There is one inescapable truth to playing electric guitar: at some point, you’re going to need an amp. Particularly if you want to play with other musicians. Otherwise your buddy with the acoustic can drown you out, and let’s face it, that could be potentially humiliating. So don’t be that guy. Once you’ve decided to go down the path electric, you of course want something that shapes and accurately translates what’s coming out of your guitar. Ideally you should feel connected to it, as if it’s an extension of your guitar, not just a thing making it loud. If you’re satisfied with (or at least not worrying about) your tone, chances are you’ll play better. While a great amp helps out even a novice guitarist, a bad one can tank even the most gifted player. Bad tone inspires (almost) no one, basically, neither the audience, nor the player. Fortunately there are a number of amps out there that are legendary for creating huge, awe-inspiring tones. Sounds that excite listeners and players alike.
Recently Seymour Duncan readers were polled on the Seymour Duncan Facebook page to find out exactly what were their all-time favorite Classic Rock guitar amplifiers. Not just random amps, but what they felt were the greatest tone generators ever built, past or present. Amps that are timeless classics. Solid, reliable workhorses that drip tonal mojo. Here’s what they came up with, in order of popularity:
Marshall “Plexi” Though not the eldest on the list, this one is beyond “legendary.” It is the holy grail of rock amps that spawned not only a legion of imitators, but a whole host of modified versions of the original circuit. Distinguished by their plexiglass control panels (Marshall would later switch to metal face plates), this monster was originally in production from 1966 until 1969, although there are now production and hand-wired “reissue” versions available. These powerhouses use EL-34 tubes. The original version has no Master Volume control, and thus must be cranked LOUD to achieve the “classic” distorted tone. The 1959 SLP (“Super Lead Plexi”) was used by pretty much every heavy band in the day, from Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, the Guess Who, to AC/DC; and Edward Van Halen’s “Grail” Plexi tone is of course the stuff of legend. It is pretty much THE classic heavy rock tone, and one that’s hard to beat. Original, non-modified models still fetch top dollar among collectors and tone hounds. Current reissues sport an FX loop that is equipped with a hard-wire bypass for purists, but otherwise they stay very close to the original design. So popular in fact is this amp that it has spawned a cottage industry for DIY enthusiasts who want either exact replicas or to buy parts to make their own exact clones or hot-rodded versions of the original classic. Modifications included added gain stages, tone circuit tweaks and the like, but it’s hard to improve on the original. And let’s face it, almost 50 years later there’s still not much out there that looks cooler than a wall of Marshalls behind you on stage.
This is the amp made famous by the Beatles, Queen, and later Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It came about when designers doubled the already popular Class A AC15 circuit as the need for louder amps arose to play the “rock n’ roll” all the kids were freaking out about in the early 60s. Vox designs, unlike Marshall or Fenders, utilized EL84 tubes in the power stage, which impart their own tonal characteristics. The Top Boost model had two extra preamp tubes and a re-worked tone circuit which garnered them a reputation for their extra punch and gain. This one is especially coveted. It definitely has its own unique rhythm and glassy lead tone. Listen to the riff to “Paperback Writer” or the stacked harmony leads in “You’re My Best Friend” and you’ll know what I mean. Vox currently offers a hand-wired reissue of the AC15 and AC30.
The JCM800 2203 was one of Marshall’s first Master-Volume amp designs, one that evolved from the Plexi. Players wanted to achieve distorted sounds at less oppressive volume levels, and Marshall, like most amp manufacturers, adapted to provide that ability. Other than that it’s still a no-frills design: single-channel, no reverb, no effects loop, just three preamp tubes, four EL-34 output tubes, and a whole lot of tone. Don’t worry, it’ll still do oppressive volume, but you have the ability to reign in the beast. This was the go-to amp head in the 80s and 90s, and is still so popular it’s still in production. It’s also standard back line as far as rental equipment goes. A true testament to their reliability and benchmark tone.
Fender Twin/Super Reverb
As synonymous as Vox amps are with the British invasion of the early 60s, so too is Fender with the “Surf” sounds of the time. The Twin/Super Reverb is a benchmark tone of the time. Fender used 6L6 power tubes, warmer and “rounder” sounding than EL34 or 84s used in Marshall and Vox amps. It excels at clean to midly overdriven tones. This amp can do jazz, country, rock – whatever. Their built-in reverb tank provided added versatility and the splash needed for epic clean tones. With the right overdrive box in front of it this thing will rip! The most coveted version of this amp is the “blackface” pre-CBS era version. In fact, legend has it that when designers changed the circuit to the “silverface” version, the sound was so radically altered that within eight months customers and Fender’s own sales people forced the company to revert back to the original circuit design. Today Fender offers reissues of both the blackface ’65 Twin Reverb and ’65 Super Reverb amps.
Interestingly if not surprisingly, the most popular choices were all classic tube amps. Though modeling comes ever closer as time goes on, it seems a lot of players feel that nothing can yet touch a real tube amp on the verge of meltdown. It IS the sound of rock, after all. However, tube amps aren’t just popular for their tone – there’s a touch factor that can’t be overstated. You really can’t go wrong with any of the amps listed, though some will rock a little harder than others without the aid of external pedals. Some will be more deafeningly loud in the process too, but we did say “rock” amps, right? The one thing they do have in common is the will all produce lush, gorgeous TONE. It’s up to you to pick what flavor.
What’s your go-to amp of choice?