The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
How to Choose Your First Guitar Amp
There is something magical about the sound of an overdriven electric guitar. That sound is what made me decide to become a guitar player, so long ago. And, I know many new players will pick up a guitar for the first time today because, like me, they are infatuated with that beautiful, beautiful sound.
Obviously, the guitar amp itself plays a big role in getting that perfect sound, but the right amp can be truly inspiring. To me, good guitar tone has the same kind of depth, richness, and texture as a classical cello.
Unfortunately, beginners often start out with cheap amps that sound more like a hive full of angry bees after they’ve been smacked with a stick. That’s not inspiring. It’s not even fun—for you or the bees.
When new guitarists play through crummy amps, they can quickly forget why they were so excited about the guitar to begin with. They might even give up.
It doesn’t have to be that way. There are great-sounding, affordable amps on the market for all levels of guitar players, including beginners. There are small-wattage practice amps, and bigger amps you can eventually gig with. There are even amps with built-in effects that are perfect for new players.
The key is to know what to look for, and this article can help. I could simply point you to my article on the best guitar amps for beginners, but I think it’s worth your time to learn a little about why you might prefer a certain amp above the others. From there you can make the right decision, based on your needs and goals.
The ability to evaluate gear is an important skill for a guitar player, and you may as well start figuring it out now. So, let’s get to it!
How Many Watts for Your First Guitar Amp?
Choosing the right wattage for a guitar amplifier isn’t just a problem for beginners. Guitarists of all skill levels have this issue, even if they are veteran players who perform in bands.
In some ways, being a newbie removes some of the variables that confound experienced players. For example, you really shouldn’t be thinking about a tube amp when first starting out. Your money is best spent on a quality solid-state amp. They’re more affordable, more reliable, and some of them sound really good.
The real question you need to ask yourself is how quickly you expect to be playing in a band. If the answer is soon, you need to be thinking of a solid-state amp in the 80-100 watt range. This is the kind of firepower it takes to be heard over a drummer without pushing your amp to its limit.
Fortunately, most beginners don’t need to worry about playing in a band any time in the near future. They just need something that sounds good and has enough volume for bedroom-level practice. Look to amps in the 20-30 watt range. These are basically practice amps, and even after you move up to a bigger amp for gigs you can continue to use them for low-volume playing.
Can you go bigger? Sure, and there are a lot of great amps in the 30 to 80-watt range that walk the line between bedroom-worthy and gig-worthy. In fact, many small-wattage practice amps have several big brothers in increasing wattage increments.
These “in-between” amps are great for playing at home, and they’re used by many veteran players. Just remember that every increase in wattage typically means an increase in features and a corresponding increase in price.
The standard size for guitar speakers is twelve inches. Larger amps don’t have bigger speakers; they just have more of them.
Sometimes when people talk about guitar amps they are referring to an amp with everything as one unit: the electronics part with the knobs and pretty lights, along with the speaker. These are called combo amps. However, the amp itself and the speakers are actually two separate parts that are often literally separated in a head and cabinet setup.
In other words, there are two basic configurations for guitar amps:
- Combo: This is where the guitar amplifier itself and the speaker are all in one box (cabinet). They are self-contained, single-units. Combos typically come with either one or two twelve-inch speakers (1x12 or 2x12). This is the kind of amplifier you will look for as a beginner.
- Head + Cabinet: This is where the amp and speakers are in two separate cabinets. Speaker cabinets typically come loaded with one, two or four twelve-inch speakers (1x12, 2x12, 4x12). These are powerful rigs used by pro players. However, some players will also pair a low-wattage head with a small 1x12 or 2x12 cabinet for home use.
For most newbies, a combo amp with a single speaker (1x12) is good enough to get started. Some inexpensive guitar amps do have smaller speakers, sometimes a little as six inches. There was a time when I would have told you to steer clear of these in general. Tiny speakers can sound really bad for guitar, like that nest of angry bees I mentioned.
However, some gear companies have been making really good amps with smaller speakers in recent years. I still wouldn’t go too small, with the exception of a quality mini amp like the Blackstar Fly. But I do think there are some good guitar amps for beginners with eight and ten-inch speakers.
To sum up: I’d love to see every beginner start out on a good combo amp with a twelve-inch speaker. But, given that cost is understandably an issue, I do think it is acceptable to go with a smaller speaker in the eight to ten-inch range, as long as it sounds good.
I can help you a little in figuring out what sounds good and what doesn’t, and I will make some recommendations below. Ultimately, it comes down to trusting your ears, reading reviews, and making a smart choice.
Distortion, Effects and More
Most amps, even those intended for beginners, offer more than just a way to make your guitar louder. If they were just that, the only features they would need are an input jack, a speaker, and a volume knob. Some early guitar electric guitar amps were built exactly in that way, but thankfully we’ve come a long way since then.
