If you decide to play an electric guitar, realize right now the sound you make isn’t just in the wood, strings and your fingertips. You’re going to have to buy a proper amp to bring alive that sound in your head. Finding “that sound” can quickly become an expensive and lifelong test of your yearning to create that warm, overdriven, rich and lush musicality that defines your spirit and cultures a generation.
Here is my path to trying to find the right sound.
Marshall MG15FX 15W 1×8 Combo (Digital)
Many guitar enthusiasts loath digital amps — because they are not tube amps — but if you live in an apartment and you can’t run everything at volume 11, you need to find a home amp that will give you good sound at a fine price and a reasonable sound level. Marshall makes great live performance amps and their MG15FX is an outstanding home value and it was my first ever amp purchase.
The richness of the sound is reasonable. You can run volume 5 and not really bother anyone. You get a variety of sounds and effects and there’s a headphone jack for privacy and silent rehearsing. Overdrive and Crunch are just button pushes away and the clean sound works just fine for what it is: A digital amp at a great price point that is small enough to carry around from room to room.
Fender Hot Rod Series Blues Junior NOS 15W 1×12 Combo (Tube)
My next amp purchase was the famous — infamous, really! — Fender Blues Junior. I liked the nostalgic tweed covering on this amp and I was drawn to its reputation as a fine home amp that would really give you great “tube sound.” This is a large amp and it is heavy and loud — even at volume level 2. There is no headphone jack. The quality of sound is quite fine, but I think this amp is a fire hazard!
Its reputation in the guitar community is that this amp gets very hot and I can tell you right now the tubes inside get super heated to the point of feeling dangerous. The heat radiates from this amp so much that the control knobs become untouchable. If you want to play this monster in your apartment, make sure you have an air conditioner aimed at it during the summer and that you have steak sauce in hand during the wintertime, because you can fry a steak on it for dinner. Beware: This amp can easily burn you.
Line 6 Spider III 75 75W 1×12 Combo (Digital)
My next amp purchase was an impulse to give me a variety of sounds with a larger and more lush speaker. Line 6 amps have a rather poor reputation in the elitist guitar community — because they are not tube amps — but most players have a Spider III somewhere in their amps gallery because they’re cheap and they can give you big sound. I bought the 75 watt version because of the preset digital modeling. I certainly don’t need 75 watts, but I have ’em if I need ’em!
Line 6 has also given the Spider III 150 digital song-based presets — sounds from songs like No More Tears, Enter Sandman, Stinkfist, Back In Black, Bark at the Moon — and those setups can help the amateur player pick a sound without having to invest in multiple, external, foot pedals. There is a headphone jack and a built-in guitar tuner. Running volume
4 will give you a good sense of the amp without blowing out your ears.
Fender 57 Champ Custom 5W 1×8 Tube Combo (Tube)
If I were to start this amp search all over again, I would begin and end my search with this delicious Fender Champ. Yes, this is the most expensive amp of the bunch — it’s also the “Layla” amp! — and the sound is super rich and exquisitely clean and “tubey.” I can run my volume at level 5 and get any guitar to come to life in a new and delightful way. The Fender Champ is hand-wired and built with love.
It’s a single watt tube amp — you really don’t need anything more than a single watt in a home amp, I discovered — and it is tiny enough and light enough that you could walk all day down the street with it without getting tired. When desire and elegance meet, the result is the Fender Champ.
Buy it now.
You cannot go wrong. You will not be disappointed. I do, however, wish it had a headphone jack. Unlike the Fender Blues Junior, the Fender Champ tubes always remain at a reasonably cool temperature. This amp will not burn you out or up.
Fender ’57 Mini Twin 1W Combo 2×2 (Digital)
I bought the Fender Mini Twin on an impulsive reflex and, for under $50.00USD, I’m so glad to add this truly portable amp to my arsenal. The Mini Twin is roughly the size of a cigar box and it has two tiny speakers and a surprisingly large BIG SOUND!
You won’t be able to run this teeny twin more than volume 5 because IT WILL BE TOO LOUD! The headphone jack is a wonderment and you will be shocked and surprised just what this little toy-amp-looking monster can really deliver. The Fender Mini Twin is the perfect travel amp for any occasion.
Blackheart Killer Ant BH1H 1W / BH110 Half Stack
As I said at the start of this review, searching for the perfect amp is an ongoing and maddening process. All of the amps I’ve reviewed so far have been “combo” amps. That means the tubes and innards of the amp are in the same “container” as the speaker. The Big Boys, however, use amps that have a “head” — with the power supply and guts and tubes inside — and then the speaker is housed in a separate cabinet or “cab.”
I’d heard some amazing things about the early “British Sound” you could push out of the single watt Blackheart Killer Ant amp and cab, and I had to hear it with my own ears to know if I should believe the hype or not. I am now a believer. The Killer Ant is killer even though there is no headphone jack. The sound is quite precise — even at volume level 5. I can be delicate or obnoxious with this setup and having that choice in such a tiny package is a blessing.
The Killer Ant tube never gets hot — the redvpower light itself does gets hot, though — and playing a Fender or a Gibson through this Blackheart mix is definitely an experience I plan to often repeat.
Few people realize the sound they seek from their electric guitar is at least 50% found in the amp they use. You can be a great player with an expensive guitar, but if your amp is no good, you will not sound good.
If I had to pick one digital amp, I’d go for the Marshall MG15FX. If I had to pick one tube amp, I choose the Fender Champ. If I had to decide on one amp and only one amp to use for the rest of my life, I would pick… The Fender Champ.
I realize in my brief home amp quest that I still need to seek out a Vox 30, a just-released Marshall Class5, an Orange Tiny Terror, a Mesa Lonestar, a Fender Bassman… and and and… and… while the home amps road is long and intertwining, I confess and accept the price I have to continue to pay to afford the best sound at the appropriate price is something that will never really go away and something that will always be a yearning ache that can never really be satisfied.