One mistake that I have consistently made in my quest for vintage blues tones is buying the wrong amp. As a young player I was sucked in by the bells and whistles of digital modeling amps. After that, I made the mistake of buying a very large valve amp. I consistently struggled to get the sound I wanted, and remained uninspired by my gear.
Buying the right guitar amp is deceptively tricky. And I think typically players make one of two mistakes:
1.) They get sucked in by promises of endless tonal tweakery. They opt for a complex digital modeling amp that has a huge number of different tones and settings. Unfortunately, they find themselves disappointed when they struggle to capture the tone and feel of a real valve amp.
2.) They buy a large and powerful valve amp. One that is too big to use anywhere other than at a huge venue. Again they find themselves disappointed. This time because the valve amp they thought would work so well actually sounds stifled and thin.
Amongst blues guitarists, this second mistake is by far the most commonly occurring. To my mind it is because so much of the information out there on guitar amps are not suitable for the vast majority of guitarists.
Unless you are gigging at very large venues, you do not need a powerful, high watt amplifier. In fact buying an amp like that and playing it anywhere other than the stage will be to the detriment of your sound.
I wrote about this in more detail here. In short though, if you buy a big amp and have to play it quietly, you will struggle to get a decent blues tone.
The good news is that there are some great options out there for those of you playing at home. So in no particular order, here are some of the best amps for home use that will help you get those killer blues tones without disturbing your neighbors:
Morgan Amps first came onto my radar when I heard Josh Smith endorsing them. Smith is an amazing blues guitarist and he has a beautiful tone – one that is reminiscent of vintage Fender amps but with a modern twist. I’ve since done quite a lot of reading up on the Morgan range and I’m seriously considering buying the Morgan PR5. The amps have beautiful clean tones and work very well as a platform for pedals. So if like me you play with a relatively clean tone that has just a bit of bite, then this amp would be perfect. All you need to do is pair it up with the right overdrive pedal and you’re all set.
At 5 watts, the PR5 is a great amp for home use. But if you do want something a little louder with more headroom, then Morgan also offers the Morgan Pr12 and the Josh Smith signature Morgan JS12. The PR12 is basically just a bigger version of the Pr5. The Josh Smith signature is slightly different, in that it has a different speaker and also a 3db boost switch, which would make it a great choice if you want a slightly more overdriven tone.
All of the Morgan amps come with reverb which has the very useful addition of a ‘dwell’ knob. This allows you to control the amount of decay in your reverb, which means you can add a lot of reverb without getting a ‘washed out’ sound. With the Morgan Pr5 starting at around $1900/£1500, these amps aren’t cheap, but would be brilliant for those of you looking to spend a little bit more.
Fender 57 Custom Champ
If you are looking for an American voiced amp that you can play at home, then you should try the Fender 57 Custom Champ. This is an amp that is all about simplicity. It has no tone shaping controls whatsoever, just a single volume control.
At lower volumes, the Champ will produce a classic Fender clean tone. When you start to crank it though, it’ll break into that beautiful vintage sounding distortion. At only 5 watts and with a small 8″ speaker, it will do this at quite a low volume. This is part of what makes it one of the best Fender amps for home use. You can get that cranked Fender tone without having to play at super high volumes.
With no EQ controls at all, when using the Champ you have to rely on your guitar’s tone and volume controls, as well as your picking hand to change your tone. If you are adept at using your tone and volume knobs and are comfortable using your picking hand, then the Custom Champ is a very dynamic and responsive amp. But it may be a little more unforgiving than some of the other amps listed here.
Having said that, like most Fender amps, the Champ also makes a good platform for guitar pedals. So if you are mostly playing with a clean or slightly crunchy sound but want the option to add more gain into the mix with a pedal, then the Champ would be a great choice. That it is priced at a very reasonable $1000/£1050 makes it one of the best Fender amps for home use on the market in my opinion.
Marshall Origin 5W
Marshall amps are responsible for some of the best blues rock tones ever recorded. The number of famous guitarists who have relied on Marshall for their blistering blues tones is too long to mention. The challenge for most of us, is recreating these tones at lower volumes. The Marshall sound of players like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Gary Moore (amongst countless others) comes from cranking huge stacks and combos to deafening levels.
Thankfully, Marshall has addressed this problem with their new Origin series. These are amps that are designed with classic British blues tones in mind. Although there are amps of various size in the series, the Marshall Origin 5W is one of the best Marshall amps for home use.
At 5 watts, it’s small enough that you can crank it at home. It also has a low and high output section, so you can get an overdriven tone at even lower levels if needed. At around $450/£360 the Origin 5W is also one of the most affordable amps in the Marshall range.
Before trying them out personally, my perception of Friedman amps used to be that they were high gain and more suited for heavy rock and metal. That was until I played the PT-20 (also known as the ‘Pink Taco’) around 6 months ago. I have been a huge advocate of Friedman amps ever since.
I was so surprised by the quality of the Pink Taco’s sound and its versatility. Its clean tones were bright and well defined, and when I dialed the gain in, the amp sounded amazing. When I paired it with my Fender Strat and played on the neck pickup I got some great vintage Texas blues tones, reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughan but with more of a modern feel. Once I started to drive the amp a bit harder, I was also able to get some heavier British blues tones.
At 20 watts, it’s unlikely you will be able to fully crank the Pink Taco at home. But luckily the amp has a 3 position gain structure. This allows you to ‘crank’ the amp whilst keeping the overall volume down.
At around $1800/£1500 the PT-20 doesn’t come cheap. But if you want a high quality modern amp that can nail vintage tones, then in my opinion the PT-20 is one of the best amps for home use.
Fender Blues Junior IV
The Fender Blues Junior IV is probably one of the best selling valve amps on the market, and with good reason. At around $700/£570 you can get those beautiful Fender tube tones without breaking the bank and the amp comes with all of the tone shaping controls you need, as well as reverb.
