In the past few years or so, there have been countless discussions about whether digital modeling amps are better than tube amps. Everyone from enthusiasts up to pro guitarists weighed in on this one. Things got a bit complicated when some of the famous guitar legends shared their views. Some of them, like John Mayer, even began using Kemper for live shows. But while this approach is definitely more practical, Mayer recently revealed that he’s not completely convinced by their replication of the warmth and the dynamic response of tube amplifiers. But, on the other hand, Steve Vai got closer to the modeling amp “clan” after getting the chance to use stuff like Axe-FX and Kempers.
Generally speaking, it seems that a huge portion of guitar players are still not convinced and are relying on the good old tube amps. Sure, this is open for discussion, but we won’t get into the topic now. What we want to discuss here is how to get that true tube amp tone without spending your life savings. Some might get into simple and cheap solid-state amps, but these are never able to achieve the same effects as valve-driven products. Some might try their luck with so-called hybrids, amps with tube-driven preamps and solid-state power sections. While the hybrids might get a portion of the tube feel, they still don’t fully achieve the desired effect. Does that mean that we’re only left to fantasize about tube amps if they go over are current budgets? Not really.
While most of the quality tube amps from all the famous brands reach prices well over $1,500, there are still some great products in the lower price range. These might not be so well-known among guitar players, so we figured we could shed some light on the topic and find out more about great tube amps below the $1,000 mark. It’s still kind of expensive, but stick around and we’ll introduce some surprisingly cheap but great tube amps, even below $500.
While all know Ibanez for their low action shred guitars, they also have quite a few other products to offer. For instance, we should not forget their legendary Tube Screamer overdrive pedal that’s been present on the market for decades, giving that tasty and chunky natural tones on clean tube amps.
However, Ibanez also has their line of tube amps with an integrated Tube Screamer circuit. For the quality of tone you get, the TSA15 is a pretty cheap amp. The standard 12AX7 preamp tubes and two 6V6 power tubes work so well with the overdriven channel, which is basically the Tube Screamer overdrive. The whole thing is rounded up with the simple boost switch that adds 6 more dB to the signal.
This 15-watt amp comes either as a combo or an amp head. Even the head plus combo variant falls under the $1,000 mark, while the combo is usually around $500.
Bugera are one of those brands that have built their reputation for having great tones for very affordable prices. Yes, we won’t ignore the fact that there have been some criticisms concerning their build quality and reliability to some extent. But looking at more recent reviews, in the past few years or so, they seem to have things under full control now.
However, no one ever complained about the quality of their tone. If you’re into those vintage tones but don’t feel like spending a fortune, a piece like their V55 Infinium is definitely something you should be looking into.
Aside from two channels, you also get “normal” and “bright” inputs. With its 12AX7 tubes in the preamp and two 6L6s in the power amp, V55 reminds us of old Fender amps. Drive channel is pretty interesting, especially if you go into the “bright” input. You can get those famous “ice pick” tones through it.
Being a tube amp with 55 watts RMS, it’s surprising that this one is below the $500 price mark.
It’s funny how Marshall still manages to surprise us with their quality of tone, especially if we’re talking about cheaper stuff. While there’s still some of that recognizable British tone in there, DSL40CR is more for those modern tone lovers. Its 40 watts of all-tube power is more than enough for live gigs, anything from smaller to mid-sized venues.
The tone is shaped through four ECC83 tubes in the preamp and two classic EL34s in the power amp. There are two channels on it, called “classic gain” and “ultra gain.” With the classic channel, you get anything from sparkling cleans up to some serious warm and saturated crunch tones, perfect for bluesy hard rock stuff. This channel gets some additional versatility with its clean/crunch switch.
On the “ultra gain,” you can achieve those screaming leads and chugging heavy riffing tones. More options come with the OD1/OD2 toggle switch that adds a different color to the distorted tone. Both channels have individual master volume and reverb controls, while the EQ, presence, and resonance controls are shared.
Champ series is one of the longest-running lines of Fender products of all time. But it’s really fascinating that a piece like the Super Champ X2 is only $399. This is a 15-watt amp with one 12AX7 preamp tube and two 6V6 power tubes in it, all blasting some classic Fender tones through 10-inch Special Design speaker.
