I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
The Sound of Tubes
Finding the perfect tube combo amp is one of the toughest things for a guitar player, especially one who performs in a band. If you play your own material, you’re probably trying to form your own signature sound, and you’re looking for the right gear to make it happen.
Some guitarists who play in cover bands choose digital modeling amps or complicated effects processors capable of mimicking the sounds of dozens of different amps. But there's something special about tube amps, and if that’s the sound you’re after you know there is no digital or solid-state amp on earth that is going to cut it.
In this review, we’ll take a look at three different 1x12 tube combo amps. They’re all loud, they all sound great, and they all come in at a street price of under a thousand bucks.
My top choice for rock guitarists is the Marshall DSL40. You know Marshall, that legendary amp maker responsible for those huge stacks of speakers at rock concerts. Sure, Marshall is renowned as one of the best amplifier brands in the world, based on the reputation they’ve built because of those stacks.
But did you know they make some pretty amazing tube combo amps too? Some can be pretty pricey, but the DSL40 is a loud, gig-worthy combo that will deliver that big Marshall sound without breaking your budget.
This amp is a straight-up rock monster. Bands like Van Halen, AC/DC, Guns ‘n’ Roses, and countless others built their reputations around that legendary Marshall tone.
Dial it back for bluesy sounds and smooth overdrive, or push those tubes hard and shake the walls. With this amp, the Marshall roar is the sound you are after, and you won’t be disappointed.
The DSL40 pushes 40 watts through a single Celestion speaker; however, you can cut the power back to 20 watts for even more tube saturation and juicier tone.
There are two channels, Classic Gain and Ultra Gain, plus two modes per channel. This provides a decent template of sounds to work with just based on a few voicing differences. Shape your sound further with thee-band EQ (bass, middle, treble) plus controls for presence and resonance and a mid-shift button. As an upgrade from the older model DSL40C, the DSL40 includes master volume controls.
Additional features include foot-switchable reverb with level control for each channel, FX loop, and external speaker jacks. Best of all, the compact combo design means this Marshall monster is easy enough to carry to gigs and rehearsals. No busting your back with a 4x12 cabinet!
Fender Hot Rod Deluxe
Fender amps are known for their glassy clean sounds and smooth, natural overdrive. Classics like the Twin and Bassman shaped the sounds of early rock ‘n’ roll. The Hot Rod Deluxe lives up to the expectations of those Fenders that came before it, but it also has a dark side. Don’t let the vintage look fool you; this amp has a lot going on under the hood.
The Hot Rod Deluxe pushes 40 watts of tube power through a single Celestion speaker. It has three channels: Normal, Drive, and More Drive. Controls include Presence, Bright Switch, Master Volume, Middle, Bass, Treble, Drive Select Switch, Drive Volume, and Reverb.
This amp will nail those bluesy tones you’re looking for in a Fender, but cranking up the Drive knob on the More Drive channel gets you (you guessed it) more drive. While it isn’t a high-gain amp by any stretch of the imagination, you will manage some excellent hard rock tones if that’s what you’re after.
But for some guitarists, looking for heavy overdriven sounds out of a Fender amp is like going to McDonald’s and ordering a pizza. If the classic Fender clean sounds and buttery overdrives are what you want, you’ll find that too in the Hot Rod Deluxe. If country, blues, or classic rock is your bag, this amp is a solid choice.
Additional features include an effects loop, external speak jack, 2-button footswitch, and a very cool red jewel pilot light. At a weight of just over 53 pounds, it’s easy to lug around.
If you're into blues, rock, and maybe even a little country you'll want to check out the Fender Hot Rod Series. Also check out the HotRod DeVille, a more powerful version of the Deluxe.
Peavey 6505+ 112
The Peavey 6505 is a great rock amp, but it really excels in high-gain settings. That's why I'm listing it as my top recommendation for guitarists into hard rock and heavy metal. The 6505 traces its origins back to the Peavey 5150, and a certain legendary guitar player who played a huge part in its development.
Today, said guitar player has moved on to form his own company, but the tradition continues with the Peavey 6505 lineup. What started out as a great rock amp has become a heavy metal monster, used and abused by extreme metal guitarists around the world.
Until a few years ago, the only combo version of the 6505 was the 212. This is an awesome amp, but it comes in at a street price that will put you over your thousand-dollar budget. But now there’s the 112 version!
While admittedly this littlest 6505 isn’t quite the same kind of beast as its big brothers, it does sound amazing and has more than enough power for gigs and rehearsals. It’s also much easier on the wallet, not to mention your back.
The 6505 is a 60-watt tube amp with a single Sheffield speaker. Sheffields tend to sound a little darker than Celestians, and the speaker compliments the amp perfectly. Controls include Pre and Post Gain, Presence and Resonance controls plus three-band EQ for each channel; master Reverb control and a Crunch switch for the Rhythm channel.
While there are two channels (Lead and Rhythm) in reality they are both high-gain channels. However, some very good clean sounds can be achieved by backing off the Pre-Gain control on the Rhythm channel.
