Best Electric Guitar Amplifier

If you play electric guitar, there are two categories for guitar amplifiers: practice amps and performance amps. The biggest difference is size, wattage and cost.

Practice amplifiers are around six to 10 watts, and include features found on performance amps. With guitar amplifiers, it’s the power that drives up the price, not features. Power is expensive. It requires heavy-duty transformers, speakers and cabinetry. If you’ll be jamming in a garage or basement band, 15 to 20 watts should be loud enough for a performance amp. A six to 10-watt practice amp will be plenty for practicing and playing along with you stereo.

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Buying a Practice Guitar Amplifier

Fender Frontman practice amp
Fender Frontman practice amp

A practice guitar amplifier is not just an inexpensive performance amp. Even a gigging pro may want a practice amp because:

  • It’s small and easy to move around.
  • You can sculpt a high-volume distorted sound, but at low volume.
  • Many practice amps accommodate headphones for practicing in silent mode.

Brand-name practice amplifiers run as low as $75 and include performance-amp features such as tone controls, and effects such as reverb and tremelo. Here are some things to look for in a practice guitar amplifier:

  • Multiple-gain stages: Gain refers to the amp’s loudness power and your capacity to shape a distorted sound. With high gain, you can get distortion at relatively low volumes. With low gain, you get a clean sound (no distortion).
  • Three-band EQ: Equalization (EQ) provides tone controls for bass, mid, and high frequencies. Another tool to shape your overall sound.
  • Built-in reverb: Reverb is an echo effect that produces a sound like you were playing in a canyon.
  • Channel switching with a foot switch: Channel switching allows you to have two settings, for example one for a clean sound and one for a distorted sound. If you’re playing a tune that requires going immediately from clean to distorted, you just step on the foot switch. Less expensive amps have a toggle switch near the volume controls, you need to stop playing to make the switch. If this is not important to you, there’s no need to pay extra for this feature. You can get the same effect with a distortion pedal.
  • Headphone jack: A headphone jack will silence the speakers and let you hear the full-treated amp sound through headphones. This is handy for late night practice sessions.

Some popular practice amps are:

  • Marshall MG10CD
  • Fender Frontman
  • VOX V9106 Pathfinder
Headphone Amplifier
Headphone Amplifier

Headphone Amps

You can also get a miniaturized guitar amp, about the size of a digital camera, for headphones-only practice. These amps usually come with a belt clip and are battery powered. They offer distortion, EQ, reverb and other sound features. These are ideal for situations where you want to practice in private without breaking out your practice amp.

Buying a Performance Guitar Amplifier

When you’re ready to get louder, you’ll need a performance amp. There are many makes, models and sizes to choose from. The type you want will depend on the sound you’re after. Talk to other guitarists, read guitar magazines, and listen to CDs. Find out what amps some of the artists you listen to are using.A performance amp is more powerful than a practice amp, but this doesn’t mean that it’s only a louder amp. More power will deliver a cleaner sound at higher volumes. If a practice amp is distorting at a particular volume, a performance amp, at the same volume will remain clean.

Fender Twin performance amp
Fender Twin performance amp

A performance amp is more powerful than a practice amp, but this doesn’t mean that it’s only a louder amp. More power will deliver a cleaner sound at higher volumes. If a practice amp is distorting at a particular volume, a performance amp, at the same volume will remain clean.

If you’re planning on playing in a five-piece bar band a 50-watt amp should be more than sufficient. If you’ll be playing larger venues, or at loud levels — like heavy metal — you’ll want 100 watts. Most 100-watt amps can operate at 50-watts. This lets you to play with distortion at lower volume.

Buying a Guitar Amp: Tubes or No Tubes?

Until the 1960s, all guitar amplifiers used glass tubes (or valves in the U.K.). The tubes were considered bulky, and fragile, and they got hot. With the advent of solid-state circuitry it seemed that the tube amplifier would become obsolete. Not so. Many guitar amplifiers, particularly higher-priced ones, still use tubes. Many guitar players favor the tube amps’ warmer, less brittle sound.

Consider that tube amplifiers are more expensive than solid state. They are a bit more fragile and are bulkier and heavier than a comparable solid-state amplifier. If hear your favorite rock star singing the praises of a particular tube amp keep in mind, he’s a well-paid professional, he has technicians to service his equipment, and he has roadies to haul his heavy amps.

A couple of the many popular performance amps are:

  • Marshall JMD1 50W 1×12
  • Fender Vintage ’65 Twin Reverb
  • Line 6 Spider Valve 40-watt 1×12 Amp

Buying an Acoustic-Electric Guitar Amp

If you will be performing with an acoustic-electric guitar you will need an amplifier. You do not want to use an electric guitar amplifier. You need an amplifier specifically designed for acoustic guitars. The acoustic guitar amp is designed to recreate the pure sound of the acoustic guitar without distortion and feedback.

As with electric guitar amplifiers, the price goes up as the power goes up. The size of the amp you need will depend on how loud you need to be. If you play coffeehouses and restaurants you can get by with 50-60 watts.

If you’re playing in a band with electric instruments and drums, may need 100 watts.

How to Try Out a Guitar

So, you’ve done some guitar-browsing, you should have found a couple of guitars you’d be willing to buy. But before you buy your guitar, you’ll want to try it out.

