Best Combo Guitar Amps for Gigging
Combo Amps for Gigs
When you play guitar in a band it goes without saying that the amp you choose matters a great deal when it comes to the overall performance of your group. You want something that sounds great, but more importantly you want an amp that captures the tones you are looking for.
Crafting your signature sound is paramount when you write and perform your own original music. Most of the great guitarists throughout history can be identified as easily by their legendary tone they can by the songs they wrote.
On the other hand, you may play in a cover band, and you may be called upon to capture many different guitar tones throughout your set list. You need a setup that gives you the flexibility to cop many sounds, for many styles of music.
Once you have all that figured out you have a few more matters to contend with. How powerful does your amp need to be? How many speakers do you need? Does portability matter? You have a wide array of options out there, and many amps to choose from.
This article is intended to help you sort it all out. Here you can get some advice on which types of guitar amps are best in different situations, and a few suggestions on what I think are your top choices from the best amp builders out there today.
Let’s get to it!
Size and Power
I used to lug a half stack to every gig back in the day, but there is no way I would do that now. I love the power and thump of a stack, and for some guitarists it may be the right choice, but I also think there is something to be said for making smart compromises.
Combos are so much easier to deal with, and many are plenty loud enough for live situations. Gig-worthy amps will have either a single twelve-inch speaker or a pair of twelves. For many players a 2x12 combo offers the best compromise between a half stack and a smaller combo. On the other hand, 1x12 combos are smaller, lighter and many of them still sound amazing.
As for power, my rule of thumb is at least 40 watts for tube amps and 80 watts for solid-state. If you are expecting to be heard over your drummer for live sound or rehearsals you need the power.
However, if you are running through the house PA for gigs you can go much lower with a tube amp, even down to a 15 or 20 watt power section. I’d still stick with higher wattage for solid-state, as the extra headroom will be mean better tone.
Types of Guitar Amps
For the sake of simplicity we can sort guitar amps into three basic categories:
- Solid state (transistor)
Next you’ll read about the pros and cons of the three different types, and my top picks in each category. This is all based on my opinion, and I invite you to do your own research, but I do think this is a good place to start.
I’ll also note that I tried to keep my picks down to affordable options. Of course there are some awesome boutique tube amps out there that sound amazing, but if you are looking for one of those you probably don’t need my help. The average, up-and-coming gigging musician will do just fine with amps in the $500-$1000 range, and that’s what I’ve tried to dig up here.
Many guitar players believe tubes offer the best tone. Tubes are an outdated technology that was once used in all kinds of electronics, even the family television set. Almost every industry has moved away from vacuum tubes in favor of the more compact and reliable transistor. However, tubes still maintain a foothold in the guitar world because of their warm, natural sound.
In my opinion, tubes are best for gigging guitar players who are looking to establish that one signature sound. Finding the right tube amp along with a good assortment of effects pedals and tweaking it all to your exact needs will help you stand out from the crowd.
The downside is that tubes are not nearly as reliable as other types of guitar amps. Many guitar players who gig with them also bring another solid-state amp as a backup, in case their main unit goes south. If you have a team of roadies at your disposable this isn’t a big concern, but for most of us it can doom our gig. Now you’re dragging two amps to a gig instead of one.
It’s tough to choose a great tube combo amp for gigs. Should you go with something powerful like the legendary Fender Twin? How about something a bit more refined, like the Vox AC30? Maybe you need a high-gain monster like the Peavey 6505 112.
All are great choices, but if I must decide I am going to play it down the middle and go with the Marshall DSL40C. This is a moderately powered amp with some great clean sounds, and of course that massive Marshall British overdrive.
This is a pretty straight-forward setup: You’ve got two channels, Classic and Ultra Gain, plus digital reverb all controlled via the footswitch. The Classic channel features a Clean/Crunch switch (this is effectively your clean channel if desired) and the Ultra Gain channel has a Lead 1/Lead 2 switch. This gives you a nice range of tones to work with for dialing in your precise sound.
On the back panel you’ve got an effects loop, plus external speaker jacks. There’s even a Pentode/Triode rocker switch that knocks the DSL40C down to half power for richer overdrive and slightly altered character.
Of course cover band guitarists may have their own reasons for wanting to choose tubes over solid state. However, I’ll reiterate that I think gigging guitarists who play their own music are the ones most likely to go in this direction. In that case, the Marshall sound might not be for you, and you may wish to look elsewhere. For many guitarists, I think the DSL40C is a great choice.
More on the Marshall DSL40C
Solid-state guitar amps are reliable, but some players feel they don’t sound as a good as tubes. In my opinion, that is very much a matter of taste and style. For some applications tubes are a must-have, but for most situations you can certainly find a quality solid-state amp to get the job done.
I think solid-state rigs are a smart choice for players who don’t have a whole lot of time, money or patience to spend on maintaining tubes. You may or may not find your signature tone with a solid-state amp, but you can certainly find something good enough for playing out.
Many cover-band guitarists choose a loud, reliable solid-state amp with a good clean sound. This is like a blank canvas to create upon. You then rely on either a good digital effects processor or a chain of effects pedals to capture all the different sounds you need.
The Peavey Bandit is my top pick when it comes to solid-state amps. At first it may seem like an odd choice, and if you have the cash you may wish to consider going with something like the Roland JC-120. The JC-120 is known one of those “blank canvases” for effects pedals, and the idea is the same with the Bandit.