Features you can expect to see on your new amp include:
- Distortion: This is the buzzsaw effect we often hear in rock music. It can be subtle for genres like blues and light rock, or thick for genres like heavy metal. Some guitar amps are capable of lots of distortion (high-gain), and some less. Most amps simply have a knob that lets you dial in the amount of distortion you want.
- EQ Controls: These help you dial in the bass, middle and treble frequencies of your guitar tone. Some amps have a knob for each. Others have more simplistic one or two-knob EQ controls. More advanced amps have digital setups that let you fine-tune your tone.
- Multiple Channels: Most amps have at least two “channels” you can switch between. One channel is generally used for your clean sounds (no distortion) where the other is your dirty channel (yes distortion). On bigger amps, there is a footswitch that allows you to move between channels while playing.
- Reverb: Reverb is a feature that’s common on many combo amps. It’s a simple effect that makes it sound like you are playing guitar in a big room or concert hall. Spring reverb is common, which is literally springs in a box (reverb tank) on the back of the amp. However, digital reverb is becoming much more common as well.
- Digital Effects: Years ago, aside from distortion, reverb, and occasionally chorus or tremolo, there were no options for beginners (or anyone, really) when it came to onboard effects. Today, there are many powerful, affordable amps that feature digital effects processors. These include what we call “modeling” amps, which allow you to get the sound of a bunch of different guitar amps, cabinets, and effects in one unit.
Good Guitar Amps for Beginners
If you’ve read everything I’ve written so far, then you now have several things to consider when choosing your first amplifier. How much power should it have? How big should it be? What kind of features should it have?
How much should you spend on a guitar amp for a beginner? That's an important question, too!
In my opinion, the lowest you ought to go is around $100. There are several really good amps at this price point that meet the criteria listed about. Combined with a beginner’s electric guitar you can build an excellent starter setup for under $300. Most beginners don’t need anything more than this.
My top recommendation around the $100 mark is the Fender Champion 20. Fender makes outstanding professional-level amps. I’ve owned several of those, along with some of their small practice amps. I can tell you they don’t skip the quality control for their beginner’s gear.
The Champion 20 is a great all-purpose amp with 20 watts of power and an eight-inch speaker. It features several amp voicing and an array of effects for newbies to experiment with. Fender amps are also known for excellent clean sounds and smooth distortion, and this amp shines in this respect.
There are a few more amps you can check out in the $100 range such as:
- Marshall MG10
- Peavey Rage 258
- Orange Crush 12
However, if you aren’t like most beginners you may want something a little better than a starter amp. Look to guitar amps in the $200-$300 range for home-use amps that are packed with features. I’d also think about a digital modeling amp at this price point, and there some great ones to choose from.
The Peavey Vypyr Series is high up on my list, and you can grab the powerful Vypyr 100 for around the $300 mark. It has enough effects and gadgets to keep beginners busy for a long while.
A few more modeling amps to think about:
- Fender Mustang GT40
- Marshall Code 50
- Line 6 Spider V 60
Finally, you may be one of those rare guitar players who is thinking about gigging right out of the gate. Or, at least you want an amp that is capable of getting the job done when it comes time to get out there with a band.
On some levels that makes sense. Why spend money on a practice amp when you can spend a little more and get something you won’t have to upgrade later? The obvious reason is that good amps you can reliably use in a band are much more expensive than starter amps. But, if that doesn’t bother you, there is nothing wrong with going with a more powerful amp in the beginning.
I recommend the mighty Peavey Bandit. This amp is somewhat of a legend in the guitar world. It sounds great, doesn’t cost a lot relative to other gig-worthy amps, and it’s reliable. I’ve been playing one for over a decade, and I wouldn’t give it up. If it broke down irreparably or got destroyed somehow, I’d get another one.
The Bandit is a straight-up, no-nonsense amp. It has two channels with an EQ section and several voicing options for each, excellent distortion, and very usable reverb. It’s also loud at 80 watts, with a bump up to 100 watts if you add an extension cabinet.
The Bandit is the kind of amp you hang on to even when you’ve moved on to something supposedly better. Even though I bought a new Marshall a few months back, I just can’t bring myself to pack my Bandit away!
The Peavey Bandit
Choosing your first guitar amp is every bit as important as choosing your first electric guitar. I always say that it is important that new guitar players are inspired by the sounds they hear. It keeps them coming back for more, and it keeps them practicing. When you hate your sound, there is a good chance you are going to quit guitar.
Of course, your first amp won’t make you sound like the guitar players you hear in recordings—although some of the amps I listed will get you close. But it should sound good enough to get you excited about playing guitar every day.
I hope this article helped you get started on your quest to find your first guitar amp. Learning to play an instrument is an amazing journey, and this is only the first step.