The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Best Guitar Amps for the Money
If you have only $500 to spend you want to find the best guitar amp for the money. Fortunately, there are plenty of choices when it comes to amplifiers costing five-hundred bucks and less. But if we’re going to whittle them down to the very best we need to lay out a few ground rules.
For the purpose of this article we’ll be looking at guitar rigs that are affordable for the average musician who plays at home, or needs a portable amp for use in a band. I’ve separated the amps by type and chosen what I think is the best amp in each category:
- Best Solid-State Guitar Amps: These are powerful, reliable solid-state rigs. Some feature onboard effects, but more than anything I looked for amps that just sound great.
- Best Modeling Amps: If you’re on a budget you want to get the most bang for your buck, so you might consider an amp with an array of usable on-board effects.
- Best Tube Amps: Tube amps in this price range tend to be smaller-wattage units that are great for recording, jamming at home, or performing in lower-volume situations.
If you have $500 to spend on a new guitar rig you have a lot of choices. Here are the ones I would pick.
Best Solid-State Amps Under $500
Solid-state amps use transistor technology, and are typically more reliable than tube amps. Historically, the problem has been that solid-state amps don’t sound nearly as good as the tube amps they are meant to mimic.
That’s really not true anymore, and these days there are many solid-state guitar amps that sound very tube-like. And, they won’t conk out on you when you are ready to fire them up and play a gig.
Peavey Bandit 112
My top pick here is the Peavey Bandit 112. Peavey's patented TransTube technology is, in my opinion, the best tube-emulating solid-state circuitry in the business. This is the company responsible for some of the most epic tones in modern metal, and they also have some amazing amplifiers for blues and rock. All of that comes wrapped up in a reliable solid-state package with the Bandit.
Highlights at a Glance:
- 80 watts; 100 watts with extension cab
- 12-inch Blue Marvel Speaker
- 3-band EQ for each channel
- 3 voicings for each channel
- Speaker simulated direct out
The Bandit is a legendary guitar combo amp, and somewhat of a rite of passage for many intermediate players. It is affordable, but rated at 80 Peavey watts it has the power for use in a loud band. Adding an extension cabinet boosts the power up to 100 watts.
The three voicings on the Lead channel range from bluesy overdrive, to classic rock crunch, to heavy saturated extreme distortion. The Bandit is a versatile amp that can handle anything you throw at it.
I’ve had my Bandit for over 15 years. I still love it, and that’s why I often recommend it to guitarists looking for an affordable solid-state combo.
More on the Peavey Bandit
Other Great Solid-State Amps
Here are a few more amps to consider:
Marshall is one of the biggest names in the guitar guitar world. They’re known for monster tube amps, but the solid-state Marshall MG Series does a pretty good job of bringing the legendary Marshall sound to guitar players on a budget. The MG101 is a 100-watt, gig worth solid-state combo that features a handful of very usable effects.
Orange Crush CR60C
Orange is a brand that once rivaled Marshall for King of the Tube amp, and these days they put out some impressive amplifiers. Many are tube amps, but some, like the Crush CR60C, are great-sounding solid-state combos. This is a 60-watt amp with excellent distortion and some really cool reverb effects.
Fender Champion 100
The Champion 100 is a 100-watt, 2x12 combo that features classic Fender styling in both looks and sound. Onboard effects include reverb, delay/echo, Vibratone, chorus, and tremolo. This probably isn’t the amp you want for metal, but for all other genres it is a great choice. The Champ 100 is also very affordable, and one of the best guitar amps under $400.
Top Modeling Amps Under $500
Digital modeling technology lets guitar players emulate a wide range of amplifiers, cabinets and effects all with one compact unit. That means one amp that does it all, and there is no need for complicated pedal setups.
Modeling amps are a smart choice for guitarists who practice and play at home, or those who play in cover bands and need to cop a lot of different guitar tones in a simple and manageable way.
Fender Mustang GT 200
My number-one choice in the modeling amp category is the Fender Mustang GT 200. Fender is another big name in the guitar world. Many people associate Fender with smooth overdrive and crystal-clear clean sounds. Their amps are known for blues, jazz and milder forms of rock, but the Mustang Series offers impressive tones for every genre of guitarist.
Highlights at a Glance:
- 200 watts
- 2x12 custom Celestion speakers
- 47 effects, 21 amp models
- XLR out (x2)
- Wi-Fi enabled
Fender has really stepped it up in recent years with the Mustang GT Series. The GT 200 is a 200-watt combo with more than enough power for a band or gigging situation, and plenty of flexibility.
You'll find amazing emulation of classic Fenders, excellent effects options and plenty of headroom. There is a USB port for hooking up with your computer, plus Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity .
I admit I'm not in love with the high-gain sounds, but they are pretty good. If you like the classic Fender sound, or if you are looking for a powerful and versatile choice for blues, country, jazz, lighter rock or just about anything that doesn’t require high-gain, this is a great choice. Metal and hard rock players may want to look elsewhere.
The Fender Mustang GT Series
More Modeling Amp
Line 6 Spider V 120 mkII
I have been impressed with the Line 6 sound for a few years now. They've really been a company on the forefront of the modeling amp movement, and their tone has improved to the point where it's hard to tell Line 6 modeling amps from the real deal. If you are looking for a very powerful amp for gigging I'd seriously consider the Line 6 Spider V 120 mkII
BOSS Katana 100/212
The BOSS Katana Series has amassed a huge following since it first hit the scene thanks to impressive tones and BOSS effects. In this cases you get 55 effects, and 5 amp voices. I’m not sure they are ready to unseat Fender and Line 6 just yet, but the BOSS Katana is certainly one of the best modeling amps out there. In addition to the Katana 100 you might also want to check out the Katana Air.