Features include an external speak output jack, microphone-simulated XLR out, effects Loop and footswitch. At about 61 pounds the 6505 is a little on the hefty side, but its bulk is part of what makes it sound so good.
To learn more about this amp check out my full Peavey 6505+ Combo review.
Small Tube Combo Amps
There are some great little tube amps out there that will fit into your $1000 budget, and this article has covered what I think are three of the best. There are also some other choices out there that sound amazing but might not be right for the stage. However, in a home setting these low-wattage little monsters are tough to beat.
Of course, you could always mic’ them up for a show as well! Here's a quick rundown of some of the coolest choices out there:
- Fender Blues Jr: This legendary little rock amp has served guitarists well for decades. At only 15 watts it won’t silence your drummer, but it does make a great amp for the home practice space.
- Marshall DSL20C: The baby brother of the DSL40C. Even 40 watts is pretty loud if you never leave the house. The 20-watt version is just right.
- Blackstar HT Studio 20: Blackstar is a little underrated, and they put out some affordable amps that sound better than they ought to for the price. Also, check out the 40 and 60-watt versions.
- Peavey ValveKing II: Twenty watts of Peavey tube power. Just like the 6505, this little guy does high-gain well.
- Vox AC15C1: The Vox AC30 is a classic, and the AC15 brings that legendary tone to a 15-watt package.
Which Tube Amp Is Right for You?
These amps have a lot in common, and not just that they are built by some of the top guitar amp makers in the world. Yet there are some very significant differences.
- One is a classic rock and blues masterpiece, with the vintage looks and vibe to match. Blues, country, and lighter classic rock players will gravitate to the Hot Rod Deluxe. It has the shimmering cleans and smooth overdrive to nail those vintage tones, and pushed hard it can get nice and snarly.
- One is a heavy metal machine capable of brain-melting high gain. The 6505+ 112 combo is perfect for metal players in any genre from classic hard rock to extreme, detuned modern metal. The Peavey 6505 series has become the gold standard in American high-gain amplifiers for good reason, and this 1x12 combo lives up to its name.
- One is a rock icon that puts out the kind of legendary tones that have driven some of the best guitarists in history. I don’t think anyone needs to guess what the Marshall is good for. If you’re looking for that epic British valve tone there is no other amp that will get you there like a Marshall. Hard rock, classic rock, and even blues guitarists can depend on this amp for their sound.
They are each powerful enough to serve as a stand-alone amp for any gig or rehearsal situation, and they sure beat lugging a half stack with you everywhere you go. They’re also moderate-wattage amps, in the 40-60 watt range, which means you can crank them up and really push those tubes hard without imploding your house.
I own or have owned each of these amps, and they each impressive in their own way. You’ll have to decide for yourself which one meets your needs for your own personal situation. Take your time, check them out, and choose your weapon. Make sure you check with Peavey, Fender, and Marshall's websites for the latest info on their gear.
While of course it’s true that you can own as many guitar amps as you like, you need to choose one sound as the backbone of your tone. For a guitarist, it seems like that quest for the perfect tube amp tone never ends.
Currently, I own both the Marshall DSL40C and Peavey 6505 combo and I think they are both great amps.
Ultimately, you are going to build a rig that will define your sound. You’ve been given three great amp options to base that rig around, but where you start is up to you. Your style, guitar of choice, and effects will impact your sound, and you have to find an amp that gets the job done in synchronicity with the rest of your gear.
For most guitar players it takes a lot of trial and error to figure it all out, but finding your tone is a fun journey. Good luck finding the best tube combo amp for you and your style!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
human on December 11, 2016:
Blackstar HT Club 40?
Jason on October 11, 2016:
That Marshall sounds so bad it almost hurts.
Kai on July 17, 2016:
Vox AC15C2. $800 2x12, 15 watts.
Michael James (author) on May 28, 2015:
The Vox AC30 is an awesome amp, but unfortunately a bit over the $1000 budget. Unless you want to go with the Valve Reactor model, but that's not quite a tube amp.
Fasthand on May 28, 2015:
What about the Vox AC30? :)
Michael James (author) on July 31, 2014:
Thanks for sharing that Slowhand II. Just took a quick look at it and the TubeMeister Combo seems like a great little amp. Appears to have a DI out, but I bet it sounds better miked. Congrats of finding a little gem that sounds good and will save your back!
slowhand II on July 30, 2014:
At 61 yrs old I got tired of dragging around larger tube combos (many types over the years including some Dumble clones).
I recently purchased an H&K Tubemeister 18 combo (20 LBS).
I took it straight out of the box and went downtown to gig with some very loud bands. Placed on a milk crate and used with the option footswitch, it is a tone monster. Other than a bit of tube tone sag after playing it balistic all night, it punched through to be heard. Boost was a bit over the top but the sustain was worth the volume differences channel to channel.
Time will tell how bullet proof it is, but after a thorough work out with single coils and HB type pickups, my leads and rhythms have all the punch and clarity without the weight. Put a mic in front of it and it performs with the big boys . The single 12 version is a bit heavier at 30 lbs but I found the 10 inch Celestion surprisingly hot enough.