is important to keep in mind, especially if you are trying to recreate the tone of one of your favourite guitarists. I speak here from personal experience. As a teenager, I always wanted to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. I had a lot of the right foundations in place. I had a Fender Stratocaster, a Fender tube amp, and an Ibanez Tube Screamer. Yet I just could not recreate his tone, and I couldn’t understand why.
In short, it was because of volume. Players like Stevie Ray Vaughan had big and powerful amps that produced huge amounts of volume. These amps also physically moved a lot of air when they were cranked. For this reason, trying to accurately recreate those tones with a small guitar amp at a low volume is difficult, if not almost impossible.
I don’t say that to discourage you. In fact quite the opposite! You can absolutely get close to the tones of blues guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughan. It is however important to recognise that you will be approximating the sound, rather than replicating it exactly. Think of it as the difference between hearing the sound of a plane take off when it is happening on television, compared with being stood on the runway. The sound is very similar, but it is clear that volume makes a significant difference to what you are hearing.
Rather than trying to perfectly recreate the tones of your guitar heroes then, instead take the essence of the tones you like, and add your own twist and personality to them. Make them work for you within your personal playing context. If you do, you will create a better sound and also be much happier as a player.
Good luck! And if there is anything at all I can help with, or if you have any questions, just pop them in the comments below or send me an email on [email protected] and I’m happy to help!
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