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How to Buy a Guitar at a Good Price

Before Buying Your Guitar, Put it Through the Guitar Test

    • Appearance — Give the guitar a close inspection from top to bottom. Look for dings, nicks, and scratches. Inspect the hardware, do you notice any tarnishing or discoloration? Is the guitar’s color and design something you can see yourself with five or 10 years from now?
    • Neck Attachment — If your guitar has a bolt-on neck, like a Telecaster or a Stratocaster, make sure it’s tight and secure. If the guitar has a set neck like most acoustics and Gibson-style guitars, inspect the joint area. Look for cracks or gaps in the seams. If the guitar has bindings, inspect all along the binding and check for gaps.
    • Neck Angle — Make sure the neck is straight. Prop the guitar upright on the floor and sight down along the neck. Focus on the area between the fretboard and the strings. The lines of the strings should be even. The frets and the edges of the fretboard should be straight and even. If the neck looks like a roller coaster track, put that guitar back.
    • Tuners — Check to make sure the tuning pegs are attached securely to the headstock. Loosen each string to make it sound flat. Then tune it back up to pitch.

Try Your Guitar Before You Buy Your Guitar

  • Intonation — Good intonation means that the guitar is in tune all the way up the neck. You can test this with harmonics.Watch “How To Check Your Guitar’s Intonation with Harmonics” to learn how to play harmonics.

  • Start at the high E string and play a harmonic at the 12th fret. Then fret the high E string at the 12th fret and play the note again. The two notes should sound exactly the same. Repeat this for each string. You can also check intonation with an electronic tuner. If the intonation is slightly off on an electric guitar, it can be corrected at the adjustable bridge. If intonation is off on an acoustic guitar, it could likely require a neck adjustment. Either way, do not buy the guitar until the guitar shop fixes the intonation.
  • Electronics — Plug in an electric guitar and test the volume and tone controls. Test the pickup selector switch in each position. Check for consistent volume for each string in all the pickup configurations. Pluck each string with the same force (or attack), the volume of each string should be close for all six strings. Some pickups have adjustable poles which give you some control over volume. If in doubt ask a salesperson.

If your chosen guitar has any problems that cannot be fixed at the shop, don’t buy it.


Best Guitar Tuner

It’s essential to learn how to tune a guitar without an electronic guitar tuner. Still, there are good reasons to have one of these handy gadgets.

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Benefits of an Electronic Guitar Tuner

  • Auto-sensing electronic guitar tunerIt’s faster. Tuning takes time. If you’ve got a limited amount of playing time, don’t spend half the session tuning by ear.
  • It’s visual. You see if you need to tune. It’s common for tuned guitars to go out of tune while playing. You’ll see that you are going out of tune before it affects the music.
  • You can tune an electric guitar in a noisy environment.
  • It will help you learn to tune by ear. Learning to tune by ear is essential. Using the electronic guitar tuner is a great way to check your accuracy. Use your ear to get your guitar in tune, then check it with the tuner.

Some guitar tuners also function as a metronome, which is a really good idea.
Some popular electronic tuners include:

  • Korg CA-40 Chromatic Tuner
  • Korg TM-40 Digital Tuner and Metronome
  • Boss TU-80C Chromatic Tuner and Metronome

Auto-Sensing Chromatic Guitar Tuners

Most of today’s guitar tuners are the auto-sensing chromatic type. Chromatic means that the tuner can tune all notes on the major scale including sharps and flats. This would allow you to tune any stringed instrument, not just a guitar.

The guitar tuner listens to your note and indicates what chromatic pitch it is closest to, and if you are sharp, flat, or right on pitch. As you tune your string, the meter indicates the change in pitch.

Some guitar tuners, in addition to the meter, feature lights that indicate if the note is flat, sharp, or on pitch. This is helpful if you’re tuning up in the dark.

Chromatic guitar tuners start at around $15. There are models for guitar and bass only. These start at $10.

Clip-On Guitar Tuners

snark-clip-on-tunerThe clip on guitar tuner is another electronic chromatic tuner that will interest acoustic guitar players who need to tune in noisy environments.

The clip on tuner clamps on to the headstock of the guitar (or banjo, mandolin, ukulele) and picks up vibrations of the vibrating string. Most clip on tuners feature a back-lit display that’s mounted on a swivel. When you pluck the string, the nearest-pitched note displays, indicating if the note is sharp or flat.

While this tuner works fine for any acoustic or electric guitar, it would be a big benefit for acoustic players who need to tune in noisy environments. Electronic tuners with external microphones will be affected by ambient noise.

Some popular clip-on guitar tuners are:

  • Intelli IMT500 Clip-on Chromatic Tuner
  • Snark Clip-On Chromatic Tuner, Red
  • Sabine Chromatic Clip on Tuner with Metronome

How to Buy a Guitar at a Good Price

When you’re ready buy, be prepared to do some wheeling and dealing. Find out what your guitar costs at a reputable online dealer. Since most guitar sellers work on a commission, he may be willing to cut out some of his commission to give you a better price. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

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How To Get a Guitar at the Best Price

Let the salesperson know that you can get this guitar at for $300. Ask, “Can you beat that price?” Maybe she can, maybe she can’t. If not, ask if she’d be willing to throw in some valuable accessories, that you’d need buy anyway: a case or gig bag, strap, strings, electronic tuner, or a beginner’s DVD course.

Note: Realize that online music stores can sell guitars at a lower price than mortar-and-brick music stores. So, don’t discount the value of the services provided by your local shop. Especially the fact that you can try out a variety of guitars, and ask questions. The local shop can also make any needed adjustments before you buy.