How Many Watts Do You Need for a Good Guitar Amp?
Guitar Amps: How Many Watts Do You Need?
Guitar amps come in many different shapes and sizes. For beginners, choosing an amp with the right number of watts can be a little confusing. However, this is really an issue that confounds guitar players of all experience levels.
Guitarists who play in bands want amps that have the power to compete with the other instruments in their group. If they gig, they need a rig that’s also reasonably portable and gets the job done onstage.
Practice amps for home use must sound good at low volume levels, and not take up a lot of space. It’s also nice if they are cable of getting loud enough to jam with friends on occasion.
All of these amps need to sounds good, but if you are interested in recording your tone is even more important. Guitar amps valued in the recording studio are often small, low-wattage units.
So, how many watts do you need in each of those situations? If you are interested in all or any combination of the goals listed above it is unlikely that one amp will meet all of your criteria. In this case you need to focus on what is most important to you and choose an amp based on those goals. Many guitar players have separate amps for gigs, practice and recording in the studio.
But you’re probably not at that point just yet. More likely, if you are in the market for a new amp, you have one goal in mind. In this post you’ll get some advice on choosing the right wattage guitar amp for your needs.
Tube Amp vs Solid State Watts
Before we get into amps for specific applications, here are a few things you need to know about comparing tube and solid-state amps. In a nutshell, tube amps are based on a somewhat archaic technology once used in many electronic devices such as televisions and radios.
Because tubes need to be replaced every so often, occasionally fail and require regular maintenance, most consumer electronics eventually moved to solid-state transistor technology. Guitar amps are one of the few exceptions where many people still prefer tubes due to their unique sound characteristics.
The main advantages of a solid-state amp are durability and reliability. It was once true that tube amps stood head and shoulders above transistor amps when it came to sound quality. However, the gap has narrowed significantly in recent years and today there are many solid-state and digital amps that sound amazing.
Tube amps are louder than solid-state amps. I always get a little flak when I say this, as experts rightly point out that a watt is a watt whether it is tube or solid state. That makes sense.
However, anyone who has been around guitars for a while has probably noticed that a typical 50-watt tube amp is much louder than a typical 50-watt solid-state amp. There are many reasons for this, some a bit overly technical and others bordering on conspiracy theory. And, of course it varies by brand. Still, from a practical standpoint it is something you need to consider when you are looking for a guitar amp.
So, if you are on the fence about whether to choose a solid-state amp or a tube amp here are the takeaways:
- Tube amps are known for better sound, but of course this is subjective.
- Solid-state amps are typically more reliable.
- Practically speaking, tube amps are generally louder than solid-state amps of the same power rating.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into how many watts you need for a guitar amp for different purposes.
Learn More About Tube Amps Compared to Solid State
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Guitar Amps for Beginners
A good guitar amp for a beginner is solid-state with a speaker in the 8-12” range. These little amps are usually 10-20 watts. This is more than enough power for a newbie to get started. Look for features like onboard digital effects, reverb and of course good-quality distortion.
There is nothing wrong with going with a more powerful amp as a beginner. The reason new guitarists choose little amps is because they are inexpensive. You can grab a good-quality beginner’s amp for around $100.
However, for serious beginners who know they are going to stick with the instrument, there are affordable guitar amps in the 50-100 watt range. These amps will let you jam with friends, and many are even loud enough to compete with a drummer.
For the typical beginner, I recommend an amp like the Marshall MG15CF. It is 15 watts with an 8-inch speaker and features some of the best distortion you’ll find in a little amp. It also has a very usable 3-band EQ section. For a beginner that’s all you really need, but if you want reverb or digital effects there are MG15 models available for a few extra bucks.
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Check out the Marshall MG15CF
The right practice amp is one that sounds good and inspires you to play. It doesn’t have to be big or powerful, though if you have the space and if your neighbors don’t mind a little noise it certainly can be. Tube, solid-state or digital amps are all good option for home use.
Many guitar players make their beginner’s amps their practice amps once they move up to a bigger main amp. Thus, again 10-20 watts is a pretty good range for a dedicated practice amp. But unlike a beginner’s amp, a practice amp for a veteran guitar player should include features more appropriate for their skill and style.
In my opinion, small digital modeling amplifiers make outstanding practice amps. In fact, my practice amp is a Peavey Vypyr. Other brands that make great modeling amps include Fender, Line 6 and Vox. These little amps sound good, and have a ton of different effects and amp models to mess around with.
The benefit here is that you can still use an array of different sounds when practicing without having to set up your effects pedals or muck with different amps for different tones. You have it all in one little box, available with the push of a button.
I also like small-wattage tube amps for practice settings. While they are much less flexible than modeling amps, they do bring some amazing tone to the table. The Marshall DSL5C, for example, is a 5-watt amp capable of that awesome Marshall growl without bringing the roof down. If that’s the kind of inspiration you need to practice, an amp like this is a great choice.
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Amps for Playing in a Band
So, how many watts do you need to play in a band? If your band has a drummer, especially one with heavy hands, my recommendation is at least 40 watts tube, or at least 100 watts solid-state. That’s a quick and dirty answer, but there are many factors to consider for your specific situation
If you play with a rock band you need to play loud. An acoustic drum kit makes a racket, and you need to be heard. Also consider whether you have another guitarist in your band, and what kind of firepower they are bringing.
