Legendary Guitar Amplifiers to Rock Your World
By Mason Hoberg
Looking for the best guitar amp is a challenge. After all, when we say best what we typically mean is best for the player, and it quickly turns into a subjective (but very opinionated) conversation. We very much recognize that there is not simply one amp to rule them all but that just like everything else, especially in the music world, opinions will vary. And while we definitely agree with that philosophy, we want to bring to the forefront some legendary guitar amplifiers that have earned a place in history for being game changers in one way or another.
- What Makes a Great Guitar Amplifier?
- What to Look For in a Guitar Amplifier?
- The 5 Best Guitar Amplifiers
What Makes a Great Guitar Amplifier?
So the first thing we need to do is define what “high-end” means in this context. Some people would say that something like a Fender Super-Sonic is high-end, and some people would turn their noses up at anything that doesn’t carry the dubious honor of being boutique.
In my opinion, and as the one who’s getting paid to write this my opinion is the only one that really matters right now, a high-end amplifier is an amp that’s built with high quality materials and offers a superior sound. So as far as I’m concerned a Fender Super-Sonic would qualify as high-end. However, I wouldn’t say that something like the Peavey Classic 30 should be called a high-end amp. It’s not that it sounds bad, I just wouldn’t say that it’s really superior at anything that it does. It’s good at a lot, but not really exceptional at anything.
What to Look For in a Guitar Amplifier?
The ideal guitar amplifier should be the best option for whatever it is you want to do. It’s easy to talk about specs or the magic of vacuum tubes, but if you’re going to drop your own hard-earned money on an amp you should already have a basic idea of what you want to achieve with it.
In fact, the hardest part of tracking down the best amp for your needs is really just making a decision about what type of tone you want. If you carefully consider what you want and know that going in, you’re going to get an amp that’s made well for your needs and sounds great 99% of the time.
Just remember that music doesn’t come from an amp, sound comes from an amp. There’s no magic in metal and wood, and no matter how much money you spend it’s not going to transform your sound. Buying a good amp is like buying any other good tool. It makes whatever you’re trying to do easier, but it won’t do it for you.
The 5 Best Guitar Amplifiers
Vox AC30 Combo Amplifier
The Vox AC30 was originally conceptualized in 1959. The amplifier was actually inspired by a decrease in the sales of Vox’s AC15. The market was being saturated by the Fender Twin, which at the time had a significantly higher wattage than the AC15. With the advent of rock and roll the electric guitar began to take off to an insane degree, and soon it became the weapon of choice for hobbyists and professional gigging musicians alike. However, as the electric guitar exploded in popularity there eventually came an arms race in terms of wattage. Professional musicians required larger and larger amplifiers as audiences grew, and companies were happy to provide them.
As previously mentioned, the Vox AC30 was an attempt to capitalize on the growing need for a louder amplifier. Once this amp hit the market it was used by some of the most notable musicians at the time, which in turn led to it being the amp of choice for dozens of professional acts years later. Some influential users of the AC30 are John Lennon, Mark Knopfler, Pete Townshend, Ritchie Blackmore, Peter Buck, Noel Gallagher, and Matthew Bellamy.
The most notable feature of the Vox AC30C2 is that it features a master volume switch, which while not an unheard of feature it definitely makes a tube amplifier significantly more controllable. The main challenge most musicians face while using a tube amp is that they find that it’s just too loud to be usable for practice or small venues. This issue is solved by a master volume control. A master volume control can be thought of as tricking the amp into thinking it’s operating at a high-volume, while in reality it’s at a comfortable volume for the situation. This allows you to maintain a that great all tube tone without playing at a volume that would be disturbing to those around you.
There’s also a top boost feature, which enhances the higher frequencies of the amplifier while increasing overall gain. This boost can almost be thought of as an overdrive pedal, as it can take your amplifier from a signature Vox chimey clean to a light overdrive through use of a separately purchased pedal.
Lastly, the Vox AC30C2 is a 2x12 model, meaning it has two twelve inch speakers. This is pretty standard for combo amplifiers, and it’s also representative of the previous configurations of the model. As an added bonus, the Vox AC30C2 also has an onboard tremolo as well as spring reverb. Both of these effects are analog, and they sound as good as any vintage voiced amplifier effect.
