The pursuit of the ideal guitar tone can be a costly venture. Seasoned guitarists know, however, that quality gear doesn’t need to break the bank. Most live sound engineers will agree that the days of massive, towering amp stacks are long gone. The vast majority of today’s live music settings require little more than a small, low watt combo amp and a solid mic.
Here are five of the most versatile, top-selling amplifiers under $500.
While you can certainly find well-priced used amplifiers for under $500, used gear prices can also vary widely. For the sake of this list, we’re featuring amps that can be purchased brand new at the listed price.
Fender Champion 100: $399.99
First on our list is an entry from a true tone giant: Fender. Let’s be clear right off the bat – this is indeed a solid-state amp. We won’t dive too much into the differences between tube amps and solid-state amps here, nor will we attempt to reach a verdict as to which one is better. The truth is, there are pros and cons to each variety of amplifier.
One major pro for solid-state amps is that they are generally more affordable. The Fender Champion 100 is proof positive, as one of the most affordable amps, dollar-for-watt, that you’re likely to find.
Unlike tube amps, whose tones vary depending on the amount of power going through them, solid-state amps remain consistent, even at varying volumes. Tube advocates tend to view this as a negative. However, being less dependent on volume, solid-states can produce consistently clean tone even at low levels.
While solid-state amps allow for more headroom, their tone can be a bit brittle. To combat this, the Fender Champion 100 features dual 12” Fender Special Design speakers, offering two separate channels. This allows you, for instance, to boost some of the mid and low tones to balance the more fragile highs.
The amp also includes built-in reverb, delay, chorus, tremolo, and more – allowing for a wide array of tonal possibilities.
Vox AC10C1 1×10 Combo: $450–$499.99
Of course, we can’t leave tube amps out completely. This Vox amp contains all the classic warmth and character that the company is famous for, in a compact, affordable package.
At first glance, 10 watts may seem miniscule, but with tube amps, watts work differently. Their power relates to speaker impedance — or the amount of resistance a speaker offers to the electrical current running through it. Solid-state amps have higher speaker impedance and less overall power. Tube amps, on the other hand, maintain anywhere between 80% and 90% of their power.
Essentially, tube amps steward their power more efficiently — meaning 10 tube watts can produce the same volume as 50 or more solid-state watts.
While not as popular as its bigger brothers — the AC15 or the legendary AC30 — the AC10C1 maintains all the British charm, and raw, meaty character. It features gritty mids with loads of sustain, utilizing dual 12AX7 triode vacuum tubes in the preamp stage and EL84 pentode tubes in the power stage. Its custom 10” Celestion speaker delivers enough power to carry your tone into the heavens.
Supro Blues King 8 1×8″ 1-watt Tube Combo Amp: $399
When it comes to killer tone, make no mistake — size doesn’t matter.
The Supro Blues King 8 1×8″ is the smallest and most affordable option on this list, but don’t be fooled. Though this offering from legendary Supro be but little, she is indeed fierce.
At just one watt, this beast still produces all the attitude of early Supro power players without the obnoxious volume.
With one 12AX7 tube in the preamp, one 12AU7 in the power stage, and a custom BK8 speaker, this tiny menace is quite the gut punch — perfect for classic post-war Blues tones.
Fender Pro Junior III: $420
If that classic Fender tube tone is your poison but you can’t justify depleting your life savings to buy a vintage Twin Reverb, the Pro Junior III might be a worthy middle ground.
This 15-watt tone machine utilizes its 10”, 8 Ohm Special Design speaker to squeeze every ounce of tone from its dual 12AX7 preamp tubes, while delivering beefy mids from the EL-84 output tubes.
While perhaps not the most coveted in the Fender amp family, the Pro Junior III offers power and versatility in a compact, travel-friendly package, perfect for practice in the jam room or small gigs around town.
Marshall ORIGIN 20C 1×10″ 20-Watt EL34 Guitar Combo: $499.99
Easily the heftiest option on this list, the Marshall Origin 20C packs classic, raw British power into a pub-gig-friendly presentation.
The combined Celestion V speaker, 3 ECC83 preamp tubes, plus two EL34 output tubes generate 20 watts of rich harmonic tone, ranging from sweet and sultry, to carpet-bomb aggression and everything in between.
Tilt control allows blending between normal and high-treble voicings, providing smooth versatility as you discover your unique voice.
Burn Down the Barn without Breaking the Bank
These amps are mere jumping-off points, and there are many that weren’t included on this list. The most important thing to remember is that all of them are tools. Their ultimate function and impact lie firmly in the hands of you, the craftsman.
Colossal tone is certainly more attainable with these affordable, yet powerful, amp options.