King of the Guitar Amps
There are many great amplifiers for a guitar player to choose from, but some amp builders are in an elite category. No, I’m not talking about boutique gear that you can only afford if you get a second mortgage on your house, though that’s fine too. I’m looking specifically at Marshall, Fender, and Peavey, three hugely influential guitar gear companies that build amps for every genre, every skill level, and every budget.
Of course, there are many other amp builders you can put in that category as well, but I’m going to focus on my three favorites. I’ve owned many amps by Fender, Peavey, and Marshall alike, and I’ve relied on each of them in one way or another going back 25 years.
But these three titans are not created equal, and they know that. While they each have varied lineups, on the whole, they certainly have strong and weak areas. That means for you, the guitarist, one or another of these companies makes gear that is the best match for your style, budget, and needs.
In this article, I’ll offer some opinions on which company makes the best guitar amps in several categories, and I’ll look at different types of amplifiers and see where they stack up. From small amps to beginners to big stacks for pro-level guitarists, I’ll do my best to cover it all.
Remember this is all based on my opinions and experiences. As always, I invite you to do your own research and form your own conclusions.
Marshall, Peavey, and Fender are three of the top guitar amp brands in the world, and they each bring something unique to the table. Let’s find out which is right for you.
The Signature Sounds of Each Amp Brand
While it is important to realize that each of these brands has models in their lineups to fit just about every music genre you can name, there are also some characteristics that have become iconic for each. This is their hallmark sound they come back to time and again no matter how much they innovate. It’s why many people love them, and why others give them a pass.
Marshall amplifiers are known for their deep, guttural crunch when cranked up and pushed hard. This is the classic British overdrive sound that has been the benchmark of rock guitar for decades. Marshall, in my opinion, is the best hard-driving rock guitar amp brand out there.
Fender amps are among the best in the business when it comes to pristine cleans, but with a push, they break up beautifully. I considered Fender amps the best for blues, country, and classic rock.
For decades Peavey has set the bar for that rich, thick American high-gain sound, and has been the go-to brand for extreme metal players. Peavey is by far my favorite amp brand for metal.
So, do you have to use a Peavey amp if you want to play metal, or a Marshall if you want to play rock, or a Fender if you are into blues? No way.
Just because each of these companies has made their mark with a particular sound or in a particular genre doesn’t mean that’s all they can do. You may be surprised at the versatility of the amps in each brand’s lineup.
Next, I’ll cover the different categories of guitar amps in order to give you an idea of what each of these companies has to offer different levels of guitarists. We’ll start with amps for beginners, and move up from there.
Beginner and Practice Amps
A beginner's first amp plays a huge role in their initial development as a musician. I always advise newbies to start out with an amp capable of sounds that inspire them to practice and play. Once you move up to a better main amp, these little amplifiers serve well as practice amps, even for advanced guitarists.
Fortunately, all three of these brands have excellent offerings for beginners and seasoned players looking for a practice amp.
This is a 15-watt solid-state amp with some excellent overdrive for such a small amp. While it can’t hold a candle to an all-tube Marshall in terms of tone, it does capture that Marshall vibe and sounds really good for an amp this size. There are also versions available with reverb and effects, though they are a bit more expensive.
Fender Champion 20
This is a classic beginner’s amp with several switchable voicings and a handful of useful effects. In true Fender style, it has excellent clean sounds and some very good overdrive. This amp has the versatility to allow a beginner to experiment with a lot of different sounds and learn what they like (and don’t like).
Peavey Rage 258
Peavey’s entry in the beginner’s amp market features their patented TransTube technology, which is, in my opinion, the best solid-state distortion in the business. This makes it an outstanding choice for wannabe metalheads, but it has a nice, warm clean sound as well.
Marshall MG15: I like all three of these amps, but I think the Marshall MG15 is the best in this category based on sound alone. It captures some of that Marshall roar, and it walks the middle of the road between the gain-heavy Peavey and the clean Fender.