The Vox AC30C2 is a perfectly modern iteration of the classic Vox sound, and as such it should be a perfect fit for anyone who’s looking for a tone that emulates artists who used the amplifier. The Vox AC30C2 is chimey (this adjective is a bit hard to describe, so if you’re not sure what it means in this context check out a few demos of this amp) and emphasizes high-end frequencies. It’s also capable of producing some aggressive distortion in the right scenarios. Vox can almost be thought of as the middle ground between Marshall and Fender. These amps still sound great clean, but they’re capable of sounding great under heavier levels of distortion. AC30s are still not ideal for metal or heavier types of punk, if that’s what you’re looking for you should give Marshall a shot.
The AC302 is as well built as any amp in this price range, and it’s made significantly better than vintage examples. Though they’re prohibitively expensive, vintage amplifiers suffer from a host of problems. Generally, vintage amplifiers require a significant investment at the outset in addition to requiring an examination from an experienced amplifier tech. There have actually been several reports of musicians being electrocuted by improperly grounded amplifiers. So while vintage amplifiers may have a unique appeal, modern reissues are both much safer and significantly less expensive.
The Vox AC302 is a modern iteration of one of the most important amplifiers in music history, and as such it has a lot to live up to. Thankfully for musicians everywhere, this amplifier lives up to its legacy in every regard. As far as all-tube amplifiers are concerned, the Vox AC30C2 is also incredibly fairly priced.
Fender ’65 Twin Reverb Guitar Amplifier
One of the most notable amps in history, the Fender Twin Reverb has been a key component in some of the best albums of rock and roll history. Introduced in 1962 (before Fender had even started marketing the Fender Stratocaster), the Fender Twin was a monster for its time. It featured an unparalleled amount of headroom (the amount of volume that an amplifier can maintain before it starts to distort), which led to it being used by luminaries such as David Gilmour, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Steve Jones, and Eric Johnson.
Unsurprisingly, the Twin Reverb has also been a fan favorite for average musicians as well. Because of the incredible demand for this amplifier, Fender has released several different versions of the Fender Twin Reverb. The subject of today’s review is the ’65 Twin Reverb 85-Watt 2X12 Combo Amp.
The most notable thing about this amplifier is that it features tilt-back legs, a feature that too few amps utilize. Tilt-back legs are exactly what they sound like, they allow you to tilt the amplifier at a backwards angle. This allows the musician playing the amp to hear themselves at much lower volumes, which decreases overall stage volume. This is a huge help for smaller venues, because while cranking up your amp to ten might be fun it’s not going to endear you to either the owners or the patrons.
As denoted by the title, the Fender ’65 Twin comes in a 2x12 configuration What this means is that the amp features two twelve inch speakers, which is the ideal size for a wide tonal response. Bigger speakers give you a feeling of more volume and clarity without increasing the volume. 4x12 (and even 8x12!) combo amps aren’t unheard of, but they are a bit unwieldy. This is why larger variants of amp generally come in a head and cabinet configuration, where the head (all of the circuitry and tubes) and the speakers are separate.
Just as importantly, the ’65 Twin Reverb also comes with reverb and vibrato. Fender reverb is the gold standard against which every other reverb is measured at this point. There have been dozens of pedals that attempt to emulate genuine Fender reverb to mixed results. It’s the type of effect that sounds great in any setting, including gigs and even professional recording sessions. The vibrato is just as exemplary, though it’s not quite as notable as the effect defining reverb.
The sound of this amplifier truly cannot be overstated. It truly is a professional sounding amplifier in every respect, even if it’s never going to measure up to the amplifiers produced in the early 60s. This is due to differences in how amps were constructed in their earlier iterations more so than any deficiency in the modern ’65 Twin Reverb reissue.