Here the difference between tube and solid-state amps is very important:
- If you intend to use a solid-state amp the higher the wattage you can go with the better. This is because you do not want your amp to break up at high volumes, and you do not want to push it to its limits. You want some leftover headroom, so your sound is loud but clear. Transistor amps sound best when they have a little left in the tank.
- On the other hand, tube amps sound better when pushed. While you probably don’t want to dime your amp all the time for the sake of your speakers, you do want your amp to break up at high volumes. To put this in simple terms, cranking up the volume knob on a tube amp is a good thing.
Keep these points in mind when choosing an amp for your band situation. For example, if you want a tube amp for use in rock or metal, you’ll need to crank it up for the best sound. Unless you are playing arenas, you probably don’t need a 100-watt amp. A 50-watt tube amp will give you plenty of volume and work hard enough to bring out the best tone.
But a 50-watt solid-sate amp probably won’t be enough for the same situation. You’d need to push the amp to its limits to be heard, and the result will be poor sound and possibly a damaged amp. In this case, choose at least a 100-watt solid-state amp.
This is also why guitarists looking for loud, clean tones, such as jazz players, prefer powerful solid-state amps like the Roland JC-120. And, this is why rock players prefer tube amps that heat up at high volumes, like the Marshall DSL50.
Choose the Best Guitar Amp for Your Band
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Half stack, full stack or combo? Learn which guitar amp is best in a band situation, and how to choose the right option for you.
Guitar Amps for Gigging
If you play in a band the amp you use for gigging will probably be the same amp you use for rehearsal. For practical reasons this is usually the case, but be aware that it doesn’t have to be so.
While you need to have enough power to be heard when you are rehearsing with your band, when you play live you will have the benefit of sound reinforcement. Whether you play through a 100-watt stack, a 50-watt 2x12 combo or a 25-watt 1x12 practice amp, the sound guy is going to stick a microphone in front of one of your speakers and that’s the sound you’ll project through the PA system. Your sound, a mix of the band’s sound or both will come back to you via the stage monitors.
What this means is you can choose any wattage you want for a gigging amp, as long as it gets the sound you need. Some players like to use smaller, low-wattage amps for gigging because they are easier to transport and sound great. Having lugged a 120-watt head and 4x12 cabinet to more places than I can remember, I certainly see the value in this approach.
Of course this also depends on the type of band you play in, and how you manage your sound. If you play small venues and you do your own sound reinforcement, you may use a small PA for vocals and a few other things but rely on your instrument amplifiers for the rest of the sound. In that case, a guitar amp capable being heard in the back of the room is important, and you’ll probably want to go with whatever you are using for rehearsals.
Best Guitar Amps for Recording
If you are at the level where you are ready to choose a dedicated amp for professional studio recording you probably don’t need any advice from me! So, what follows is intended for guitarists going into the studio for the first time, or those recording at home.
There are two ways to go about recording your guitar sound. Many amps, especially those with digital technology, feature line-out functions, often with speaker emulation. You plug directly into the mixing board or computer system, and your amp’s power rating really doesn’t matter.
The second method, one which old-school me tends to prefer, involves using a microphone (or several microphones) much in the same way you would for a live performance. Here the wattage of your guitar amp is going to matter for many of the reasons already discussed in this article.
The key point here is that while you certainly can use a high-wattage amp for recording, just like when you are playing live you do not have to. Some guitarists prefer to use small-wattage tube amps because they are capable of warm, buttery overdrive at very reasonable volume levels. The Fender Blues Junior is the classic example of a 15-watt tube combo capable of impressive tones.
The Fender Blues Junior
Amps for the Hobby Guitarist
The next couple of paragraphs will probably read more like encouragement than advice.
Question: How many watts for a guitar amp for the hobby guitarist?
Answer: As many watts as he or she darn well pleases.
While the typical hobby player is probably wise to go with a low-wattage tube or mid-wattage solid-state combo, there is no reason not to have a 100-watt Marshall stack in your living room if that’s what you really want. When you are a hobby guitarist you play for fun, and you should play through whichever amp seems like the most fun to you.
If you are low on space but still want good volume and a wide palette of sound choices you may want to consider something like the Fender Mustang IV. It’s a 150-watt 2x12 digital modeling combo capable of just about any tone or effect you can dream up. Plus, if you do end up in band someday this amp has what it takes to do the job.
How Many Watts Do You Think You Need?
I hope this article helped you decide how many watts you need for your guitar amp. Here are a couple more points I'd like you to consider:
I think many players overestimate how much power they need in an amp. I know I did as a young guitarist. There are many factors that influence the sound and volume of your amp, and the power rating is only one of them.
For example, a 50-watt amp through a 4x12 cabinet will seem louder than the same 50-watt amp through a 1x12 cabinet. This is because the 4x12 moves a greater volume of air. The wattage is the same, but the effect is different.
There is also a fair amount of peer pressure in certain types of music, but don’t let other people make decisions for you. For example, if you play metal you may think you need a 100-watt half-stack to be taken seriously, but you don’t necessarily. There are lots of mid-wattage 2x12 combos out there that will work just fine.
Find an amp that sounds good, has enough power for your needs and of course fits into your budget. That’s really the bottom line. Good luck, and don’t forget to have fun. That’s what this guitar thing is all about!