If you don’t mind spending a few extra bucks I suggest upgrading to the Marshall MG15GFX, which comes with a nice assortment of onboard effects. I actually used one of these little guys for a practice amp for a while, and it sounds amazing for its tiny size.
Marshall MG Gold Series
Modeling amps use digital technology to replicate an array of different amps, cabinets, and effects. The advantage is a guitar player has a bunch of different sounds available on demand. For cover band guitar players or home players who want a simple way to get many different sounds, they are an excellent choice.
These amps come in different sizes and power ratings. There are small versions that make good practice amps, and powerful gig-worthy versions meant for performing onstage. Fender, Marshall, and Peavey have all of those bases covered with a variety of amps.
Marshall Code Series
The Code Series is relatively new to the modeling amp scene but has been met with much fanfare. These are amps features some powerful editing capabilities, and tones that revolve around classic Marshall amps and sounds. They are controllable via your smartphone using Marshall’s Gateway app and interface with Marshall’s website.
Fender Mustang GT Series
Fender is now several generations into their modeling amp lineup with the Mustang GT Series. The Mustang Series has been excellent so far, and the innovations in the GT lineup take it to another level. The Mustang GTs are Bluetooth and WiFi-equipped, for sharing tones and interfacing with your smartphone through the Fender Tone app.
Peavey Vypyr Series
Peavey’s Vypyr VIP Series is a little different than many modeling amps. For one thing, it is intended for use not only with electric guitar but also with acoustic guitar and bass and has several models for each. The other thing that’s different is it uses Peavey’s TransTube solid-state distortion instead of digital. Don’t worry—those interested in the tech side of things can still hook their Vypyr to their computer for all those geeky bells and whistles.
Peavey Vypyr: My choice for the best modeling amp is the Peavey Vypyr, specifically the Vypyr Pro 100, which, unlike other Vypyrs, is intended only for use with guitar. The reason I choose the Peavey comes down to the solid-state distortion. I've played the smaller Vypyr amps as well, and the distortion always sounds fantastic. To me, it's more tubelike and more natural, and I’d be willing to sacrifice some of the tech stuff for better sound.
The Peavey Vypyr 100 Pro
Amps for Intermediate Guitarists
As an intermediate-level guitarist, you need something better than a starter amp, but you probably don’t need an expensive and powerful tube amp just yet. You want an amp that’s good for home use, but also an amp you can gig with or play in a band if you were to find yourself in such a situation. You probably don’t want to spend a lot of money either.
You can go with one of the mid-level modeling amps above. The Marshall Code 100, Fender Mustang GT 100, and Peavey Vypyr VIP 3 all fit the bill, and each could be had for under $400 as of this writing.
However, I think you’re better off finding a powerful solid-state combo, and Fender, Peavey, and Marshall each have amps that meet that description.
We’re going to again look to the MG Series, this time one of the big guys. The MG101GFX is rated at 100-watts of Marshall meanness and features 4 switchable channels and some very useful onboard effects. It works as a bedroom practice amp or in a band setting.
Fender Champion 100
This is the big-daddy version of the Champion 20 I recommended for beginners. It’s powerful enough for use in a band, and it has several amp voicings and onboard effects. This is a very affordable 2x12 combo, perfect for country, blues, and rock players who want a no-nonsense amp for gigs or home use.
Peavey Bandit 112
The Peavey Bandit is somewhat of an unsung classic in the guitar world, but it seems to be getting a little more sung as time goes by. This amp has been around for a long, long time in one incarnation or another, and has served as a rite of passage for many young players. Aside from several amp voicings on each channel and a nice reverb control, it has few bells and whistles. What it has is that beautiful Peavey TransTube distortion, a warm clean sound, and plenty of power to spare.