This amp is a classic example of Fender amplifiers, which is a very specific type of tone. The amp is great for essentially anything except genres that require for intense distortion. Fender amplifiers excel at “cleaner” types of music (those that require less distortion) like jazz, blues, country, and/or funk. That’s not to say that this amplifiers won’t sound good with garage rock or certain types of punk (both the Black Keys and all of Jack White’s acts have actually used Fender amplifiers pretty extensively, believe it or not), it’s just not going to react as well to mid-scooped distortion like what you’d find in most genres and sub-genres of metal. Fun fact, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was actually a consistent user of Fender Amplifiers in the studio, but he preferred to tour with Marshall amplifiers because they were more disposable than his fragile vintage Fenders. However, Cobain’s amp was a vintage model that had decades worth of abuse under its belt before he ever got his hands on it. Modern American made reissues of Fender Amplifiers have a level of quality representative of the brand’s reputation.
The Fender ’65 Twin Reverb 85 Watt 2x12 Combo Amplifier is a perfect example of why Fender has maintained the endearing legacy that they’ve enjoyed for decades. The amp represents decades worth of innovation, all of which have been leading up to this amplifier. Even better, though this amplifier is a bit on the pricey side for most musicians ($1500 retail) it’s still within the budget of the average gigging musician.
There’s arguably no amp more famous than the Fender Twin Reverb. Synonymous with both the blues and sweet country twang this Fender amp is a great choice for any musician who needs pristine clean tones available at any volume.
Orange Micro Terror Guitar Amplifier
Founded in 1968 by professional musician and electronic designer Clifford Cooper, the English amplifier company produces one of the most iconic amplifiers on the market today. The original Orange shop actually didn’t modify or produce amplifiers or music equipment (which is how companies like Mesa Boogie and Fender got their start), instead Cooper actually focused on selling used musical equipment. This business model actually proved to be pretty popular in the area, as much like today musicians were fascinated by vintage musical equipment. Vintage instruments have always had a unique appeal, though the prices of used instruments in the late 60s hadn’t ballooned to the extremes that they have now.
Cooper invested the profits from his business into producing his own line of amplifiers. Cooper designed the original Orange amplifiers, but they were produced by the Huddersfield based company Radio Craft. Professional touring musician Mick Dines (who was a salesman in the Orange shop when he wasn’t on the road), also had input on the original Orange amplifier designs. His input was invaluable, because as a touring musician he understood the stress that an amplifier would be put under when used in a professional setting. Originally released in 2012, the Orange Micro Terror is a worthy successor to the legacy that Orange amplifiers have built in their last five decades of business. The amp has a unique appeal to musicians on the hunt for a low watt amplifier, and is easily one of the most affordable amplifiers on the market that offers a genuine tube amplifier tone.
The standout feature of this amplifier is it’s diminutive proportions. The amp is 5.3” tall and 6.5” wide. The main benefit of this is that it cuts down on the space necessary for storage, which is a plus for musicians with limited room available to them.
The Orange Micro Terror is also a hybrid amplifier. Hybrid amplifiers combine solid-state and tube technology. This configuration offers the pros of both approaches. The pre-amp section features a tube, which allows the amp to achieve organic sounding overdrive and distortion. The solid-state power section offers the durability exclusive to solid-state amplifiers, and it also saves musicians from the added cost of having to re-tube an amplifier. The only con of this configuration is that a hybrid amp doesn’t sound quite as good as a full tube design, but while the difference is noticeable a hybrid amplifier will still generally sound better than a comparatively priced solid-state amplifier.
One thing to consider with the Micro Terror is that it does not come with an accompanying cabinet, meaning that one will have to be purchased separately. The recommended cabinet for this amp is the Orange PPC108 1x8. We would recommend pairing the Orange Micro Terror with this cabinet as the amp and cabinet are both designed to work together.
The Orange Micro Terror is geared towards modern distortion sounds and classic rock. There is only one channel unfortunately, so in order to switch up the tone mid-song you are going to have to either use a pedal or adjust the amps settings on the fly.
Unfortunately, the Orange Micro Terror doesn’t have the best cleans. But then again, if you’re looking for a great clean tone on the cheap you should generally look at picking up a used Fender tube amp (which will generally run you $400 to $500 for a combo configuration). The cleans on the Orange Micro Terror are useable, but they’re not quite the strong point of this amp, which is geared toward guitarist who love a good high-gain sound.
