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Guitar Amps

The first dedicated guitar amps were built in the 1920s, however these were often too large, heavy, or primitive-sounding to be practical. Electro String Instruments released the first recognisable unit in 1932, featuring a wooden cabinet with an amplifier and speaker mounted inside, and a convenient carry handle. This 'combo' style was typified by units such as the 1959 Vox AC30.

The 'head & cabinet' style, meanwhile, separates the speaker into it own enclosure, such as in the 1952 Fender Bassman. While early designs were all powered by vacuum tubes, transistor-based 'solid state' amps like the Roland JC-120 became popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Modern amps use Digital Signal Processing to fuse tube tone and transistor reliability into a single unit.

Top 5 Tips for Choosing a Guitar Amp
Guitarist playing in front of a Marshall amp stack
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      Top 5 Tips for Choosing a Guitar Amp

      Your choice of an amplifier is often the biggest influence on your overall tone. So to make sure you get the sound you're looking for, we've put together this guide to help answer some of the most common questions surrounding amps!

      1

      Tube Amps -Vs- Solid State Amps?

      Simply, tube amps use vacuum tubes (or valves) to amplify the sound signal, while solid-state or digital units rely on transistor circuits to achieve the process. Tube technology is much older than it’s solid-state counterpart and over time has built up a reputation for delivering desirable tones, popular among rock and blues musicians. This “warmth” and natural distortion occurs when the tubes are “pushed” at higher volumes. Many players also say tube amps are more dynamically responsive, meaning they communicate more accurately how delicate or aggressive your playing is. Tube amplifiers do require upkeep and maintenance though. The tube’s need to be replaced from time to time and generally they’re more delicate and more expensive.

      Solid-state amps don’t achieve the natural overdrive of tube-powered amps, but modern solid-state and digital amps have begun to “model” this tube-style sound, allowing you to get something similar with all the benefits of solid-state technology, mainly cost, weight and reliability. You’ll also find many manufacturers employing “hybrid” style builds, using elements of both tube and solid-state amplifiers to get the best of both worlds.

      Close up of a tube amp
      2

      Do All Amps Sound the Same?

      In regards to their sound, guitar amps tend to be categorised into one of two groups - British or American. These represent the trademark voicing of some of the most iconic tube amp manufacturers and their country of origin. It’s important to understand the characteristics of these two groups as even non-tube amps will often refer to their style of sound using one of these terms. “American” mostly refers to a Fender-style amp, often the Fender Twin model. These amps offer the ability to drive the amp without tube distortion, giving you louder, well rounded clean sounds. Fender also built the Tweed, which has a very raw quality as well as the Deluxe and Princeton which breakup nicely but are great for clean sounds too.

      The big two British names are Marshall and Vox. Marshall is known for its “High-Powered” British sound. This distinctive, heavily saturated crunch tone was the driving force behind many ‘70s and ‘80s heavy rock bands. Vox amps, on the other hand, are celebrated for their glassy style clean sounds. There are exceptions to the rule, but generally deciding what style of “voice” appeals to you will help you narrow your options when choosing an amp. A lot of modern digital amps will include multiple, switchable voicings, modeled after the classics. So you can have a variety of amp styles in the one unit.

      American Amp by Fender
      3

      Should I Buy a Combo or a Head?

      A combo amp is an all-in-one unit, the amplifier and speaker(s) contained in a single housing. They offer a great deal of simplicity and sound awesome right off the bat. A “head” is only the amplification section, so you’ll have to get yourself a set of passive speakers known as a cabinet or “cab”. An amp head is often easier to transport than a combo, but you’ll have to make sure the venue or rehearsal space you’re going to has an appropriate cabinet you can use. Here, it’s important to note that heads and cabs are matched up using impedance values (Ohms).

      Overall they offer more customisation options - the type of speakers, number of speakers and wood the cabinet is made from. But when deciding which option to choose, it’s important to consider where you’ll be playing. Most home players will choose a combo for the ease of use. That’s not to say you can’t play gigs with a combo, you can! And while you can beef up your rig with a head and cabinet configuration for extra power and volume, you probably don’t need a 4x12” stack if you’re going to spend most of your time playing quietly in the living room.

      close up of a head amp
      4

      How many Watts will I need?

      This depends on your intended use. Deciphering amp wattage can be tricky, but it generally refers to the amount of power the amplifier can output to the speaker(s). It becomes difficult because different makes of speakers can react differently to the same wattage, and tube amp watts are louder than solid-state/digital watts. There’s no simple uniform answer but higher wattage, more often than not, means louder output. If you’re out playing gigs regularly with a band you’ll probably want at least a 20-watt tube amp or 50-watt solid-state/digital amp. It’s also worth mentioning that the size and number of speakers will affect your volume levels as well - multiple or larger speakers can push more air and create louder volumes.

      Tube amps are desired for their natural overdrive sound, which occurs when the amp is cranked up. You won’t need a hugely powerful amp to achieve this as, unless you’re playing at massive volumes you’ll never turn it up loud enough to push the tubes. This is one of the reasons lower wattage tube amps are commonly used in recording sessions. Solid-state and digital amps are a great option if you need flexibility as they sound good at lower volumes. They're ideal for home use and can be turned up loud if playing with a band.

      inside wiring of amp
      5

      Do Amps Include FX?

      Some do, but not all. The more modern solid-state and digital amps often come with built-in FX such as reverb, delay, overdrive, distortion, and chorus. Some have Bluetooth connectivity, which opens up a whole world of FX suites that can be loaded from computers or mobile devices. This versatility is one of the main selling points of modern non-tube amplifiers. Coupled with the increasing ability of these amps to mimic tube amp circuitry behaviour, it means you can achieve a really wide variety of tones, often at a very reasonable price point. If you want to go the tube route, some include reverb or tremolo.

      For the most part, any FX you want are going to have to come from other gear like pedals and rack units. If you want to use external FX it’s worth looking at an amp with an FX loop. An FX loop allows you to place things like reverb and delay after the preamp (the part that gives you the saturation and distortion) rather than directly into the front where they’ll be affected by this part of the amp’s circuitry, which is not always desired.

      built-in gutar FX knobs on top of amp

      Hear about it first!