Peavey Bandit: The Peavey Bandit 112, hands down. If I were told I could only own one amp ever again for the rest of my life, this would be the one. Not because it’s better than more expensive tube amps, but because it reliably turns on and sounds good, day after day, week after week, years after year. I’ve had mine for over 15 years and I’d never part with it. For a long while it was my main amp and I would not hesitate to gig with it.
The Peavey Bandit 112
Affordable Tube Combos
Tube amps sound amazing, and they have a vibe that’s tough to replicate with other technology. Some solid-state and digital amps come really close, but it’s tough to capture the true sound and feel of a good tube amp without tubes.
In this section, I’ll look at three tube combos that are powerful, fairly affordable, and sound great. I’ve owned or presently own each of these amps, and I think they are each really good and what they are supposed to do.
I’ve been using a Marshall DSL40C for a while now, and it is my go-to amp for that AC/DC, Van Halen, early-Metallica hard rock/metal sound. This is where Marshall excels, and the DSL Series does a great job of capturing that classic Marshall sound. A new version came out for 2018, the DSL40CR. I had a chance to spend some time with it and thought it was pretty comparable to my older version, though I do like the addition of the Master Volume.
Fender Hot Rod Deluxe
At one point in my hazy past, I decided I was going to concentrate on playing blues. So, for a long while, I played a Fender Stratocaster through a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, which seemed appropriate. I really liked the Hot Rod Deluxe, and I hope to add another to my collection one day. It has a beautiful clean sound, takes pedals well, and boasts a little more gain than you’d expect out of a Fender amp. If I were playing in a blues/rock or country band this would be my weapon of choice.
Peavey 6505+ Combo
I’d like to say my roots are in the blues because it sounds more romantic, but my roots are planted firmly in metal. For years I played a Peavey 5150, and today my Peavey 6505+ 112 Combo sits alongside my Marshall for those times when the darkness calls to me, which, as it turns out, is quite often. The 6505 Combo is a high-gain beast that sends full stacks running for cover. If you play extreme metal this is the amp for you, but I also think it’s more versatile than people give it credit for.
You pick because I can’t. I really like all three of these amps, so I’m going to have to break it down by genre.
- If you are into hard rock, the Marshall is a great choice, especially if that ‘70s/’80s kind of Marshall sound appeals to you.
- For bluesy rock or country, the Fender Hot Rod is tough to beat. It has the clean sound and the buttery overdrive you’re looking for.
- When it comes to extreme metal, the Peavey 6505 Combo gets the job done and leaves no survivors.
Note: I can’t leave this section without mentioning the Peavey Classic 30, another amp I really love. This is a tube combo and a strong competitor with the Fender Hot Rod. To me, the Peavey has a somewhat darker, thicker sound next to the Fender, but I invite you to compare the two and see what you think.
The Fender Hot Rod IV Series
Pro-Level Heads and Combos
As guitar players most of us dream of playing through the giant, powerful stacks we see on stage at rock concerts. You don’t need a head and cabinet setup to play in a band; any of the affordable tube combos or intermediate-level amps discussed above will do just fine. But there is something awesome about a guitar amp stack that just grabs us.
It’s also true that many of the classic amps throughout rock history have been in head form, and many of them were made by one of these three brands. But if we are doing a true comparison it’s really not fair to limit our look at pro-level amps to heads and stacks.
That’s an area where Fender has never really excelled, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own entries into the pro-amp category. They just happen to be in combo form.
Marshall has been responsible for some of the most legendary amp heads in rock history, and many are still available as vintage reissues. Today the big dog of the Marshall lineup is the JVM410 head. This is a ferocious 100-watt, 4-channel, all-tube amp that goes from classic Marshall roar to some impressive high gain. Time will tell if it follows the path other Marshall amps have taken to legendary status.
Fender Twin Reverb
Fender does have a few heads in their lineup, but their legacy is really more about the combo amp. Models like the legendary Twin Reverb. This amp pushes 85 tube watts through a pair of 12-inch speakers and is more than capable of hanging with any stack. Amps like this are what built Fender’s legacy as the premier brand for high-quality combo amps with superior headroom and clean tones.
