Beginner's Guide to Guitar Amps for Practice, Studio, Gigs and Busking

We recently ran a masterclass on getting the best guitar tones from your amp. 

One great question which came up is "Which amp is best for practice, busking, recording and playing gigs?"

The short answer? There's no amp that's best for all of those things!

'But wait,' I hear you say, 'that's not a very useful answer!' 


Longer answer: every amp makes compromises to fulfil a certain role. Therefore, you're most likely going to want separate amps for separate situations. 

Practically, that may present problems for those of you buying your first electric guitar amp. You probably don't have endless cash to spend on 4 separate amps!

So, I'm going to give you a run down of the basic choices you can make when purchasing an electric guitar amp, with those 4 different roles in mind.

After reading this, you should have enough info to find the right amp for your requirements (and know which compromises are ok to make).


Amp Type (Solid State, Tube/Valve or Digital)

There are 3 main types of amps, which come in a few different configurations:

1. Solid state amp

Solid state amps are reliable, relatively cheap and usually have a bunch of features built in. They're a great amp if you're after a reliable tone and don't want to have to fiddle with internal electronics, but the trade-off is that they are arguably not "pro-quality" in terms of their sound.

2. Tube/Valve amp

The traditional guitar amp, tube amps (also called valve amps) are powered by old, inefficient, fragile technology that is no longer used in consumer electronics. They're heavy, they need regular servicing and they're expensive.

So why do we still use them?

Because they sound really good!

Most professional bands will exclusively use tube amps in the studio and often live too, despite their compromises on price and reliability.

3. Digital amps/amp simulators

The rising star of guitar amp technology, digital amps are computers that process your guitar tone for you!

Initially, guitarists avoided digital amps because they sounded more sterile and processed than tube amps, but the technology has come a long way. Quite a few touring guitarists (including myself) will now use digital amps live as it's much easier to manage, and the tone trade-offs are becoming negligible.

Digital amps usually come in the form of a pedalboard, but you can also get them for your iPad, computer or built into a more traditional amp. Lots of flexibility and a comparatively low price.

Combo vs Stack

A Blackstar combo, which has a speaker built in.

A Blackstar combo, which has a speaker built in.

All of the above amps can come as a combo (which includes the amplifier, computer (if applicable) and the speaker in one box that you can carry around with you in one package.

They can also come as a stack, which includes a head (the amplifier, which makes no sound on its own) which can be plugged into a cab (the speaker cabinet, which usually has 4 12 inch speakers inside, which we refer to as a "4x12 cab) to create a "half stack".

A Blackstar half stack. Note that the amplifier is just the top box, and it doesn't make any sound without being plugged into the speaker cabinet underneath it.

A Blackstar half stack. Note that the amplifier is just the top box, and it doesn't make any sound without being plugged into the speaker cabinet underneath it.

To create a full stack, you just add another speaker cabinet.

A combo is perfect for portability in that you only have one box to worry about, but a stack is useful at larger gigs because you can simply swap the heads over and share cabs between bands, minimising change over time.

It's also good if you're going to purchase multiple amps over time to go for the stack, as you then can buy one cab and just swap out the heads when you want to change your tone, rather than having to buy lots of different combos, which typically works out as a more expensive option.




Amp Size (Watts)

In basic terms, the higher the wattage of the amp, the louder it will be. 

It's not a perfect rule (I've heard 50W amps louder than some 100W amps), but in general, a higher wattage amp needs to be turned up louder to sound good.


What to look for in a practice amp:

Solid state or tube combos are generally great for practice - they're smaller, they are easy to carry around if necessary and they don't have to be too loud. 

Just make sure it has a headphone jack, as that will make silent practice possible.

Alternatively, you could use a digital amp pedal or software if you'd prefer to have your guitar sound come out of your computer speakers or headphones all the time.

Lower wattages (10W - 30W) is probably going to be best for bedroom practice, as larger amps will likely be way too loud for the space you're in.


What to look for in a busking amp: 

The Roland Cube Street is a great busking amps as it's battery powered, very portable and many models allow you to plug in a microphone or backing track input.

The Roland Cube Street is a great busking amps as it's battery powered, very portable and many models allow you to plug in a microphone or backing track input.

Ideally, you'll want an amp that doesn't require power! That will usually mean a lower wattage, solid state amp that is battery powered, but this does compromise the sound quality. 

This will probably mean a combo amp, however, there is one exception: singers!

If you want to sing into a microphone, it may make more sense to get a PA speaker to connect your microphone to and run your guitar into that with a digital amplifier (e.g. a pedalboard).

Depending on your budget, I'd recommend going into a music store for a full busking setup. You'll likely be able to get a bundle deal and may even find some gear which is purpose built for busking (i.e. much easier to setup, carry and run than traditional music gear!)


What to look for in a recording amp:

Nowadays, the best option here is usually super low wattage tube amps (5W-15W) that can be cranked up to 11 and won't blow your microphones up in the process.

On top, the Mini Rectifier lunchbox amp from Mesa Boogie, sitting on top of it's big brother, the 100W Dual Rectifier. 

