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Amplifier Buying Guide for Beginners

This article provides consumer tips and questions on how to narrow your search for a starter amplifier that is reliable, affordable, and suitable for beginners.
Amplifiers line up in a music store

Find an affordable starter amplifier

Here is how I can help:

If you’re thinking about purchasing an electric guitar or bass you will inevitably be faced with choosing a starter amplifier. It is possible to delay this purchase and just play your new electric instrument unplugged. But, you will miss out on experiencing it’s full tonal possibilities. The good news is that finding a good starter amp is a much easier process than deciding on an instrument. Let me put you more at ease with this task by sharing my thoughts on buying a starter amplifier. I can help you narrow down your search with a few questions and simplify the whole process. I also have provided a number of recommendations on starter amplifiers that are affordable, reliable, and suitable for new students.

My Advice on Amps:

Spend more money on your guitar and less on your amp.

I highly recommend that you prioritize your guitar purchase over the purchase of an amp. I would consider allocating 60% of your budget to your guitar, 30% to your amplifier, and 10% to additional accessories. Prioritizing your guitar selection will naturally steer you towards an amplifier that compliments the unique qualities of the guitar you’ve chosen. You then can test-drive all potential amplifiers with your chosen guitar model. This will give you a much more realistic idea of how the guitar and amp sound together and you will likely end up buying an amplifier that sounds good to your ears.  If you are still deciding upon an electric guitar please consider reading my Electric Guitar Buying Guide for Beginners.

Keep it Simple:  You don’t need all of those bells and whistles.

It’s not uncommon for most amp manufacturers to sell you on their product based upon a myriad of sounds and features. Similar to the next smart phone, that shiny new amp with the latest technology will inevitably be eclipsed by newer models that hit the market a few months later.  Because of this reality,  I highly recommend that you aim for a model that gives you decent clean and distortion sounds and not much else. You can learn more about those additional benefits once you have been playing guitar for a year or more. Your main focus should be kept to learning how to play the guitar and less on interacting with all the gear options that you will be bombarded with when thinking about your first amp. 

Starter amps should be affordable

Since you are spending more money on your guitar be very intentional about choosing an amp that falls well inside your budget and gives you enough left-over money to purchase additional accessories such as a gig bag, instrument cable or tuner.  Similar to my advice on buying guitars: Your first amplifier will not be the last one you purchase if you continue playing guitar beyond 1-2 years. As a student grows their skills they naturally expand their musical expectations and their ears will gravitate towards higher quality gear. My first amplifier really started to not sound so great after about 4 months. As it turned out, my friend’s amplifier produced much better tones and distortion.  It wasn’t long before I bought the same amp as my friend.  I made an improvement in my guitar sound but learned a hard, but valuable, lesson:  My old amp would only bring me back 50% of it’s value if re-sold as used.   So, take advantage of my own lesson and only buy an amp that will meet your short-term needs.  Then you will not have to sacrifice a great deal of your investment when it’s time for you to upgrade.  Also, you can save even more money by considering my next caveat…..

Consider buying used over new:

In an effort to save money I would definitely consider purchasing a used amplifier. Amplifiers, unlike guitars, have fewer issues that can impede the progress of a new student. I don’t feel that a new student should risk their resources on a used or really cheap guitar. There are simply too many variables that will go unnoticed and end up being barriers to learning. Amplifiers, on the other hand, just need to be able to work correctly. So, if you find an amplifier you like, definitely take the time to see if that same model, or previous model, is being sold locally or online. I have had good experiences buying used gear through Guitar Center and through Reverb.  Once I’ve established what the marketplace is asking for a used piece of gear I will then start to look for a seller who has a good rating, has taken good care of their merchandise, and has not owned that piece of gear for very long.  

Let’s narrow your search by answering a few simple questions:

There is a rough correlation between the amplifier retail price and the volume output it delivers. So, determining what you need from your amplifier in terms of volume will help to narrow your search considerably. We can quickly determine this with the following questions:

Within the next year, will you be using this amp to play in a band or jam with others?

If the answer is “maybe” or “yes”, then you should try to find an amplifier that pushes somewhere between 15-50 watts. If the answer is NO then proceed to the next question….

Will this amplifier be primarily used for personal practice?

If you are using this amp for personal practice I think you will be fine with a low volume amplifier somewhere between 3-10 watts. You then might want to consider these additional questions:

Where will this amplifier hang out?

Who will impacted by sound volume level of the amp?

If your newly acquired amp is going to live in a bedroom or in your study for practice you might want to consider how it impacts everyone else. If you are wanting to keep the volume at a manageable level I would recommend an amp between 3-10 Watts that also has an input for headphones. That way it will not be an intrusion to others. However, I would take extra steps to ensure that headphone levels are not too high so as to damage hearing.

Starter Amplifier Recommendations:

Here is my shortlist of recommended amplifiers that I feel would be safe options for the beginning guitarist or bassist. This is not an exhaustive list. However, it should be sufficient to jumpstart your foray into the world of amplifiers with scant knowledge. I’ve broken down these amplifiers into two categories:

  1. Multi-purpose amplifiers used for practice and playing in a band.  
  2. Mini desktop amps designed for low volume, personal practice.

