The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
What Is a Modeling Guitar Amp?
A modeling amp is a guitar amplifier with an onboard array of effects and features typically designed to emulate other well-known guitar amps, effects, speaker cabinets, and guitarist tones. This is largely accomplished via digital technology, but certain modeling amps rely on analog circuitry for some of their effects as well.
If you’ve been looking for a new guitar amplifier for gigs, studio or practice use you’ve no doubt encountered a bunch of modeling amps. Only a few years ago you would not have had so many choices, and you probably wouldn’t have passed on a decent tube amp in favor of a modeling amp.
But digital technology has come a long way in the past decade or so, and modern modeling amps are more than capable of holding their own. Would you choose one over a great-sounding tube amp? You might if the pros outweigh the cons for your personal goals and circumstances.
This article takes a look at the benefits of using a modeling amp in different situations. Specifically, I’ll compare using a modeling amp vs. a tube amp or solid-state amp. Of course, there is no right or wrong answer when choosing which type of guitar amp you should use. But, like most things in life, there are probably better and worse answers for you.
5 Benefits of Modeling Amps
These days almost every top guitar amp brand has a modeling amp in their lineup, or at least an amp with digital effects. Later in this article, I’ll list a few of my favorites. I’ve written reviews on many of them, and own or have owned several. Where years ago I steered well wide of anything digital in a guitar amp, these days I have really become a fan.
Here are five of the benefits of modeling amps.
In the olden days, playing guitar required a lot of stuff. You needed your amp, plus all of your pedals, patch cords, power source (or an endless supply of 9-volt batteries), pedalboard, your instrument cables and, of course, your guitars.
You can still go that route if you like, and many guitarists do, me included. But I mostly play at home, and my gear stays in the same spot all the time. If I were in a band, I may consider something else. A good modeling amp with a foot controller, a cable and a guitar can do the same job as a pile of pedals, and you’ll use much less gaffer tape.
It’s much more convenient to haul a modeling amp to a gig, plug in and play. You’ll not only save yourself from the hassle of an annoying and complex setup every time you play out, but you’ll save space in the van, and go easier on your back.
Digital amps are just as useful for practice. I don’t always want to plug in a tube amp just to play quietly in my office. For that purpose, I use my Peavey Vypyr, which not only has great distortion but a whole bunch of effects and amp models. It’s the perfect amp for practice.
All of the convenience and ease of setup doesn’t mean a thing if the amp doesn’t sound good. So, how do digital amps stack up against tube and solid-state amps when it comes to tone?
Tube amps can sound incredible. For decades amp builders have been trying to give us solid-state amps that capture that epic tube warmth and overdrive. While some of them get really close, for the most part, it has been an uphill climb. Until a few years ago, digital amps were even worse in my opinion. For a long while, I couldn’t stand digital distortion and wanted nothing to do with it.
My opinion began to change with some of the previous generations of Fender Mustangs, Peavey Vypyrs, and Line 6 Spiders. Both digital and solid-state overdrive is now head and shoulders above where it was a decade ago. My favorite series is the Peavey Vypyr, which are amps that use Peavey’s TransTube solid-state distortion along with powerful digital processors for effects and emulation. That’s a great combination.
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The coolest thing is that modeling amps don’t just nail one overdrive tone, but a bunch of them. You can dial in a high-gain American distortion, crunchy British overdrive, buttery blues sounds and lots of others. Some even focus on emulating specific amplifiers such as the Marshall JCM800 or Fender Twin.
Of course, I can't help you figure out whether digital modeling amps sound as good as tube amps. That’s based on personal taste, and it's something you’ll have to decide for yourself. However, I can tell you that, in my opinion, the best modeling amps out there certainly sound more than good enough to gig with.
When you flick a light switch in your house you expect the light to go on in the room. Usually, it does, but every now and then it fails. While you may be annoyed when this happens, I’d guess you aren’t surprised. Light bulbs blow out every now and then, and they need to be replaced.
Though it’s a bit of a loose analogy, you can think of the vacuum tubes in a tube amp the same way. Usually, they work when you turn your amp on. Sometimes they may not and need to be replaced.
That’s easy enough if you are home, or but what about at a gig? If you gig once a week you are trusting those little glass bottles to work properly fifty-two times per year, not counting rehearsals. Eventually one will rebel against you, and you will find yourself working on your amp onstage while your bandmates are doing soundcheck. That’s a situation I find only slightly more appealing than changing a tire on the side of a busy highway in a rainstorm.
While any amp can fail at any time, modeling amps are generally much more dependable than tube amps. They don’t have parts that wear out and need to be replaced, and they don’t need to be biased. If you play a modeling amp, you don’t even need to know what biasing is. Modeling amps don’t use batteries, power sources or patch cords, any of which can fail at any time. You just plug in and play.
Some guitar players are looking for one epic tone that perfectly reflects the sounds they hear in their heads. If you play in an original band you probably want to sound like nobody but yourself, and you want other guitarists to recognize and respect your tone. If that’s you, a modeling amp might not necessarily be your best choice.
On the other hand, most guitar players try to emulate many different sounds and tones. Home hobby players are generally learning songs by other bands, so an amp capable of sounding like a bunch of other amps is very useful.
Guitarists who play in cover bands generally do their best to cop the guitar tone on the original recording. A modeling amp that not only features a bunch of effects but also amp and cabinet emulation means you can sound just like the guy who recorded the song. The authenticity of your tone will register with the people in the crowd, whether they fully recognize why or not.
I love my tube amps, and they sound fantastic. But they sound exactly like what they are supposed to sound like, and only that. That’s a good thing when it is the sound I want. If it’s not, I have to make do.
