Once upon a time, if you wanted to be heard over your drummer in any kind of rock venue, you needed to pack, at minimum, two speakers and 50 watts. In larger venues, this became four to eight speakers and 100 watts. You’d stand in front of your cranked amp moving tidal waves of air just to be heard. That’s just how you did it, much to the despair of your ears.
The advent and proliferation of PA systems at every venue large and small means that you don’t really need that kind of earth-shaking power anymore. I mean, don’t get me wrong, you can still have it if you want. Many players still use their dimed Marshall JCM, relying either on in-ear monitors or good ol’ fashioned ear plugs to save their hearing. But for many modern players, the concept of a gigging amp has scaled down quite a bit thanks to the increasing efficiency of speakers and other factors. Crucially, though, the biggest change is that no matter what amp you’re using, the sound tech can stick a mic in front of it and use the power of the PA to broadcast it to the whole room.
This has a few benefits. Number one is the improvement of tone. While hugely powerful amps sound great when turned way up, the times when such a thing is permitted are few and far between. Your 15 watt club amp, on the other hand, can be pushed into tube-driving breakup in a wider variety of settings, which means that you spend more time in the ideal tonal range. The second, perhaps more readily observable effect is the one on price. It’s no sweat to break $2,000 on a decent half stack. But many of the brands making top-of-the-line head and cab pairs also make lower-wattage combos or small stacks that deliver similar tone below $1,000.
What’s more, the advantage of portability is difficult to ignore. Sure, you feel like a complete badass once the your stack is setup and cranking, but unless you have a crew, it’s easy to feel like a chump when you’re making four trips out of the crowded bar to your illegally parked station wagon because both parts of your amp require two hands to carry. Heaven forbid you ever have to get out of a gig quickly for reasons of personal safety as I have; those casters aren’t going to save you when you’re on the second floor and you have to choose between the blocked main entrance or the twisting fire escape.
Still, there are some choices to make when picking your reasonably sized gigging amp. How much power is enough? That’s a difficult question to answer without other details. If you go solid state, you’ll need more wattage than you would in an equivalent tube amp. Hybrid amps are great for keeping the weight down, but have similar power requirements to solid state, since it’s the power stage in those amps that is lacking tubes. There’s a great graphic here with some basic ideas about what format and power you’re likely to need based on the venue you plan to play. In our small combo amps post, we capped it at 40 watts and $300. Here we’ll cap it at 100 watts (which is still probably too much most of the time!) and $1,000.
Looking for a stage amp that won’t break your back and the budget? Consider our list of the top ten best gigging guitar amps for your next tour.
1. Marshall DSL Series DSL40C 40 Watt
If you’ve ever watched more than one of the Andeton’s Sound Like…Without Busting the Bank series, you know that it’s a running joke that they purposely try not to pick the DSL40C for the rigs. The challenge is to assemble a giggable rig that emulates the sound of a famous guitarist. The reason they keep going back to this one is due to its flexibility and overall excellent tone at a great price.
Every version of this amp is below $1,000 from the 5-watt ($499.99) to the 100-watt ($899.99). The 40-watt is the sweet spot that will certainly cover virtually every application except for the largest venues. Much of the flexibility comes from the Pentode/Triode switch which allows you to select 40 or 20 watts. Since it’s a Marshall, you’re meant to use it in its natural driven, compressed state, so both channels focus on gain, with a Classic Gain and an Ultra Gain channel.
The preamp is driven by three ECC83 tubes, while the power stage has one ECC83 and two EL84s. There’s a five-band EQ, but that is shared between both channels, so you’ll need an extrnal EQ to shape them separately. In this amp, you also get a effects loop and an 80-watt Celestion speaker, but no headphone jack. Still, if it’s Marshall tone you’re after, it’s hard to go wrong with this workhorse.
Need more options? Browse more Marshall amplifiers here.
- Effects loop
- Two channels — Classic Gain & Ultra Gain
- On-board reverb
- Switchable between 40 and 20 watts
- 60 pounds is still pretty heavy
- Reverb is digital
- EQ is shared between channels
- No headphone jack
If you're looking to give the guitarist in your life something to strum this year, consider our list of the best acoustic guitars to give for Christmas.Click here to read more
2. Fender Bassbreaker 18/30 Combo
New this year, Fender’s Bassbreaker combines the legendary use of the 50s Bassman as a guitar amp with 60s-era Blackface Deluxe circuitry. The result is a simple but powerful amp capable of a huge amount of grit. You still get the high-headroom cleans you expect in a Fender, but this is a decidedly modern amp, meant to be driven aggressively in the midrange — a perfect complement to your Tubscreamer style overdrive pedal.