Multi-Purpose Amplifiers:

 

Guitar Amps:

Blackstar LT-Echo 10 2-Channel Guitar Amp

Please note: You have the option of buying a 15 watt version of this amp if you desire more headroom.

Acoustic Lead Guitar Series G20 20W 1×10 Guitar Combo Amp

I own this particular amplifier and it has been very reliable for both teaching lessons and personal practice. It is a brand that is owned by Guitar Center and is no-nonsense amplifier that provides decent clean and distortion sounds. It also has a headphone input and an external 1/8” input if you wanted to play music through it via your smart-phone, tablet, or PC.

Roland CUBE-10GX 10-watt 1×8″ COSM Combo Amp with FX

This is the newer model of the Roland cube amp I currently have owned for the past 12 years. It has a few more features than the Acoustic amp but generally offers students great sounding clean and distortion channels with minimal effects. I have found Roland amps to be very reliable. It is a bit more expensive yet I feel that it is definitely worthy of it’s asking retail price due to it’s quality of it’s sounds and design integrity.

Line 6 Spider V 20 MkII – 20-watt 1×8″ Modeling Combo Amp

This is the latest model of a long line of Spider amps offered by Line 6. Many of my former students have enjoyed the larger range of modeled amplifier options and effects that this amplifier has to offer. I used this amplifier when I taught in a local music store chain. They stocked all of their lesson rooms with this amp. This amp will provide the flexibility of being useful for a band practice as well as low-volume practice.

Bass Amplifier Models

Acoustic B25C 1X8 25W Bass Combo

Roland CUBE-20XL BASS

Ampeg BA-108v2 1×8″ 20-Watt Bass Combo

Hartke HD15 1×6.5″ 15-Watt Bass Combo

Mini Desktop amplifiers:

 

Guitar Models

Blackstar Fly 3W Guitar Combo Amp

Laney Ironheart Mini-Iron 3W 1×3 Guitar Combo Amp Black

IK Multimedia iRig Nano Amp Mobile Micro Guitar Amp and iOS Interface – Black

Bass Models

Blackstar Fly 3 Bass – 3-watt 1×3″ Bass Combo Amp

Laney MINI-BASS-NX 9W 2×3 Bass Combo Amp Black and Blue

Ashdown Tour Bus 10 10W 1×6.5 Bass Combo Amp

Additional Reading:

I feel it’s a good consumer practice to find as much information on the gear you plan on purchasing and to take in opinions from multiple angles. Here are a few other articles you should read as part of your own research and buying process.  If you only read one article I would highly recommend reading “Best cheap guitar amps under $100” by guitarrepairbench.com. They provide additional recommendations on starter amplifiers that you should consider besides what I’ve shared in this article.

I have purchased a majority of my music gear through Sweetwater.com.  They go out of their way to provide most excellent customer care from start to finish. If you have questions about gear and want to speak with a live person I would recommend visiting their site.  Here is their “Guitar Amp Buying Guide” which breaks down all the components of a guitar amp in fine detail. Just keep in mind that most of what they outline goes way above what you need to just buy a simple starter amplifier. However, it will be good information for you to consider for future amp purchases.

I recently came across PMT online when looking for articles on buying an electric guitar and was quite impressed at how much information they pack into their articles. I would highly recommend reading their “guitar-amp-buyers-guide”. Similar to Sweetwater, some of the information will not be relevant to a first-time buyer but good to bookmark for future amp purchases.  If you want a very good explanation of how amplifiers work I definitely read guitar.com’s essential guide on amplifiers. They spend a good deal of time describing the general classes of amplifiers and their unique attributes.

Wrap-up

Buying your first amplifier should be a pretty straight-forward process and secondary to your primary goal of finding a good starter instrument. Your first amplifier should be kept affordable with minimal bells and whistles so that most of your brain space is devoted to your practice and progress on your chosen instrument. I highly recommend that you prioritize your financial resources to first finding a quality starter instrument. Then you can filter your amp options through the type of guitar you have chosen.  Consider buying used if you want to save money. Just be sure to give due diligence to research the median used price of your chosen amplifier. I would stick with buying used gear through either Guitar Center or Reverb. If possible take the time to try out multiple amplifiers at your local music store before settling on a particular model. Be sure to determine how your amplifier will be used. That will help you decide if you need a mini-desktop amplifier as opposed to a standalone model that could hold it’s own against the volume of a drummer.

Contact Me – I’m happy to help!

Thank you for reading my thoughts on buying your first starter amp. I wrote this with the intent of giving first-time students and parents good information so they have the best chances of acquiring affordable music gear that will help them get started with minimal time and effort.   Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions, feedback, or additional information you’ve found in your consumer journeys. I’ve often been a sounding board for students and families over the years and enjoy being a second opinion as they think through their best options.  I’m happy to help.  Also, I am always on the lookout for great starter gear.  So, if you find an amplifier that you are really pleased with I would love to hear from you.  That way your positive experience will benefit many others.  

Thanks for reading my post!

Gordon Tibbits

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