But the exciting stuff comes with the amp’s 16 voicing modes and the option to connect it to your computer via USB connection. Through this connection, you can basically use it as an audio interface.
It’s intended as an entry-level valve amp, although we wouldn’t be surprised to see it in some semi-pro or even professional rigs.
It’s just impossible not to include another Fender Champ on this list. However, the ’57 Custom Champ is definitely a more serious piece compared to the X2.
All it takes is a glance to realize that the ’57 Custom Champ is 100% vintage-oriented. And it’s not only about the aesthetics – the amp has only a volume control on it and two inputs for low and high output guitars. That’s it!
And it’s a fairly small amp with 5 watts of power, and it’s right on the very limit for this list, costing $999. However, it is designed for those who are seeking for those authentic vintage Fender tones from the 1950s. If you’re into blues or jazz, just plug your guitar in, adjust the volume, and play. Pushing it to those higher volume territories will give you some of the most surprisingly organic tube overdrives, shaped through a 12AY7 preamp tube, a 6V6 power tube, and a 5Y3GT rectifier tube.
Supro 1606 Super
Supro 1606 is pretty much in the same style as Fender’s ’57 Super Champ. It’s a small 5-watt amp bringing some authentic legendary tones of those old Supro amps from the early 1960s. There’s also one single volume control, as well as one 8-inch speaker.
When it comes to tubes, the amp carries one JJ 12AX7 and one JJ 6V6. In addition, the company spent extra time and effort to replicate their old speakers by enlisting engineers from Eminence and experts from Iowa State University.
Black Star’s Studio 10 is another vintage-style piece, although it includes a bit more features than just a volume knob. It comes in two different versions, named after the tubes and the styles they represent. The 6L6 is more of an “American” vintage amp, while the EL34 model replicates those British vibes of old Vox and Marshall amps.
Both of these amps have the same controls and specs. They have 10 watts of power, one 12AX7 preamp tube, and one power tube – either 6L6 or EL34, depending on the model. It is a single channel amp, but there is an overdrive option on it.
Contrary to popular belief, 6-watt tube amps can be just enough for a solid blues, jazz, or a rock gig. Of course, there should be some miking up involved if you’re doing a rock show, but tube amps definitely hit the right spots and manage to get their volume loud enough for everyone to hear. In fact, they’re often more practical than big wattage amps since you can easily crank them up and get their full potential.
While we’re at it, VHT Amplification have a wonderful small 6-watt amp called Special 6. Relying on one 12AX7 and one 6V6 tube for its tone, it runs one 10-inch VHT speaker. It features a pretty simple layout with low and high gain inputs and controls for volume and tone only. But despite its simplicity, it has a pretty unique tone and is definitely worth checking out.
In case you want to use its full tube potential at lower volumes, there’s a high/low power switch on it. To add some versatility, the amp also has a boost feature accessed via a footswitch.
Although it seems like a simple one at first, Egnater Tweaker 112 is a very flexible tube amp. Aside from its 15 watts of power and tone shaped through three 12AX7 and two 6V6 tubes, there are just enough controls to give you a solid amount of sonic options without making it too complicated.
So aside from the 3-band EQ, clean/drive switch, volume, and gain, the Tweaker 112 has the modern/vintage voicing toggle. So if you want an amp that can deliver both the modern and old school stuff, you should definitely consider getting this one into your arsenal.
Additional versatility comes with its “normal” and “bright” toggle, as well as its “tight/deep” switch which shapes both the low and mid spectrum. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s another switch that lets you pick between “British,” “American,” and “AC” modes. Now count all these in and calculate how many options you have with the Egnater Tweaker.
This wouldn’t be a complete list without at least one Vox amp on it. We all know how their iconic British tone changed the way we listen to rock music. So if you prefer this classic bright and “grainy” sound, then AC15C1 is the right thing for you.
You can use it either in its “normal” mode, or you can plug into the “top boost” input for some overdriven and seriously bright tones. Of course, since it’s vintage-oriented, you’ll probably need a bit of time to get used to some of its features. For instance, its 3-band EQ is not that simple and is more “dynamic” compared to conventional ones. If you tweak the high-end, it also alters the amount of low-end in your tone.
The signal goes through three 12AX7 tubes and two classic British EL34s. The whole output goes through one large 12-inch Celestion Greenback that adds its specific flavor to the high-ends.