In fact, this amp is surprisingly good, and makes this list because it offers outstanding capabilities for the price. The tones coming from it are amazing, and we can legitimately say that without even considering the price point. Orange nailed the drive and tones here, and if you dismiss the Micro Terror as a novelty because of its size you are in for quite a surprise.
As far as quality is concerned, Orange nailed it. The Orange Micro Terror is representative of the general quality of Orange products. If anything, considering that the Micro Terror is a hybrid amp you’re actually less likely to run into any problems. Tube amps require a significantly larger amount of maintenance than solid-state amplifiers, so if you’re on a budget or you’re not used to doing your own repairs the Orange Micro Terror might be a great fit.
Also, there’s no documented problems with this amp. This is pretty unique for a hybrid amp at this price range, as generally cheaper hybrid amps are prone to a number of quality control issues.
The Orange Micro Terror presents a great value to musicians on the hunt for a low cost amplifier that can approximate the organic distortion of a tube amplifier.
Marshall JVM-410H Amp Head
A peer to Fender and Vox, Marshall is one of the most iconic manufacturers of amplifiers that the world has ever seen. Founded by Jim Marshall, the original iteration of the company was actually aimed exclusively at drummers. Marshall’s first store in London specialized in selling drums, cymbals, drum related accessories, in addition to providing drum lessons. It wasn’t until Marshall was pushed to produce amps for Ritchie Blackmore and Pete Townshend that Marshall dipped his toe into the world of amplification.
The original Marshall amps were actually intended to be a cheaper alternative to Fender amplifiers, which at the time were incredibly expensive to import to the U.K. Like many innovators, Marshall actually designed his first products in his garage. Marshall was also one of first manufacturers to offer a separate head and cabinet, an innovation that went on to become one of defining features of Marshall amplification.
Some notable users of Marshall amplifiers are Eric Clapton, Kurt Cobain, Phil Collen, Billie Joe Armstrong, Jack Bruce, Billy Corgan, Ace Frehley, Billy Gibbons, Buddy Guy, and Jimi Hendrix.
The Marshall JVM-410H Joe Satriani Signature Guitar Amplifier Head is based off the celebrated JVM-410H circuit, and offers a variety of features that will surely impress the most discerning musicians among us.
The standout feature for this amp head is that it’s split into four different channels. While most guitarists probably aren’t going to need this feature, it does have a lot of utility for guitarists who need to cover a variety of sounds over the course of a gig or performance. The four separate channels (clean, crunch, od1 and od2) each feature a different level of base gain in addition to their own EQ. This is great for gigs because it allows you to customize the profile of your distortion without having to purchase any extra pedals.
As an added bonus, the JVM-410H Joe Satriani also features a built in noise gate. A noise gate is a pedal (or in this case a circuit built into the amp) that is used to control unwanted frequencies. It reduces things like amplifier or pickup hum, which is a huge plus if you plan on recording with this amp.
Marshall is known for being the amp of choice for the majority of rock music.. Marshall amplifiers have been used on some of the most important albums in music history, and there’s a reason that they’re still being widely used to this day.
For those of you haven’t played through a Marshall before, it’s important to recognize that these amps are geared more towards distortion than clean tones. Fender is generally considered the gold standard for clean tones, while Marshall is thought of as the pinnacle of a great distorted tone. Vox is somewhere in between the two.
As a general rule, the clean channel on Marshall amplifiers is a bit dark and flat. It’s not bad by any means, but it’s never going to be a good fit for jazz or country. However, the gain channel on most Marshall amplifiers is great for everything from Grunge to metal. The amp is also capable of producing a great blues tone, and the early Marshall amps were actually used extensively by Eric Clapton towards the beginning of his career.
As far as quality is concerned, the Marshall JVM-410H is representative of the quality that Marshall has always maintained with its amplifiers. This is a professional quality amp head, so you’re not likely to run into many issues in your first few years of using the amplifier. Of course you’re going to have to get this amp re-tubed and biased from time to time, but that’s to be expected with any tube amplifier.