This particular model is a 2×12 combo that can be run at 18 or 30 watts, depending on your needs. Power is provided by four EL84 tubes, which on channel one provides a high-headroom, glassy clean, and on channel two a warm, heavy crunch. If you want to use an extension cabinet, you can choose between four, eight, and 16 ohms with the impedance selector. All this, and it’s ten pounds lighter than the Marshall. I’m a little biased because this is by far my favorite new amp in a long while. I love the way it takes pedals (which is good, because you need to bring your own reverb) and its excellent stage presence.
On the other hand, if the negative reviews on the Bassbreaker have you wondering, Fender has a couple of options in the sub-$1,000 range for stage combos. The first and perhaps most obvious is the 40-watt Hot Rod Deluxe. This is an eminently capable amp that seems to pop up everywhere. For a lot less money, you could also take a peek at its solid state cousin, the 100-watt Mustang III, which has the added advantage of featuring on-board effects and modeling. If you feel like going over the price cap, there’s always the venerable ’65 Twin Reverb reissue.
Need more options? Browse more Fender amplifiers here.
Price: $649 (24 percent off MSRP)
- Switchable between 18 and 30 watts
- Effects loop
- Super powerful for its wattage
- Two 12 inch speakers
- No on-board reverb
- Some reviewers complain of effects loop hum
- Some units ship with bad tubes
3. Quilter 101 Mini Head
Another relatively new amp I’ve become fond of is this super-small Quilter. Yes, it is solid state, but the technology packed into this little gem more than makes up for it. They’ve found a way to jam a huge amount of headroom into this amp, which restores the transients and harmonics you expect from a high-quality tube amp.
The master volume on this works as a wattage controller, allowing you to dial in anything from zero to 50 watts on the FullQ, Tweed, and Lead voicings, and up to 100 watts on the Jazz and Surf voices. In place of a traditional EQ are two knobs that let you adjust the overall shape of the curve and high-cut. There’s even an effects loop, conveniently located in the front of the amp. It’s a whole lot of power in a very small package, but for $200 more, you can also get the ProBlock 200, which boosts the power to 200 watts and adds on-board reverb and a limiter. Even better, both are made right here in the U.S.
Need more options? Browse more Quilter amps here.
- Ultra-compact form factor makes moving easy
- Flexible wattage from zero to 100 watts (Jazz and Surf only)
- Inexpensive (aside from having to buy a cab)
- Extremely high headroom
- Requires purchase of a separate speaker cab
- Solid state (if this is an issue for you)
- Limited EQ options
- Single channel, no reverb
For on-the-fly pitch changes, dive-bombs, and even subtle harmonies, consider our list of the top 15 best guitar pitch shifters, synthesizer, and octave pedals.Click here to read more
4. VOX AC15C2 Guitar Combo Amplifier
I should hope I don’t have to explain this one to you. Like the Marshall above, the Vox AC is an amp you stick on stage, turn it up to ten, and shred. Okay, maybe not shred; this isn’t a super-high-gain amp or anything. This is for those chiming, punchy crunch tones you can almost hear just by seeing it.
Unlike the ACs of the past, these have a few features that make them more useful for the modern player. For one thing, the Tone Cut happens in the power stage, which gives a more finite control over the EQ shape. The on-board reverb tank is larger than in the 15-watt models, using the unit from the larger AC30 (which exceeds the price cap). The external speaker jack is switchable between eight and 16 ohms, although you’d have to go out of your way to beat the built-in Celestion Greenbacks. The preamp section is driven by three 12AX7s, while the power section holds two EL84s.
If you’re looking at this one, you have a pretty specific idea of what you want. It’s incredibly loud for 15 watts, so most players in most situations will do just fine. If you want to break the budget, you only need an additional $99.99 to grab the AC30C2 for even most Top Boosted power. On the other hand, for a lot less, you can also get the VT100X modeling amp, which is 100 watts and saves you almost $300.
Need more options? Browse more Vox amplifiers here.
- Legendary Vox amp
- On-board tremolo and reverb
- Normal & Top Boost channels
- Packed with Celestion Greenbacks
- Pricy for the wattage
- No effects loop
- Heavy for the wattage
- All tube except for the solid state rectifier
5. Line 6 AMPLIFi 150 Guitar Combo Amplifier
Nearly the total opposite of the vintage-focused Vox above, this Line 6 amp is the culmination of all of the company’s efforts to revolutionize and streamline the guitar playing experience. More of a total entertainment experience console than a dedicated guitar amp, this unit harnesses all of the power of Bluetooth to stream music, edit presets, and record.