The 6505 Series is the flagship series of the Peavey lineup, and the 6505+ head is an amp to consider for rock and metal. The 6505 evolved from the Peavey 5150 Series, which was developed in conjunction with Eddie Van Halen back in the early ‘90s. I think people tend to forget that. Eddie is a rock guitarist, and while the 6505 excels at high-gain extreme sounds it’s also a versatile amp.
Experienced guitarists considering these amps don’t need any advice from me, but nevertheless here is my opinion: I love the Peavey 6505, and I wouldn’t hesitate to own a 6505+ head and 4x12 and cabinet. However, I think Marshall is the king of the stack, and Fender is the king of the combo amp. It’s tough to unseat either of these brands in those respective categories.
Fender, Marshall, or Peavey?
So, which guitar amp brand is the best of the best?
Is it Marshall for its classic British overdrive?
Is it Fender for its glassy clean sounds and smooth overdrive?
Is it Peavey for that scorching American high-gain sound?
No doubt someone is screaming Mesa or Vox or Orange at their screen right now as well. That’s okay too. Those are great brands, and there are many more out there, but for me, it's Fender, Marshall, and Peavey making up the Big Three of guitar amp companies.
I think the matter of which is best depends on what genre you’re into, and what you need to do with your amp. Whether you are choosing a guitar amp as a beginner, or you are a seasoned pro, all three have their strong points and their legendary tones that have served guitar players well for decades.
Hopefully, this article got you’re a set closer to figuring out where Marshall, Fender, or Peavey amps are best for you.
© 2018 Michael James
Bill Gallerizzo on July 03, 2019:
I've veen playing a multitude of styles over the past 50 years and have used several different amps. I had a 1963 Fender Bassman for several years but was constantly blowing out filters. Marshall was ok for raw power, but Peavey was always versatile for any genre. I have an old Peavey Backstage that has never failed. I replaced the original speaker with an Eminence and wired an extension jack which I used through a 4-12 with great success. I also have a Peavey Basic 50 that reproduces every clean sound of my old Bassman and has not posed a prioblem for 35 years of use.
JPJ on June 14, 2019:
Spot on editorial. All great amps. I'd like to add that in my experience. Peavey will handle abuse and misuse better than the others aforementioned.
Michael James (author) on May 16, 2019:
You're welcome, Dan. Good luck with your new amp!
DAN TRISTAN REYES BAUTISTA from Philippines on May 15, 2019:
Thank you for helping me to decide!
Now I'm getting the Peavey Envoy 110 as my First amp.
Michael James (author) on May 15, 2019:
@Dan - The Envoy would be a solid platform for your BOSS processor. I really like the Peavey TransTube amps and I think it would be an excellent choice. However, at least in the States, the Katana is quite a bit less expensive, plus it has onboard effects so you may not need the BOSS processor.
DAN TRISTAN REYES BAUTISTA from Philippines on May 12, 2019:
This article is very interesting to me. I don't have my personal amp but I've been playing for almost 15 years in the church band. I'm now planning to have one as my first SS amp. I'm really digging between Peavey Envoy 110 ($250) or Boss Katana-50 ($280). I am using my Boss ME-80 effects and I need a good Pedal platform and good clean tone amp only. I cant decide between the two since I'm only relying on the reviews in youtube and several articles about this amps.
Peavey Bandit is not available in my place thats why I choose the Envoy since its his smaller brother. I hope you could help me to choose between this two amps! Katana-50 vs. Peavey Envoy.
Michael James (author) on February 04, 2019:
Thanks Rizh! I think you'll love the Bandit.
Rizh on February 04, 2019:
I made this account just to comment here, I love this article!
You take everything into account and the categories you made are an excellent way of looking into various examples. The way you comment on each amp and their strong points is on point.
And you give advice based on yout experience, guiding the reader flawlessly.
I'm getting a Bandit now haha ;)