The Bandit is loud, super affordable and very reliable, and while it has pretty good distortion for a solid-state amp the clean channel offers that blank canvas we are looking for. You can plug in an effects processor or a lineup of your favorite digital and analog pedals.
You also have the option of adding an extension cabinet, which will bump the power output from 80 watts to a full 100 watts as well as increase speaker projection.
If you don’t require all that hoopla when it comes to your setup, you may find the Bandit is also the perfect plug-and-play rig. It has good distortion, from bluesy overdrive to searing high gain, plus an effects loop and very usable on-board reverb.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention I’ve been playing through a Bandit on and off since 2003. Mine is the American-made Red Stripe version, and I wouldn’t hesitate to gig with it. I do miss the days when Peavey made all of their gear in the USA, but the Bandits of today remain sturdy little amps that will survive rehearsals and gigs.
Powerful and simple, the Bandit is a great canvas for effects, but sounds amazing on its own as well.
Check Out the Peavey Bandit
Digital Modeling Amps
Of course you can skip the separate effects altogether and go with a digital modeling amp. These rigs have everything you need to capture a massive number of guitar tones in one package. Typically there are different amp models, a bunch of effects and even speaker emulation.
These rigs are highly programmable, and you can go from a vintage British overdrive to a high-gain American distortion to a warm jazz sound in a few clicks of the footswitch. As you can probably see, this is extremely useful for a gigging guitarist. Not only do you have a huge number of available sounds to work with, but you only have to drag one amp to the gig, plug in and play.
If there is a disadvantage to modeling technology it is that it can be somewhat irritating to old-school guitarists who don’t want to fiddle with a lot of settings to get the sound they want. They are, essentially, little computers mounted in guitar amps. Really this is no different than using a floor or rack-mount effects processor, but if you are of the old analog mindset it could be a turn off. Not that there is anything wrong with that!
If you are going to go the modeling route, I think the Fender Mustang Series is a good bet.
Fender Mustang V.2 IV
The Mustang comes in a few different sizes:
- Mustang I: 20 watts and an 8-inch speaker. I think is one of the top small guitar amps on the market today.
- Mustang II: 40 watts with a 12-inch speaker. While somewhat underpowered, you may be able to get away with this one for small, coffee-house gigs.
- Mustang III: 100 watts and a 12-inch speaker. This is a great 1x12 combo for live performances.
- Mustang IV: 150 watts and a pair of 12-inch speakers. A step up from the Mustang III in both power and speaker coverage.
For gigging guitarists the best choice is either the Mustang III or IV. Both feature the full range of digital effects plus 17 amp models and 100 presets. They have XLR stereo outputs for running a line to a sound board in case you want to skip the microphone for recording for live performance. They even have USB connectivity.
Most importantly, the Fender Mustang has the flexibility for a guitar player who needs to capture many different tones during the same gig. That makes it a great option for musicians in cover bands. You have one amp (plus a foot controller) to lug to the gig, and once you get there you plug in and play. You can line up your presets so you’re ready for each song, and not have to worry about a pile of effects pedals to hook up.
The Mustang is the only piece of gear you need to bring to a gig besides your guitar.
The Fender Mustang V.2 Series
I made my picks based on what I’d choose in different situations, but it wasn’t easy. I know I might make different choices if I were in a certain type of band. There is no one best answer here. You have to do some research, weigh the pros and cons of different options, and choose which is best for you.
Here are a few of the other amps I considered, and why I think they might be a smart option of guitar players in certain situations.
- Fender Hot Rod Series: This is another great, affordable tube amp for gigging. The Fender sound is quite different than the Marshall sound, and for guitarists who are more into blues or country this may be a better choice. Choose between the Hot Rod Deluxe at 40 watts and a 12-inch speaker or the Hot Rod Deville at 60 watts with a 2x12 or 4x10.
- Marshall MG: The Marshall MG Series is a group of solid-state amps ranging from tiny 10-watt practice models up to 100-watt 1x12 and 2x12 versions that will work for playing live. Most MG models have a few digital effects, but the overdrive is solid-state.
- Line 6 Spider: The Spider Series gives the Fender Mustang a series run for its money. Actually it’s the other way around. Line 6 is really the king of this modeling thing, and for some players the Spider V 240 is the ultimate in a gig-worthy, powerful guitar amp.
Find Your Sound
The amps listed in this article are really just the tip of the iceberg, and again all based on my opinion and experience. There is a lot of great gear to consider if you are looking for a combo amp for gigging.
I’ll end with a little story from back when I played in a metal band and hauled my 120-watt Peavey 5150 half stack everywhere I went. After one show we got off stage and next band started setting up. We hauled my rig offstage and wheeled my 4x12 cab away, and then did the same with our other guitarist’s and bassist’s massive rigs. We then set about tearing apart our drummer’s huge double-bass kit.
Wiping the sweat from our brows as we prepared to shove three huge speaker cabinets and a pile of drums into our trucks, we watched in bemusement as the guitar player from the next band plopped a tiny Fender amp on a stool, plugged it in and stuck a microphone in front of it. He was now done setting up, and off he went to the bar until his set started.
Of course his setup didn’t sound nearly as good as ours, but the point is this: You don’t need to go nuts with a guitar setup when you play in a band. In retrospect, I certainly could have downgraded to a loud, good-sounding combo and made life much easier for myself. In fact, if the 5150 212 combo existed at the time I probably would have done just that.
The choice is yours, but if you choose to go with a combo you have some great options that will save your back and your wallet. Good luck!