Something akin to the Fractal Audio Axe-Fx, the very point of this thing is to spend hours endlessly tweaking models and signal paths until you find the perfect tone, which can then be shared to the cloud. Other people’s creations will appear there, too, so you’ll be able to search out tonal profiles of the pros with ease. Line 6 has moved all the modeling off of the amp itself onto the cloud and the peripheral devices, thereby perhaps decreasing the risk of failure with an on-board computer. The amp also acts as a USB recording interface, so you won’t need to move it all to your computer to capture the tones. There are five speakers inside the cabinet for a total of 150 watts.
Sure, it’s not an amplifier as you’d normally think about it, but if the Fractal’s out of reach, this is a pretty good runner up in an easy-to-move package.
Need more options? Browse more Line 6 amplifiers here.
- Bluetooth connectivity allows for unprecedented control via iOS devices
- 70 amp models, over 100 effects, and 20 speaker cabs
- Amp itself acts as a USB recording interface
- 150 watts
- If you’re not into modeling, no part of this amp will be useful to you
- Fully digital and somewhat reliant on external devices
- With so many options, setup at shows could be fussy
- No effects loop
6. Blackstar HTCLUB40C HT Venue Series Club Guitar Combo Amplifier
Blackstar has carved a niche for itself by pricing just below the Marshall and Fender options, but delivering every bit the product. Especially key to their offerings is the Infinite Shape Feature, which is specifically designed to allow the user to dial in a setting from Fender at one extreme (think higher headroom for cleans) to Marshall at the other (sweetly compressed breakup for dirt).
Combining two ECC83s in the preamp and two EL34s in the power section, this all-tube amp features a clean channel and an overdrive. The clean channel has two modes called Boutique and Modern, while the Overdrive has two modes called Classic and Modern. Essentially, in both cases, the Modern setting will give you punchier crunch, with the difference being the baseline gain. So, with the ISF turned fully counter-clockwise and the amp on the first channel in Boutique mode, that’s probably something akin to a Fender Princeton, for example. With the ISF turned fully clockwise, the amp on the second channel in Classic mode, you’re in Plexi territory. The digital reverb features a dark/bright switch and there is an emulated DI out for recording. This is certainly a dark horse candidate for the best amp going right now for the money and worth a look.
If you want to go a little more modern and get some modeling, you might try the IDCORE100, which is cheaper and 100 watts.
Need more options? Browse more Blackstar amps here.
- Two channels with two modes each (footswitch included)
- Three-band EQ plus ISF control that creates a spectrum from Fender to Marshall tones
- On-board reverb
- Effects loop
- Heavier than some amps with two speakers
- Reverb is digital
Find more Blackstar HTCLUB40C HT Venue Series Club Guitar Combo Amplifier information and reviews here.
7. ZT Lunchbox 200-watt 1×6.5 Guitar Combo Amplifier
While Blackstar is trying to revolutionize the amp game in a much more subtle way, using accepted design language handed down through the years, ZT takes a completely different approach, separate from even the Fractal/Line 6 mode of thinking. This is the ultimate in lunchbox amp design, packing an astonishing 200 watts into a combo amp that would fit inside your grade school lunchbox.
Ultimately, this is an incredibly simple amp. There are no effects (or effects loops) — jam your signal path into the front of the thing and play. Tone on this is like a guitar knob, cutting the highs to the left. The only bit of trickery in this device is the Ambiance knob, which affects a cabinet/speaker emulation. Fully counter-clockwise is a closed-back speaker cab, and fully clockwise is an open-back cab. This allows you the flexibility to respond to the environment in which you are playing to tighten up the ambient response when needed. Because the speaker is so small, even with the gain and volume all the way up, you’re still not moving the required amount of air to produce truly compressed gain tones, so drive pedals are basically a necessity here. You can help the situation by either adding ZT’s own extension cabinet, or hooking it up to your favorite 4×12. Six-and-a-half inches isn’t a lot of air, so forget your windmilling wall of sound and think more about cutting through the mix in virtually any environment.
Need more options? Browse more ZT Amplifiers products here.
- Super compact combo form factor
- 200 watts far exceeds most needs
- Ambiance knob controls emulation of open back to close back cabinet sounds
- Lively and responsive
- No effects loop
- Small speaker means headroom is reduced, limiting clean tone performance at volume
- No independent tone controls
- No reverb
Here's our list of the top 15 best chorus, flanger, and phaser pedals to add intrigue to your guitar tone.Click here to read more
8. Roland JC-120 Guitar Combo Amp
Let’s be honest: I shouldn’t have to write anything here. Similar to the Vox AC15/30, if you don’t know what this amp is, you’re so new to guitar, I urge you to please not spend anything close to $1,000 on an amplifier. Spend it on lessons or strings or renting a venue for your band to play. Nevertheless, it is my job to tell you about this amp. This is nothing short of the gold standard of clean amplification, with headroom so high, early Fender amps scratch their heads wondering how it’s possible.