The only bad thing to say about this amp head is that it doesn’t come with any cabinets. This isn’t a problem unique to this head by any means, but it does mean that musicians who purchase it are looking at another hefty investment to get a good quality cabinet (or two, depending on your needs) if they don’t already have one. This pushes the overall investment that required for this amp into the $3000 range should you decide to purchase it new.
While this amp may be out of the price range of most musicians, it does offer a unique utility to the musician who’s willing to invest in quality. While this amp if a high-end model, there are other Marshall amps that will sound similar but cost you less. If you don’t require the extra features provided by this amp feel free to check out Marshall’s site so you can evaluate all of your options.
Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier Amp Head
Founded in 1971 by Randall Smith, Mesa Boogie was originally a small repair shop. The shop gained notoriety for repairing and modifying Fender amplifiers. Modified Fender amplifiers were generally outfitted with a modified gain circuit, which increased the amount of gain that Fender amplifiers were capable of producing. Eventually, Randall Smith started producing amplifiers based off his modified Fender circuit. Interestingly, the name Mesa Boogie is said to have been inspired by Carlos Santana. When the guitarist first played through the amp he was said to have exclaimed “this thing boogies.”
The Dual Rectifier series was an attempt to further increase the amount of gain available from a Mesa Boogie amplifier, most likely inspired by the advent of heavier genres of music in the late 80s. The series has been heavily utilized by acts such as Metallica, Korn, and Slipknot.
The standout feature of this amplifier is that it allows guitarists to switch between either 50 or 100 output watts. The main benefit of this is that it allows guitarists to dictate the amount of volume required to produce tube clipping, an organic sounding distortion exclusive to tube amplifiers. Lowering the amount of wattage the amplifier runs out allows tube clipping to be achieved at a lower volume. This lowers the overall stage volume, which helps keep the volume of the band in check. The inverse is also true, if the wattage is raised it allows the amp to reach a higher volume without distorting, which is a huge plus for musicians who require a less distorted sound at a gig worthy volume.
Each of the three channels on the Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier can be managed independently, both in the EQ section and in terms of wattage. The three channels also feature independent gain controls, which go from crystal like clean tones to heavy levels of gain (and everything in between).
The Dual Rectifier also features an effects loop as well as 6L6 output tubes. 6L6 output tubes are generally considered to be warm and dynamic, and generally offer a great high-end frequency response.
Mesa Boogie is considered to be one of the world’s first boutique amplifier manufacturers, and the tone of the Dual Rectifier is reflective of this. Unlike a lot of amplifiers specializing in high levels of gain, the clean channel on this amp has the dynamic and shimmering quality that is generally exclusive to Fender style amps The amp is also capable of gritty blues tones.
However, the main appeal of this amp is it’s modern hi-gain tones. Though it’s by no means a one trick pony, this is the amp for any type of metal or classic rock. This amp produces some of the most organic and gut-punching gain on the market, as evidenced by its widespread use by some of the most important hard rock acts of the 90s and 2000s. It’s also been used extensively by pop punk acts.
As far as quality is concerned, there’s no part of this amplifier that is lacking in any way, shape, or form. The amp is incredibly durable and should be more than capable of holding up to the rigors of live performance and consistent practice. Mega Boogie amplifiers are also regarded as one of the most rugged amplifiers available, second only to Peavey.
The only con that springs to mind with this amplifier is that it’s relatively expensive. However, Mesa Boogie is a boutique manufacturer and there is increased cost associated with that. Companies that don’t operate at the scale of Fender or Marshall need to make more per amp to stay in business, it’s just a fact of life. Thankfully, this amp is still worth the investment. Musicians would be hard pressed to find an amp that is more versatile than the Dual Rectifier series. Mesa Boogie also provides a comprehensive warranty service, which when paired with the company’s commitment to quality assurance means that this amp should be a lifelong companion for the musician lucky enough to be able to purchase it.
Though this amplifier does require a high initial investment, it’s still a great bargain. There are few amplifiers available that are able to produce the variety of sounds that the Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier is capable of, and with proper maintenance and care it will keep producing great music for decades.