On top, the Mini Rectifier lunchbox amp from Mesa Boogie, sitting on top of it's big brother, the 100W Dual Rectifier. 

'Lunchbox' amps are perfect for this, but if you're after a more traditional recording amp, you can use the same tube amps that are used in larger gigs (100W+). Just remember you'll need a seriously soundproofed room to crank those amps up!

That being said, anything goes in the studio. There are albums recorded all "in-the-box" (using digital amps) which are nearly impossible to differentiate from tube amps to most listeners ears. 

If it sounds good, it is good.


What to look for in a live gig amp:

Ultimately, this will depend a lot on the size of the gigs you play and the style of music you play.

If you're looking to play stadiums, then the standard is 100W tube heads (usually with a backup or two) plugged in to a few cabinets. That's right - the wall of cabs is just for show in modern settings.

However, it's entirely possible to play with smaller combo amps or heads too, because professional gigs will usually have sound engineers placing a microphone in front of your amp speaker, giving them the ability to play your guitar through the venue's PA system.

If you're playing gigs where you won't have an engineer to manage this for you, choose an amp that matches the room size. Small club shows or duet performances probably only need 30-50W of amp.


The Ax8 pedalboard - digital amp simulator and effects in one.

The Ax8 pedalboard - digital amp simulator and effects in one.

Of course, the other option is to use digital amps.

I used to carry an ENGL Powerball head and cabinet (a combined total of about 50kg), a pedalboard with some additional effects on it and two guitars to every show, up flights of stairs, through crowded streets and on and off some pretty unsteady stages.

The tone was great, but when we first toured Japan, I had a very practical problem - we couldn't afford to ship that much gear overseas with us!

On that particular tour, we hired a backline (amps and kit) for use, but for all future gigs I've moved to using a digital amp simulator instead - an Ax8. 

Including it's hard case, it weighs under 10kg, and all I do is plug it straight into the PA system and let the sound engineer control the volume. Simple, easy and reliable.

If you're unsure which route is best for you, do what I've done over the years - talk to other guitarists at gigs about what they use and why!


But wait, which guitar amp sounds best?

Unfortunately, this is where it gets much trickier. Working out your practical requirements is the more important step for beginners, but actually choosing the amp with the perfect tone for you is a much longer and more personal journey.

By far, the best advice I can give you (PLEASE DON'T IGNORE THIS STEP) is to sit down with a bunch of amps and actually listen to them while you play through them.

Don't use YouTube. Don't go from reviews.

Actually get in front of the amps and play them!

There's three ways to do it:

1. Play through a friends amp (or find someone who has one and ask to jam with them)

2. Go into a music shop that stocks the amps (don't worry, they won't mind you trying before buying and may be able to give you extra tips on top of the above).

3. Go to a recording studio or practice studio and hire some amps to try out!

Remember the styles you play. Don't worry about choosing the best high-gain distortion amp if you want to play nothing but jazz, as most amps will be be best at one sound, not all sounds.


A note on guitar effects

Many digital amps and solid state amps will have a bunch of effects built in to them like reverb, distortion, delay, chorus and more. 

For practice purposes, it's great to have these options, but most guitarists prefer to use pedals or computer processing to get these effects instead. It's a personal preference, but don't immediately assume "more options" equals "better amp" - often the simplest amps sound the best!


A note on budget

You're always going to shop for gear based on your budget. That makes sense - there's no point starving yourself just to get a good guitar tone.

One piece of advice I can pass on is to try to buy gear that you will never replace.

By that, I mean don't go out and buy a terrible sounding amp because it's cheap, with the view to upgrade it later. 

Instead, try to get an amp that is the best at what it does so you'll always have a use for it, even if you later get a different amp. It may not have all the features, it may not be the most expensive, but it's the amp which is perfect for your particular use case.

To draw on the practical example above, even though I never use my ENGL Powerball live any more, I still have no intention of selling it, because it has value to me as a recording amp. 

It's one of the top high gain amps in the world, and even though it's impractical for my current requirements live, it's still irreplaceable for its tone.

For getting your first amp, you may decide to get the best practice amp you can afford to begin with, super portable, great features, and later on get yourself a big gig amp for playing shows.

You'll still get use out of your practice amp when you practice, and can save your big gig amp for gigs!

In other words, don't do this:

1. Work out all the requirements you'd love to have

2. Find an amp that does it all really well, but realise it's waaaay outside your price range

3. Settle for an amp that does it all ok, but you'll probably replace it later.

Instead, do this:

1. Work out the core requirement you have in an amp (practice, busking etc)

2. Find the best amp for that requirement. If it's not within your budget, look for models with less additional features that don't matter to you (e.g. forget the ability to use Bluetooth from your phone if you will never use it for playing backing tracks).

3. Get it and keep it forever!

I know, it seems like a weird rant for a guitarist to have, but this approach is much better for the environment (less amps getting thrown out), it will lead to better amps being developed (as manufacturers will cater to niche uses), and it will save you money in the long run (as you'll never need to replace your amps!).


Hopefully I've cleared up a bit of the confusion involved in amp hunting for you, but feel free to get in touch (or book yourself in for an evaluation lesson) if you'd like to learn more or are still confused as hell!