The Roland Jazz Chorus does one, arguably two things. The first is crystal clear, sparkling clean tones for anyone from jazz players to the twinkling clean passages on your favorite thrash tune. (Yes, this is the amp James Hetfield uses for his cleans.) The other use for it is wide stereo chorus. When running a signal so clean, a touch of chorus as a thickener adds a necessary level of depth. The chorus circuit in this is the exact same as the original Boss CE-1 Chorus pedal, which was the company’s first effect unit. If you want enormous, ringing chords to wash over you in a shimmering wave, this is the amp for you. You can probably get away with feeding it some interesting modulation or synth effects, but you’ll probably want to leave your dirt pedals out. Each channel features a high and low input, which can help to accommodate differences in guitar volume or accept your keyboard input, if you happen to be so talented.
Since the cosmically loud 120-watt version just barely fits in the price cap (at the time of this writing) and could very well leave you deaf besides, you could look at the 40-watt Jazz Chorus instead.
Need more options? Browse more Roland amplifiers here.
- Possibly the best clean amp ever made
- Three-band EQ for each channel
- Stereo operation via two Roland silver-cone speakers
- Two inputs per channel
- Pure solid state clean tones — no lovely compressed breakup here
- Very pricey for solid state
- Back-breakingly heavy
- Has an effects loop, but frankly garbage with pedals
9. Orange Tiny Terror TT15H 15 Watt Tube Amp
Since buying my beloved Crush 35RT, I’ve become something of an Orange fan. ZT owes them a debt for creating the lunchbox amp market with this creation. The Tiny Terror manages to produce more than enough power to keep up with a band in a club setting, and properly mic’d, can probably do the job just about anywhere.
Like the ZT, this is a very simple machine. The small enclosure has enough room for two ECC83 preamp tubes, two EL84 power tubes, and some circuitry. Sure, there’s no reverb or effects loop, but it is switchable between a bedroom-friendly seven watts and the improbably powerful 15 watts. The simple controls on this are a volume, tone, and gain, so this is really meant to be dialed in and left alone. If the quintessential Orange crunch is a bit too bright for you, they also make the Dark Terror for a few dollars more. If you opt for the Orange PPC112C cabinet, you’ll be over budget on the Dark Terror, but just squeak under on the Tiny Terror. Something like this Laney Cub-Cab 2×12 would keep you comfortably under budget for both.
If you need more power, there’s also the Dual Terror, which features two channels and a power range of seven to 30 watts, which will definitely keep pace. At $899, you’ll need to go second hand for your cabinet to make it work. If you don’t mind the hybrid route, Orange also makes the 20-watt Micro Terror (also available in Micro Dark) for far less. The full micro stack is less than $300, but you’ll be praying to the microphone and PA gods in many venues.
Need more options? Browse more Orange amplifiers here.
- Extremely tiny package
- Switchable between 7 and 15 watts
- Three speaker outputs
- Crushing crunch tones
- No effects loop
- No reverb
- Still need to purchase a cab
10. Egnater Tweaker 40 112 Guitar Combo Amplifier
In many ways, this Egnater competes most directly with the Blackstar above. Both are the lesser-heralded, secret weapon amps for a number of players. Both also provide voicing flexibility that combines Fender and Marshall tones in one package. Unlike the Blackstar, though, the Egnater prices itself right in the thick of the high-end models.
This two-channel, 40-watt amp employs three 12AX7 tubes in the preamp and two 6L6 tubes in the power section. The Celestion in this combo is specially created to go into this amplifier, and is a takeoff of the 30-watt GH12, which itself was a combination of a Vintage 30 and a Greenback. Options include Vintage and Modern voicings, USA, AC, and British EQ, Tight & Bright low and high-end response shapes, and low or high gain channels. There’s also an independent mid cut knob for additional fine tuning.
Need more options? Browse more Egnater amplifiers here.
- Buffered effects loop with level
- Switch for British or American voicing
- Two channels with independent controls
- Birch plywood construction; lighter than other options at this wattage
- Power supply and transformer issues on some units (per reviews from 2014)
- Despite allowances for American voicing, still comes off more to the Marshall side
- Pricey compared to better-known competitors
- Speaker only rated for 50 watts, making it less efficient than other options
If you’re looking for more amplifier options, check out the top ten best mini guitar amplifiers or best small combo amplifiers. If you need more ideas for Christmas gifts, consider our list of the top 30 best handmade gifts here.
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