Peavey Vypyr VIP 3
The Peavey Vypyr is a good choice for players who are into rock, hard rock and all forms of metal. The analog TransTube distortion is excellent, and the flexibility is unparalleled. The trademarked WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) interface is so easy to use and understand. If you play bass as well as guitar this is a great all-purpose amp for jamming or recording. This is another affordable option if you are looking for a guitar amp under $400.
Best Tube Amplifiers Under $500
Tube amps are the gold standard when it comes to guitar tone. Unfortunately, they are also more expensive, and require a little more TLC when compared to their solid-state brothers.
In this price range most of your options will be small-wattage tube combos. That’s okay; tube amps sounds a little sweeter when pushed, and a low-wattage amp can be cranked up without crumbling your walls.
Fender Pro Junior IV
My top pick in the category of tube amps under $500 is the Fender Pro Junior IV. This is the littlest amp in the Fender Hot Rod Series, and like its big brothers it is renowned for its sweet tube goodness.
Highlights at a Glance:
- 15 watts
- 10-inch Jensen speaker
- One each volume and tone controls
- Lightweight at under 23 pounds
- Classic design
There really isn’t much to say about the Pro Junior, except it sounds warm and wonderful, especially with humbuckers. The controls are simple – one volume and one tone—reminiscent of early ‘50s-era tube amps. This is the perfect amp for small, low-volume gigs.
Like other amps in the Hot Rod Series, the Pro Junior is best suited for blues, jazz, country and classic rock guitarists, it also handles pedals well. Metal players may wish to look elsewhere, but, if they also play blues or lighter rock, there is nothing wrong with putting a distortion pedal in front of a little amp like this.
As guitarists it is easy to get caught up in the bells and whistles amp builders like to add to their equipment. The Pro Junior is a reminder that what really matters is tone, and sometimes two knobs are all you need.
The Fender Pro Junior and Blues Junior
More Tube Amps
Here are a few more affordable tube amplifiers to consider:
I really like the Marshall DSL Series, so much so that I went out and got a DSL40 for myself. It’s a loud tube combo amp and it sounds really good, but it was a tough decision between it and some of the low-wattage amps in the DSL lineup.
The DSL5CR is a 5-watt amp with a 10-inch speaker. Crank it up, push those tubes, and soak in all of that Marshall British overdrive. If five watts is too much power, you can switch it down to one watt.
While even the average Joe on the street knows names like Marshall and Fender, few would know the name Vox. But to guitar players Vox is one of the more revered amp makers in the music world, and their classics are responsible for some of the most amazing tones in the history of rock.
One of those classics is the AC30, which is far out of our price range here. However, the AC10 brings us some of that same Vox tone and attitude in an affordable package.
Bugera V22 Infinium
Bugera doesn’t often get a mention in “best of” posts, but here I think they deserve it. They excel at making affordable amps for players on a budget, and the V22 Infinium is one of their best offerings. This is a two-channel, 22-watt tube amp with a 10-inch speaker, three-band EQ and reverb.
I always talk about finding those diamonds in the rough, and I think this is one of those amps. Either you’re willing to give Bugera a shot or you’re not, but if you like everything else about this amp I would check it out.
The Final Verdict!
So which gets the award for Best Overall Guitar Amp Under $500? They're made by the best guitar amp brands in the world, so it was a challenge to pick just one for the top spot.
I think it's tough to beat the Peavey Bandit when it comes to cost and sound. It handles pedals well, it's versatile, and its loud enough for just about anything you'd want to do with it. If you are an intermediate guitarists looking for an amp that's good enough to gig with and doesn't break the bank, the Bandit is an outstanding choice.
The Bandit is great for veteran players too, but guitarists who have been around the block a time or who might really like the Fender Pro Junior. It's simple, classic, and sounds incredible.
You really can’t wrong with any of the options in this article. As you can see, some are better suited for certain musical styles than others, so you may make your choice based on the type of music you play.
Remember that the advice here is based on my personal opinions and experiences. As always, be sure to check out the amp manufacturer's websites for the latest info on their gear before making a decision.
Good luck, do your research, and most of all have fun. You’re buying a new guitar amp!
Your Opinion: Best Guitar Amp Under $500
IronAgeGuitar from Austin Texas on November 05, 2016:
Yes there's a lot of new amps coming in smaller packages. Tube powered too! Personally had a VHT Special 6 which was purchased for about 300 bucks. Great sounding little amp, easy to mod, & versatile.
Jason on March 21, 2015:
Blackstar's HT-5R is awesome for the tube sound on a budget. Plus you get a range of tones with the ISF, you've got a reasonable facsimile of a Marshall and a fender with some stuff to play around with in-between. However, for my money, get an orange tiny terror used or on sale. The great thing is no matter where your chops go, and how far you grow beyond it, you'll never NOT have a use for it.
K. R. H.Grace from Fairbanks, AK on November 27, 2013:
Great amp.... I had one 300$ marshal something or other and it was great for shredding some death metal riffs really loud. :D