I can twist all the knobs I want and my Marshall is never going sound like a Fender. A modeling amp, on the other hand, can do both sounds and much, much more.
There are some excellent tube combo amps for under $1000 out there. In fact, you can get some really good ones in the $750 range. With one of those amps, five good pedals, a pedalboard, power supply, and cables and you're looking at a rig in the neighborhood of $1200-$1500 for gigging.
That’s really not unreasonable, but, as I'm sure you'll agree, spending less is always better. When it comes to modeling amps there are several gig-worthy options in the $350 range, and some amazing ones around $600. The foot controllers cost extra, but even so, you’ll drop much less cash than you would have on a tube combo and effects pedals.
Even better, some of them feature XLR outs so you can run your signal direct to the mixing board.
If you are a home hobby player or someone who just wants a practice amp, there are some awesome modeling amps for under $200. Again, you don’t have to worry about pedals or tubes. Just twist some knobs and find the sounds you want.
Disadvantages of Modeling Amps
So, you’ve just read about five pros when it comes to digital guitar amps. Next, here are the cons, in my opinion.
1. Modeling Amps Are Overkill for Some Players
As I mentioned previously, if you do want that one huge guitar tone as your signature sound you can probably find it in a modeling amp, but it really isn’t the right tool for the job. Like all great guitarists throughout rock history, you’ll want to explore different guitars, amps, and effects until you find the right combination that gets the sound you need.
2. Modeling Amps Are Complicated
While the most recent generations are much easier to use than those from a few years back, there is still a learning curve. Younger guitarists and those who are more computer savvy may find this as a plus, but for many old-school plug-and-plug guitarists, it can be annoying.
3. Too Many Bells and Whistles
These amps tend to come with a lot of very innovative features. Some are useful, but others seem like way too much. Do you really need your amp to interface with your computer, or does it matter if it is controllable via a smartphone app? Again, if you are a tech-savvy guitarist you may really like these features, but for many old-school players, it is all just too much.
4. You Get What You Get
If you don't especially like the chorus sound, for example, you usually don't have the option of simply replacing it with a different chorus pedal in your signal chain. However, some modeling amps do take pedals better than others, and some are even designed for it.
5. Technology Quickly Becomes Outdated
Finally, I’ll mention the issue that kept me away from digital amps for a long time: Will a digital amp still work in 20 years? Tube amps from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s still sound great today, if they have been well-maintained. But what if your digital amp kicks in ten years or so. Can someone fix it? Will replacement parts for your model even exist once it is out of production for a while?
Truthfully, I don’t know the answer to that. But I tend to get attached to gear, and the idea that my beloved amp will just die someday and there is nothing I can do about it is tough to swallow.
Best Modeling Amps
So if you’ve read through all of that and you’ve decided a modeling amp is the best choice for you, which ones should you consider? Here are a few of my favorites. Be sure to check out the manufacturer's websites for the latest specs on their gear.
Peavey Vypyr Series
If I needed a modeling amp for gigging in a band I’d go with the Peavey Vypyr Pro 100 for a few reasons. First and foremost, Peavey’s Vypyr amps use Peavey TransTube solid-state distortion, which is among the best and most tube-like in the business. I think it has a definite edge over digital distortion.
Secondly, this amp is so intuitive with Peavey’s WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor. You can basically apply effects, amps, and cabs in the same way you would in the real world and create sounds from the bottom up.
However, the Vypyr Pro 100 is also a little expensive. There are three more models in the Vypyr lineup that are much more wallet-friendly, and unlike the Pro, they can be used with electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and bass.
Fender Mustang GT Series
If you are one of those guitar players who love the tech side of things, this might be the amp for you. The Mustang Series of modeling amps have been among the best in the world for years based on sound alone, but the GT incarnation brings some amazing innovations to the line.
You can interface with the Fender Cloud to download new presets and use the Fender Tone app on your phone. The GT200 is the big daddy of the lineup, boasting 200 watts and a pair of 12-inch speakers.
Line 6 Spider V
Line 6 is a brand that has led the way in digital modeling technology for the past few decades, and their Spider Series guitar amps have become legendary. In fact, hearing a Spider in a guitar shop around a decade ago was what finally gave me some hope that there might actually be something to this digital modeling thing.
Today’s Spiders have come a long way since then, and they are now on their fifth generation of amplifiers. At the top of the lineup is the 240-watt V 240, but there is a Spider for just about every level of player, all the way down to the 20-watt V 20.
Other modeling amps and brands to consider:
- Boss Katana
- Marshall Code
- Blackstar ID
- Vox Valvetronix
- Yamaha THR
Modeling Amp vs. Tube Amp vs. Solid State
The decision to choose a digital amp over a tube amp isn’t one to take lightly. For some guitarists it makes sense, but for others, it would be a bad move. There is nothing wrong with using a tube amp and a pile of pedals to get the sounds you want. The bottom line is, with a modeling amp you have other options.
To sum up, in my opinion, modeling amps are best for:
- Gigging musicians who are in cover bands. These players would choose models at the top of the lineups like the Line 6 Spider V 240 or Peavey Vypyr Pro 100, along with their corresponding floor controller.
- Home hobby guitarists: If the bigger models seem like overkill there are many great mid-level digital amps that don’t cost more than a few hundred bucks.
- Guitarists looking for a simple practice amp: It’s hard to beat a modeling amp as a practice amp. You can just plug in, dial in your sound, and play without worrying about pedals or any other distractions.
Modeling amps may not be the best choice for:
- Guitarists looking for an original sound: If you are in a band and intend to perform and/or record original music you’re probably going to want to find the perfect amp and effects to get exactly the sound you want.
Those are my thoughts. I hope you found this article helpful if you are considering switching to a modeling amp.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.