At 15 watts, cranking the blues junior at home is not going to be realistic for most of us. Luckily though, the amp has both a master and a volume control. This means that you can turn the master volume down and the regular volume up, allowing you to push the pre-amp harder. So you’ll be able to drive the amp into that beautiful bluesy compression without disturbing your neighbors. To serve the same purpose, the amp also comes with a ‘fat switch’ to help you get grittier tones at a lower volume.
Fender currently has a slightly more expensive limited edition tweed version of the amp (pictured), which I think looks really vintage and cool. But if that isn’t your style then you can also opt for the regular Fender Blues Junior IV in black too. If you’re looking for classic Fender tones on a budget and want to play at lower volumes, then this is one of the best blues amps for home use.
I used to think that Blackstar amps were the sole preserve of heavy metal guitarists and shredders. And whilst it is true that Blackstar does offer a wide range of high gain amps, they are becoming well known for offering decent valve amps at amazing prices. It is perhaps little surprise then that they’ve been picked up by modern blues rock players like Jared James Nichols.
Blackstar amps are perfect if you typically play with more gain and are in search of a heavier blues rock tone. Of the range that Blackstar offer, the HT-5R is one of the best amps for home use. Unlike many of the amps outlined here, the HT-5R has two channels. So gain is already built in, as is reverb. If you want a decent valve amp and don’t want to have to spend more money on overdrive pedals, then the HT-5R is a great place to start. At less than $300/£300 you’ll struggle to find a better quality valve amp for cheaper.
If you’re looking for something even quieter – or for an amp that breaks up at lower volumes – then Blackstar also offer the HT-1R. At the other end of the spectrum, if you are looking for a similar sound but with more volume, give the Blackstar Artisan 10 Watt a go. All of these are great blues rock amps for home use.
The Vox AC30 is probably one of the most famous valve amps of all time. Popularised by players like Rory Gallagher and Brian May, the amp is renowned for it’s bright sound and killer overdriven tones. The only problem, is that it is far too big for home use. If you crank an AC30 at home then the whole street will know that you’re practicing.
To help address this problem, Vox have brought out a number of smaller alternatives. Of these, the Vox AC4 is one of the best amps for home use. This is an amp aimed at those looking for quality and simplicity. It has just the basic tone shaping controls you need, along with a master and gains control. At only $450/£330 it is amazing value for money. It will help you get those classic British blues tones on a budget.
If however, you’re looking for something a little closer to the AC30, then it is also worth considering the Vox AC4HW1. This is the hand wired version of the same amp, featuring the famous Vox top boost control, as well as a Celestion Greenback speaker. If you like the Vox sound and are willing to pay a bit more, then this would also be a great choice.
Supro 1605 R
Like Fender, Supro have a reputation for high quality vintage tones. Also like Fender, they have brought out a range of smaller amps for home use. Of these, I think the Supro 1605R is amongst the best. In many ways it is similar to the Fender 57 Custom Champ. It is also 5 watts and like the Champ is very compact, with an 8″ speaker.
Unlike the Champ, the Supro 1605R has more features, including a 2 band EQ and reverb. Additionally, it has independent gain and master volumes controls. This allows you to get a high quality valve tone at lower volume, which is invaluable. It’s part of what makes this one of the best blues amps for home use.
Like the Fender Champ, the Supro 1605R is also a great platform amp for pedals. So if you prefer to have a clean tone as your base that you can then shape with pedals, the Supro will work very well.
A lot of the amps outlined in this list are about simplicity. Many of them are single channel and in some cases, don’t even have any EQ controls. When it comes to getting a beautiful blues tone, I think that simplicity is often the key. But I know that a lot of players enjoy having a lot of different tones to choose from. And this is where the Egnater Tweaker comes in.
The amp has 2 channels, 3 EQ options, 2 power amp options and 2 tone switches. It can shift from a more vintage style American tone to one that is higher gain and more reminiscent of British blues tones. At 15 watts you can easily gig with this amp, but equally the separate master and gain controls – as well as the endless tone altering switches – mean you can get a cranked tube tone without disturbing your neighbors.
If you are a blues purist looking for simplicity, then this may not be the amp for you. But if you enjoy playing with a variety of different blues tones and don’t want to spend a lot of money on different amps and pedals, the Tweaker is a great choice. At around $580/450 it’s also amazing value for money.
Milkman Half Pint
If you want to go down the boutique amp route, then the Milkman ‘Half Pint’ is a brilliant choice. Milkman amps are boutique amps in the true sense of the word. They are manufactured single handedly by founder Tim Marcus in California. Only the highest quality components are used and the amps are exceptionally well built.
Founded in 2011, the company rose to prominence following an endorsement from John Mayer, who described his Milkman amp as ‘one of the best new guitar amps I’ve heard in a long time’. All of the amps have beautiful clean tones and also make great a platform for guitar pedals. With the exception of some of the smaller models, the amps also come with built in reverb and tremolo.
At 5 watts, you can get beautiful tones from the Milkman Half Pint without disturbing your neighbors. But if you want an even smaller amp, then there is the Milkman One Watt. On the other side of the spectrum, if you’re after a bit more headroom, then they also the 10 watt Milkman Pint.
Regardless of which amp you go for, one of the best features on the Milkman amps is the power scaling. This allows you to create a cranked tube amp sound without having to play at punishing volumes. It’s what makes them such great amps for home use.
Being totally handmade, these amps are some of the more expensive on the market. The Half Pint costs around $2300/£2300, whilst the Milkman Pint costs a few hundred dollars more. So these won’t be for everyone, but if you’re looking for beautiful blues tones and are happy spending a bit more, they are a brilliant option.